OTTAWA – Canadian warplanes have destroyed only two Islamic State targets in nearly two weeks of air operations, but the commander of the mission says success can’t be measured in the number of bombs dropped.
The air campaign is putting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on the “defensive,” prompting militants to hide vehicles and equipment from the prying eyes of surveillance aircraft, Col. Dan Constable insisted Thursday.
“They’re hiding more,” Constable said via conference call from the secret base in Kuwait where Canadian CF-18 jets have been operating.
“They’re providing fewer targets, which also means they’re a less a capable force.”
He provided more details on Tuesday’s bombing mission near Bayji, 200 kilometres north of Baghdad, in which a Canadian laser-guided bomb obliterated an Islamic State artillery piece that was apparently being moved along a road.
“The battle damage assessment shows the main target — the artillery piece — was destroyed, and there likely were ISIL casualties,” Constable said. Only militants were operating in the area and no civilians were hit, he added.
Constable was unable to say whether the enemy target was a howitzer or a truck-mounted, rocket-propelled artillery piece. One of Canada’s CP-140 Aurora spy planes had been operating in the area, but he would not say if it played a role.
Canada’s first airstrike on Nov. 2 destroyed heavy construction equipment that was being used to construct defensive positions near Fallujah.
The assertion that ISIL is keeping its head down comes just days after a separate U.S.-led coalition airstrike near the occupied city of Mosul that apparently wounded the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The airstrike hit a convoy of vehicles that included a number of senior ISIL leaders and was out in the open and moving when it was hit.
Also Thursday, al-Baghdadi resurfaced in an audio recording that taunted a number of coalition countries, including Canada, saying they are frightened and “stumbling between fear, weakness, inability, and failure.”
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney wasted no time using the recording as political ammunition, issuing a statement that characterized the jeer as another instance where “terrorists directly threaten violence against Canada.”
There has been criticism in Washington that too few airstrikes are taking place in Iraq and Syria, compared with other recent campaigns in Libya and elsewhere.
But Constable said the bombing campaign has forced ISIL to “pause its offensive movements” and switch to the defensive. Over the long term, he said, he’s confident the coalition will “ultimately defeat” the group.
During the parliamentary debate that authorized the use of Canadian warplanes, opposition MPs feared that Canada would find few remaining targets in the wake of initial U.S. attacks in late August and September.
Meanwhile, there are reports the U.S. is considering a major change in strategy. On Wednesday, CNN said President Barack Obama has asked his national security team to review its Syria policy and whether ISIL can be defeated without the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.
Canada’s combat commitment is currently limited to Iraq, although Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said it could be expanded into Syria if the Syrian government gives its permission.
The U.S. Central Command — CENTCOM — has also issued notice that a week-long planning conference is underway ay MacDill Air Force Base in Florida involving the 30 nations that are part of the coalition.
A respected Washington-based think-tank issued a report Thursday saying the U.S. “has only made slow and unstable progress in developing a strategy.”
Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. needs to set real, tangible objectives and timelines for the military campaign.
“The U.S. has talked about ‘degrading and destroying’ the Islamic State without setting clear goals for what this actually means,” he wrote.
“It initially focused on a very limited air campaign to both halt (ISIL) gains and attack key Islamic State centres in Syria. This effort came too late and was so publicly foreshadowed that key elements of the Islamic State were able to heed the strategic warning and disperse and shelter in populated areas.”
In Iraq, Cordesman said the coalition is betting that Iraqi unity will help turn the tide, but no efforts have been made to reach out to disaffected Sunnis who are sympathetic to — or outright supporters of — the extremists.