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 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 the Center for Canadian Studies at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said Trudeau's move was motivated more by safety than strategy.
“The planes are older,” Sands told Military Times, noting that the Canadian military is seeking replacements for its aging aircraft. “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."
As a result, Trudeau decided to remix Canada’s role in the coalition to focus instead on efforts on the ground.
Earlier this week, 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 “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. There are about 70 Canadian special forces soldiers involved in that effort.
“Canada’s training with the Kurds and its work on the ground in northern Iraq is important because it will help raise local capability,” Sands said, adding that when — and if — ISIS is defeated on the battlefield, regional instability leaves the possibility its loyalists will pop up elsewhere.
“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.
The second prong of Canada’s approach is meant to ease the strain felt throughout eastern and central Europe from the influx of refugees. Canada has taken in more than 26,000 Syrians since November, with a pledge to resettle more.
The effort, however, is not without its obstacles. 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.
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 issue.