OTTAWA — Fewer Canadian bombs have been falling on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant since the federal election call on Aug. 2, new National Defence statistics show.
CF-18 fighters conducted 10 air raids last month and 12 in August, which is roughly half the average number of attacks carried out each month since the spring.
There were 30 raids by Canadian warplanes in July and 20 raids in each of May and June. The only time Canada conducted fewer missions this year was in February, when only nine strikes were recorded.
The statistics emerged as Russia opened its own air campaign in Syria this week, hitting targets on behalf of the Assad government and heralding what experts say is a dangerous new phase of the ongoing war in the Middle East.
National Defence was asked directly whether it had been given direction to tone down airstrikes during the election cycle.
There's been no change in the government's mandate towards the war, and targets are selected by the U.S.-led coalition headquarters, said Capt. Kirk Sullivan, a spokesman for the military's operations command.
"Many factors determine the frequency and location of airstrikes" among allies, Sullivan added.
The Harper government hasn't said anything about the latest developments involving Russia — or reports that Iran is sending forces to fight alongside the Assad government. But Green party Leader Elizabeth May says Canada should be pressing for urgent talks engaging Russia, Iran, the U.S. and other allies.
She hearkened back to the Conservative government's expansion of the Canadian bombing campaign last spring, in which it cited the American legal justification for bombing in Syria.
"Putin is hoisting the West on our own petard," May said.
"The U.S. and Canada made it possible to claim bombing raids in a civil war were acceptable, even though falling outside international law."
On the question of how Russian involvement in the campaign will affect Canadian missions, Sullivan said the country's task force and its allies continue "to take active measures to deconflict air operations during the multi-national campaign."
The air war has figured prominently in the federal election: the Liberals have promised to halt the raids and concentrate on training Iraqi ground forces. The New Democrats say they would pull out of the mission entirely.
The mission made headlines in August when it was disclosed that the U.S.-led coalition had investigated a single Canadian airstrike last winter amid allegations of civilian casualties, but found no evidence to support the claims.
The dropping of Russian bombs in Syria has sent shock waves through the international community, but experts say the intervention is hardly surprising. What's more, they argue, the world needs to start being honest with itself about the failures in the war against ISIL militants.
The public debate in the West has been bogged down over whether the end goal should be confronting ISIL — also known as ISIS — or ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad, said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The problem is not simply ISIS or Assad," Cordesman said, noting that it's time to stop pretending Syrian moderates are strong enough to stand up to Assad — or even rival extremists the way the U.S. had hoped.
"The first step in solving a problem is to honestly assess it. No negotiation can work that does not deal with grim realities and divisions created by years of fighting."
The White House said Thursday that Russia's intervention threatens to prolong not only Syria's civil war, but the cross-border fight with ISIL. The Pentagon claims that Moscow's first airstrikes took out U.S.-backed rebels, not extremists.
Canada does not have the final say in the overall strategic direction of the war, but it can persuade the U.S. that the current approach — training Syrian resistance and relying on Iraqi forces — is not working, said Retired Canadian colonel George Petrolekas of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
The Russian incursion, he added, may ultimately bring some focus to the desire to end the bloodshed.
"We need to just get over this petulant reaction and get serious now."
The Harper government has been in lockstep with the Obama administration in calling for Assad's ouster and has been among President Vladimir Putin's most strident critics in Ukraine.
At one point or another, the West will likely be faced with the prospect of putting boots on the ground, if only to motivate the Iraqis to retake their lost territory, Petrolekas said.
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