Putting more Canadian Special Forces trainers on the ground will help develop a battle-hardened Kurdish army but also likely lead to the eventual creation of an independent Kurdistan, military experts say.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that Canada will pull its six CF-18 jets out of the U.S.-led air war against Islamic State but will triple to 207 the number of Canadian commandos training Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
Former high-ranking Canadian military officers say Mr. Trudeau was shortsighted in removing the CF-18 planes to honour a campaign pledge, but they applaud the additional battle-front trainers and maintaining Canada's surveillance and refuelling aircraft in the air coalition.
Retired colonel Steve Day, who commanded elite Joint Task Force 2 commandos in Afghanistan, said Canadian Special Forces have had great success in turning the Kurdish militia in a combat-ready force.
"I am happy to see the increase of the training component … That is a great strategic move for Canada. The tripling of that capability is fantastic," he said in an interview.
When Canada first sent 69 Special Forces soldiers to northern Iraq in 2014, Mr. Day said the peshmerga were unable to hit a target at 200 metres away.
"They are now effectively engaging at one kilometre and beyond. So within 18 months, that small 69-person task force has taken them from some very basic marksmanship and truly turned them into sharpshooters and snipers and allowing them now to extend out and engage that adversary before that adversary has any hope of engaging them," Mr. Day said.
The effectiveness of Canadian training was demonstrated last December when Kurdish and Canadian commandos, backed by CF-18 fighter jets, repelled a massive assault by hundreds of Islamic State insurgents.
"Within 16 hours, they had that thing bottled up and with significant casualties on [the Islamic State]. That could not have been done a year ago," Mr. Day said, who noted last summer that two divisions of U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces dropped their weapons and ran when confronted by 800 Islamic State militants.
Retired major-general Lewis Mackenzie said there is no doubt that the Kurds are more resilient fighters than Iraqi security forces but they also pose a long-term problem for Canada and the coalition.
"I am glad we have taken on the training of the only folks over there – local folks – who have shown the balls to fight, but the Kurds are also doing a very good job of starting their own Kurdistan," he said.
Retired lieutenant-general Ken Pennie, who commanded the Royal Canadian Air Force, said it appears neither the former Conservative government nor Mr. Trudeau have thought through the implications of training a Kurdish army.
"Yes, they may be fighting the Islamic State today, but they may be fighting someone we don't want them fighting tomorrow. It could be our Turkish allies or it could be a government we support in Baghdad," Mr. Pennie said.
Mr. Pennie said the Prime Minister has not been clear on why it was so necessary to withdraw Canada's war planes while keeping surveillance aircraft and an air-to-air refueller in the aerial battle.
"It's a bit inconsistent when you are going to contribute to the kill chain by providing the intelligence and surveillance operations and yet not want to drop the bombs," he said.
Mr. Pennie said Canadian pilots are highly skilled and disciplined and were often asked by U.S. Coalition Command to target high-value Islamic State leaders in moving vehicles.
"What we withdraw from the coalition isn't just a few airplanes with bombs. The coalition has a fair number of those. What we are pulling out of the coalition is our expertise and leadership," he said.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will be in Brussels Wednesday for a NATO defence ministers' meeting that will focus on Russian aggression in Ukraine and Eastern Europe and the conflict in Syria.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday that the alliance is disturbed by intensive Russia air strikes in Syria that he said was making a "desperate humanitarian crisis even more desperate and even worse."
"We need a ceasefire … We need an immediate end of civilian targets," he said.
Mr. Stoltenberg said the allies will consider a U.S. request for NATO AWACS surveillance planes to help coalition pilots identify Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq.
Defence ministers will also discuss a request from Turkey and Germany to put NATO ships in the eastern Mediterranean sea to stop refugee smugglers.