ISIS in Iraq: Canada to send special ops soldiers as advisers

Canada's next contribution to the fight against ISIS in Iraq will be "several dozen" members of the Armed Forces, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced today. CBC News has learned that includes special operations forces.

Harper announces deployment of 'several dozen' military advisers for 'up to 30 days' to help Kurds

Candidates for the Canadian Special Operations Regiment train in Kamloops, B.C., in 2006. CSOR members are among the advisers Canada is sending to Iraq to assist in the fight against ISIS. (Lt(N) Meghan Marsaw/Combat Camera)

Canada's next contribution to the fight against ISIS in Iraq will be "several dozen" members of the Armed Forces, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced today — and CBC News has learned that includes special operations forces.

The contingent of special operations forces will work closely with U.S. forces but remain under full command of Canada's Chief of Defence Staff.

The forces will come from the Special Operations Regiment. No specifics were available on what type of work they'd be doing, but Harper has said the Canadian Forces deployed to Iraq won't be involved in combat.

A spokesman for Harper described the broader Canadian mission as one that provides "strategic and tactical counsel to Iraqi forces before they start tactical operations" against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also called ISIL.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is briefed by Canada's Ambassador to NATO Yves Brodeur (centre) Friday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
"This is an advise and assist role, not one in which Canadian Forces will be accompanying Iraqi forces on missions [or] tactical operations. They are there to provide advice that will help the government of Iraq and its security forces be more effective against ISIL," Jason MacDonald said in an email to CBC News.​

A release from the government said Canada's contribution is to help prevent any escalation of the humanitarian crisis.

Speaking to reporters at the NATO summit on Friday, Harper condemned the "barbaric acts" of ISIS, the jihadist group behind recent beheadings of American journalists and other mass killings of civilians.

"There can be no doubt that the establishment and expansion of ISIL’s terrorist caliphate is not only a threat to millions of innocent people, it has become a grave danger to the security of the region," Harper said. "If left unchecked, this lawless area will become a training ground for international terrorist and will be an even greater threat to the security of Canada and its allies."

CBC News has learned about 100 Canadians will be deployed.

Harper said Friday that U.S. President Barack Obama requested a commitment of military advisers based on the Americans' assessment of the needs on the ground. 

The initial deployment will be for a period of up to 30 days, the announcement says, and "will be reassessed after that time." Iraq still needs to give its final consent to Canada's offer.

Supporting Kurdish forces

Sources tell CBC that this assistance, while funnelled through the Iraqi government, is intended primarily to bolster Kurdish fighters in Iraq's north, considered to be a more effective fighting force than other Iraqi forces.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters Friday that the deployment of military advisers to Iraq was "low-risk" and "manageable." (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Officials doubt the ‎will of some Iraqi generals to take on fellow Sunni Muslims who are part of ISIS. But the Canadian government hopes that over time, ISIS could be pushed back into Syria.  

The move is a Canadian initiative, not part of a wider NATO mission. The officers are expected to be advising from Baghdad, not fighting in the field.

"While it’s low risk, it’s not without risk," Harper said, later telling the CBC's Terry Milewski that the risks of the deployment are "acceptable and manageable." 

"Our men and women in uniform [are] ready to answer this call, and I thank them for always being prepared to defend Canadian values and interests in a dangerous world," the prime minister said.

2-pronged strategy: advice and aid

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was in Iraq earlier this week, visiting the Kurdish front lines and camps for displaced Iraqis fleeing the violence. He announced additional humanitarian assistance from Canada.

The NDP and Liberal foreign affairs critics went to Iraq with Baird, and the Harper government's announcement Friday noted that Opposition leaders are being briefed on this decision to deploy. 

Harper said he sought and received approval from his cabinet for the military deployment.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (right) greets Prime Minister Stephen Harper (L) at the start of the NATO summit. (Andrew Winning/Reuters)

New Democrat Paul Dewar characterized Baird's visit as "a multipartisan trip to assess what’s happening in Iraq, to assess what Canada can do."

Liberal Marc Garneau told The Canadian Press that "we all have the same interests here. ISIS is a scourge and we have come together to help Iraq here."

The press release Friday said "a special meeting of the House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs and international development will be convened at the earliest opportunity so the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and National Defence, as well as the Chief of Defence Staff, to provide information to Members of Parliament."

Speaking to CBC News on Friday, an official from the NDP suggested "any new mission of substance should be approved by the House."

'Core coalition' against ISIS

On Thursday at the NATO leaders' summit in Wales, U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron called on the 28-member military alliance to deal with the emerging threat of ISIS. 

Defence and foreign ministers from 10 countries, including Canada, met on the sidelines of the summit Friday. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry characterized the group as a "core coalition" to fight ISIS. 

"We need to attack them in ways that prevent them from taking over territory, to bolster the Iraqi security forces and
others in the region who are prepared to take them on, without committing troops of our own," Kerry said. 

"Obviously I think that's a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground," he said.​

Ben Rhodes, President Obama's Deputy National Security Advisor, tweeted Friday that the U.S. "welcomes PM Harper's announcement that Canada will send military advisers to Iraq as part of our effort to support Kurdish forces."

Harper had bilateral talks with French President François Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron on the sidelines of Friday's summit. Briefings provided to the media suggested security issues were a top concern.

New NATO forces

During these talks, Cameron has been focused on the creation of a 10,000-strong expeditionary force outside of NATO.

Those troops would serve as reinforcements in a crisis for the alliance's existing 13,000 rapid response force, which leaders are proposing to bolster with an additional 4,500 high-readiness soldiers that can deploy within 48 hours of an emergency.

The additional forces are meant to address concerns by NATO's Baltic states about possible Russian aggression. Despite moves Friday towards a ceasefire in Ukraine, the allies worry about what Russian President Vladimir Putin could do next.

The Harper government was eager Thursday to promote a laundry list of military exercises meant to reassure jittery allies, including the temporary repositioning of a Canadian frigate into the Black Sea this month as part of a NATO task force.

With files from James Cudmore, The Canadian Press and Reuters