OTTAWA — Canadian soldiers have been quietly helping Jordan and Lebanon secure their borders amid fears of Islamic State fighters slipping from Iraq and Syria to launch attacks in Europe and North America.
Military officials say the Canadians are not actually working on the borders, but otherwise won't say how many troops are in Jordan and Lebanon or where they are located, citing operational security.
Jordan's King Abdullah referenced the efforts to strengthen his country's borders during a news conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on Tuesday.
Much of Canada's assistance has come in the form of equipment for the Jordanian and Lebanese militaries, including trucks, cold-weather gear and even basics such as barbed wire.
But Canadian troops have also trained local forces in some advanced combat skills, such as how to call airstrikes onto enemy targets.
The support has largely focused on helping those countries secure their borders with Iraq and Syria, where ISIL continues to pose a threat despite its recent military losses.
Lebanon shares a border with Syria to the east, while Jordan has a border with Syria to the north and Iraq to the east.
"It's a very open border. It's basically a desert that I could qualify as porous. It's not a wall or anything continuous," Col. David Abboud, the top Canadian soldier in Jordan, said in an interview.
Canadians aim to 'enhance' Jordanian forces
"It's relatively difficult for any country to defend an open border in the desert and try to prevent smuggling and terrorists from going through on any given day or time."
The international community has long been concerned about ISIL fighters entering and leaving Iraq and Syria, but fears of an exodus have increased as the group faces imminent military defeat.
The biggest fear for countries like Canada is that citizens who joined ISIL as foreign fighters will slip back to their native lands and launch terrorist attacks.
Intelligence officials said last year that about 180 people with connections to Canada were suspected of conducting terrorist activity abroad and half of them were believed to be in Iraq and Syria.
But even bringing the fight to countries like Jordan and Lebanon, in the form of terror cells or massed attacks, has the potential to cause regional chaos and instability.
"We're here to enhance the Jordanian armed forces' capacity and capability so that they are better able to confront this very dangerous threat that is Daesh," Abboud said, using ISIL's Arabic name.
"So just to the north of Jordan, across its border to Syria, and to the east, across its border to Iraq."
'No-contact policy' with Hezbollah
Jordan's borders have been relatively free of violence, aside from sporadic bombings and scattered reports of ISIL forces spotted in the area.
But Lebanon's border with Syria has seen intense fighting in recent weeks as the Lebanese and Syrian militaries, with help from militant group Hezbollah, have tried to quell the ISIL threat there.
Hezbollah's involvement demonstrates the challenges of working with local forces, as it is both an influential player in the Lebanese government and a listed terrorist organization in Canada.
Military spokesman Capt. Vincent Bouchard said there was a "no-contact policy with Hezbollah members," adding: "Any Canadian bilateral assistance will be protected via appropriate safeguards."
Canadian military personnel are expected to remain in Jordan and Lebanon until March 2019.