Three months after a contentious vote to expand Canada's combat mission against Islamic State into Syria, Canadian fighter jets have attacked targets there just three times.
Military officials also said at a briefing in Ottawa on Thursday that Canadian war planes are dropping bombs in only about one-third of the missions they fly against Islamic State forces in both Iraq and Syria.
The military's main spokesman for the mission offered little insight into why Canadian Armed Forces appear to be almost bystanders in the air war over Syria, other than to say that coalition leaders determine combat assignments.
Royal Canadian Navy Captain Paul Forget said the overall bombing rate reflects a very cautious targeting process in the airstrike campaign, which, together with the rest of Canada's contribution to the fight against the Islamic State, is projected to cost taxpayers more than $500-million by March, 2016.
"We're not just dropping ordnance at will here on any given target," Captain Forget said.
The Conservative government argued forcefully for Parliamentary approval in March to expand the fight beyond Iraq on the grounds it was a vital extension of combat operations.
However, the last time Canadian CF-18 Hornets bombed a target in Syria was June 9, and they played no part in the U.S.-led coalition's massive July 4 aerial campaign over Raqqa, the de-facto capital of Islamic State forces in north-central Syrian territory. Coalition jets carried out at least 16 raids that day in what U.S. officials called "the most sustained set of air strikes to date against [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] terrorists in Syria."
Canadian warplanes, operating from Kuwait City, have been flying missions against Islamic State targets in Iraq since November, and have hit 122 targets over about 360 missions, Capt. Forget said.
Canada's relatively low rate of strikes in the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria is similar to that of the Americans, who are by the far the biggest player in the air war. Statistics up to May 31 released by the U.S. Department of Defence show that at least one bomb was released in only 26 per cent of combat missions flown by individual U.S. aircraft over Iraq and Syria.
Figures compiled by the Council for Foreign Relations – also dated as of May, 2015 – show the rate of combat missions that included bomb strikes is lower by at least 10 percentage points compared with past U.S.-led air campaigns dating all the way back to the 1991 Gulf War.
Defence analyst David Perry said Canada and coalition partners are fighting a particularly complicated war in Iraq and Syria. They are providing air support to a local government in Baghdad that is trying to wage a counterinsurgency campaign against an enemy that has mixed in with local civilians in some places, including large population centres. At the same time, the coalition does not have the level of constant air surveillance it had in past conflicts that would give it more familiarity with targets, he said.
"They're worried about dropping ordnance on civilians and losing the support they have from the Iraqi population," Mr. Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, said.
Capt. Forget would not say whether the low number of attacks is because Canadian pilots have no spotters on the ground in Syria to help guide bombs or provide intelligence on targeting. Canadians rely on special forces soldiers in Iraq to help locate targets.
Mr. Perry said he is surprised Canada's bombing contribution in Syria is so minor "given how controversial the issue was and how necessary the government viewed it as being that we engage." He said he believes Canada's lack of ground support in Syria is a factor.
Capt. Forget said the commanders of the U.S.-led coalition decide where Canadian jets will be used. "Those strikes are assigned to various nations for a variety of reasons. And I'm not going to get into the details of that for operational security reasons, but everybody is bringing something different to the table."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Parliament this spring it was essential to expand the battle into Syria. At the time, he said Islamic State "fighters and much of its heavier equipment are moving freely across the Iraqi border into Syria, in part for better protection against our air strikes."
Canada needed to join the war there so Islamic State would "cease to have any safe haven in Syria," Mr. Harper said.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau opposed the Parliamentary motion to expand the war to Syria and extend it until at least the end of March, 2016.
More than 600 Canadian Armed Forces members are based in Kuwait supporting the six Canadian fighter jets that are taking part in air strikes. The tempo of Canada's bombing activity in Iraq has picked up in recent weeks.