VICTORIA, British Columbia – Canada's new plan to significantly boost the size of its special forces commitment in Iraq, give arms to the Kurds as well as provide more than $700 million in humanitarian aid has taken the sting out of the country's decision to withdraw its fighter jets from coalition efforts against the Islamic State, politicians and military officers say.
There were concerns in the Canadian military about how the U.S. and coalition nations would react to the new plan announced Feb. 8. In the weeks leading up to announcement, Canada's Liberal Party government faced significant criticism on the domestic political scene after the coalition didn't invite Canadian representatives to an Iraq planning meeting on Jan. 20 in Paris.
The opposition Conservative Party and defense analysts interpreted that, as well as comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, as a snub because of the Liberal government's decision to withdraw the country's six CF-18 fighter jets from the coalition.
In a TV interview Jan. 22 Carter said that there should be "no free riders" in the fight against the Islamic State. Although that was widely interpreted to be more directed towards Arab allies, the Conservative Party used the comment to drive home concerns the U.S. was not happy with Canada's plan to withdraw the CF-18s.
But the Liberal government's new Iraq contribution appears robust enough to satisfy allies, including the Americans, Canadian military sources say.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would boost the size of its special forces contingent in northern Iraq from 69 to 207 personnel. Canada will also provide small arms, ammunition and medical support to the Kurds who are fighting the Islamic State in the north of the country.
A Royal Canadian Air Force refueling plane, as well as two surveillance aircraft, will continue flying missions over Iraq, the Liberal government also announced. Military support will be provided to Jordan and Lebanon, although details still have to be worked out.
Four tactical helicopters will be sent to Iraq to provide transportation and more Canadian planning officers will be assigned to coalition headquarters. A separate Canadian planning contingent will be offered to the Iraqi military. Canada will also increase its intelligence and targeting capabilities now assigned to the coalition, although details are still being worked out.
In total, the Canadian military contribution will increase from the current 650 personnel to 830.
In addition, Canada will contribute $1.1 billion ($730 million) in long-term aid to countries in the region who are dealing with the influx of refugees fleeing Islamic State forces.
Trudeau said Feb. 8 that he consulted closely with U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"The Canadian announcement is the kind of response the secretary's been looking for from coalition members as the United States and our coalition partners push to accelerate the campaign against (Islamic State)," Peter Cook, the chief spokesman for the Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense Carter, told journalists.
"It is not all aircraft. There are a host things other countries could do that we think would further this effort and Canada is an example of a country that is adjusting its contributions in very specific ways that will certainly help the coalition moving forward."
He noted that on the air side Canada is still supporting coalition efforts with refuelling and surveillance missions.
Bruce Heyman, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, issued a statement calling Canada's contributions "significant" and noting that the country was among the first to join in the fight against the Islamic State.
But Rona Ambrose, the interim Conservative Party leader, criticized the plan because it was withdrawing the fighter jets from the combat mission. She noted that other allies are stepping up their military efforts in the bombing campaign.
The CF-18s will cease operations on Feb. 22.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion dismissed any suggestions that Canada was shirking its responsibilities with the new plan. "If you think Canada is a free rider because we are not participating anymore to the airstrikes, then Germany is a free rider," he told Postmedia. "And Italy. This is not the case."
During the Feb. 8 announcement, Dion pointed out that Canada's contribution builds on its specialties and is aimed on a long-term solution in Iraq.
David Pugliese is the Canada correspondent for Defense News.