09/09/2014 12:15 EDT | Updated 11/09/2014 05:59 EST

Iraq Crisis: Canadian Special Forces Advisers Already On Ground, Nicholson Says

OTTAWA - Two senior Conservative cabinet ministers laid out in broad strokes the government's case Tuesday for deploying special forces to northern Iraq, but left key questions unanswered about how far Canada is prepared to go.

Battling Islamic extremism represents the "greatest struggle of our generation," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told a joint House of Commons committee — a fight he suggested could last for years.

For security reasons, Baird and Defence Minister Rob Nicholson turned aside questions about the movement of the elite troops in the war-ravaged region, where they are helping fight the resurgent splinter of al-Qaida known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

They did offer one key detail: some of the soldiers are already on the ground and carrying out the advisory role described last week by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Neither minister was willing to explain what sort of advice Canadian special forces could possibly give to battle-hardened Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, already renowned for their battlefield skills.

"It's very strange to me because they know how to fight," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar.

Nicholson in particular was explicit in saying the government would not follow up the deployment with "boots on the ground" — meaning a regular army presence.

"We're not engaging in combat activity and our role is very specific and very clear," he said, noting the current deployment is slated to run 30 days, after which it will be re-assessed.

What criteria the government would use to assess whether the troops are making a difference remained unclear.

Much will depend on U.S. President Barack Obama's long-awaited strategy for combating ISIL, which will reportedly be to systematically wear down the terrorist group's capabilities and shrink the territory they've captured.

"Ultimately, we’re going to defeat 'em," Obama said last weekend on NBC’s "Meet the Press."

The U.S. has already conducted airstrikes on behalf of local forces and is prepared to broaden the campaign, but U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has said the Iraqis would likely need help to push back roughly 10,000 ISIL fighters.

“Will the Iraqis at some point be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of Iraq that they’ve lost? Probably not by themselves,” he said on July 3.

From Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau's standpoint, the Harper government is laying the groundwork for a mission that will last longer than a month. "I think the probability is quite high that it will go beyond 30 days."

Gen. Tom Lawson, chief of the defence staff and Canada's top military commander, furthered that suggestion when he said the military is still assessing the kind of equipment the special forces will need on the ground.

At the conclusion of last week's NATO summit, Harper said Canada would evaluate further participation once the plans are formalized.

It's no secret that some of recent history's fiercest conflicts had relatively innocuous beginnings.

U.S. special forces, with Canadians eventually at their side, went in to Afghanistan in 2001 and worked alongside Northern Alliance fighters to direct airstrikes against Taliban forces in a wildly successful campaign that ousted the hard-line regime within months. They went on to conduct an almost decade-long counter-terrorism campaign, known as Operation Enduring Freedom, targeting militant leaders for assassination and attacking insurgent supply routes.

Whether that is what the U.S. has in mind for ISIL — and whether Canada would support such an endeavour — remained decidedly hazy Tuesday with the government promising to consult the Opposition as events unfold.

What's clear is that neither the Liberals nor the NDP want Canada to have any part of a combat mission in Iraq.

Dewar, who accompanied Baird last week on a security-laden whirlwind visit to Iraq, said the Iraqi government's most pressing demand was immediate humanitarian assistance.

He pressed and won a commitment from the government to do more.

The ultimate solution to ISIL won't be military, said Baird, who hinted at a long-term strategy of political engagement with Iraq — one in which the government's ambassador of religious freedom would play a significant role.

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