Analysis

What are Canadian special forces still doing in Iraq?

Six months after it was suspended, Canada's advise and assist mission in northern Iraq remains in a state of limbo, with no immediate end in sight. So what's happened? And why is the mission still suspended?

120 troops remain 6 months after mission was suspended because of fighting between Iraqis and Kurds

Canadian special forces troops get ready for action at a base in Erbil, Iraq, on Nov. 14, 2016. The Canadian mission in Iraq has been suspended since tensions escalated between the Iraqis and Kurds back in October. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Six months after it was suspended, Canada's advise and assist mission in northern Iraq remains in a state of limbo, with no immediate end in sight.

The mission was suspended after fighting broke out between Iraqi and Kurdish forces following a controversial Kurdish independence referendum in September. The two groups had been working together to defeat ISIS, but long-held tensions boiled over after an overwhelming majority of Kurds voted to separate from Iraq.

At the time violence broke out, roughly 200 Canadian special forces were stationed in and around Erbil. They had been training Kurdish troops in the fight against ISIS, and providing logistics support for front-line operations as part of Canada's Operation Impact. Those activities were suspended "temporarily" in late October.

So what's happened since? And why is the mission still suspended?

It's not easy to get answers.

What we do know is there are fewer Canadian special forces on the ground in Iraq. Sources at the Department of National Defence say they now number about 120, down from a peak of 210 last year. Since their mission was suspended, they have helped put together potential options for what happens next.

Canadian special forces soldiers, left and right, speak with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters at an observation post in northern Iraq back in February 2017. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

But those options have been handed off to the government, and the waiting game persists.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Iraq, but spokesperson Byrne Furlong said there is no exact date for when a decision will be made. She insisted, however, that the government is committed to renewing the mission sometime this spring.

"Discussions are ongoing on the next phase," Furlong said in an email to CBC News. "We are not in a position to presuppose them."

But defence sources say special forces will remain in Iraq in some capacity, probably as part of a NATO training mission. The options presented to the government are all predicated on the belief that ISIS may have lost its territory but it has not been defeated. So, each option involves some form of partnership to train one of the groups operating in Iraq.

Ultimately, though, what partnerships can Canadian forces establish given the tensions that persist in the region?

To be fair, the conflict between the Kurds and Baghdad isn't nearly as violent today as it was six months ago. The groups reached an agreement late last week that could be considered a breakthrough, as the Iraqis agreed to transfer badly needed funds to the Kurdish regional government.

Iraqi Kurds carry torches as they celebrate Newroz Day, a festival marking their spring and new year, near the town of Akra on Tuesday. Baghdad and Kurdish leaders recently reached a deal on government funding that helped to defuse tensions in Iraq. (Ari Jalal/Reuters)

But the fight for Kurdish independence hasn't gone away — it's decades old and shouldn't have surprised anyone when it re-emerged after ISIS's territorial defeat.

Kurdish officials hoped Canada's support on the battleground would have extended to its fight against Baghdad, but the federal government avoided weighing in on the conflict at all costs.

In deciding on a new mission, they might not have the same luxury. To ignore the tensions between Baghdad and Erbil again could be dangerous — and it makes many observers wonder: why weren't they taken more into account from the start?

Vassy Kapelos is the new host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics. She hosts her first program on Monday at 5 p.m. ET.

About the Author

Vassy Kapelos

Vassy Kapelos is the host of Power & Politics. Prior to working in Ottawa, she covered provincial politics in Alberta and Saskatchewan.