Here's What Canada Is Really Doing to Combat the Islamic State

The Canadian government’s decision to send up to military “advisers” to Iraq in the midst of the Islamic State’s brutal advance through the region is raising more questions than delivering answers.

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The Canadian government’s decision to send up to a hundred Canadian military “advisers” to Iraq in the midst of the Islamic State’s brutal advance through the region is currently raising more questions than delivering answers.

The choice to call them “advisers” is particularly curious when you consider who they actually are—Canadian Special Operations Forces.

Based in rural Petawawa, Ontario, The 700-strong Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) has been tasked to do the job. Here’s a breakdown of who they are and what they can do.

These elite soldiers are basically a mix between the United States’ Army Special Forces—the Green Berets—and the 75th Ranger Regiment, a highly-trained unit of shock troops whose job is, among others, to conduct quick raids on enemy positions—what is called in military jargon “direct action,” or drop from the sky and quickly seize enemy airfields as they did in Afghanistan in 2001 during Operation Rhino. The Green Berets, while able to perform direct action missions as well, are usually tasked with training and advising foreign troops, ranging from allied militias to standing armies.

As with most of their missions, details about CSOR’s mission in Iraq are classified but, in all likelihood, seems to aim towards the latter—training and mentoring military units who are fighting against ISIS terrorists along with their American counterparts who have been on the ground for several weeks. They already have on several occasions and have gained a lot of experience over the years. They trained Afghan National Army Special Forces. They mentored Jamaican SWAT teams. They were deployed to Mali in 2012 to help train Malian forces.

According to the Canadian Special Operations Command’s own literature, special ops units rarely work independently—they’re usually mixed together with one of them leading, be it CSOR or Joint Task Force 2, Canada’s counter-terrorist unit. But one of the key words that defines special ops is flexibility, so CSOR could, and likely is, operating on their own.

Political spin

The Canadian government keeps insisting that this is not a combat mission, but the Opposition still wants a debate and vote on the matter. Last Monday, New Democratic foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar asked why should Canada send troops to Iraq and, most importantly, how could Canadian soldiers train and advise hardcore Kurdish fighters also known as Peshmerga, Kurdish for “those who defy death."

But years of being untested in battle combined with recruiting problems has turned the once-feared warriors into what can be described as a “checkpoint army.” Recruits come more often from cities than the mountains and a critical number of veterans who fought against Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish troops for years have long since traded their AK-47s either for a cell phone or a walking stick. Often considered to be the key strategic ally in the region against the Islamic State, they can no longer face the threat of the Islamic state on their own. Mostly equipped with old, Soviet-era weapons, they stand no chance against ISIS fighters geared with modern weapons looted from fallen Iraq and Syrian forces or bought with their $2 billion dollar war chest.

A unit like CSOR could do wonders—teaching them advanced weapons handling and marksmanship techniques, modern small-unit combat tactics, combat driving lessons. They can also provide intelligence about the enemy that Iraqi and Kurdish forces don’t have due to lack of resources—special ops units are highly skilled in reconnaissance and, most importantly, handling local information sources, called “human intelligence” or HUMINT.

Still, the government is facing critics about the 30-day mission they wish to give to CSOR. The NDP asked for not just a debate, but also a vote on the matter. Yet, deployment of special operations units never requires any such measure, as most of their missions are covert. As University of Ottawa professor Philippe Lagassé told me: “No military deployments require votes, legally speaking." But it seems transparency about this particular operation led the political opposition to criticize the ISIS initiative and to withdraw their support. 

This act of resistance could prove politically costly for the NDP. With a federal election coming, handing the Conservative majority government an opportunity to appear strong by easily passing a vote on a small-scale, non-combat military operation to take stand against a widely hated enemy, is not likely to end in the orange party’s favour.