Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several of his cabinet ministers announced the next stage of Canada’s mission against the so-called Islamic State on Monday in Ottawa.
The new approach will maintain some of the elements from Operation IMPACT — the current Canadian military operation in Iraq and Syria — but will also expand training of local forces, contribute more to the humanitarian efforts in the region and pull out the country’s CF-18 bombers by Feb. 22.
Here are some key pieces of information about the new mission:
It will be riskier
Canada’s troop numbers will be increasing, moving from the approximately 650 soldiers currently deployed as part of Operation IMPACT, to 830 soldiers under the new directive.
The bumping up of the overall numbers will, in itself, increase the risk of a Canadian being harmed during the two-year military operation, said retired Canadian Forces Col. George Petrolekas.
“I would say the chances of risk increase as you increase the numbers,” he noted. “It’s just when you have more troops there, the chances increase — not necessarily the nature of the risk itself.”
Compounding that, however, is the fact that the soldiers will now be engaged in a somewhat different set of tasks.
Instead of bombing from the skies and carrying out maintenance of the bombing aircraft on the ground, more troops will find themselves engaged in “advise, assist and equip” initiatives. At least 200 troops will be deployed to northern Iraq to carry out this training work, with hundreds of others deployed throughout the surrounding region — possibly some to assist the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Baghdad.
There will also be more men and women conducting surveillance operations and painting targets on behalf of the coalition partners still engaged in bombing, officials confirmed on Monday.
According to Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, the fact that this is not officially a combat mission does not guarantee that Canadian soldiers accompanying local forces won’t come under fire.
“I suspect there will be engagement,” Vance said.
The boost in humanitarian assistance and increased diplomatic efforts could also place more foreign service personnel, medical personnel, diplomats and other Canadians engaged in non-military aspects of the mission in harm’s way.
It will include a significant non-military component
The non-military component of the new mission is complex and will involve the provision of humanitarian aid, infrastructure repair or maintenance and — according to the prime minister — even increased diplomatic efforts. The efforts will be spread over a number of countries in the conflict zone.
Canada will be arming local troops
The arming of the Iraqi Kurdish military (Peshmerga) and possibly other local forces represents a new component of the anti-ISIS mission. While Canada did provide arms to local fighters in Afghanistan, it has not done so thus far in northern Iraq. Vance confirmed that the Canadian Forces will supply an unspecified number of rifles, machine guns and mortars.
He acknowledged that there is always a risk of Canadian arms ending up in enemy hands, but he added that it’s “unlikely.”
Experts have also raised concerns, however, about the possible unintended consequences of training and arming Kurdish Peshmerga troops, who may ultimately use the resources to launch a secessionist movement and try to separate formally from Iraq.
It will be voted on in the House of Commons
The new mission will be debated in the House of Commons, the prime minister confirmed during a question and answer period with reporters. Asked specifically if the matter would be brought to a vote, Trudeau confirmed that it would be. With the Liberals holding a majority of seats in the House, it’s unlikely the mission will be voted down. But the Opposition parties are still likely to vote against it.
Conservative Interim Leader Rona Ambrose issued a statement Monday afternoon calling the new Liberal plan “a step backward” for Canada.
“Today’s announcements on training and humanitarian assistance are only designed to distract Canadians from the withdrawal of our CF-18s. The only reason for this decision that anyone can point to is that it was done for political purposes in the heat of an election campaign,” Ambrose said.
The NDP has strongly opposed continuing the bombing mission and during the federal election campaign advocated for a total end to Canada’s military involvement in the conflict against the so-called Islamic State.
It will be more expensive
The total cost of the new anti-ISIS mission — including the military and non-military components — is expected to come in at around $1.6 billion over the next three years.
That represents a greater overall financial investment than the 18-month Operation IMPACT, which the former Conservative government estimated would cost taxpayers around half-a-billion dollars (the Parliamentary Budget Officer challenged some of the Harper government’s figures).
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