The federal cabinet is reviewing options to bolster Canada's role in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State that run the gamut from maintaining surveillance and refuelling aircraft to clandestine operations, military and government officials say.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during the election to pull Canada's CF-18 fighter jets out of the bombing mission but pledged a more robust training mission for the Canadian military.
Military sources, speaking on background, say General John Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, has placed at least six options before the cabinet for vetting that include a substantial role for Canadian Special Operations Forces but also for the regular army.
Cabinet is expected to make a decision within the next 30 days.
"We have a lot of choices to make and we have our own means, and we must conduct a rigorous selection with the Minister of Defence, the Minister of International Development, the Prime Minister. We are looking at that very attentively," the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, told The Globe and Mail Tuesday.
Canada has 69 special forces training Kurdish soldiers and 600 Air Force personnel in Kuwait, where six CF-18s are based along with two surveillance planes and one refuelling tanker.
Sources say the wide-ranging recommendations to cabinet include:
- Retaining surveillance and refuelling aircraft in Kuwait;
- Sending up to 150 special forces to train Kurdish peshmerga fighters;
- Using regular Canadian army trainers for Iraqi security forces;
- Training Iraqi troops in nearby Jordan;
- Training Iraqi police and increasing humanitarian assistance;
- Using elite Joint Task Force 2 commandos in black ops in Iraq and Syria like Canada did in Afghanistan.
Military experts say cabinet is almost certain to accede to the Pentagon's request for Canada to continue to provide its refuelling tanker and Aurora spy aircraft.
Retired Lieutenant-General Ken Pennie, a former commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, said Canada's refuelling aircraft allows coalition fighter jets to operate 24-7 while the Auroras are outfitted with sophisticated radar and optical systems to identify Islamic State militants on the ground.
"The enemy forces out there don't present a really easy target. They are hiding in schools and in hospitals. They don't move around in large concentrated groups … so the Auroras are really value-added because they can find these targets," he said.
Retired Major-General David Fraser, a former commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, said the proposal to conduct training exercises in Jordan would face opposition from the coalition and within Iraq.
"Politically, it makes a lot more sense to us because you don't have to worry about Canadian Forces getting in firefights, but from an operational point of view the Iraqis and Kurds won't like that at all."
Mr. Fraser said Gen. Vance would almost certainly propose clandestine operations by Canada's elite JTF2 commandos, although the Foreign Affairs Minister was quick to rule that out.
"We said very clearly during the election campaign that we wanted to end direct combat activities. So if that's the question, it's not part of what we are considering doing. But what is left to do is so enormous anyway, we won't be short," Mr. Dion said.
Mr. Dion said Canada can play a role in helping to stabilize liberated Iraqi towns and cities by helping to train police and local militias.
Regardless of what the government decides, Mr. Fraser said it's unlikely to win Canada many accolades from the United States and Western allies whose fighter jet pilots are bombing Islamic State targets.
"If we don't have our fighter jets, we are not going to have much of a voice," he said. "We won't get much recognition. Strategically, at the political level, we are going to lose here."
With a report from Campbell Clark