Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Canadian Forces Studying Options for Potential Syrian Deployment

By: Matthew Fisher, The National Post

The Canadian military has begun to study options for an operation in Syria, for the Liberal government to consider as U.S. president Donald Trump hints he may expand the 16-year-old war on terrorism by sending more troops to that country after the offensive to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIL concludes.

Officers familiar with how the military does long-range planning said that offering such choices — as well as examining ways Canada might continue to contribute to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq after the war there ends — was standard procedure. It is prudent to constantly prepare and update options regarding potential overseas deployment to hot spots in case the government of the day asks for them, they said.

What comes next for Canada and its allies is an obvious question, with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant holding only a sliver of land in Iraq and a much larger swathe of territory in Syria. Lt.-Gen. Steve Townsend, the U.S. ground commander for the wars in Iraq and Syria, expects ISIL to be defeated in both countries within six months. But nobody expects that ISIL, or its rivals, Al Qaeda, will be entirely eradicated for a very long time. There are fears the terrorist groups will go underground in those countries, increase their activities in Somalia or northern and central Africa or take their war global, launching more terrorist attacks on soft civilian targets, particularly in Europe.

It is not publicly known whether the Trump government has asked Ottawa to contribute troops or assist in other ways in the war against ISIL in Syria, or to take on other roles in the war on terror. But if there is anything to be taken from the example of the war in neighbouring Iraq, where Canada has been a participant since August, 2014, such a request is possible.

Canada is one of 17 countries currently assisting Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq. About Canadian 800 troops now involved in what the Canadian Forces calls Operation Impact. About 70 are elite Special Forces from the Ontario-based JTF2. They train, advise and assist Kurdish fighters and when at risk themselves, have occasionally joined the fight.

Other Canadians are targeting experts, based in Kuwait and Qatar, or work with Kuwait-based reconnaissance aircraft which help identify ISIL targets. A small team of Canadian doctors, nurses and technicians also runs a military hospital in the Kurdish city of Erbil, about 70 kilometres east of the front lines around Mosul.

The U.S. already has 500 Special Forces soldiers in Syria and has been preparing the American public for the possibility that more troops may soon be headed there. Gen. Joseph Votel, the U.S. commander responsible for overseeing military operations in the Middle East and South Asia, took journalists with him on a secretive tour of northern Syria last week. At an undisclosed location he told his media entourage that “take-no-prisoners fighting” was in the offing to capture ISIL’s Syrian hub, Raqqa, and that more troops may be needed to accelerate the war against ISIL there.

Any expansion of the coalition war in Syria is complicated by Russia’s political and military support for the government of Syrian President Bashir Assad. There remains confusion over to what extent Trump’s professed admiration for Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, will play a role in decisions made in Washington, particularly as the U.S. president’s top security advisers regard the Kremlin with deep suspicion. Turkey, which is a member of NATO that has improving ties with Moscow, also does not want Syrian Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. to become more powerful.

Canada is already indirectly involved in the war in Syria. Since December, JTF2 has been advising Iraqi Kurds deployed near the Syrian border in northwestern Iraq, in an attempt to prevent ISIL forces escaping from Mosul and reaching Syria. It had been involved in the air war in Syria until the Liberals ordered home the RCAF’s F-18s.

If Canada were to become involved militarily in Syria again it could send a small number of JTF2 troops there in an advisory role. Another possibility is that Canada could be asked to provide “boots on the ground” to help protect civilians from violence in safe zones that Trump has said he intends to establish to prevent the Syrian refugee crisis from worsening.

Canadian Brig.-Gen. Dave Anderson, who heads the coalition’s strategic advisory team in Iraq, told Postmedia in an interview late last year that discussions were already taking place then about how “we — that is, the Iraqi security forces — can not only take Mosul but hold it afterwards.” According to Trump’s most senior general, Joseph Dunford, the U.S. and NATO are considering a long-term military commitment to assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces who will be responsible for trying to prevent ISIL or other terrorist groups from regrouping. Canada’s Iraq mission could be extended indefinitely as part of that effort.

The potential ask for Canada to extend or expand its role in the region comes as Ottawa undertakes an open-ended commitment to lead a NATO battalion in Latvia from this June, and continue training missions in Poland and Ukraine.

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