OTTAWA – Canadian special forces have taken a more active role in the battle for Mosul, where weeks of bloody fighting have failed to dislodge the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
National Defence revealed the shift on Friday as the Liberal government announced it was extending the current mission in Iraq until the end of June.
The hope is that the battle for Mosul will be over by then, at which point the government will have a better handle on the long-term needs in Iraq and change Canada's contribution as required.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement that Canada should be ready to "adapt to the changing dynamics of the conflict" in Iraq. (Photo: The Canadian Press)
"There is nobody at this juncture that can really determine or predict exactly what will happen and how it would happen," said Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada's chief of the defence staff.
"So this is a wise move that allows us to carry on."
In the meantime, some of the nearly 200 Canadian special forces in northern Iraq have entered east Mosul to help Iraqi government forces secure that part of the city.
They are also providing some assistance to Iraqi forces fighting in the western half of the city, officials say, through the identification of targets and other tactical support from east Mosul.
Canadians advising, assisting Iraqi forces
That represents a significant shift – the Canadians had largely avoided Mosul and spent little time with the Iraqi military, working instead with Kurdish forces to the north and east.
"The geography changed somewhat and the partners changed somewhat," Vance said. "That is, we went from mentoring, training, advising and assisting Kurds to other Iraqi security forces."
The current mission, launched last year, saw the Liberal government withdraw Canadian fighter jets from the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIL, but triple the number of special forces in northern Iraq.
It also added a helicopter detachment to transport and resupply those soldiers as well as a 50-person intelligence unit, and kept two surveillance planes and a refuelling aircraft in the region.
The mission had been set to expire on Friday.
The battle for Mosul is expected to take several more weeks, if not months, as Iraqi forces engage in bloody house-to-house fighting to push the extremist group from the country's second-largest city.
Military commanders have warned that victory in Mosul won't mark the end of ISIL in Iraq, as most expect it to abandon conventional military fighting in favour of terror tactics like suicide bombings and IEDs.
That will require different training and support from the international community, which to this point has been largely focused on helping Iraqi and Kurdish forces fight ISIL as a regular military force.
There are also concerns about Iraq's political future, with several potential conflicts bubbling just beneath the surface as the threat posed by ISIL appears to be receding.
Those include competing territorial claims between the Kurds in northern Iraq and the central government in Baghdad, and long-standing divisions between the country's Sunni and Shia populations.