Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says Canada is not currently at war, but is involved instead in "a conflict that has high risk" with the so-called Islamic State.
Mr. Sajjan made the comments in an interview with The Globe and Mail on the sidelines of a meeting of the 49 countries involved in the U.S.-led campaign to crush the self-declared caliphate. At the summit, where it was earlier announced a Canadian warship will be one of three sent to the Aegean Sea to gather intelligence on deadly human-smuggling rings, U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter asked coalition members to contribute more to what he said must be an "accelerated" effort to destroy the extremist organization's base in Syria and Iraq.
"We'll all look back after victory and remember who participated in the fight," Mr. Carter told assembled defence ministers. He said victory would come more swiftly "if all of the nations in this room do even more."
Mr. Carter recently told U.S. Congress that "we're at war" – a term Mr. Sajjan backed away from using, although he described the Islamic State as "a threat that is real."
"We look at it as this is a conflict that we're dealing with now," Mr. Sajjan said in the interview. "But to call it a war, I think, it would be a stretch. But let's make no mistake about it, this is a conflict that has high risk, but Canada needs to play its part as part of a responsible coalition, just as we are responsible NATO partners, we are responsible partners for global security as well."
The semantic gymnastics won't help a government that has struggled to clearly explain its new Middle East strategy. The Liberals have been accused at home of leaving Canada's allies in the lurch by withdrawing six CF-18 fighter jets that had been taking part in air strikes against the Islamic State since November, 2014.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this week that the CF-18s would fly their last missions on Feb. 22. At the same time, he announced that Canada would triple the number of military trainers it has on the ground in northern Iraq, while also increasing diplomatic and humanitarian efforts around the Middle East.
Despite the domestic criticism on Canada's involvement in the fight against Islamic State – which is also known as ISIS and ISIL – the government's plan received a warm welcome at the NATO summit, with both Mr. Carter and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg praising Canada's increased involvement in training Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
"The efforts of Canada to build local capacity, to train local forces in the region as part … of the global efforts of the coalition, is something which I welcome very much," Mr. Stoltenberg told a press conference on Thursday. "For me, Canada is very clear, the message is very clear, that Canada will continue to support the efforts of the global coalition fighting ISIL."
Indeed, Mr. Sajjan's assertion that Canada is not at war is at odds with the reality that the bulked-up training mission – the number of special-forces trainers in northern Iraq will be bolstered to 207 from the current 69 – increases the odds of Canadian soldiers coming into harm's way.
Canadian troops are known in Kurdistan for their willingness to get closer to the action than other Western military trainers. In December, Canadian troops were involved in a 17-hour firefight with Islamic State fighters that began when the jihadis attacked Kurdish positions where Canadians were also stationed, north of the Iraqi city of Mosul. The attack was repelled with the help of two CF-18s.
Last March, 31-year-old Sergeant Andrew Doiron was killed by "friendly fire" when Kurdish forces opened fire on a Canadian patrol near the front line with the Islamic State.
Also buried in Canada's new strategy for countering the extremist organization is the fact Canadian forces will no longer be involved in Syria's five-year-old civil war. The CF-18s had been authorized to carry out air strikes in both Iraq and Syria, an acknowledgment of the fact the border between those two states has largely been erased.
Mr. Sajjan said Canada would now focus its efforts only on Iraq, where its participation is officially welcomed by the Iraqi government.
"Right now we're focused on dealing with the threat in Iraq," he said. Syria – because of its multisided civil war, as well as Russian military involvement in support of President Bashar al-Assad – "is a completely different situation."
And while Canada is training and equipping peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, it would not extend the same aid to the YPG Kurdish militia that are among the most effective factions fighting Islamic State on the ground in Syria.
"We respect the international borders," Mr. Sajjan said, adding that Canada's support for the Iraqi Kurds was not support for Kurdish independence. "The Kurds that we're working with know that they are within Iraq. Yes, they have their differences, however, even the Kurds that we're working with, they are to us the Iraqi security forces."
Mr. Sajjan met with Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obaidi on Thursday. He said Mr. al-Obaidi told him that he was "ecstatic" with the role Canada was playing in his country.
Though Mosul and much of the surrounding area remain under Islamic State control more than a year after Canadian troops first deployed to northern Iraq, Mr. Sajjan said the coalition was making good progress in the country. "I'm actually confident. When I talk to our military commanders, I'm comfortable with the direction where that is going."