01/22/2015 10:42 EST | Updated 03/24/2015 05:59 EDT

ISIS mission: Ground combat situation has 'evolved,' says Tom Lawson

Acknowledging the situation on the ground in Iraq has "evolved" since last fall, Chief of Defence Staff Tom Lawson says the activities of the Canadian special operations team deployed against ISIS are "entirely consistent" with its original mandate from the government. 

Last October, Lawson told CTV Question Period host Robert Fife that Canadian troops sent to advise Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling ISIS "would have nothing to do" with pinpointing targets for airstrikes.

"All coalition troops on the ground in Iraq are being used in the same role — advise and assist, but not accompany, and not engage in direct combat," Lawson said last October. "It's very important that it's Iraqi soldiers who do that."

He also agreed that helping out with laser targeting would be a "semi-combat role."

But in a briefing to reporters this week, Brig. Gen. Mike Rouleau said his soldiers have directed 13 airstrikes in the region using laser pinpointing. He said Canadian soldiers did the work because the Iraqi soldiers cannot, and that it did not mean Canada has escalated its mission.

Rouleau said Canadians' involvement in targetting had the added benefit of giving commanders confidence that the targets are legitimate, making the process faster and safer not only for local troops, but civilians as well.

In a written statement issued Thursday, Lawson confirmed Canada has "increased our assistance with respect to targeting airstrikes," which, he stressed, was "in direct correlation with an increased threat encountered by the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces.]"

Although Canadian special operations forces "are not seeking to directly engage the enemy," Lawson says, they are "providing assistance to forces that are in combat."

'Ground combat' ruled out?

Earlier this month, Canadian special forces operators came under fire while travelling near the front lines as part of a training operation.

News of the firefight, which was revealed by mission commanders Jonathan Vance and Michael Rouleau during a briefing Monday, sparked a debate over whether Canada had quietly expanded its efforts in Iraq to include a combat role.

The resolution passed by the House of Commons last year explicitly ruled out ground combat operations.

Both the New Democrats and the Liberals have accused the government of not being honest about the extent of the mission.

Lawson said in his statement Thursday the defensive action was "entirely consistent with the advise and assist mandate given to the Canadian Armed Forces by the government."

He added: "You should be justifiably proud of your men and women in uniform."

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, who is in London at a high-level meeting on the anti-ISIS efforts, told CBC News Network host Heather Hiscox that any extension of the mission "would be a decision of the government."

He said it would be also be brought back before Parliament.