OTTAWA — U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter has thanked his Canadian counterpart Harjit Sajjan for tripling the contingent of military trainers in Iraq in a conversation that reprised the defence minister's past soldiering experience in Afghanistan, sources say.
The pivotal conversation marked the first face-to-face meeting between the two ministers, and it came at Wednesday's larger gathering of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
The two-day NATO meeting comes just days after Ottawa rolled out its long-awaited strategy for helping fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Liberal government followed through on its election promise to withdraw its six CF-18 fighter jets, which will stop bombing in Iraq and Syria by Feb. 22.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is shown at the start of a NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels Wednesday. (Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Instead, Sajjan joined Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and two other cabinet colleagues in announcing Monday that Canada would triple its current contingent of 69 special forces trainers currently working with northern Iraq's Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
The Carter-Sajjan meeting was significant because the government has faced heavy criticism for withdrawing its fighters jets. The opposition Conservatives have characterized the move as a step backward from the fight against ISIL terrorists.
Carter thanked Sajjan for Canada's additional contribution of trainers as well as its plan to double its intelligence-gathering assets, according to a Canadian government official who was not authorized to speak on the record, but was corroborated by Pentagon accounts.
Carter told Sajjan the Canadian response is what the U.S. wants to see from other coalition members to step up the fight against ISIL on the ground, said Canadian officials.
"It was a departure from the usual scripted bilats that tend to happen."
A Pentagon statement said Carter told reporters travelling on his jetliner to Brussels on Tuesday that he would "be asking others at this meeting also to accelerate their efforts" in the fight against ISIL.
"But we're looking for others to make a contribution as well," Carter said, adding that some countries had already indicated a willingness to do more.
The ministers also discussed Sajjan's three tours of duty in Afghanistan, which included one as a special adviser to an American general, the Canadian source said.
"It was a departure from the usual scripted bilats that tend to happen," said the source. "He was able to speak to his experiences working on the ground with Americans in Afghanistan.''
The very public American thank yous resonated with the Liberal government in Ottawa.
"Having made this announcement and now being able to speak face to face, and have it reinforced how positively the U.S. views our contribution, is definitely significant for this government," the Canadian official said.
The official suggested the Conservatives and other critics should take note of the U.S. reaction.
Lebanon, Jordan at 'tipping point'
Going into the NATO meeting Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion emphasized the need for Canada to do more to help Lebanon and Jordan survive the pressure of the Syrian civil war.
"They are at the tipping point," Dion told The Canadian Press.
"We need to help them, because if Lebanon and Jordan are not stable countries it will be very bad for the region, for all our allies, including Israel.''
That's why Canada will beef up its military and diplomatic presence in the two countries, which are buckling under the pressure of the influx of millions of fleeing Syrians, as part of its reconfigured contribution to the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic militants in the region, Dion said.
Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, said this week the Canadian Forces would deploy about 100 personnel to the two countries, but the exact details were still being planned.
Alex Bugailiskis, an assistant deputy minister at Global Affairs, said there's an urgent need to fill in the gap between short-term humanitarian aid and longer-term development programming as the Syrian war stretches on and affects its neighbours.
"These countries are really feeling the pressure of hosting millions of refugees and it's having an impact on the communities in which they're housed," Bugailiskis said this week.
The government's new anti-ISIL plan includes spending more than $1.6 billion over the next three years on security, stabilization and humanitarian and development assistance in the region.