OTTAWA, Canada — As it searches for ways to expand its presence on the ground in Iraq, Canada’s military is weighing the option of providing troops to help train a new Kurdish special forces unit.
Canadian special forces have already been training and advising Kurdish troops for more than a year in northern Iraq and that contingent is seen by the Canadian military as greatly contributing to coalition efforts against the Islamic State group.
On Dec. 16, Canadian special forces helped the Kurds fight off an ISIS offensive.
Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s defense minister, said he is examining options for the Iraq mission, including expanding the use of Canadian special forces.
Sajjan said the ability of the Kurds to push back ISIL showed that “the current training mission is extremely vital in this region.
“Right now our focus is the training and assist mission,” he said. “As events have shown it is having a tremendous impact.”
Sajjan visited the Canadian special forces contingent near Irbil, Iraq, on Dec. 21, with Brig. Gen. Mike Rouleau, commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command.
Recently elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to withdraw the country’s six CF-18 fighter aircraft from the Iraq war, although he has not yet provided a date. Trudeau said it will be more effective to increase training for Iraqi security forces than to continue bombing ISIS positions since the Islamic State can only be defeated on the ground by local forces.
Canada has about 69 special forces personnel in northern Iraq with the Kurds.
Canada’s senior military leadership has presented Trudeau with a variety of options, including expanding the special forces training contingent and providing the Kurds with assistance in developing their own special forces.
There is also an option to use regular Canadian Army personnel to train Iraqi security forces but military sources said special forces can deploy faster and need less logistics support.
Another option presented to government is for Canadian special forces to take direct action against ISIS. But Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion has publicly ruled out allowing such operations.
Dion has said that Canada is also considering providing police specialists to help train Iraqi and Kurdish law enforcement organizations. That could be done in conjunction with Italy, Dion said.
The US has also requested the Canadian government to continue its contribution of a CC-150 Polaris aerial refueling tanker and two Aurora CP-140 surveillance planes. The Canadian government is expected to approve that request, Canadian military sources say.
Trudeau discussed the withdrawal of the CF-18 fighter jets with US President Barack Obama, but noted that during that discussion in November, “I committed that we would continue to engage in a responsible way that understands how Canada has a role to play in the fight against ISIL.”
During the counteroffensive led by the Kurds against ISIS on Dec. 16, Canadian special forces provided supporting fire, said Maj. Gen. Charles Lamarre, director of staff for the Canadian Forces Strategic Joint Staff.
Lamarre noted that the Canadians were in an advisory role and “the principal combatants were the Kurdish security forces.”
Canadian special forces have also directed airstrikes against ISIS positions.
In early 2015, Canadian SOF snipers “neutralized” ISIS mortar and machine gun positions after they opened fire on the Canadian trainers, said Rouleau.
But Rouleau and other senior Canadian military officers maintained that such actions, as well as directing airstrikes, are not an escalation or a deviation from the original mission to train Kurdish forces.
“We are enabling coalition airstrikes in our area of operations,” Rouleau explained. “It’s very much in the advise and assist role.”
The training role has, however, produced Canadian casualties. In March, a Canadian special forces operator was killed and three others wounded when a Kurdish soldier mistook them for ISIS gunmen at a roadblock at night. A Canadian military investigation of the incident pointed out that the Canadian special forces personnel followed all the proper protocols in identifying themselves and blamed a "breakdown in communication in a setting characterized by tension, fatigue and confusion."
The report noted the Kurds had been expecting an ISIS attack that night.