As foreign fighters flood into Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of the Islamic State, a group of former professional soldiers—some from among the "most specialized units" of NATO militaries—say it's one more official step closer to helping Kurdish Peshmerga forces in their war against ISIS.
VICE Canada has learned that the 1st North American Expeditionary Force, recently established to help volunteer soldiers from the West effectively join Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria, has received a successful application from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as a designated non-governmental organization (NGO).
The move effectively takes the group, which says it's composed of volunteers with combat experience as professional soldiers in western militaries, closer to assuming a role on the battlefields of northern Iraq outside the auspices of an official government force.
"Through liaison with the KRG we have achieved great success for aligning volunteers to truly bring positive gains to the region," said Ian Bradbury, one of the founders of the NAEF and a veteran with the Canadian Forces.
But when contacted about NAEF's successful application, the Canadian department of Foreign Affairs was less enthused with Canadian military volunteers venturing to Syria and Iraq to aid in the war effort against ISIS.
"The Government of Canada has long advised against all travel to Syria and Iraq," said a spokesperson with Foreign Affairs. "Canadians traveling to Syria and Iraq, including those who travel there to join local campaigns in the fight against ISIL, must do so at their own personal risk and must be aware that rescue missions in this dangerous area will not be conducted."
The spokesperson added that individuals interested in defending Canadian values in a war zone should be encouraged to "join the Canadian Armed Forces," instead of freelancing as soldiers with foreign militaries.
At the moment, Canadian CF-18s are dropping precision missiles and smart bombs on ISIS targets, as Canadian Special Forces operators train Peshmerga forces in the same region the NAEF plans to deploy.
VICE reviewed an official document provided by the NAEF from the KRG government giving the group NGO status for the period of one year. The KRG NGO has yet to respond to a request for comment on the NAEF from this reporter.
"This role aligns directly with current allied force capacity building operations in the region and is not assessed as a combat role," said Bradbury in another emailed statement, indicating the group will be training the Peshmerga.
The agreement does not appear to sanction the NAEF as a fully independent combat force within the Peshmerga, but establishes an official relationship between the growing volunteer force and the KRG.
According to Bradbury, among the more than 100 volunteers who have approached his organization eager to join the fight against ISIS, several come from the most highly trained units within NATO militaries and will provide indispensable expertise to Peshmerga fighters.
As it stands, the NAEF plans to provide "advisory services" on the battlefields of northern Iraq to help professionalize KRG security forces, known as the Peshmerga (which translates to "Those Who Face Death"), in their ongoing counter offensive and defensive war with ISIS.
Bradbury said the key will be training Peshmerga soldiers—currently waging a brutal war with ISIS forces—to "attain professionalization to NATO standards" in a laundry list of specializations including, "combined arms mission planning and oversight; command, control, and communications; urban tactics; vehicle, equipment, and armory maintenance; logistics management; law of war and human rights; and first aid and combat casualty care."
The Canadian veteran and leader of the NAEF, hopes the new status will raise its profile and help spur donors to finance the volunteer force to "ensure mission success," because it "relies on the generosity of donors." The NAEF claims it is not a private military contractor whatsoever, in the vein of Blackwater— which deployed private mercenaries for wealthy clients at the height of the Iraq War for profit.
In the same statement the NAEF made it clear it wasn't just receiving volunteer applicants with combat expertise, but from non-military professionals.
"(W)e are seeing Medical, Law Enforcement Officers, Fire Services, Logistics, Vehicle Technicians coming forward who are currently employed in the top of fields," said Bradbury in the same statement given to VICE.
With news that the NAEF will be contributing to the Kurdish effort against ISIS, it will add one more unit to an expanding list of Canadians already finding themselves on the battlefields of northern Iraq. Besides Dillon Hillier, a combat veteran from the CF already firing his assault rifle at ISIS forces, Gil Rosenberg—a woman from British Columbia and a former member of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF)—is also fighting with Kurdish PKK forces in Syrian Kurdistan.
Meanwhile, it's well-known that ISIS counts Canadians within its ranks. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) officially states that over 30 Canadian nationals currently fight with terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, some in the same region the NAEF intends to influence.
In other words, Canadian NAEF volunteers, or former western soldiers for that matter, could very well end up training the guns shooting at Canadian and foreign ISIS fighters.
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