No ground combat against ISIS, but mission parameters could change: Kenney
WATCH: Will Canada’s role in the international fight against ISIS change? Jacques Bourbeau reports.
Just two days into the job, Kenney is faced with questions about the future of Canada’s contribution to the U.S.-led international coalition against ISIS, now that U.S. President Barack Obama has requested authorization for the use of military force to overcome the militant group.
Obama said his proposed three-year authorization would not see thousands of troops sent to the battlefields, as they were in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the authorization would allow the U.S. military to take different measures to “degrade” and eventually defeat ISIS.
Canada has taken part in airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq, as well as reconnaissance and refueling missions, since late October, while a small contingent of special forces are on the ground in Iraq advising Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
Canada has six CF-18 fighter jets, two Aurora CP-140 surveillance planes and a Polaris C-150 refueling aircraft based in Kuwait, along with about 600 Canadian Forces members to support the mission.
The six-month commitment comes to an end in late March, but Kenney said the government is currently assessing whether Canada will recommit to taking on what he called a “genocidal” organization.
“Obviously, we’re open to extending the mandate for our military’s role for the [ISIS] terrorist organization,” Kenney told Global News on Wednesday.
He said the government has “never pretended that the threat of [ISIS] can be defeated in a short period of time,” but any ground combat against the militants would have to be taken on by Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga.
“We have ruled out the possibility of Canadian ground troops being involved in a combat mission in Iraq. We will not task our soldiers with such a mission,” Kenney said.
Opposition critics have recently claimed the Conservatives have not been transparent about the role of Canadian special forces, and warned of mission creep after Canadian Forces members engaged in return fire with ISIS militants on three occasions while in the field.
Kenney told Global News the government has been “very transparent and forthcoming” about Canada’s activities in Iraq, saying other countries involved in the coalition don’t publicly offer as many details about their activities.
The minister also said Canada’s involvement in airstrikes has been “effective in helping degrade [ISIS]’s capacity in Iraq.
“We’re going to evaluate the progress we made before making a final decision about what to do in the future.” He added there could be “some changes” to the parameters of the mission, taking into account what Obama is now proposing.
Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said all signs point to Canada renewing its commitment, explaining the Canadian participation has played “an important role.”
“We have to keep in mind that Canada’s contribution has to be seen [from] two angles,” Juneau said.
“One is the actual material contribution that we’re making. … That’s useful, but let’s not kid ourselves that the U.S. has these assets and, strictly in terms of numbers, the U.S could do that on its own.”
He explained Canada’s involvement adds much-needed “legitimacy” to the U.S.-led mission.
“… So that it’s not just a unilateral, only American mission in the Middle East, because that makes it much more difficult in terms of legitimacy.”
Michael Zekulin, a political science instructor at the University of Calgary, agreed Canada is likely to remain an active part of the international coalition — which includes about 60 countries, but only 13 that are involved in airstrikes in Iraq or Syria.
But, he questioned how effective airstrikes alone are going to be in limiting or eradicating ISIS.
“The reality is that if we’re expecting to put a dent in this group, a significant dent, it’s going to take more than airstrikes,” Zekulin told Global News in a phone interview.
He said there may have been some successes, such as destroying artillery and slowing down the flow of oil that ISIS seizes and sells on the black market to fund itself.
“We don’t really know how significantly degraded they are (in terms of ranks),” Zekulin said.
“It sort of begs the question of if they [ISIS] believe that the West is going to become impatient or get tired of this approach,” he asked. “Are they going to be happy just to simply blend back in… not expand and wait for us to go home?”
Juneau said Canada’s wait-and-see approach and renewing the mandate in intervals makes sense.
“I think at this point the U.S. is happy with Canada’s contribution. To some extent, Canada is punching above its weight in the sense that there are many countries bigger than us who are doing less,” he said.
“For Canada to renew every six months, in a way there is a logic to that and it’s not a bad decision in the sense that it allows Canada to keep an opting out clause.”
With files from Jacques Bourbeau and Leslie Whyte
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