Canadian special ops helping Iraqis roll up remaining ISIS opposition, says Vance

Canadian special operations troops have been accompanying Iraqi forces on security operations as the last pockets of Islamic State resistance are mopped up, Canada's top military commander said today.

The chief of the defence staff says Canada's mission in Iraq has reached a post-shooting stage

Canadian special forces man an observation bunker in northern Iraq on Monday, February 20, 2017. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canadian special operations troops have been accompanying Iraqi forces on security operations as the last pockets of Islamic State resistance are mopped up, Canada's top military commander told a House of Commons committee today.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, was careful to impress upon the committee that the missions are more like police actions than full-on military raids.

He said that "on a daily basis there is very little fighting, almost none" taking place in northern Iraq right now and the Islamic State has lost 98 per cent of the territory it conquered and occupied in 2014.

The operations taking place now are more intelligence-driven counter-terrorism missions, the general said.

And while those operations still involve risk, Vance said Canadian troops have not recently taken part in any gun battles with the remaining extremists — who have either gone undercover or fled to remote regions along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance spoke to reporters after a Commons committee Thursday 1:39

"We are with them to a point, but stop short of the actual conduct of the operation on the objective," he said, comparing the Canadian special ops soldiers' role to Emergency Response Team officials backing up police officers on a raid.

Some of the operations, Vance said, involve uncovering and disposing of suspected ISIS weapons caches.

The highly-trained special operations troops have been in northern Iraq since 2014, "advising and assisting" Kurdish forces on conventional military skills after much of the region was overrun by ISIS. The Canadians were present on the frontlines as Iraqi forces, including the Kurds and Iranian-backed Shia militia, pushed extremists out of Mosul, the country's second-largest city.

The battlefield defeat of ISIS means the threat has evolved, not vanished, he told MPs..

"We are mentoring, training and advising Iraqi forces as they deal with [and] when they find out about any ISIL activity," said Vance, using the acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an alternate version of ISIS's name.

His remarks came as defence ministers from the top 13 nations contributing to the anti-ISIS coalition met in Ottawa.

Vance testified about the future of Canada's mission in the war-torn region, known as Operation Impact.

The mission is up for renewal at the end of March and the Liberal government is said to be still mulling its options — even though it signed on last summer to lead a NATO military training mission in Baghdad, a commitment that involves up to 250 soldiers and helicopter crews.

It is almost certain Canada will remain in Iraq, but what a renewed mission will look like is unclear.

Vance told the committee that Canadian troops have not been — and would not be in the future — training any members of the Iran-backed Shia militias, which human rights groups have accused of human rights abuses. The U.S. has been trying to get the groups disbanded.

"We never worked them," said Vance, who added he gave orders to steer clear of them during the liberation of Mosul.

"We did no advise, train and assist. We did no fire support. We did no nothing with those forces."

As for the NATO mission, which will ramp up early in the new year, Vance said that "we are dealing with vetted, approved Iraqis security forces and I want to assure you that."

Conservative defence critic James Bezan asked if the discussions that took place today among allies would "involve an exit strategy or a draw-down of forces" in Iraq.

Several opposition members pressed the defence chief to state when he thinks it will be time to bring the troops home and end Canada's involvement in Iraq.

That's a hard question to answer, Vance said.

"I think the Iraqi government will have the ultimate say on when they think they are far enough along and no longer think they need international support," he said. "I don't know what barometers they will use, but one of them will certainly be, 'Is there an immediate threat from [ISIS]? And if there is no immediate threat, what is the residual threat? And do they have the capacity to deal with that residual threat?'"

Canadian military intelligence officers in Iraq have been involved, along with allies, in tracking the movements of ISIS foreign fighters and leaders, he said.

The information is passed along to other allies involved in actively tracking down suspected war criminals.

Asked by reporters after the meeting why Canada was not involved in the hunt for those who committed atrocities, Vance said the government had not given him direction to do so.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.