OTTAWA — Canada is staying in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for another year, though exactly what Canadian troops will be doing there over the next 12 months remains largely shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced Tuesday that Canada will keep up to 850 troops in Iraq and the surrounding region until next March. The extension came one day before the mission, which began in October 2014, was set to end.
The extension coincides with growing concerns about Iran’s influence in Iraq, with Tehran backing numerous Shia militia groups that have largely displaced ISIL as the main threat inside the country.
It also follows a steady withdrawal of Canadian troops from the region over the past year, with the military having scaled back operations in a number of different areas.
The Defence Department says there are currently about 500 service members in the region, but will not provide more details, citing operational security.
The Liberal government previously set a cap of 850 troops several years ago, and Sajjan did not indicate whether Tuesday’s mission extension would actually result in more troops being deployed. Nor did he offer details on the specific make-up of the mission.
“We have the flexibility to put the resources in for what is needed given the current situation,” Sajjan told reporters during a virtual news conference after the mission extension was announced.
“As the situation changes, we're able to make the necessary number changes. So we're not drawing down. What you’re seeing here is what's actually needed. And we can easily change things based on the situation on the ground.”
The last-minute nature of the extension and lack of transparency around the military mission did not sit well Tuesday with opposition critics.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan noted the previous Tory government, which launched the anti-ISIL mission, held technical briefings with the military to keep the public and parliamentarians up to date on the effort.
"And since that time, there's been almost nothing coming from the government in the form of technical updates," Bezan said. "There is an ongoing ambiguity of what the mission purpose is, how our forces are conducting themselves."
Thomas Juneau, a University of Ottawa expert on the Middle East, said Canada has a poor record of openness when it comes to talking about military missions and explaining the reasons for decisions.
However, he added, “to announce that mission with no detail like that 24 hours before it expires is really a serious lack of transparency.”
Bezan and Juneau nonetheless supported the government’s decision to extend the mission, in part because of the importance of ensuring ISIL doesn’t regroup and the need to protect Iraq from Iran, but also because of the message it sends to the U.S. and allies.
“This is a good mission. It's a good mission for Iraq and it's good for Canada to be involved in the mission,” Juneau said. “To decide now not to renew would have sent a really negative signal to the Biden administration in the U.S.”
Canada announced Tuesday it was pledging $49.5 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Syria, which remains in conflict following a civil war and the rise of ISIL.
In addition, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said his department will adopt a new policy to help more Yazidis and other survivors of ISIL reunite with their families in Canada.
Canada first deployed special forces soldiers and CF-18 fighter jets to Iraq more than six years ago when the international community scrambled to stop ISIL as it conquered large parts of Iraq and Syria.
While the mission evolved several times over the ensuing years, which included withdrawing the CF-18s and adding hundreds of military advisers to a NATO training mission in Iraq, official updates have been few and far between.
That includes exactly how many special forces troops remain in Iraq, and what they are doing. Military officials provided far more detail about their activities at the start of the mission, but have become largely silent over the years.
Sajjan did confirm Tuesday that Canadian special forces are continuing to operate from the northern city of Irbil, which has come under attack several times over the past year from Iran and its militia proxies. But the minister would not provide further information.
“Obviously, I can't get into the details of it, but their work is absolutely vital,” he said. “More importantly, what they end up doing is actually preventing a lot of incidents from occurring, and making sure the hard-fought gains by the Iraqi security forces are not lost.”
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said he was particularly concerned about the lack of information around the Canadian special forces, beyond the government's repeated assertions that they are "training, advising and assisting" Iraqi security forces, due to the danger of Canadian troops being drawn into combat.
"I don't have any more clarity on that at this point that we've had before. So those concerns remain."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press