By Misha Boutilier
Since early 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has launched territorial conquests and terrorist actions that have won international notoriety. Over the past year, it gained control of eastern Syria and much of northern and western Iraq. It has further inspired a wave of terrorist attacks in Belgium, Canada, Australia, France, and now possibly Denmark. Canada is a significant partner in the American-led coalition, and has participated in both airstrikes to “degrade and destroy” ISIS and a training mission to “advise and assist” the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Canada’s participation in the campaign against ISIS has also emerged as a critical issue in Canadian domestic politics. While Canada’s contribution of air assets and special forces to the coalition campaign has enhanced its effectiveness, it should send more special forces and expand reconstruction aid to help the coalition achieve its ultimate strategic aims.
Canada’s initial contribution to the coalition air program has proven effective. Critics of the air campaign have charged that Canada’s CF-18 Hornet fighter jets are obsolete and incapable of doing serious damage to ISIS. This criticism is ill-founded. Since ISIS does not possess a serious air defense system, the CF-18’s lack of certain modern countermeasures does not prevent it from serving as an effective bomb-delivery platform. CF-18s have destroyed numerous ISIS targets, ranging from heavy weapons and armoured fighting vehicles to bunkers and weapons factories. These airstrikes are part of a broader coalition air campaign that has succeeded in blunting ISIS momentum and providing close air support to enable the ISF and Kurdish fighters to begin to rollback ISIS gains. Indeed, ISIS explicitly attributed the defeat it suffered at Kobani to coalition air power.
At the same time, Canada’s contribution to the air campaign has been very limited. CF-18s have carried out 28 airstrikes since the start of the campaign, or roughly two percent of the 1,300 launched by the coalition against Iraqi targets. The percentage shrinks further if we consider airstrikes on Syria, which Canada does not participate in.
Yet it is the 69 Canadian special forces training the ISF that have attracted attention and domestic controversy. The occasion was the revelation that Canadian special forces visiting the frontline in January came under ISIS fire and responded by taking out the IS positions with sniper fire. The government subsequently revealed that Canadian special forces were pinpointing ISIS targets for coalition airstrikes. The incident led the opposition parties to criticize the Harper government for misleading the Parliament to believe that the special forces would not engage in combat. Respected foreign policy commentator Roland Paris further argued that having special forces train troops at the frontlines was unnecessary since they could be trained in rear areas instead.
These criticisms are misleading. At the Oct. 17, 2014, briefing explaining Canada’s mission in Iraq, Chief of the Defence Staff General Tom Lawson and Special Forces commander Brigadier-General Michael Rouleau said publicly that the Special Forces would be training ISF units where they were actually located, not in more secure rear areas. They made clear that the training mission was not “a no-risk environment,” and that it was difficult to distinguish in practice between the advisory and assistance role and the supposedly-forbidden role of accompanying ISF units on the front line. Moreover, the experience of counterinsurgency campaigns in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq has shown that embedding special forces in frontline indigenous units is much more effective than training them behind the wire of secure bases that are far removed from combat conditions. A recent paper by American commentator Anthony Cordesman highlighted how embedded front-line training builds trust and gives indigenous units access to real-time intelligence and battlefield management services, including calling in airstrikes, that they would otherwise lack.
Canada is thus providing a real asset to the coalition by embedding its special forces in frontline units and using them to call in airstrikes. American defense sources have confirmed that Canada is the only member of the coalition to perform these tasks. Western air forces prefer to have their own troops calling in airstrikes, and the ISF lacks the expertise to perform this task effectively in any case. The Canadian Special Forces are thus both enhancing the combat capability of the ISF units it trains and providing the coalition with timely intelligence that both enhances air power effectiveness and minimizes civilian casualties.
Yet Canada’s contribution to the coalition will only be effective in the long term if the broader coalition strategy is viable. As Canadian defense commentator George Petrolekas pointed out recently, Canada acts as a “consumer” of American strategy, and has not attempted to seriously reshape the coalition’s approach to ISIS.
Some experts have strongly criticized the coalition for its unwillingness to put Western boots on the ground to drive ISIS back. Though Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey has said that the U.S. would need to deploy substantial ground forces to drive ISIS out of Mosul, the Obama administration is only willing to countenance behind the wire training and certain special forces missions as a ground presence. The U.S. and Iraq are preparing the ISF for a summer offensive to retake Mosul, but its prospects for success are dubious.
Even should such an offensive succeed, the problems of holding territory and securing the loyalty of subject populations are immense. As the recent Vice News documentary on ISIS reveals, the organization has developed a sophisticated governance system that secures popular loyalty both through fear and positive means such as establishing a justice system, ensuring fair pricing of foodstuffs, and supplying basic services such as education and healthcare. While Western media coverage has focused primarily on the victims of ISIS, it is undeniable that some Iraqis and Syrians living in ISIS-held areas actively support it and that most others are either too terrified to act against it or benefit sufficiently from its rule that they are willing to overlook its abuses. It will take serious programs of economic reconstruction and political reconciliation if areas conquered from ISIS are to be reintegrated into the Iraqi state.
So what conclusions should Canada draw? Petrolekas argued that Canada should consider ending its commitment to the mission against ISIS if the American strategy continues to exhibit sustained flaws. This claim is appealing but mistaken. Even if the coalition is unable to achieve the ambitious goal of retaking Mosul and reintegrating it and other areas into Iraq, the airstrikes to date have successfully contained ISIS advances. This has caused ISIS to lose its momentum, strained its resources, and enabled the ISF and Kurdish fighters to begin to rollback ISIS gains.
Instead, Canada should tailor its contributions to advance these new coalition aims. One way to do this would be to expand the special forces presence. Australia has deployed 200 special forces to Iraq, and Canada could attempt to match this number. Canada should also look to expand its aid program and target it to support the reintegration of areas recaptured from ISIS into the Iraqi state. This will help ensure that future coalition tactical victories are translated into strategic successes by preventing ISIS from re-establishing its presence.
Misha Boutilier is an emerging analyst of international affairs, who has worked as a researcher with the NATO Council of Canada and done political risk. He has also worked in Canadian NGOs on mass atrocity prevention in conflict zones. His current academic research is focused on international relations and history at the University of Toronto.