OTTAWA — Expect to hear a lot about the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant during the federal election, just not from the Canadian military.
National Defence has slipped into silent mode for the duration of the campaign and says it will update its website, but won’t hold public briefings about the combat mission in Iraq and Syria, barring something extraordinary.
Canadian warplanes have conducted 29 air strikes against Islamic State positions and units, including one in Syria, since the last update on July 9.
The latest figures were compiled by The Canadian Press using a list on the department’s website.
The lone mission in Syria took place on July 30 in the town of Al Bukamal, across the border with Iraq, and aimed at a compound where Islamic State fighters gather.
Since the expansion of the Canadian bombing campaign last spring, CF-18 jets have conducted fewer than a dozen missions against ISIL on Syrian territory, even though it was a prominent argument last spring for the Harper government’s continuation of the combat mission.
U.S.-led coalition allies, on the other hand, have conducted up to four strikes a day on the territory Washington says has been ceded to Islamic extremists by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime. The Canadian bombing runs have been mostly concentrated in northern Iraq, supporting operations by Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the vicinity of Mosul, Sinjar and Tal Afar.
Interestingly, the pace of Canadian bombing appears to have slowed since the election was called Aug. 2 with only five strikes carried out.
National Defence would only say the U.S. coalition headquarters hands out the orders.
It’s unclear whether the government has placed any limits on sorties. What is clear is that the mute button has been hit on wide-ranging communication with the public.
“All (public affairs) products and activities are to be curtailed during the election period,” says an internal department directive. “All DND and (Armed Forces) public affairs staff and commanders are requested to follow a ’no surprises’ approach in order to ensure that all departmental communications are respectful of our democratic values and obligations.”
Taking a step back during an election campaign is standard for departments including National Defence, but doing so while combat operations are underway presents a series of accountability challenges.
It limits what the public sees and hears to the often-overheated rhetoric of politicians on both sides of the aisles.
Steve Saideman, an international affairs professor at Carleton University, said he believes Canadian society is mature enough to be able to get detailed updates on the war without them becoming a do-or-die election issue.
What’s happening is political message control, he said.
“If there are Canadians in harm’s way, I do believe there should be information flowing to Canada about this ongoing mission,” said Saideman, who added that Canadian elections rarely turn on foreign policy.
The Islamic State war is unique in that it differs from both 2008 and 2011 elections when Canadian combat troops were fighting in Afghanistan and warplanes attacked targets in Libya.
Canadian media were embedded in Kandahar and able to independently report on the military and airfields for the Libya campaign were accessible. Today, media are banned from Kuwaiti bases where the strike missions originate and special forces troops in northern Iraq bar journalists from reporting on them.
Retired colonel George Petrolekas of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute says outside of the writ period he’s in favour of more transparency, but during the campaign he agrees with the notion of only reporting significant events.
“The very act of talking about our strike successes can be perceived as political,” he said.
There is also the question of what the public potentially isn’t being told.
In 2008, CBC television reporter Mellissa Fung was kidnapped by criminal elements loosely associated with the Taliban, three days before the election. The public broadcaster, other Canadian media outlets, the military and the government kept the abduction under wraps for security reasons until she was released a month later.