After Iraq firefight, Canada must rethink its CF-18 decision
by George Petrolekas
The Globe and Mail
December 18, 2015
On Wednesday night, Islamic State fighters launched a large and prolonged assault against several Kurdish positions near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Kurdish forces, backed by support from coalition forces on the ground and from coalition air strikes, managed to repulse the assault over the course of 17 hours.
It was the largest and most-concentrated assault by IS forces in more than five months, according to U.S. officials, and has once again raised questions about the Canadian government’s promise to withdraw CF-18 fighters from the coalition.
Events often reshape policy, and this attack showed that IS is far from being a spent force. Canada should, at the very least, reconsider its position.
Three things set this attack apart from earlier skirmishes with IS forces. First, the assault utilized a variety of arms: IS employed machine guns, rockets, armoured bulldozers, suicide bombers and artillery. This was a wider assault on three or more separate locations, which demonstrates a fairly high degree of sophistication, planning, coordination, and an ability to sequence the use of weapons systems in the attack.
Second, the attack was reportedly conducted by some 350 fighters in total, meaning IS was able to assemble, and direct the start of the attack without disruption in its preparatory phases – all while supposedly being harassed by coalition air strikes.
Third, the majority of fighting occurred at night, which further underlines sophistication and coordination in planning. This also could imply that daytime attacks have become more difficult for IS to conduct.
What is clear however, notwithstanding recent pronouncements by U.S. President Barack Obama, these are not the actions of a force that has been materially degraded. The fact that they were able to assemble, supply and position forces calls into question the sufficiency of coalition air cover and surveillance – a frequent criticism and observation of the coalition air campaign in the past, in that there are simply not enough aircraft to provide persistent air cover.
The coalition employs offensive air power over a 24-hour cycle, attacking targets identified by intelligence. However, defensive air cover – as was the case Wednesday – means airplanes must be readily available and able to respond dynamically to rapidly changing and fluid situations. Many of the jets used in the initial hours were actually programmed to strike other targets, but were diverted to strike IS targets as the scale of the IS attack was becoming apparent. Although Canadian aircraft were only a part of the coalition response – U.S., U.K. and French jets also struck to shore up Kurdish defences.
Air strikes are clearly essential to prevent a collapse of Kurdish lines and outposts. There was also material assistance from coalition forces on the ground through the direction of suppressive fire – likely machine guns and artillery at long ranges. Defeating IS will obviously require a multi-dimensional military response – not one simply reliant on advisers on the ground.
If the Trudeau government believes that offensive bombing in Syria is not in harmony with its wider strategy for the region, it should at least consider restricting CF-18 operations to northern Iraq in a defensive role. Canada does, after all, have forces on the ground training Kurds. As we saw Wednesday, these forces can be drawn into a battle, perhaps not as principal combatants, but protecting Canadian soldiers with their own airplanes in conjunction with allied and coalition aircraft would be a prudent option to consider.
George Petrolekas served in the military in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior commanders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.