OTTAWA — Despite the withdrawal of Canada's fighter jets from Iraq and Syria last spring, a senior officer says Canadian military aircraft are providing vital intelligence to allies for air strikes and other operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The Liberal government announced in February that it was ending Canadian combat operations in Iraq by withdrawing six CF-18s that had been part of the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIL since October 2014.
But the Liberals left behind a Polaris air-to-air refueller and two Aurora surveillance aircraft. Those aircraft have continued to support the bombing campaign against ISIL, also known as Daesh, even as public attention has turned to the role of Canadian special forces operatives in northern Iraq.
Col. Shane Brennan talks to media to Kandahar City, Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb.14, 2010. (Photo: Steve Rennie/CP)
National Defence says the Polaris has flown 544 missions and delivered more than 14,200 tonnes of fuel to allied aircraft over the last two years. The Auroras, meanwhile, have flown 575 reconnaissance missions over ISIL territory.
Brig.-Gen. Shane Brennan, commander of Canada's Joint Task Force-Iraq, says at the same time the number of Canadian intelligence officers assigned to the anti-ISIL effort has grown to 50. Their mission is to analyze the pictures taken by the Auroras so the coalition can plan air strikes and ground operations.
"What we do is gather the trends and the activities of what is happening with Daesh," Brennan said from the task force's headquarters in Kuwait. "That is used to support what you would call targeting, whether that's munitions-based or lethal targeting, or other types of targeting."
Brennan described the work of the Auroras and intelligence officers as a "critical contribution" to the fight against ISIL.
"We're actually feeding into the larger coalition process and making a significant difference."
"In military operations, the planning and intelligence preparation is usually a key to success," he said. "In this way, we're actually feeding into the larger coalition process and making a significant difference."
U.S. and other coalition officials have credited the bombing campaign with helping to push ISIL back after it initially overran large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014. But there have also been concerns about civilian casualties, particularly following a series of U.S. strikes around the Syrian city of Manbij in July.
Brennan said the Auroras were not involved identifying targets in Manbij and have instead been flying over northern Iraq in support of the coming battle for the city of Mosul.
Preparations to liberate Mosul from ISIL have become the main focus for allied and Iraqi forces over the last few months, given that the city is the last major urban centre still controlled by the militant group in Iraq.
2,000 Kurdish troops trained by Canada
The approximately 2,000 Kurds trained by Canada over the last two years aren't expected to actually enter Mosul when the battle begins, but will instead secure territory to the north and east while the Iraqi military clears the city. At the same time, Brennan said Canada will be contributing in other ways.
An additional helicopter is being deployed into the area — bringing the total to four — to help transport troops and equipment. In addition, a field hospital is set to be deployed from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa.
But Brennan also acknowledged the many political challenges facing Iraq besides ISIL. Those include questions about the country's long-term stability, particularly given Kurdish desires for independence, and the surprise sacking of Iraq's minister of defence on corruption charges last month.
'Difficult time' for Iraq government
"It is a difficult time for the government of Iraq," he said. "Obviously there's all kinds of challenges that occur within a diverse country like that as well."
The good news, Brennan said, is that there are discussions between central Iraqi officials and the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in the north of the country. In addition, he said, the interim defence minister previously served with the Iraqi security forces.
"So we're very confident that we're not going to see this as a setback in the ongoing planning for Mosul. So there's good stability from that particular front," he said. "But all these things are of concern, that is true."
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
Her'es a look at some of what's been said — recently and otherwise — about Canada's evolving role in the U.S.-led mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which was officially retooled by the new Liberal government. (Information from The Canadian Press)
"Our efforts should better reflect what Canada is all about; defending our interests and freedoms alongside our allies and working constructively with local partners to build real solutions for the longer term." — Trudeau, announcing a larger training and development mission and the withdrawal of CF-18 fighter-bombers.
"ISIL would like us to see them as a credible threat to our way of life and to our civilization. We know Canada is stronger — much stronger than the threat posed by a murderous gang of thugs who are terrorizing some of the most vulnerable people on earth." — Trudeau.
"Left unchecked, this terrorist threat can only grow, and grow quickly. As a government, we know our ultimate responsibility is to protect Canadians and to defend our citizens from those who would do harm to us or our families." — Former prime minister Stephen Harper on Oct. 3, 2014, as he announced in the House of Commons a plan to send Canadian aircraft to fight in Iraq.
"Canadians did not invent the threat of jihadi terrorism and we certainly did not invite it; nor, as this global threat becomes ever more serious, can we protect ourselves, our communities, by choosing to ignore it. That is why a strong majority of Canadians have supported our government's mission against ISIL. Canadians understand that it is not merely in the wider interests of the international community, but specifically in Canada's national interest." — Harper on March 24, 2015, telling the Commons of a plan to extend and expand the mission.
"It is important to understand that while airstrike operations can be very useful to achieve short-term military and territorial gains, they do not, on their own, achieve long-term stability for local communities. Canadians learned this lesson first-hand during a very difficult decade in Afghanistan where our forces became expert military trainers renowned around the world." — Trudeau on Monday.
"Along with our allies and through the auspices of the United Nations, Canada should provide more help through a well-funded and well-planned humanitarian aid effort. The refugee crisis alone threatens the region's security, overwhelming countries from Lebanon to Turkey, from Syria itself to Jordan. Here at home, we should significantly expand our refugee targets and give more victims of war the opportunity to start a new life in Canada." — Trudeau as Liberal opposition leader in the Commons, March 2015.
"Our allies want us in the fight against ISIS, that is clear. This is a despicable terrorist group. And Canadians want us in the fight against ISIS because it is our fight and that is clear. When our friends and our allies are attacked, it is our fight and when our values are threatened and our country is threatened and our friends are threatened, it is our fight. And when human rights are trampled and human dignity is trampled, then it is our fight." — Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.
"The prime minister likes to say he cares about diversity, but there is nothing that threatens diversity more than ISIS — whether it is the rights of women, cultural and religious freedoms, or the rights of gays and lesbians." — Ambrose.
"The Canadian announcement is the kind of response the secretary has been looking for from coalition members as the United States and our coalition partners push to accelerate the campaign against ISIL ... the United States is willing to lead the coalition in the fight against ISIL, but the barbaric group poses a threat to every nation, so every nation should join this fight. If countries are unwilling or unable to contribute militarily, then they should consider the important non-military ways they can contribute to this effort." — Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook during Monday's Department of Defense briefing.
"We are concerned that the Liberal government has chosen to place Canadian Forces personnel deeper into an open-ended combat military mission in Iraq — a mission that fails to even define what success would look like. And while we welcome the government's announcement today of increased humanitarian assistance to the region, we are concerned that this aid is being linked to the military mission." — NDP MP Helene Laverdiere.
"I commend Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for committing to increase humanitarian and military aid for the nearly 4.6-million Syrian refugees who have been displaced by five years of brutal war in the region." — Green party Leader Elizabeth May.
"As a founding member of the coalition, Canada has been a valued and willing partner in the mission to degrade and destroy (ISIL) and has played an important role across all lines of effort." — Bruce Heyman, the U.S. ambassador to Canada.
"We're pleased Canada is continuing to invest and play a leadership role in educating and protecting children affected by crises in Syria and Iraq." — David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada.