Canadian personnel are already working in Iraq following a pledge to send dozens of military advisers to help Kurdish forces battle ISIS, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said Tuesday.

Last week, the federal government said it would send a group of experts to advise on tactics for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The Canadian military advisers will mainly be members from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment. 

Nicholson and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird appeared before the House foreign affairs committee Tuesday morning, where they gave few details of the 30-day deployment, citing operational security.

"We're moving as quickly as possible and, as I indicated to you, there are already on the ground members of the Canadian lead in this area," Nicholson said. 

"We don't give the exact time and place up for obvious security reasons."

Both Nicholson and Baird said the mission will be re-evaluated after 30 days, making no promises that the deployment will end then.

'Inaction is not an option'

Baird said MPs should consider the risks of not helping Iraq fight back against the militant group ISIS. 

"It is easy to ignore it as we go about our comfortable lives here in Canada," he told the committee. "It might seem convenient to brush options off as leading to mission creep in the future, but the hard reality is inaction is not an option."

The foreign affairs committee's special meeting comes just days after the government announced that Canadian military advisers are heading to Iraq to assist the Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS

New Democrat MP Jack Harris asked how the government will decide what comes after the 30-day mission is up.

"Do we have any specific criteria by which a judgment might be made whether Canada might continue in the role that's being proposed?" he said.

Baird said Canada has two short-term goals in northern Iraq.

"One is obviously to stop the advance of ISIL so we can contain the growing humanitarian catastrophe. Two [is] to provide support to the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] and Iraqi officials and forces to turn back the advance. To support, to help them help themselves," he said.

Some of the questions focused on what specifically Canadian advisers could do for the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, who are known to be excellent fighters. Canada's top soldier said the Peshmerga have "no shortage of fighting spirit or courage" but lack a professional standing army.

"What we've got the luxury of here in Canada is having that very thing, certainly battle tested in ways in Afghanistan that have provided us a tremendous ability to advise and assist, and it is that very thing the Peshmerga seek from Western allies now," said Chief of Defence Staff Tom Lawson, who also appeared before the committee.

Supplying arms?

New Democrat foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, who accompanied Baird to Iraq last week, asked whether Canada was supply arms to the militia, something they've requested, and questioned why they would need Canadian military advisers.

Baird said the battle with ISIS is a "more conventional type battle" than the Peshmerga are used to, with a front line and with air support supplied by the Americans and other allies.

"So I think they will need support," he said.

Dewar also asked for assurances Canada was considering doing more on the humanitarian aid side of the conflict, including support:

  • To set up refugee camps, especially following a UN appeal for $315 million US.
  • To protect minorities, with Christians and other religious minorities under attack by ISIS.
  • To prosecute the perpetrators of sexual violence and to help victims.
  • To investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes.

Baird said Canada has received the UN's appeal for more financial assistance and that he'd be speaking with International Co-Operation Minister Christian Paradis, as well as officials in their departments, about it. He also noted he'd speak to his officials about taking the allegations of war crimes to the International Criminal Court.

"We should certainly be very clear, the humanitarian mission will not be going for just 30 days. It clearly will have to be something that will be more long-term," Baird said.

Canada has pledged $28 million in humanitarian aid and $15 million for security needs in Iraq since the start of 2014.

Details to be worked out

Baird spent several days in Iraq last week, during which he visited Kurdish front lines, where he announced the $15 million in aid earmarked for security, including helmets, body armour and vehicles to support Kurdish and Iraqi forces battling fighters from ISIS.   

Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau, who also accompanied Baird on the trip, said he understood from Baird and Nicholson that Canadians won't be involved in combat for the 30-day mission, and that the government would advise Parliament should that change.

"Some of these things actually do need to be developed and worked out in real time," he told reporters following the meeting.

Garneau called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons so MPs can more fully discuss what Canada can do to assist.

Last week, Liberal public security critic Wayne Easter served notice that he intends to push for a full parliamentary inquiry into ISIS recruits in Canada when the House returns next week.