ISIS in Iraq: What Canada could offer if West decides on military action

As NATO leaders gather in Wales to discuss a response to the crisis in Ukraine, British PM David Cameron has promised to broach military measures to counter the growing threat of ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq. James Cudmore looks at what Canada might be able to offer.

Range of options includes training for Kurdish fighters to surveillance planes

Members of the Canadian Forces special operations JTF2 unit would be one option if Canada chooses to answer British Prime Minister David Cameron's call for a military response to Islamic militants in Iraq. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

As NATO leaders gather in Wales this week to discuss a response to the crisis in Ukraine, their host, British Prime Minister David Cameron, has promised to raise the question of military measures to deal with the growing threat of ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq.

Canada has already delivered on a promise to lend air support to a multinational effort to arm pro-government fighters in Iraq's northern Kurdish region.

The Defence Department announced Tuesday that Canadian air crews had completed five flights to Iraq, delivering a total of about 105,000 kilograms of military supplies. Some were donated by Albania, whose foreign minister met with Canadian counterpart John Baird on Tuesday. Baird has been on an international tour in advance of the NATO summit.

In Iraq, Canada's ambassador to the region, Bruno Saccomani, has been meeting with Kurdish representatives in Iraq and had his picture taken on the "front lines" of the Peshmerga forces' fight against ISIS.

Any Canadian military contribution to the fight against ISIS would likely be small and specific. Canada almost never goes anywhere with its military force without allies alongside. Whatever is done would likely be in conjunction with American and, probably, British forces.

A former Canadian general who has deployed forces overseas and engaged in operational planning says Canada could very easily continue its new mission delivering humanitarian aid. But there could also be a training role for Canadian troops working alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, for instance.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are battling with militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern Iraq. Canada and its allies have begun supplying military aid to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

"There will be a great reluctance to place any boots on the ground directly. A small cadre of special operations forces troops would work for this purpose and would create a portal for intel sharing. However, where to do this will be the sticky bit," said the ex-general, who wished to remain anonymous because of the nature of his current work.

The former general suggested the decision becomes much easier for the Conservative government if Canada's main allies go into Iraq in a big way. But there's one key political consideration back home, he said: The federal election in 2015. 

"Boots on the ground in an election year is a risky proposition," the ex-general said. "So, unless things really go south, I would not expect to see any big move outside capacity building and humanitarian assistance."

As well, there is the issue of whether to seek the backing of a United Nations resolution. The UN is only now agreeing to look into the humanitarian situation in Iraq. A report on that effort could lead to a resolution, but that will take time.

In the meantime, the fight against ISIS is likely to remain small and discrete.

So, what could Canada contribute?

Special operations forces

Canada's elite Joint Task Force 2 counter-terrorism unit has capabilities that could be brought to bear in a battle against ISIS fighters.

JTF2 "operators," as they like to call themselves, possess excellent snooping and surveillance skills.

These skills are used to identify and track targets and are said to include the ability to listen and track calls from cellphones and other radio frequency-emitting devices.

The unit also maintains a highly-regarded long-distance sniping capability to kill targets with single rifle shots from distances greater than one kilometre.

And it has the capability to guide and direct air attacks using ground-based targeting equipment.

JTF2 also maintains a highly capable direct-action force skilled in covert insertions, blazing-fast attacks and swift extraction. This work typically forms the bulk of JTF2’s combat effort.

Canada also maintains a slightly less-sharply honed special operations force called the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, or CSOR, which has as one of its key tasks the training and mentoring of foreign military forces.

If Canada could find a reliable military partner on the ground, CSOR could be well used as a combat training team.

Air forces

Canada has deployed an expeditionary fighter air element to Lithuania as part of NATO's reasurrance effort in Eastern Europe. It is trained, equipped and ready to fight — although it is just four aircraft.

In the past, Canada has diverted NATO-bound air forces to fight in Libya. But this would require a partner to maintain the air policing effort in Canada's stead, assuming NATO partners are happy letting up the pressure on Russia.

Canada used the CP-140 Aurora patrol planes to great effect in Libya, and could deploy them to help the fight against ISIS in Iraq. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

Canada already has committed C-130 J Hercules and C-17 Globemaster cargo planes to the military airlift in Northern Iraq. This is, in fact, a valuable contribution.

Canada also has a very capable intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting platform in the CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft. In an interview with CBC News last month, the outgoing commander of Canada's operational command, Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, went out of his way to highlight his pride in that aircraft and its capabilities. He said even American allies are envious of what it can deliver.

Canada used these planes to great effect in Libya.

Canada also has lots of new CH-147 F model Chinook helicopters. These brand-new whizbang choppers have all the cool doodads a pilot could want. Canada's version has been redesigned to include very large fuel tanks, which allow it to carry loads of soldiers and equipment very long distances and boast enhanced defensive capability, including advanced anti-missile protection systems, radar and laser warning systems and high-tech weaponry. The copters aren't designed as fighters but rather to get army and special forces troops (and their gear) to the fight.


HMCS Regina has just wrapped its mission in the Mediterranean and is steaming home.

It is possible a vessel like the Regina could be re-deployed back to the Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf to patrol the shores of places like Syria or Iraq. Canada deployed a frigate to do just that in Libya.

HMCS Toronto relieved Regina as part of the Standing NATO Maritime Forces in the Mediterranean Sea for NATO's pro-Ukraine Operation Reassurance, but, if NATO agrees, it could do other things.


Obviously, deployment of a mechanized battalion or a battle group of some 1,200 troops would be a very big deal and it would take some time.

It would also be an Afghanistan-type effort. But, as in Afghanistan, there is another option.

When Canada first deployed regular troops to Kandahar in 2002, it sent a light infantry battalion. This is a lightly-equipped ground unit well-rehearsed at air mobile operations aboard helicopters (like Chinooks) and cargo planes (like Hercs). Because it is lightly equipped, it can deploy quickly.

The challenge with such units is that they lack the ground mobility — and protection — provided by the armoured vehicles typically used by heavier mechanized infantry, as in Afghanistan for instance.


Canada has a military staging facility in Kuwait. It also makes use of British bases in Cyprus and has also used some bases in Turkey.