As U.S. plans in Syria shift, Canada tries to plan for own forces in Iraq

OTTAWA — The commander of Canada’s special forces says officials are watching closely to see what impact U.S. plans to withdraw hundreds of soldiers from Syria could have on Canada’s mission in neighbouring Iraq.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe said the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria has not yet had any material impact on his soldiers’ mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is up for renewal at the end of March.

“We are tracking it all very closely, the entire coalition is … to see ultimately how that plays out and what the timelines are and what subsequent plans might look like,” said Dawe. “Because from a coalition perspective, there are sort of broader implications.”

The Trump administration said Friday that it plans to leave about 400 U.S. troops in Syria, the latest in a continually shifting plan that started with President Donald Trump ordering an end to the military mission in December.

The U.S. has about 2,000 soldiers in Syria tasked with fighting ISIL. But while the extremist group has lost most of its territory there and in Iraq, there have been concerns that a U.S. withdrawal will let it regroup in both countries.

Canada has about 500 service members in Iraq next door, including 200 who are part of a NATO training mission and 120 special forces who have been helping Iraqi forces root out ISIL insurgents around the northern city of Mosul.

A recent report by the U.S. Defense Department’s lead inspector general quoted the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Iraq mission, as echoing those concerns — and suggesting ISIL, or ISIS, was already regaining strength in Iraq.

“If Sunni socio-economic, political, and sectarian grievances are not adequately addressed by the national and local governments of Iraq and Syria it is very likely that ISIS will have the opportunity to set conditions for future resurgence and territorial control,” it said.

“Currently, ISIS is regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria, but absent sustained (counterterrorism) pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory.”

The Trudeau government has yet to announce whether it will extend the special-forces mission in northern Iraq, which first started in September 2014 with Canadian troops working with Kurdish forces to stop ISIL’s advance across the country.

That could be in part because of the uncertainty around U.S. plans for Syria.

Dawe, who said he has not received any orders from the government to start packing up, said his troops are now helping Iraqi forces with counter-insurgency missions to eliminate leftover ISIL fighters around Mosul.

The city was liberated in July 2017 after three years of occupation.

While he wouldn’t get into specifics, citing operational security, Dawe said Canadian troops are continuing to operate under the same “advise and assist” mandate that has governed their mission in Iraq since the start.

That includes providing Iraqi forces with information and intelligence and helping them plan missions against ISIL weapons caches and hideouts.

“This is very different than what we were doing with our Kurdish partners along the Kurdish defensive line where, by the very nature of the work we were doing there, we had to be … physically proximate to advise and assist in a defensive line,” he said.

“This is a little bit different because the Iraqis are being very proactive and they’re going after the insurgents in a way that is quite surgical.”

Questions and concerns have been raised in the past about the conduct of some Iraqi security forces, which includes allegations of torture, kidnappings and extrajudicial killings, but Dawe said the units that his troops are partnered with have been carefully screened.

“I can tell you we spent a lot of time in this space in terms of ensuring that the people with whom we partner are professional and meet an appropriate standard,” he said. “And that they abide at all times by all of the appropriate sort of conventions.”

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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