OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan heads to Brussels this week to brief allies on changes to Canada’s anti-ISIS mission, even as planners in Ottawa hammer out details of the new strategy.
As he huddles with fellow defence ministers from the NATO alliance, Sajjan is expected to have a key meeting with U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter where the topic of Canada’s evolving role in Iraq is certain to top discussions.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday took the wraps off Canada’s changing contribution to the coalition efforts to combat Islamic State extremists.
As expected, the plan makes good on the Liberal pledge to end combat missions by CF-18 fighter jets in Iraq and Syria. The Liberal plan puts new emphasis on military trainers — adding 140 to the 69 already in northern Iraq — and pledges an extra $1 billion in humanitarian aid over three years.
But defence analysts noted Tuesday that elements of the plan are unclear. For example, while the government has pledged to boost the number of military personnel dedicated to the mission to 830, it can’t yet account for where more than 100 of those positions will go.
“Long on vision, short on detail,” George Petrolekas, a retired colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces, said of the announcement.
“It struck me, first of all, as a very rushed series of programs, all of them that are still being fleshed out,” said Petrolekas, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Dave Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said it appears that the military is only now beginning the groundwork to assess where it should place personnel to assist the coalition with targeting and intelligence work.
Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, appeared to concede that point on Monday, when he said it would take “weeks and months” to get the new mission in place.
“It’s a very intense time right now in terms of planning and reconnaissance,” Vance said. “We’re still working with the coalition as to what billets they will actually fill.”
Petrolekas also highlighted the contradictions served up about the role of the Canadian troops acting as trainers. Trudeau declared their mission would be “non-combat.” Sajjan suggested there was no need for Canadians to accompany Kurdish fighters to the frontlines.
Yet Vance bluntly stated that Canadians would go to the frontlines, indeed even call in airstrikes, in a role that he said brought additional risks.
Thomas Juneau, a former analyst in the defence department, said the new strategy laid out Monday has many good elements, including the aid and the offer to help build capacity in Lebanon and Jordan, two nations under strain from the crisis in Iraq and Syria.
“The one big gap in this is airstrikes. I don’t see any strategic rationale for stopping the airstrikes,” said Juneau, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.
He said the government was clear on the threat posed by the Islamic State and agreed it must be stopped “but will let others do the heaviest lifting.”
He said it appears the Liberals made up their mind about the combat mission many months ago “and then they tried to build a policy around it.”
“I don’t see any other rationale than domestic electoral calculations to stop the airstrikes,” he said.
The defence experts questioned whether the looming NATO meeting — happening Wednesday and Thursday — forced the Liberals to roll out the strategy before it was ready.
“Some of the fuzziness to me seems clearly driven by the fact the NATO ministerial (meeting) is this week. There was a firm deadline to come up with an announcement,” Perry said in an interview.
Petrolekas said the overall strategy appeared “cobbled together” in a bid to appear comprehensive “without any details whatsoever.”
But Juneau says the fact that some details still need to be ironed out is understandable, given the Liberals took power just three months ago and the challenges of sorting out a new military strategy with allies in the region.
“This is just so complicated for a new government, a coalition like this,” Juneau said.