OTTAWA – The House of Commons formally took Canada out of the combat mission against the Islamic State in a vote on Tuesday, but it comes as senior U.S. military commanders warn that the planned campaign to free Iraq’s second-largest city will likely require more western military help, not less.
Thanks to the Liberal majority in the House, a motion in support of the reconfigured mission was passed by a margin of 178-147.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper, who presided over the launch of the original mission against ISIL, was on hand to vote against the motion.
The CF-18 fighter jets deployed to the Middle East in 2014 ended their bombing runs last month after the Liberals opted to focus instead on training local security forces and helping to rebuild the shattered region.
The new mission increases the complement of military personnel to 830 people, up from 650, to provide planning, targeting and intelligence expertise.
The “train, advise and assist” mission also triples in size, including additional medical personnel and equipment including small arms, ammunition and optics to assist in training Iraqi security forces, mostly in the Kurdish north.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has insisted from the outset that the mission does not constitute combat, although military officials have acknowledged Canadian trainers will likely face “engagements” with enemy combatants.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the rules laid down for trainers will give them the right to shoot first at extremists in a limited set of circumstances that fall under the umbrella of self defence.
“If there is a threat posed, our troops have the ability to defend themselves,” he said. “There are many different aspects on how the rules of engagement can work.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair wasn’t buying it.
“The minister is trying to put lipstick on a pig,” he said. “What we have here is a combat mission. We know it’s a combat mission. We’ve been describing it as such since the beginning and it’s an insult to the brave women and men in uniform to call it anything but.”
Both Sajjan and the country’s top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, say the highly trained troops will not be allowed to accompany Kurdish forces into battle, nor undertake offensive operations.
The policy stands in contrast to the U.S., which has deployed roughly 200 elite U.S. Army Delta Force commandos, who conducted a recent mission that led to the capture of a high-level ISIL commander.
American special forces operators are expected to carry out more such missions in the run-up to the long-awaited battle to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Dunford, said last week that he expects American troops “would do more in Mosul” than they did in Ramadi — in central Iraq — because of the size and complexity of the operation.
There is also the fact that extremists have spent the last 18 months fortifying the city.
Vance agrees with Dunford’s assessment and said Canadian trainers, in anticipation of the coming battle, will be taking responsibility for Kurdish fighters over a wider section of the front — north and east of the occupied city of one million residents.
He said Canadians will be doing more in terms of helping plan the operation and offering advice.
According to Vance, the Kurdish forces under Canadian supervision will provide a “backstop” to prevent ISIL fighters from fleeing the area.
“They’ve got eyes on the city, and as we support them …we’ll be contributing just as Gen. Dunford described,” he said.
But the Americans have also offered to send in Apache gunships to aid ground troops — a suggestion the central government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad has rejected.
Vance also gave more detail about earlier suggestions, made in early February, that Canadian troops would provide more specialized training to existing Kurdish units. He said the trainers will take a battalion — roughly 600 — local fighters and give them advanced weapons and infantry courses.
The Canadians will also provide them will small arms, he said.