OTTAWA — The commander of Canada’s bombing campaign in the Middle East says recent strikes in Syria were not co-ordinated with the government of Bashar Assad, even though its forces were operating in the area at the time.
Two CF-18 jets carried out airstrikes this week near the eastern city of Al Hasakah, a hotly contested region where units loyal to Assad recaptured some territory from extremists last weekend.
The independent Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said as many as 20 Syrian soldiers and pro-government militia were killed in the lead-up to the capture, which included airstrikes by government forces.
The Canadian mandate against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is clear, Brig.-Gen. Lise Bourgon, who took over recently as the detachment commander, told a telephone briefing Friday.
“We attack the ISIS targets that are given to us. That is really our target and there has been no co-ordination with the government of Syria,” Bourgon said from Kuwait, where Canada’s warplanes, surveillance aircraft and refueller are based.
She also said there are no western forces on the ground spotting targets in Syria.
“We have intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that are flying, and the targeting again is being done in a deliberate manner with input from a number of specialist personnel, intelligence, legal and operational staff,” she said.
“We see the target from above and then we make sure we have the right info to avoid civilian casualties or any collateral damage, and when the time comes we do the targeting, but there is no contact with the Syrian government — or Syrian forces on the ground.”
Bourgon wouldn’t go into further details, or clarify whether there had been contacts between Syrian planes and coalition planes.
Co-ordination is an important and politically uncomfortable point.
When the Harper government proposed in March to extend the Iraq bombing campaign into Syria, the opposition New Democrats warned the intervention would benefit the Assad regime, which has been locked in a brutal civil war and condemned for deliberately targeting civilians with artillery and chemical weapons.
The strike, which happened on Tuesday, is believed to be the first Canadian attack inside Syria where Assad forces were in the vicinity.
The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies put out a release Friday, expressing concern about the extent of fighting in the Al-Hasakah region. Quoting the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the humanitarian organization noted 13,434 refugees have crossed from Syria into Turkey since violence flared in early June.
The U.S.-led coalition has stepped up the level of bombing and its public affairs campaign since Islamic State fighters overran the strategically important Iraqi city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
Washington has since said it will dispatch an additional 450 troops and set up another base to train Iraqi security forces.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, was quoted Thursday as saying that the U.S. military strategy in Iraq could require opening multiple outposts near the front lines of battle, something that would mean sending hundreds of additional troops to the region.
For her part, Bourgon played down the setback.
“The situation on the ground is not worse,” she said. “So we are just, to a point, buying time until the Iraqi forces are trained and equipped to make a difference.”