Taking the fight to Islamic State doesn’t have to mean airstrikes
by David Perry
November 16, 2015
Friday’s horrific attacks by Islamic State-linked terrorists in Paris demonstrated once again the group’s capacity and desire for sophisticated attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. The events in France, the bombing of a Russian airliner and the recent attack in Beirut have together resulted in significant changes to the international campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq.
On Sunday night, French warplanes launched their most significant bombing missions to date against IS in Syria, where the attacks were organized. On Monday, American aircraft for the first time bombed trucks the organization was using to smuggle oil. The French strikes represent an increase in the intensity of the air campaign, while those by the United States signal an expansion of the mission to IS’ strategic infrastructure, which previously had gone untouched due to fears of incurring civilian casualties.
Against this backdrop, the new Liberal government stated over the weekend that it still intends to withdraw the air combat portion of Canada’s mission against Islamic State and refocus Canadian efforts elsewhere. Many observers have called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reconsider the government’s position — particularly in the context of his pledge to fully support our French allies and President Hollande’s call for increased airstrikes.
Canadian aircraft have made a difference in the air campaign, conducting air strikes in coordination with the successful effort to retake the strategically-located town of Sinjar, Iraq on November 12.
While our six aircraft have flown only a small portion of the overall campaign, their qualitative impact outweighs the contingent’s small size. Canadian pilots have been empowered to conduct a more diverse array of missions than many other members of the coalition. Canada’s CF-18s were the first western coalition aircraft, for instance, to join the Americans and Arab partners in striking Syrian targets last April.
Canadian Forces pilots continue to fly combat missions and will continue to do so until they’re given specific orders by the government to stop. Given recent changes by both the Americans and French to their air campaigns in the wake of recent events, Mr. Trudeau should be consulting with our allies and considering their views before deciding what to do with our air power.
But regardless of what the prime minister chooses to do with the CF-18s, Canada’s potential military contribution to the campaign against Islamist terror groups neither begins nor ends with a six-pack of fighters. In Iraq alone, efforts to build the capacity of the local security forces need to be ramped up — and the government has indicated it will do so.
At present, Canada has only a few dozen Special Operations Forces on the ground advising and assisting the Kurdish peshmerga. These efforts have contributed to a significant reduction in IS’s control over Iraqi territory, but could be reinforced either with more special forces or soldiers from the ‘conventional’ Canadian Army.
Similarly, Canada’s training efforts could be extended further south to the Iraqi security forces controlled by the government in Baghdad, whose success has been limited. Bolstering their capacity is a prerequisite to reclaiming territory controlled by ISIS, and these efforts are far behind schedule.
The fight against Islamist terror groups extends well beyond Syria and Iraq, however, as does the opportunity to specifically support French counterterror operations in the wake of these attacks.
Since August 2014, France has been leading Operation Barkhane in the Sahel region of North Africa in an effort to prevent Islamist groups from gaining a foothold there. The operation stretches from the Atlantic coast to Sudan’s western border, an enormous territory covered by only 3,500 troops. Further, the main base of operations is in Chad, 3,600 kilometers from the French resupply bases. Canada has significant airlift capabilities — some of which have been made available to France before — that likely would be welcomed by the Élysée were Canada to offer them again. Similarly, Canada’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance aircraft could help monitor this vast territory.
The Paris attacks have driven home the threat posed by Islamist terror groups and the need to eradicate their sanctuaries. Canada should continue to make a significant contribution to the military coalition fighting these groups — particularly if it decides to withdraw the fighter aircraft from the coalition. The Canadian Government should examine its options for a major expansion of the training mission in Iraq, and for extending support to French counterterror operations in the Sahel.
David Perry is the senior analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.