ISIS mission: Canadian air strikes in Syria expected in 'short order'

Canadian jets have not yet flown over Syria, but defence officials say that will happen in a "reasonably short order," the military said Thursday in a teleconference briefing.
A Canadian Armed Forces CF-18 fighter jet arrives in Kuwait last October. CF-18 Hornets conducted their first airstrike in Syria on Wednesday. (Combat Camera/DND)

Canadian jets have not yet flown over Syria, but defence officials said Thursday in a teleconference briefing that will happen in a "reasonably short order."

Brig.-Gen. Daniel Constable, Canada's commander of the Joint Task Force in Iraq, said on a call from Kuwait that Canadian Forces are currently preparing and planning with coalition members for an expansion of Canada's air combat role to areas in Syria controlled by fighters from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

On Monday, MPs voted to support a government motion to extend Canada's mission against ISIS until March, 2016, and to expand its role to include bombings over Syria. Most opposition MPs voted against the motion.

Constable said safety of the pilots is the main concern, and said Canadian personnel will rely on the experience of the U.S. and partners who have flown hundreds of successful missions over Syria.

"From our perspective, operations in Syria are going to be very, very close to those over Iraq in terms of how we mitigate threats, surface-to-air threats," he said.

"As you can imagine, the safety of my aircrew is paramount for me and I'm very confident we have all of the procedures in place to deal with any threats that could be presented."

The U.S. and at least three Persian Gulf allies have been carrying out strikes against targets in Syria, which has been engaged in a brutal four-year civil war, since last September. Constable said the allies are "excited" Canada is adding its six CF-18s to the coalition air campaign there.

Constable would not say whether pilots have been instructed to attack Syrian air defence batteries that lock on to them with radar, nor would he comment on the state of that country's early warning system.

Defence Minister Jason Kenney has said strikes against extremists will take place in areas where there is no Syrian air-defence radar, but open-source technical reports show as many as five of the country's 31 early warning sites are located in the region. Whether they are still operational is unclear.

Iranian militias assist in Tikrit battle

Constable also told reporters CF-18s have conducted six bombing missions in Iraq over the last 10 days, but none involved supporting the major offensive in Tikrit, where Iranian-backed Shiite militias and the Iraqis army have fought a bloody, protracted battle.

The U.S.-led coalition initially held back air support because of the involvement of Iran's elite Republican Guard, known as the Quds Force, in training the militias. It has since relented and conducted a series of strikes — beginning March 25 — that paved the way for government forces to advance.

Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson insisted last week that Canada does not "align with the Iranians."

Yet, Constable confirmed on Thursday there is no ban on Canadians supporting the Tikrit operation. The absence of CF-18s from the strike roster was a decision by the American commanders who allot targets.

"There is no specific prohibition," he said. "We would strike in support of the government of Iraq, Iraqi security forces and it just so happens in the Tikrit area, there's enough coalition strike assets that we were assigned in other areas on that day."

with files from The Canadian Press