Canada Isn’t Quitting the War on Islamic State
New government wants less bombing, more special operations
The new Liberal government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is shaking up defense policy. Among Trudeau’s first announcements was that he intended to end Canada’s involvement in the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria by March 2016.
Under Trudeau’s conservative predecessor Stephen Harper, Ottawa deployed CF-18 warplanes to bomb Islamic State positions and dispatched special forces to advise Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga troops.
Trudeau has vowed to restore what he calls Canada’s reputation as diplomatic and peacekeeping power, focusing more on soft power and humanitarian operations. In particular, he’s making refugees a top priority for his cabinet.
But Canada’s military adventure in Mesopotamia is far from over. In fact, though Trudeau said he intends to scale back aerial bombardment, he’s actually increasing the number of Canadian military advisers on the ground in Iraq.
To wage Canada’s quiet but growing ground war, Trudeau has called on defense minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, a former military officer and the first Sikh to have commanded a Canadian Army reserve regiment.
Sajjan already has a storied career as a police detective in Vancouver investigating gang violence, and as a combat veteran who deployed to the Balkans and Afghanistan. He also developed and patented a gas mask that would contain his beard as it grew, allowing him to stay in the service.
In Afghanistan, American and Canadian commanders considered Sajjan one of the top intelligence officers in Kandahar during his multiple deployments to the province. Sajjan adapted his experience as a gangland investigator to navigate the intersecting loyalties and feuds between tribes, criminal groups and militants.
Now Sajjan will be responsible for overseeing Canadian special forces and intelligence troops working with Iraq’s complicated web of factions in the middle of a ground war — where Ottawa’s troops are very much involved.
Canadian special forces have on multiple occasions engaged in firefights with Islamic State militants while conducting operations with Kurdish troops. In one instance, Canadian snipers took out a militant mortar team and a machine gun nest when the commandos took fire during a visit to the front line.
Ottawa insists its ground troops are strictly advisers and do not engage in offensive operations. The first — and so far only — Canadian fatality resulted when a Kurdish soldier mistakenly fired at Canadian troops returning from an observation post on March 6, killing Sgt. Andrew Doiron.
But Canadian operators have assisted Kurdish troops with directing air and artillery strikes, and may have played a role in the recent battle to retake the town of Sinjar. The continued covert operations have already become a subject of controversy, as Trudeau and other Liberals criticized Harper’s government for not being straightforward about the role of special operations forces in Iraq.
One of the items at the top of Sajjan’s agenda is Operation Provision, the current name for Ottawa’s military’s contribution to Trudeau’s pledge to resettle 25,000 refugees by the end of 2015. The details of what exactly Provision will consist of — and what resources the military would call upon — aren’t entirely clear.
Most likely, the military will help transport refugees to military bases, where they could be temporarily housed in vacant spaces, a Canadian Armed Forces spokesperson told War Is Boring in an email.
The United States similarly used military installations as refugee housing after the Vietnam War. A mixture of Marines, civilian volunteers and other officials managed the camps and coordinated with sponsors to help the new arrivals resettle.
But the Nov. 13 Paris attacks have provoked a political backlash in Canada directed against Muslims and Trudeau’s resettlement pledge. The day after the attacks, someone set a mosque on fire in Peterborough, Ontario. Police are investigating the blaze as arson and a potential hate crime.
Politicians have worried that Ottawa’s security screening process could slacken in order to meet Trudeau’s pledge. Conservative Party interim leader Rona Ambrose has also pressured Trudeau to revisit ending the bombing campaign, citing a need to show solidarity with France.
“The fight against ISIS requires a strong humanitarian response, but also a military response,” Ambrose told reporters the day after the Paris attacks. “It’s important that we remain resolute and support our allies.”
Though Trudeau is adamant that his government intends to maintain the 25,000 refugee commitment and end the bombing campaign, Canada’s air war certainly hasn’t stopped. On Nov. 17, Canadian warplanes struck three Islamic State positions near Ramadi.
The Canadian military’s role in Iraq and Syria may be changing, but it’s not ending anytime soon.