For more than 10 days, even before a U.S. drone killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, soldiers on Canada’s mission in the Middle East have been on heightened alert.
Now, the training missions they conduct in Iraq, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and coalition operations, are on pause, to put security first. Some – the Canadian Armed Forces are deliberately opaque about how many – have been pulled back to Kuwait. Others have been “dispersed” – a shuffling of the troops apparently so they would be harder to pinpoint.
Both the coalition and NATO have put all training missions on hold. “There’s people out there that want to hurt us,” Brigadier-General Michel-Henri (Mike) St-Louis, the commander of Joint Task Force Impact said in an interview in Kuwait, where the operation’s headquarters are located. “So we take that into account, and we have paused our execution of that training element of our mission. But we are constantly re-evaluating the threat.”
There was clearly the threat of Iranian attacks – on Wednesday, Iran fired 22 missiles at two military bases including one where Canadians were active – but there were other dangers. A Dec. 27 rocket attack by a Shia militia group on an air base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that plays host to U.S. soldiers was followed by a flurry of other attacks. The U.S. responded with strikes that killed 25 militia fighters. There were demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy. That had put Canadian troops at higher alert since about Dec. 28, Gen. St-Louis said.
There are lingering political questions over the future of the mission. Iraqi legislators called for U.S. troops to leave. It’s not clear if any Western forces will still be welcome.
“We are ready for whatever comes next,” Gen. St-Louis said. Will the training mission in Iraq resume? “I don’t know yet,” he said.
For many Canadians, this is a military mission they had largely forgotten. Now, after a spark of Mideast conflict, it is being unforgotten.
Operation Impact, as the Canadian Armed Forces dub it, had a far higher profile in Canada when it began in 2014 as the response to Islamic State extremists overrunning swaths of Iraq and Syria. It began with airlifts; then CF-18 fighters conducted air strikes with the U.S.-led coalition in Operation Inherent Resolve. After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office, it centred on advising Kurdish fighters as they combatted the Islamic State in northern Iraq.
Now, it revolves around training, contributing Canadian soldiers to two broader allied training missions in Iraq, one under the auspices of NATO – a mission which is itself under the command of a Canadian, Major-General Jennie Carignan – and the other under the U.S-led coalition’s Operation Inherent Resolve. Canadians operate helicopters in Baghdad, and Hercules transport planes based in Kuwait. Two smaller training missions, in Jordan and Lebanon, were folded in. In all, roughly 800 troops. It is Canada’s largest overseas mission. Roughly 500 had been in Iraq before the missile strikes.
Some were in Baghdad and some on a base In Erbil, in northern Iraq, when the Iranian missiles struck last Wednesday. The military now won’t say much about how many were in what place. But before the worsening tensions, roughly 200 Canadian trainers in the NATO mission operated in Baghdad, and a similar number of Canadians in coalition training, including on bases in other parts of Iraq.
In Kuwait, the tempo at the mission headquarters has quickened. Their Camp Canada, inside Kuwait’s Ali Al Salem air base, was used as a staging ground for the last years of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. Gen. St-Louis and his task force sergeant-major, Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Aman, are both Afghanistan veterans, and in desert fatigues. CWO Aman’s first overseas tour was here in the dust and oil fumes of recently liberated Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and he returned 28 years later.
Gen. St-Louis points to examples of Operation Impact having an effect: In Jordan, three Canadian soldiers have mentored the first female combat arms platoon; in the mountains of northern Lebanon, Canadian reservists and regular forces provided winter warfare training to Lebanese troops unused to “moving on Ski-Doos and snowshoes.”
In Iraq, Canadian soldiers work at training centres on fortified bases.
The Canadians in the NATO mission are advisers at the Iraqi security forces signals school and their ordinance-disposal school and are working, Gen. St-Louis said, to bring Iraqi experts to the point where they do the training while Canadians mentor them.
In the coalition training mission, Canadian combat engineers are training Iraqis on how to detect explosives and clear roads, and combat-arms units train Iraqis, for example, on taking charge of areas of northwest Iraq previously controlled by the Islamic State – operating checkpoints, securing a perimeter, controlling roads.
“[Iraqi security forces] are suddenly in charge of a corner of the province that is Mosul, and in that province, you’re the battalion commander, and you’re in charge of securing that area,” Gen. St-Louis said. “So you would come to a training centre in which you have Canadians that teach you some skills that you require in order to be a battlespace owner.”
In Iraq, it is reasonable to question whether training will be enough. The country is far from stable. Canadian trainers now work only with Iraqi security forces, but in Iraq there are a host of other forces, notably a patchwork of Iran-aligned Shia militias that were supposed to be brought under government control, but still operate independently.
Yet Gen. St-Louis says that regular Iraqi forces express appreciation for the Canadian trainers. Canada and other Western countries have been telling Iraqis they should realize that they don’t really want foreign missions that help them prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State to leave. But the future of those missions is on standby.