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Canada's Defense Minister Is Looking at 'Wider' Islamic State Threats

On a weekend trip to Erbil, in Northern Iraq, Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan opened the door to facing the Islamic State in a different part of the world — in Libya and the Sinai Peninsula.

by Justin Ling
Dec 22 2015, 3:20pm

Defense minister Harjit Sajjan/photo by Canadian Armed Forces

Canada's defense minister says Libya and Sinai Peninsula may be the next battlegrounds against the Islamic State, and the world needs to get ready.

Harjit Singh Sajjan, the minister of national defense, highlighted the two regions while on a trip to Erbil, in Northern Iraq, over the weekend.

Sajjan flew to the area just days after a major IS offensive killed several Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and pulled Canadian Forces trainers into a firefight.

But Sajjan opened the door to facing the Islamic State in a different part of the world — in Libya and the Sinai Peninsula.

Libya, currently in the midst of domestic political conflict, has seen IS form a beachhead in the country's north. In the Sinai, militias allied with IS have launched sporadic attacks throughout the region.

"We have to be ready for future threats — Libya is obviously a situation that needs to be resolved, but we need to look even wider … You have potential threats in the Sinai," Sajjan said. "You need to look at threats at an early stage."

Sajjan wouldn't say what a Canadian contribution would look like, arguing that pre-judging a strategy before collecting the facts of the situation is a wrong-headed approach. But he did raise the possibility of peacekeeping.

Currently, 70 Canadian Forces military police are stationed at a multi-national peacekeeping outpost in the Sinai near the Israeli border.

The comments come amid pressure on the Canadian government to figure out just what it will bring to the international coalition fighting IS, following an election pledge by the now ruling Liberal Party to pull Canada's CF-18 fighter jets from the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. While the Liberals have yet to follow through on the commitment, government ministers have promised that the announcement will be coming early in 2016.

Related: Canadian Special Forces in Firefight With Islamic State Attackers Near Mosul

On a conference call with journalists on Monday, Sajjan wouldn't commit to a timeline for the withdrawal, and remained unspecific about exactly what Canada would be contributing to the fight, if not for airstrikes.

"When you come to a fight, there's a wide range of things that need to be done," Sajjan said.

When it comes to training, which the Liberals have held up as something useful that Canada can do more of once the airstrikes end, Sajjan tempered expectations, noting that other coalition partners are also running training programs and that, at a certain point, there may simply not be sufficient demand for more training programs.

Sajjan, however, called Canada's current commitment — 69 special forces operators doing medical and combat training in Erbil and near Mosul — "extremely vital in this region."

Beyond that, Sajjan said providing more medical help for Kurdish forces and helping prepare defensive positions could be "critical."

James Bezan, defense critic for the opposition Conservatives, attacked the government on Monday afternoon.

"The mixed messages coming from the Trudeau government are extremely difficult to decipher," Bezan said in a statement. "How many trainers are going to be deployed? Where are they going to be training and what are they going to be doing?"

The Kurdistan Regional Government, however, laid out clearly what it wants from the Canadian government.

"If the Canadian government decides to continue airstrikes, we welcome that," said Kurdish Foreign Affairs Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir in an interview with VICE News last month. "If their decision is to stop this aspect of their support, we hope they will continue in training, capacity-building, providing weapons, ammunition, and also equipment that is needed in order to win this war."

Bakir's request for more weapons goes back more than a year, and it's a pitch he's made to the entire international community.

Related: Justin Trudeau Won't Say When Canada Is Going to Stop Bombing the Islamic State

"We have huge need for heavy machinery, heavy equipment, heavy weapons, and ammunition," Bakir says. "We are grateful for what has been provided, but in order to win this war: we need more."

The IS assault that broke Kurdish defensive lines last week underlines the difficulty in the region. The defensive lines that were penetrated by IS were set up as a perimeter from which the Peshmerga could launch its counter-offensive to push the militant group from Mosul. The surprise attack, however, would seem to shake confidence in the Kurds' readiness to launch that attack.

Bakir underscored that concern.

"Especially now that we are getting closer to Mosul," he said. "The moment the preparation starts, we need to have the right weapons."

American Defense Secretary Ash Carter agreed to send the Peshmerga more weapons last week. He committed to sending two brigade-sized equipment sets in order to help the Kurds prepare to take Mosul.

Sajjan, however, was less supportive. He said he hadn't heard any such request from the Kurds.

"We always talk about weapons, bullets, and other things," Sajjan said. "But there's so many other things we need to bring to the table, and a lot of the discussions we had were on the support side."

This isn't the first time that the Kurds have made this request.

While Canada had previously ferried light arms from Eastern Europe to the Kurdistan region, it hasn't contributed any significant military aid to the Peshmerga. When asked in March, then-Defense Minister Jason Kenney said Canada simply has no surplus guns to provide, meaning that Ottawa would have to purchase new weapons if it wants to arm its allies in Northern Iraq and Syria.

"We are grateful to the United States, we are grateful to Canada, to Germany, to France, to Italy, to all the members of the coalition who provided support to us," Bakir says. "But, really, the war is not over."

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling

Islamic State
defense & security
Sinai Peninsula
Harjit Sajjan