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Iraq training mission expected to grow as Canada withdraws from ISIL bombing campaign

by Lee Berthiaume (feat. David Perry)

Ottawa Citizen
October 31, 2015

The new Liberal government is expected to expand Canada’s training mission in Iraq, which would take away some of the sting of withdrawing Canadian military aircraft from the region and help the U.S. as it starts sending troops into Syria.

Canada currently has six fighter jets, two surveillance aircraft and an air-to-air refuelling plane participating in the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIL. It also has 69 special forces troops training and operating alongside Kurdish forces fighting the extremist group in northern Iraq.

Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau and the Liberals pledged during the election campaign to end Canada’s bombing mission in Iraq and Syria. But while Trudeau reaffirmed the promise after the election, he declined to give specific details until after his government is sworn in on Nov. 4.

Experts say there are a number of unanswered questions about Trudeau’s plan for Iraq and Syria, including when the jets will return home and whether the new government will withdraw all Canadian warplanes or only the fighter jets. But most believe the special forces mission will get a boost.

“There will not solely be 69 people in a training capacity, and that’s it,” said defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “They will be enhancing the training mission.”

Trudeau himself has signalled an expansion of the special forces mission on numerous occasions. Earlier this year, for example, he said Canada should be “building on” the training already underway. His party’s election platform says a Liberal government would “refocus” on training local Iraqi forces.

“If there’s going to be any noticeable refocusing, that implies you’re not just going to keep the same number of people there doing that particular function,” Perry said.

Expanding the mission would serve several purposes. Canada’s pending withdrawal from the bombing mission has already made headlines around the world, and would represent a symbolic blow to the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL. Adding more trainers on the ground would dampen any negative message.

“The U.S. wants us in the coalition,” said Bessma Momani, a Middle East expert at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. “They want to be able to announce: ‘Yes, Canada withdrew six CF-18s. That’s OK. But they increased here.’”

Meanwhile, on Friday, President Barack Obama for the first time authorized sending U.S. soldiers into Syria to help train and assist rebels fighting the Islamic State (ISIL). About 50 special operations troops will be based in Kurdish territory to work with local forces, the White House said, though more could soon follow.

Canada has one of the smallest contingents of trainers of the participating countries in Iraq. According to the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, 11 allies had more troops in Iraq than Canada at the beginning of August. And of the 5,954 coalition soldiers in Iraq, more than 3,500 were from the U.S.

While most of the experts believed Washington would try to pressure Trudeau into making some new commitment in Iraq, they were split on whether it would ask Canada to send trainers into Syria. But adding troops in Iraq, at least, would free up U.S. trainers for Syria.

There is precedent for this as documents obtained by Postmedia showed the Conservative government’s decision to deploy 900 trainers to Kabul in 2011 to help train Afghan forces was based in large part on releasing some American soldiers for combat instead of training.

Trudeau has also indicated he will modify the special forces mission so Canadian soldiers are no longer operating on the frontlines with Kurdish forces, where they have been calling in airstrikes and engaging in defensive firefights with Islamic State fighters.

NDP MP Helene Laverdiere said she hopes Trudeau will order a halt to the bombing campaign and changes to the special forces mission as soon as the new government is sworn in. She also urged the Liberals to consult with opposition parties if it plans to add more troops on the ground.

One Canadian special forces soldier has been killed in Iraq. Sgt. Andrew Doiron was shot and killed by Kurdish forces during a so-called friendly fire incident in March. Three other Canadian soldiers were wounded. One American soldier has also been confirmed killed in Iraq as part of the anti-ISIS mission.


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