Canada's new strategy for countering the so-called Islamic State received a key endorsement from the United States on Wednesday, ahead of a summit of the 49 countries taking part in the effort to destroy the self-declared caliphate.
While the Liberal government has come under intense criticism at home for its decision to withdraw six CF-18 fighter jets from combat missions over Iraq and Syria, U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter used a one-on-one meeting with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to praise Canada's revamped contribution. It was the first face-to-face encounter between the two men since the Liberals won office last fall.
According to a Pentagon summary of the meeting, Mr. Carter "thanked [Mr. Sajjan] for Canada's announcement to triple their training mission in northern Iraq, double their intelligence effort, as well as expand their humanitarian and development contributions. The leaders also discussed how Canada will continue to contribute to the air campaign by conducting refuelling and aerial surveillance operations."
While Mr. Sajjan said he received unanimously positive feedback from his colleagues at a NATO mini-summit in Brussels on Wednesday, it's at a gathering on Thursday of the U.S.-led coalition to combat the Islamic State where he is likely to face tougher questions.
Representatives from the countries taking part in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State – including all 28 NATO defence ministers – are gathering in Brussels to take stock of the fight. Some will likely ask questions such as the one lobbed by a pair of Arab journalists, who tracked Mr. Sajjan down in the lobby of NATO headquarters to ask if the withdrawal of the CF-18s meant Canada felt air strikes were achieving nothing.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that bombing missions by Canada's CF-18s would come to a halt on Feb. 22. Two Canadian military surveillance aircraft and one air-to-air refuelling plane will continue to support the coalition sorties over Islamic State-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Trudeau said Canada will expand its efforts on other fronts, including a tripling of the number of military advisers – from 69 to 207 – who are on the ground in Northern Iraq training Kurdish peshmerga forces, while also scaling up its diplomatic and humanitarian efforts around the Middle East.
Mr. Sajjan acknowledged that Canada still needed to explain some of the details of its revamped effort to the other coalition members, but he said Canada's new posture was welcomed by his NATO counterparts during a series of meetings on Wednesday.
"We're going to discuss a lot more things in detail [at Thursday's anti-IS coalition meeting]. We're really happy with what we're bringing to the table," Mr. Sajjan said.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, however, sounded an equivocal note when asked if it was helpful for Canada to be withdrawing its warplanes from the fight against the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL and IS, right now. Mr. Fallon repeated the same lines about Canada "tripling its training effort" and "doubling the intelligence capability it brings to the region" before noting that Thursday's meeting of the coalition was about "finding ways to hit ISIL harder."
Turkey is one NATO ally that might not be happy to see Canada switch its primary focus from bombing IS to giving more training and armaments to the Kurdish peshmerga, given the possibility that some of those weapons could end up in the hands of Kurdish separatists in Syria as well as in Turkey itself. But Mr. Sajjan said Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz had been "very supportive of what we're doing" when the two men held a bilateral meeting on Wednesday.
Ankara considers the YPG – one of the front-line groups fighting the Islamic State on the ground in Syria – and the affiliated PKK, which is fighting for an independent Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey, to be "terrorist" groups. Canada's military aid is going only to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq. "They have some challenges, to be sure, but we're sensitive to those issues," Mr. Sajjan said of Turkey's concerns about the various Kurdish militias.
The arming and training of the Kurdish fighters – which the government acknowledges could put Canadian soldiers in harm's way – will be at least as dicey as the air operation, which posed a relatively low risk to Canadian lives since the Islamic State isn't believed to possess the kind of anti-aircraft weaponry needed to shoot down a CF-18. The peshmerga are expected in the coming months to take part in an effort to drive IS out of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which the jihadis captured in June, 2014.
The fight for Mosul is expected to be a bloody and protracted battle. Canadian special-forces trainers came under fire on several occasions last year while operating with Kurdish forces in the area.
CF-18s have made around 200 air strikes against IS targets since November, 2014, accounting for less than 3 per cent of all bombings carried out by the U.S.-led coalition during that time. Canadian warplanes were twice accused by Iraqi media last year of bombing civilian targets, reportedly killing 32 people between the two attacks. The Canadian military has challenged the veracity of both reports.
Wednesday's gathering of NATO defence ministers was predominantly concerned with the perceived threat emanating from Russia. The alliance approved the creation of a new multinational force – reportedly to number around 6,000 troops, plus a naval contingent – that will soon be deployed in Eastern Europe as a deterrent against attack.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the new plan – the latest in a series of steps to escalate NATO's footprint in former Warsaw Pact countries since Moscow's seizure of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 – "threatens Russia and also endangers security and stability in Europe."
However, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the new force was necessitated by "a more assertive Russia investing heavily in defence, and a Russia that has used force to change borders in Europe and to intimidate its neighbours."
Mr. Sajjan said Canada had no immediate plans to contribute to the new force in Eastern Europe, noting that Canada was already involved in training the Ukrainian army.