When Canada's new prime minister arrives at the White House on Thursday, he is expected to tout his country's new focus in battling the Islamic State group.
Justin Trudeau’s state visit, the first by a Canadian prime minter in 16 years, comes two weeks after Canada’s self-imposed deadline to withdraw its F-18 fighter jets from the air campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria — and two months after Canadian defense officials were excluded from a Paris summit among nations participating in the U.S.-led coalition. In lieu of airstrikes, the Canadian government says it now intends to support the war by continuing to deploy combat advisers and intelligence specialists while taking a greater role in addressing the humanitarian crises that have resulted from the war.
Trudeau's decision to suspend Canada's air combat role came as U.S. officials sought greater military contributions from partner nations. Canadian officials have sought to play down the notion that decision caused a rift between Ottawa and Washington.
Christopher Sands, who heads Senior Research Professor and Director of the Center for Canadian Studies at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said Trudeau's move the decision to pull its six F-18s from the ISIS fight out of Iraq and Syria and switch up its response to the Islamic State group was more motivated more by safety than strategy.
"The planes are older," Sands told Military Times in an interview Tuesday, noting that the Canadian military is Canada’s has been seeking out replacements for its aging aircraft— albeit unsuccessfully. "I think particularly when Russia entered the conflict, the concern in many defense circles was that these are older planes, and they’re pushing their useful life, and without a de-confliction agreement with the Russians, and given the danger of … we think that ISIS has some anti-aircraft capabilities, there’s a real concern that those six planes … were vulnerable and that they were more likely to be a casualty than a contributor," he said."
As a result, nd since the country lacked planes to replace the F-18s, Sands said, Trudeau decided to remix Canada’s role in the coalition to focus instead on efforts on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
Earlier this week, the On Tuesday, the White House has signaled its support for the shift.
"They're working across all the lines of effort that we are focused on: military, foreign terrorist fighters, counterterrorist financing, counter-messaging and stabilization," said Mark Feierstein, the National Security Council's senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs. He called Canada's revised game plan "very much in line with our current needs."
Canada’s new policy is aimed at "defending our interests alongside our allies, and working constructively with local partners to build real solutions that will last," Trudeau said in February, vowing to assist vulnerable populations within Iraq, Syria and other countries affected by the flood of refugees seeking safety from the war. Canada wants to help crisis while helping to "lay the foundations" for governance, economic growth and greater overall stability, he said.
Sands noted the Canadians' work in northern Iraq, where Kurdish peshmerga fighters have mounted an aggressive effort to drive out ISIS militants agreed that the shift is strategically wise. There are about 70 Canadian special forces soldiers involved in that effort.
"I think Canada’s training with the Kurds and its work on the ground in northern Iraq is important because it will help raise the local capability," Sands said, adding that when — and if — ISIS is defeated on the battlefield Even if we beat the Islamic State group, Sands said, regional instability leaves the possibility its makes the likelihood of its loyalists will popping up again elsewhere in Iraq and Syria likely. Thus, Canada’s shift towards empowering Kurdish troops and promoting stability ops becomes an insurance policy for self-sufficiency and against chaos.
"What Canada’s doing is not only preparing them for the fight that we’re in, but trying to give the Kurds their own capacities to train themselves and the next generation of young fighters so that they’re able to contribute to the long-term stability of the region," Sands said in an interview Tuesday. "That is an important contribution and I think it’s something that Canada can do."
The Sands said that the second prong of Canada’s approach is meant to ease new role has to do with easing the strain felt throughout eastern and central Europe from the influx of that refugees and IDPs from the Middle East are putting on European allies. Canada has taken in more than 26,000 Syrians since November, with a pledge to resettle more.
"Canada is also trying, as part of its contribution here, to take a good number of refugees, bring them all the way over to Canada, and help resettle them," he said. "Not only is that good for the domestic refugees, but also it contributes to a lessening of some of the social and economic pressures the refugees are bringing onto the countries of … Eastern and Central Europe."
The effort, however, is not without its obstacles, both domestically and internationally. Principally, Canadian and U.S officials worry about security and the risk that ISIS fighters will sneak into North America as refugees with the goal of carrying out terror attacks, concernswhile some refugees Within its own borders, Sands said, the three biggest challenges are refugee legitimacy, money and anti-refugee greed.
The Canadian government takes biometrics from refugees and checks applicants’ personal information against a series of international intelligence databases. But there's still a risk that some could have ties to ISIS. Ensuring the refugees are who they claim to be, Sands said, remains a serious is still a real issue, Sands said. Trudeau’s push to open Canadian borders concerns to American legislators due to the heightened statistical probability of a "bad apple" (or a bunch of them) popping up and penetrating a friendly border, he explained.
In terms of dollars and cents, Canada is facing a fiscal crunch due to currency devaluation.
"Commitments, particularly in the context of U.N. refugee relief or NATO… are made in U.S. dollar term," Sands explained. "Because of fall of the price of oil the Canadian dollar has fallen, as well. It's worth about, depending on the day, 65 or 70 cents less, which means all of their international contributions are expensive."
So if Trudeau pledges a million dollars towards some aspect of the refugee crisis, it's a much bigger financial deal than Obama doing the same.
Finally, Sands said, some citizens feel that refugees are "jumping the queue" for the country's social services. However, he attributed this to "growing pains" that come with any political transition.
In the Middle East, though, Sands said that Canada's doing a solid job, only encountering routine issues involving factors like refugee resettlement and resource gathering.