OTTAWA — Canada will play a role in Libya — perhaps a military one — as international concerns mount about the presence of the Islamic State there, Gen. Jonathan Vance says.
As Ottawa prepares to revamp its anti-ISIS mission in northern Iraq, Vance, the chief of defence staff, said it appears certain that Canada will join in some way a new front against the extremists in the North African nation.
“Watch this space. I think the international community is very interested in Libya,” Vance told a defence conference on Friday.
“I don’t know whether we will be involved militarily, but we will certainly be involved somehow.
“Libya sits at a crossroads of some very important and dangerous things that are happening in the world that are affecting Europe, affecting Africa, affecting even our forces deployed . . . in Sinai,” he said.
Vance made the comments hours after U.S. warplanes struck an ISIS camp in Libya, targeting a senior official believed responsible for a March attack in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.
Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that while he’s had discussions with his NATO counterparts on the topic, it was too soon to say what Canada might do.
“If there’s a need and where Canada can bring in a certain capability that can assist part of the coalition, we will consider it at that time,” Sajjan told reporters.
Vance’s comments to the defence conference on Friday focused on Canada’s evolving mission in northern Iraq and how it should be defined.
While Canadian troops will be in a war zone, helping Kurdish forces in their battle against Islamic State extremists, Vance insisted the expanded military mission is not combat.
Vance let slip his frustration over the debate as he offered up a detailed rationale why the beefed-up “advise-and-assist” mission by Canadian troops is not combat.
“Some people may be uncomfortable with the lexicon and that’s too bad,” he said.
The previous Conservative government deployed a small team of soldiers to northern Iraq in the fall of 2014 to act as advisers to Kurdish soldiers.
The military later revealed that on several occasions, the Canadian troops engaged with the enemy and even called in airstrikes on ISIS positions, activities that called into question the “non-combat” branding of the mission.
The Liberals have unveiled their changes to that mission, which include ending the bombing campaign by CF-18 fighter jets while raising the number of trainers in northern Iraq to just over 200. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, like his predecessor Stephen Harper, has said the training mission will be non-combat.
Yet New Democrats oppose the new mission, saying the added personnel on the ground will take Canada deeper into a dangerous combat role.
Vance said again Friday the new mission will bring extra risks for Canadians with the potential for more engagements with ISIS forces.
“It will be dangerous. It will be clear that on occasion to defend ourselves or defend those who we are with, we will have to fight,” he said.
But the top general said “don’t fall into the trap” of branding the new mission as combat.
“The spectrum of warfare, the spectrum of conflict, contains a great number of gradients of activity and things you can do inside conflict zones,” he said.
“A train, advise and assist mission clearly falls into the non-combat realm, whereas a combat mission is largely distinguished by the fact we are the principal combatant,” Vance said.
Asked later whether he was trying shift the definition of combat to fit the Liberal commitment to move Canada to a non-combat role, Vance shot back, “I reject that. I’m the expert in what is combat and non-combat.”
Vance outlined other elements of the mission, including beefed-up intelligence capabilities which he said would help better target Islamic State leaders and their operations.
That will be helped by the two CP-140 surveillance aircraft that were part of the original deployment in 2014 and will continue under the Liberal plan, along with an air-to-air refueller aircraft.
The new deployment of helicopters will help Canadians move around the region and ensure there is the ability to provide medical evacuation, if needed, Vance said.
As well, a liaison team, headed by a senior officer, will be established to work with Iraqi defence and interior officials in Baghdad.