ERBIL, Iraq – Canadian special forces have shifted their operations in northern Iraq to put pressure on ISIS in places outside the strategic city of Mosul — including along the border with Syria.
The objective: To figure out the good guys from the bad so Iraqi military forces and coalition aircraft can attack.
High atop a rocky hilltop Monday, two Canadian soldiers sat in a makeshift bunker located more than a kilometre behind the frontline between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
One bearded soldier looked through a high-powered viewfinder, scanning the small community that lay below, while the other took notes. A camera sat between them in case something interesting appeared.
When the first Canadian soldiers arrived in the country in September 2014, their mission was to help train the peshmerga to stop and hold back a confident and, until then, undefeated ISIS horde.
That was the first phase of the now nearly two-and-a-half-year-old mission, before ISIS lost the upper hand.
Now, flying by helicopter from Erbil, the Kurds’ capital in Iraq, to the Mosul Dam, one can see the barricades of dirt and defensive positions that helped the peshmerga stop ISIS from overwhelming northern Iraq.
The trenches and stone buildings hastily constructed during that period two years ago lie abandoned today, as the war — and Canada’s role in it — shifted from defence to offence.
Kurdish forces, supported by the Canadians, kicked off a long-anticipated attack to free Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from ISIS in October.
But the Kurds and their Canadian comrades stopped short of Mosul, as planned. Instead, they shifted to fighting the extremist group in other ways and let the Iraqi military enter and clear ISIS from the city.
Briefing reporters on Monday at Camp Erable, the Canadian military camp in Erbil, a special forces officer said the mission has turned toward identifying and monitoring potential ISIS targets in the region.
That includes keeping tabs through optical sights and other means, on “key enemy movement corridors” between Iraq and Syria as well as areas inside and immediately outside Kurdish territory.
The officer said such monitoring helped locate ISIS forces inside a large town that was sidestepped during the early parts of the Mosul offensive and needed cleaning up.
It also means a decline in the number of times Canadian soldiers have actually fired their weapons in recent months, the officer said, as potential targets are relayed to the Iraqis and coalition for destruction.
The special forces officer, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said the nature of the Mosul offensive had meant Canadian troops often found themselves in situations where they were required to fire.
That isn’t the case now, he said, adding that Canadian soldiers are specifically told to set up in locations where such circumstances are unlikely.
The Canadians continue to work with the peshmerga. At the hilltop encampment, a number of fighters from the Kurds’ elite Zeravani stood guard on the perimeter while others relaxed inside.
In fact, the special forces officer said his soldiers have started working on a program that will train some Kurds to take on the role of instructors themselves.
Capt. Dhyab Mohammed Omar, commander of the Peshmerga fighters, praised his Canadian comrades and the contribution they had made in helping the Kurds fight ISIS.
“We are always honoured to have them at our positions,” he said. “It was my wildest dream to work with the Canadians. Having them show up and help us, we would die for them.”
While much of the attention surrounding Canada’s mission in northern Iraq has been focused on the role being played by the special forces, they aren’t operating alone.
Roughly 150 Canadian troops are stationed in Erbil, including a helicopter squadron, logistical staff, and medical personnel, all in support of the special forces mission and broader coalition fight against ISIS.
Four Griffon helicopters from Canadian Forces Base Valcartier ferry troops and equipment from Camp Erable to the special forces troops in the field every day, zipping low like dragonflies over fields, around hills and past isolated communities to avoid enemy fire.
“The challenge here is the more (power) wires and the weather during winter,” said Maj. Mathieu Bertrand, commander of the helicopter squadron. “We had some fog. But generally, the weather is good.”
Meanwhile, a Canadian military hospital located within Camp Erable’s small footprint, which itself is part of a larger coalition base dominated by the U.S., stands ready to provide aid to those wounded in battle.
While the hospital, whose personnel hail from CFB Petawawa, has treated more than 100 patients for various injuries, Lt.-Col. Richard Morin said only 13 had received battlefield wounds. None were Canadian.
“The predominance of cases we’re getting are emergency department-type casualties or patients that you would get when you get over 5,000 military troops all in one place,” he said.
The hospital has also treated a handful of ISIS fighters who were wounded and detained by coalition forces, which Morin said falls in line with the laws governing war.
“We actually understand even in conflict, there are rules that you need to follow that … respects the dignity of life,” he said. “That’s what makes us different.”
The entire effort is underpinned by logistical personnel, led by Lt.-Col. Dominique Dagenais, who are responsible for Camp Erable and ensuring that everything runs smoothly.
Dagenais said the biggest challenge he faces is ensuring new personnel get their Iraqi visas in time to replace those who are nearing the end of their deployments.
The Iraqi government has in the past dragged its feet when it comes to Canada’s mission against ISIS, including delaying deployment of the military hospital and signing off on a plan to arm the Kurds.