01/27/2015 08:25 EST | Updated 03/29/2015 05:59 EDT

ISIS fight: Canadian advisers guiding airstrikes but U.S. barred from doing same

Canadian military advisers have been spotting targets and guiding airstrikes on ISIS positions in Iraq — a practice that U.S. soldiers participating in the mission are not allowed to engage in and one that some consider a combat role.

The Canadian government has acknowledged that Canadian advisers have been acting as forward observers, calling in airstrikes on ISIS positions and marking the targets with lasers.

But those roles are seen as combat roles. U.S. military Cmdr. Elissa Smith at the Pentagon told CBC News that that particular role — sometimes called JTAC or joint terminal attack controller — is one U.S. advisers on the ground in Iraq are not allowed to do. 

"The advisers are assisting with planning ground operations, intelligence sharing, integrating air support into their operations, not as JTACs, but as planners," Smith said. "Their movements are carefully planned in advance in order to ensure that they are not inadvertently put into combat situations.

"We've been very clear that U.S. advisers are removed from actual or expected combat situations as part of our advise and assist mission in Iraq." 

'Definitely combat'

Walter Dorn, who teaches defence studies to Canadian officers at the Royal Military College, said what the JTACs are engaged in is "definitely combat."

"It's not just self-defence. It's actually engaging in combat and making a difference on the ground, in the field. And we originally said we are not going in there to engage in combat," he said.

When it comes to airstrikes, Steve Day, the former commander of Canada's elite JTF2 unit, said Western air forces always prefer to have their own trained soldiers guiding those attacks.

"The gold standard is to always receive intelligence from your own Western sources. So, it's always best, especially in built-up areas, to have a Western set of eyes looking at the target."

This is another case where Canadian forces seem to be going further than their coalition allies — at least publicly.

Military advisers in firefights

Although the U.S. is leading the coalition, officials say American military advisers aren't accompanying Iraqi forces on the frontlines. But Canadians have gone close to the frontlines. At one point, the military estimated Canadian advisers spent 20 per cent of the time there. And those advisers have now been involved in three firefights.

In response to a question from CBC News on Monday, a spokeswoman for the Combined Joint Task Force, which is co-ordinating the international coalition's mission in Iraq, said, "Canada is the only coalition member whose soldiers have been involved in firefights."

The spokeswoman said she couldn't explain why, but when asked again on Tuesday by CBC News, she added:

"I can only respond on incidents that have been confirmed and reported to the high headquarters. The incidents with the Canadians are the only incidents that [have] been reported." 

However, Britain's Mail on Sunday, citing sources, reported that the U.K.'s elite SAS troops, who were officially in Iraq in a reconnaissance role, were conducting raids against ISIS fighters last November.

Countries rarely discuss special forces activities

David Perry, a senior security and defence analyst for the CDA Institute, said countries often don't want to talk about what their special forces are up to.

"We've seen it before in Libya and Afghanistan," he said. "Different governments for different reasons have been very reluctant and sensitive to discuss what their special operations forces do when they're out there on the ground."

Asked about the rules of engagement back in September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canadian troops were in Iraq "to advise and to assist. It is not to accompany."

But Harper was hammered in question period Tuesday about whether the government misled Canadians about the mission in Iraq,

He said that Canadian troops are executing the mission that Canadians and Parliament have given them. 

"They are advising, they are assisting," he said. "Guess what, if fired upon, they are going to shoot back; and if they kill some of the ISIL terrorists, Canadians are going to support that, no matter what the New Democrats think."