Canadian forces are not part of a ground combat mission in Iraq, says the Department of National Defence, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fighting.
And a recent attack is calling some to question whether Canadian CF-18s should be withdrawn from the region, as the Liberal government has promised.
Canadian special forces stand ground with Kurds in massive ISIS assault
CF-18s useless without on-the-ground training: Harjit Sajjan
On Wednesday and Thursday, Canadian special forces north and east of Mosul, Iraq, were involved in a 19-hour attack by ISIS militants, and a counter-attack from Kurdish fighters. At one point, according to Major-General Chuck Lamarre with the strategic joint staff, the Canadians had to employ supporting fire to defend their Kurdish allies. They also helped to triage combat injuries and helped to coordinate the response.
READ MORE: Canadian special forces stand ground with Kurds in massive ISIS assault
They were there as part of a 69-member group providing advice and assistance to the Kurdish Security Forces and Iraqi government, a “train, advise and assist” role, according to Lamarre.
Two of Canada’s six CF-18 fighter jets, which at the time were in the air on a different bombing mission, were also diverted to conduct airstrikes on the attacking ISIS fighters.
This is the largest fight that Canadian trainers have been involved in so far, said Lamarre.
WATCH BELOW: Chief Political Correspondent Tom Clark discusses whether the recent encounter between Canadian soldiers and the so-called Islamic State will influence the Liberal plan for Canada’s role in the fight against the militant group.
Canadian Forces have been deployed against ISIS in Iraq since Sept. 5, 2014 and have participated in air missions and airstrikes since Oct. 28, 2014. Last winter, it was revealed that Canadian trainers regularly visit the largely static front and exchange fire with ISIS fighters, and help to guide in airstrikes.
But this attack was different. The size and co-ordination of the ISIS assault was, according to Lamarre, “A departure from what they’ve done in the past.”
And if Canadians remain on the ground in Iraq, they should expect this kind of attack again, said David Perry, senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “If we’re going to keep people in theatre and continue to do the types of things we’re doing, this type of scenario is certainly possible. If we’ve got people on the front lines, they could come under fire like this again.”
The attack is a reminder that ISIS is not yet defeated, he said,
“They’re actually still a very viable – at times – enemy.”
WATCH BELOW: Major-General Charles Lamarre, Director of Staff, Strategic Joint Staff updates Canadian armed forces participation in a military battle with the so-called Islamic State this week in Iraq.
Canada is currently planning to withdraw its CF-18 fighter jets, though the government has never given a specific timeline for doing so.
Getting rid of the jets could pose some problems, thinks Perry, mostly when it comes to being assured that Canadian ground troops will have air support when they need it. “If we have our own aircraft there then that’s a national decision and it’s our PM who takes the risk about whether or not you try and come in and help out our own forces.”
According to a press release, Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement thinks that the government’s policy to withdraw the fighter jets is “completely incoherent.”
“The government still hasn’t articulated any clear plan for what the mission will look like once they withdraw the CF-18s. Yesterday was in fact just another in a long list of examples of the success of the mission as currently constructed, including Canadian airstrikes on ISIS. The government’s opposition to CF-18s conducting airstrikes is solely ideological and not based on any policy rationale whatsoever.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said early Friday that he also thinks the fact that Kurdish forces were able to repel the ISIS attack shows that the training mission “is actually working,” though he said that the government remains committed to withdrawing the CF-18s.
VIDEO: Ottawa still committed to withdrawing CF-18s says Sajjan
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said Friday that a decision on the combat mission will be made “in weeks” and said a revamped plan for the mission is coming.
“What we want to do is come up with a plan to add to what our allies are doing in an optimal way. And I think when Canadians see the plan, when our allies see the plan, we will be proud again in what our troops will do, and the civilians involved as well.”
With files from the Canadian Press