In The Media

Military pondering future of Iraq mission as ISIL appears set to go underground

by Lee Berthiaume (feat. Thomas Juneau)

Times Colonist
December 6, 2016

OTTAWA - Canada's mission in Iraq is set to undergo another transformation after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is driven from the city of Mosul, which is expected to see the extremist group turn into a more traditional insurgency.

Senior military commanders have been weighing possible options amid warnings that ISIL will resort to suicide attacks and other terror tactics in Iraq after it loses control of its last population centre in the country.

There is also the question, however unlikely, of whether Canadian troops will end up in Syria, where U.S.-backed rebels have been advancing on ISIL's de facto capital of Raqqa.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said last week that the Liberal government currently has no plans to deploy forces into Syria, but he left the door open to Canada joining other allies if such a course of action is decided upon.

"Our efforts right now are in Iraq," Sajjan told the House of Commons committee last week.

"If the situation in Syria does change, we will always assess a situation based on consultations with our allies. However, right now we do not have, or intend to have, any involvement in Syria."

Canadian troops have spent the past seven weeks working with Kurdish forces as they and Iraqi government troops have moved to liberate Mosul from ISIL, which seized Iraq's second-largest city in June 2014.

The offensive, which has seen Canadian troops destroy vehicle-borne suicide bombs and fire in support of advancing Kurdish units, is the culmination of two years of training and assistance to get the Iraqis and Kurds ready for the fight.

Military commanders say ISIL's defeat in Mosul could take several more months.

But they also say it is inevitable and will represent a turning point for Iraq, which has been torn apart by more than a decade of war, as the extremist group will effectively lose its last bastion in the country.

They have also warned that ISIL will continue to pose a threat, resorting to suicide bombings and other insurgent-type attacks similar to what Canadian troops saw from the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"We fully expect that it will dissipate into the urban terrain and into the population and that we're going to be fighting insurgency and counterterrorism operations," Brig.-Gen. David Anderson, commander of an international team of military advisers posted within Iraq's ministry of defence, said recently.

"So it's definitely not over; if anything, it's going be more difficult. The period between the day after Mosul and the day after (ISIL) is probably when it's most dangerous."

Sajjan's spokeswoman Jordan Owens said it was too early to discuss what shape Canada's mission in Iraq will take after ISIL is defeated in Mosul, where Iraqi troops and extremist fighters have been engaged in intense close-quarter combat for weeks.

But Canadian military commanders said last month that Iraqi and Kurdish forces will need more training to secure the country after Mosul is liberated, and that they are already discussing ways Canada can help.

"Military capability, primarily through building partner capacity, will likely be needed as part of the broader whole-of-government stabilization approach," said Lt.-Gen. Stephen Bowes, commander of all Canadian military operations at home and abroad.

Thomas Juneau, an expert on Middle East security at the University of Ottawa, said there is no question that ISIL will remain a threat even after Mosul is liberated, and that changes will be needed as it changes tactics.

"The mission will have to evolve as ISIL evolves," Juneau said. "And for the mission not to evolve as ISIL evolves would be failure."

Canada's military mission in Iraq has already undergone several transformations.

The previous Conservative government deployed 69 special forces troops, fighter jets, surveillance planes and an air-to-air refuelling aircraft in late 2014.

The Liberal government in February withdrew the jets, but expanded the number of special forces in Iraq to more than 200.

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