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Mission statement

The Liberal government announced a shift in Canada's role in the fight against Islamic State, announcing new security, humanitarian and diplomatic efforts. Daniel Leblanc, Michelle Zilio and Laura Stone break down the details and reaction

Royal Canadian Air Force members of Air Task Force-Iraq and several members of the coalition participate in the

Royal Canadian Air Force members of Air Task Force-Iraq and several members of the coalition participate in the “Shamal Serials”, a combat search and rescue exercise held for personnel of the Middle East Stabilization Force, currently conducting operations against the Islamic State in a training area in Kuwait on March 16, 2015.

Department of National Defence

More boots on the ground

Canada's top general is defending the government's decision to recall its fighter jets and shift the bulk of its campaign against Islamic State to training and equipping ground troops in northern Iraq.

General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, said now was the right time to call back the six CF-18s that have been conducting bombing missions since 2014. He explained there is "sufficient air power" in the region provided by Canada's allies, adding the correct priority at this point is to work with the ground troops that will "ultimately degrade [IS]."

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"[Islamic State has] been stopped, and we contributed to that," Gen. Vance told reporters, crediting the air campaign involving the CF-18s. "Canada's choice has been – and quite frankly, I'm proud of that – that we are going to ensure that the training continues and, in fact, intensifies."

The fighter jets will conduct their last bombing mission by Feb. 22, as part of a reboot of Canada's military contribution to the coalition campaign. Overall, Canada's contribution will increase to 830 military personnel, up from the current level of about 650.

Canada will bring back the pilots and dozens of support staff for the CF-18s, but will keep one CC-150 Polaris refuelling aircraft – to supply other allied planes – and two CP-140 Aurora air surveillance aircraft in the region.

In addition, Ottawa will, for the first time, start providing munitions, optical equipment and arms – from rifles to machine guns to light mortars – to Kurdish troops in northern Iraq. The Canadian Forces will also deploy medical personnel to provide support to Canadian troops and their allies, as well as train Iraqi security forces on matters such as medical evacuations.

The current mission to "train, advise and assist" the peshmerga fighters will triple in size, from nearly 69 special forces members to more than 200. Gen. Vance said the troops will help to mark targets and call in air strikes, and continue to operate near the front lines of combat battles.

Canadians will remain in a "non-combat" role, but the mission will remain risky and troops will be allowed to defend themselves, he said.

"We are not the principal combatants here. We are supporting those who are, we will be in proximity to the dangers that they are in proximity to, we will be in a region that is contested and we will suffer the challenges that such a region offers," Gen. Vance said.

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Some of the details of the new mission remain to be worked out. Still, the government announced broad plans to eventually send strategic advisers to countries such as Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon as part of "capacity-building efforts" in the fight against Islamic State.

The mission is officially authorized until March 31, 2017, although both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gen. Vance said it was designed to last for an additional year, into 2018, before it is re-evaluated.

Thomas Juneau, a professor at the University of Ottawa's school of public and international affairs, said that in his view, the government is prematurely pulling out of the bombing mission.

"The reality is that there will not be a functional peace process in Syria or political reconciliation in Iraq for years to come," he said. "IS will therefore remain a major threat to regional stability for the foreseeable future, and air strikes are the only plausible tool that we have to contain it."

The Conservatives also slammed the decision to recall the fighter jets.

"This Prime Minister is taking a shameful step backward from our proud traditions by pulling our CF-18s and Canada out of a combat role against the greatest terror threat in the world," said interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose. – Daniel Leblanc

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An aircraft technician from Air Task Force – Iraq marshals a CP-140 Aurora aircraft into Camp Canada in Kuwait on December 12, 2015 during Operation IMPACT.

An aircraft technician from Air Task Force – Iraq marshals a CP-140 Aurora aircraft into Camp Canada in Kuwait on December 12, 2015 during Operation IMPACT.

Department of National Defence

Humanitarian and development aid

Canadian humanitarian organizations are applauding the government's announcement Monday to commit more than $1.1-billion in humanitarian and development aid over three years to those affected by ongoing instability in the Middle East.

As a part of its revised mission against Islamic State, the Liberal government committed $840-million for water, food, shelter, health care, hygiene and sanitation, protection and education. In a statement, Global Affairs Canada said the funding will support the response to the crisis in Iraq and Syria, refugee hosting countries in the region, including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt, and countries eligible for development assistance in Europe.

The government will also provide $270-million over the same time frame to build capacity in surrounding countries aiding refugees, including Lebanon and Jordan. That money will help address basic needs, maintain and repair infrastructure, promote employment and economic growth and foster good governance.

"Our plan will support host governments and communities to deliver adequate services, to rebuild infrastructure and creates jobs," said International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.

