OTTAWA – Canadian warplanes have bombed their first targets in Syria, Defence Minister Jason Kenney announced online late Wednesday.
The milestone event came out via the minister’s Twitter account and even seemed to get out ahead of the military, which had not posted news of the strike on its website before it hit social media.
Kenney says on Twitter that two CF-18s struck an ISIL garrison in Ar-Raqqah, which is about 160 kilometres east of the embattled city of Aleppo.
It is nominally considered the capital of the extremist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and has been on the receiving end of American air strikes in the past.
Kenney provided no other details, other than to say Canada’s role in Syria is to help ensure the group has no safe haven.
A press release issued by National Defence late Wednesday said the Canadian jets were part of a larger formation of 10 coalition aircraft, including six U.S. warplanes. The nationality of the two remaining aircraft was not disclosed.
Since last September, only the U.S. and at least three Persian Gulf countries had been bombing Syria, which has been riven by a brutal four-year-long civil war. None of Canada’s Commonwealth allies, including Britain and Australia, are following suit.
The Defence Department statement also said that even though Wednesday’s bombing was the first airstrike in Syria since the mission expansion, it was not the first air sortie and the previous over flights helped pilots assess the new area.
“Three previous sorties have taken place over Syria since the Government expanded the CAF’s participation in the international coalition against ISIL,” said the statement.
The air force says all fighter-bombers have returned safely to base.
After an acrimonious public debate, the House of Commons last week approved a year-long extension to Canada’s combat mission and the expansion of airstrikes into Syria.
New Democrats argued against extending the mission, saying that only dictator Bashar al-Assad would benefit from the bombing campaign. The Liberals also voted against the motion on the basis that the Harper government had no long-term strategy for the campaign against extremists who’ve overrun vast stretches of both Syria and Iraq.
The last reported strikes of Canadian jets came on April 4, when they hit targets west of Mosul, in northern Iraq, where extremists had established a roadside bomb-making facility.
The commander of Canada’s combat operations in the Middle East warned just before the holiday weekend that strikes into Syria were imminent.
Brig.-Gen. Dan Constable, speaking in a conference call from Kuwait, said Canada’s allies were “excited” the CF-18 jets would expand their operations beyond Iraq, where they have been conducting missions for six months.
Avoiding Syrian air defence and early warning radar has been a preoccupation of coalition military planners, including Canadians.
Constable said the threat level of operations in Syria was going to be very similar to the dozens of strikes carried out in Iraq. The Islamic State has no significant anti-aircraft defence, aside from shoulder-launched missiles, which don’t have the range to meet high-flying jets that are using laser-guided or GPS-aimed munitions.
Kenney has said in the past that the strikes will take place in areas where there is no Syrian air-defence radar, but open-source technical reports show as many as five of the country’s 31 early warning sites are located in the region. Whether they are still operational is unclear.