Canada to cease airstrikes against Islamic State by end of February

Justin Trudeau said fighter jets will be withdrawn from US-led efforts in Syria and Iraq on 22 February, but Canada will increase military personnel and aid in region

Canada is pulling its fighter jets out of the US-led coalition against Islamic State, but will triple its training mission and increase humanitarian aid to the region instead.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the six CF-18 jets would cease airstrikes on 22 February, following through on a campaign pledge to end Canada’s role in the anti-Isis bombing mission in Iraq and Syria.

Trudeau, who was elected to office in November, said boosting security and development efforts will help create capacity to build long-term stability in the region, adding that the new contributions will be more effective and better able to capitalize on Canada’s areas of military and diplomatic expertise.

“I’m proud of the mission we’ve put forward,” he said. “It’s complete, it’s robust.”

As the fighter jets are pulled out of the region, Canada will increase its military personnel from about 650 to 830, which includes adding roughly 140 new special forces troops to the current 69 serving in an “advise and assist” role to security forces fighting in northern Iraq.

Canada will also begin sending small arms and ammunition to Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi forces battling Isis.

“We will be supporting and empowering local forces to take their fight directly to Isil, so that kilometre by kilometre, they can reclaim their homes, their land and their future,” said Trudeau, using another acronym for the Islamic State.

A Canadian Polaris aerial refueller will remain in the region supporting other coalition members on their bombing sorties in Iraq and Syria, as will a reconnaissance aircraft.

The Liberal government will also contribute more than CDN$1.6bn over three years to bolster security, stabilization and humanitarian aid to the region, including increasing counterterrorism efforts in neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan.

But officials conceded that the redefined mission will both be more expensive and more dangerous than Canada’s current contribution.

Last March, Sergeant Andrew Doiron, 31, a Canadian special forces adviser, was shot and killed by Kurdish special forces in what has been deemed a tragic friendly fire incident.

In December, Canadian forces were involved in an Isis initiated attack against Kurdish security forces on the front lines in northern Iraq.

Canada’s top soldier, General Jonathan Vance, told reporters Monday that more troops meant more risk.

“We’re putting more people on the ground,” he said. “It’s dangerous, it’s a dangerous place to work. We’re not in any way shying away from the fact there is risk. We’ll mitigate it, we’ll manage it.”

Canada joined the coalition to strike Isis targets in Iraq in October 2014 under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, following a direct request from the US to participate in the operation. Canada’s participation was expanded to Syria last March. As of 3 February, the CF-18s had conducted 1,344 sorties.

In recent months, the US has been working to persuade allies in the 65-member coalition to step up their contributions in the fight against Isis.

In January, federal defence minister Harjit Sajjan was not invited to an anti-Isis meeting in Paris with US defence secretary Ashton Carter, which critics maintained was a snub for Canada’s decision to end the bombing mission.

On Monday, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said Trudeau “is taking a shameful step backward from our proud traditions by pulling our CF-18s and Canada out of a combat role against the greatest terror threat in the world”.

Coalition allies had made it clear they wanted Canada to maintain the bombing mission but Trudeau said he reassured US president Barack Obama that Canada wasn’t backing out of the fight.

“He is thankful that we are stepping up our training and our other areas of involvement and understands the decision that we took,” he said.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Carter welcomed the “significant contributions” and that he appreciated the decision by the Trudeau government to step up its role in the campaign.

“The Canadian announcement is the kind of response the secretary has been looking for from coalition members as the United States and its coalition partners look to accelerate the campaign against Isil,” Cook said Monday.

Following a phone call between the two North American leaders, Barack Obama said he “welcomed” Canada’s current and new contributions to coalition efforts.

Polls indicate the majority of Canadians support the airstrikes. Only 27% supporting the withdrawal of the CF-18s, according to a recent survey by the Angus Reid Institute.

Parliamentarians will debate the new mission in the House of Commons next week.


Jessica Murphy in Ottawa

The GuardianTramp

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