CARE Canada President and CEO Gillian Barth said the government's commitment over three years, rather than single-year projects, demonstrates its understanding of the need for a long-term solution for the region.

"It's really more than an [anti-IS] mission. It's really a plan for the region. It's a plan that supports humanitarian needs, as well as the resilience of the host communities. And that is actually central to fostering the durable solutions and the stability in the region," said Ms. Barth.

However, she said the government may encounter challenges as it attempts to balance a "very quick response" with longer-term needs.

Oxfam Canada has programs set up in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, which have taken in the bulk of Syrian refugees. The organization's Humanitarian Manager, Ann Witteveen, said aid is desperately needed.

"There are whole families living in one room, for example," said Ms. Witteveen. "A lot of people are squatting in buildings that are falling down or living under plastic sheeting or make-shift tents."

Ms. Witteveen also welcomed the government's plan, especially its objective to keep humanitarian aid independent from the military aspects of the Islamic State mission. NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière questioned the government's intentions to do so, since the humanitarian and military efforts were presented together on Monday.

However, Conservative international development critic Deepak Obhrai said the two go hand in hand.

"The stem of the refugees is not going [away] until we address the core, which is to tackle head on the terrorist organizations that created this havoc in the area," said Mr. Obhrai. – Michelle Zilio

Canadian Armed Forces members board a CC-150 Polaris aircraft in 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia in support of Operation IMPACT on October 23, 2014.

Canadian Armed Forces members board a CC-150 Polaris aircraft in 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia in support of Operation IMPACT on October 23, 2014.

Department of National Defence

Emphasis on diplomacy

Canada is beefing up its diplomatic presence in a bid to gain more political relevance in the Middle East.

Short on details, the Liberal government announced on Monday "an increased presence" on the ground in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

"The solution to crises in the region must be, first and foremost, political," reads a government backgrounder on the file.

To some, it's a clear attempt to return Canada to an influential place on the international stage.

"Many critics, including many of those Liberal diehards, feel that we've neglected our position of being that principled and honest broker in many conflicts," says Bessma Momani, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.

Canadian officials say this increased presence means more engagement with local governments, and to improve the monitoring of Canadian aid dollars.

Jean-Christophe Boucher, an assistant professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, agrees that increased development aid has to be coordinated and pushed forward by diplomats on the ground.

But just how much Canada can do to find a political solution in Syria in the face of powerhouses such as Russia and the United States remains to be seen.

Both countries were part of the 17-country International Syria Support Group – which did not include Canada – that held peace talks in Vienna last fall. Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion has said Canada would like to join the talks.

In Geneva this month, the United Nations-led intra-Syrian talks have already been suspended for three weeks due to disagreements between the government and opposition factions on the priority of humanitarian issues. They are set to resume again on February 25.

Boucher is skeptical about Canada's ability to bring a "value-added contribution" to such discussions.

"It's not clear, honestly, that with our increased development aid, our limited military contribution, which now doesn't include a combat part, it's not clear that Canada is in any kind of position to influence anyone at the table," Boucher says. – Laura Stone

An aircraft technician from Air Task Force – Iraq inspects the nose landing gear of a CF-188 Hornet aircraft at the Camp Patrice Vincent flight line, in Kuwait during Operation IMPACT on December 11, 2015.

An aircraft technician from Air Task Force – Iraq inspects the nose landing gear of a CF-188 Hornet aircraft at the Camp Patrice Vincent flight line, in Kuwait during Operation IMPACT on December 11, 2015.

Department of National Defence

A look back

Aug. 7, 2014: U.S. President Barack Obama authorizes targeted military intervention in Iraq.

Aug. 28, 2014: A Canadian Forces C-17 cargo plane makes the first delivery of military supplies to forces in Iraq, bringing in provisions donated by Albania.

Sept. 5, 2014: Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces the deployment of several dozen members of the Canadian Forces to Iraq to join the U.S. in advising security forces.

Oct. 7, 2014: House of Commons votes in favour of Canadian warplanes joining coalition forces attacking Islamic State's capacity to fight in Iraq.

Oct. 28, 2014

Six CF-18 Hornet fighter-bombers, a CC-150 Polaris aerial tanker and two CP-140 Auroras arrive in the region.

Nov. 2, 2014: CF-18 Hornets conduct their first combat strikes. Over the next 15 months, they will fly more than 1,300 sorties.

March 6, 2015: Sgt. Andrew Doiron, a special-forces soldier helping train Kurdish troops, is killed in a friendly fire incident.

March 24, 2015: Military mission is extended and expanded, allowing air strikes in Syria and the deployment of up to 30 officers to coalition headquarters. – Canadian Press

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