Mike Blanchfield and Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA - The training of Kurdish peshmerga fighters has been a slow undertaking that could mean Canada’s mission in Iraq and Syria will take more than a year, The Canadian Press has learned.
That was the message officials from the Canadian Forces and Foreign Affairs delivered behind closed doors Wednesday to the main critics of the New Democrats and the Liberals.
The briefing included an officer who currently oversees the strategic joint staff, the military’s nerve centre. Neither Defence Minister Jason Kenney nor Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson were present.
Maj.-Gen. Mike Hood, who will soon become the commander of the air force, told the briefing that only 650 peshmerga fighters have been trained since a contingent of 69 elite Canadian commandos deployed to northern Iraq last September, according to multiple sources with knowledge of what was said in the room.
The MPs were told that “this was not a one-year undertaking by any stretch of the imagination, that it will take multiple years,” said one source, who insisted on anonymity.
Hood tried to reassure the politicians that CF-18 jet fighters would be able to conduct precision strikes on moving and static targets inside Syria — one objective of a controversial motion to be introduced today by the Harper government in the House of Commons.
Sources said Hood told the briefing that the Canadians would get accurate strike information from intelligence and surveillance platforms, but did not say how the intelligence would be gathered — or by whom.
Hood ruled out sending special forces personnel into Syria to “paint” airstrike targets — identifying and steering laser-guided munitions — as they have done for Kurdish forces in northern Iraq. He also said there were no plans to notify the Syrian government in advance of any air operations.
The U.S. has reportedly been using a third-party country to notify the Syrians know about its raids, the legality of which has been debated since the first sorties began in earnest last September.
Hood also presented a more strategic picture, repeating the U.S.-led coalition’s claim that the advance the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant had been largely checked, and the international community was now in the phase of training local forces — Iraqi and moderate Syrian rebels — to retake territory.
Nobody has a sense of how the third phase will come together, Hood told the room.
Hood also told the briefing that the ongoing battle to retake the Sunni-dominated Iraqi city of Tikrit will be a “bellwether” in terms of assessing the ability of Iraqi security forces to take on ISIL in the future.
The assault, which began a few weeks ago, has stalled amid high casualties.
It is largely being organized and backed by an Iranian special forces Shiite militia. But at Iraq’s request, the United States launched air strikes Wednesday on Tikrit. The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad requested the air power to break the deadlock.
“This will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to manoeuvre and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit,” Lt. Gen. James Terry, the commander of the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq, said in a statement.
The Canadian government continues to have concerns about the continuing Shiite dominance in Iraq and the slow pace of making its government and military more inclusive of other groups, the Ottawa briefing was told.
Canada also remains the concerned about the role of Iran in the fight against ISIL, one source said.