The CBC’s Middle East Correspondent Saša Petricic is in Kuwait following Canada’s Task Force assigned to fight ISIS. He’s also reporting on the coalition effort in Iraq and Syria, both battlefronts he’s covered first-hand.
A small Canadian town forms in the middle of the Kuwait desert. Shovels dig into the yellow sand, prefab huts go up one by one. Six hundred soldiers have moved in, next to the scorching airstrip, their 10 airplanes parked nearby: Six CF-18 Hornet jet fighters (plus one spare), two Aurora reconnaissance planes and a Polaris aerial refueller.
Despite the violence against Canadian soldiers at home, two killed by individuals apparently sympathizing with Mideast jihadists—or maybe because of those attacks—Canadians here say they are more determined than ever.
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"Absolutely," says Col. Daniel Constable, CF-18 pilot and the commander of Joint Task Force-Iraq. "I don’t think it’s lost on any of the Canadians here how important this mission is, for us to disrupt and degrade and attempt to defeat this threat. That was driven home to all Canadians in the past few weeks, and what this threat could do in terms of motivating others."
Canada has pitched its tent with the US-led coalition against ISIS, the radical Sunni Muslim militant group which has seized large parts of Iraq and Syria, terrorizing—and often executing—those in its way. Its aim is to topple the governments of both of those countries to create one huge Islamic state that is stricter in its interpretation of the Koran than either Afghanistan’s Taliban or Saudi Arabia next door. The coalition’s aim is to destroy it.
That will neither be quick, nor easy. It may not even be possible.
The coalition itself is awkward. It mostly consists of the United States, with some Arab countries offering token help against ISIS in Syria, and some western countries—Canada, Britain, Australia, France and others—helping in Iraq.
Canada shares its Kuwait base with U.S. forces, but the American military Central Command doesn’t seem to have noticed that Canadian planes have arrived. As recently as Sunday, news releases listing coalition activities and members left out any reference to Canada.
No ground troops
The coalition’s mandate is also a problem. It says there will be no fighting ground troops in either Iraq or Syria. This will be almost entirely an air war, using missiles and bombs to attack ISIS positions, to disrupt supply lines and back up Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. In Syria, the coalition won’t work with Bashar Assad, the president both Washington and Ottawa say they want removed. It also won’t work with some other jihadist groups but will support certain rebels, like the ones defending the besieged town of Kobani near the Turkish border.
Canada’s mandate only allows missions over Iraq, not Syria. It does not envisage fighting ground troops, though members of Canada’s Joint Task Force 2, the elite special forces, have been involved in training Kurdish soldiers in combat zones.
Canada’s mission has been approved for six months by Parliament, but even top generals say a year is more realistic. U.S. officials predict a multi-year campaign.
Washington has also rejected putting any "boots on the ground," fearing that a ground war would draw it back into a long presence in Iraq, a country and a conflict U.S. President Barack Obama promised to leave when he became president.
But there is no evidence yet that this war against ISIS can be won from the air. Three months of airstrikes have not defeated the militants. Far from it. Just this weekend, ISIS executed more than 100 members of one Sunni tribe, trying to scare its leaders away from helping the Iraqi government.
ISIS also allied itself with other jihadists in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, to defeat and expel a moderate Free Syrian Army wing from a large part of northeast Syria. And ISIS kept up its attack against Syrian Kurds in Kobani, undeterred, despite almost daily air attacks by coalition planes. Heavily armed Iraqi Peshmerga fighters were sent in through Turkey this weekend to try to turn the tide.
ISIS targets get harder to hit
Some even wonder whether the coalition has enough useful targets to hit from the air. U.S. officials have noticed ISIS fighters changing their tactics, hiding more among civilian populations, where they’re almost impossible to hit without casualties that would be politically unpalatable at home.
The coalition already flies far fewer missions daily than it did in Libya, even with plenty of planes in the region now. Canada’s CF-18s have gone up daily since last Thursday, armed and ready to attack. Officials said visibility was a problem for Canada's laser-guided missiles before its first airstrikes in the anti-ISIS mission on Sunday. New armaments guided by GPS will soon be arriving.
Canada’s host, Kuwait, is also in a difficult position—unsure just how involved it wants to be in this conflict. On one hand, it owes its independence to U.S. forces that helped push out Iraqi invaders 24 years ago and have helped protect the state ever since. Its support is important for the Americans, not just for logistics but to show that Arab countries are also opposed to ISIS and its violence.
On the other hand, many here worry that the tiny country—right next to Iraq—could become a target for individual terrorists, if not ISIS itself. There are plenty here who sympathize with the militant group’s goals of a more religious state and many who have gone to help. Kuwait may have risen from its wartime past, but no one here is sure it’s immune to the violence spreading in the Middle East now.