Did the 606 bombs dropped make a difference in the war against ISIL?
Defence analysts claim Canada was punching above its weight in the bombing campaign against ISIL, and that the withdrawal of the CF-18 fighter jets is a major blow to the coalition’s efforts.
Conservative MP Kellie Leitch has said the pullout makes Canadian military personnel look like “cowards” on the world stage. Other Conservative MPs argue the end of Canada’s contribution to the bombing means the country is no longer being taken seriously by allies.
But with more than 32,000 bombs dropped on Islamic State forces so far, most of those by U.S. aircraft, did Canada’s 606 bombs make a difference?
Canada’s six CF-18s stopped airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on Monday, ending their involvement in that part of the war, which began in the fall of 2014.
Outside this country the response to the mission’s end has been muted, if noticed at all.
Canadian military officers privately acknowledge Canada’s impact on the bombing campaign in Syria has been almost nil.
Since Canada joined that operation in April 2015, CF-18s conducted only five raids on targets in Syria. The U.S. has dropped around 11,000 bombs on targets in Syria. Canada’s contribution in Syria was to drop 27 bombs total.
Iraq, military officers argue, is a different matter. They note that U.S. officers have lauded Canada’s contribution to the air campaign in that country.
But not everyone in the U.S. has been won over. Republican congressman Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence committee, characterized the removal of the six Canadian jets as largely inconsequential. “Canada’s withdrawal from the bombing campaign won’t have a large effect on our military operations” against ISIL, he told the Guardian newspaper in late October.
The Liberal government has cited the low number of bombing raids as part of its reason for the withdrawal.
“There are a lot of things where Canada may be a great supporter, instead of delivering two per cent of the airstrikes,” Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion explained during a recent tour of NATO headquarters.
Military sources say the increase in Canadian special forces in northern Iraq has been particularly welcomed by the Pentagon, because the U.S. has more than enough fighter jets for the airstrike campaign and what has been lacking is the capacity to train and advise local forces.
For the air campaign, the U.S. was particularly interested in keeping Canada’s two Aurora reconnaissance aircraft because it needs more of that type of surveillance capability. The same went for Canada’s Polaris refuelling aircraft. The Liberals agreed to both those requests.
In Canada the debate continues. Defence analysts and pundits still point to the recent exclusion of Canada from a coalition war strategy meeting as proof the removal of the CF-18s was a blow to the country’s international reputation.
Behind the scenes, the RCAF is moving to ensure its contribution is recognized. It has briefed “stakeholders” — those defence analysts and retired military officers who appear on TV and are quoted in the news media. The RCAF message is that the CF-18s were used by the U.S. to attack ISIL leaders in moving vehicles or on other more difficult missions.
Although these claims can’t be verified independently, the stakeholders are now starting to repeat them in media interviews.
Ultimately, it may not be the bombing of armoured vehicles and fighting positions that speeds up ISIL’s demise.
World economic events have recently started to hinder the group’s operations by damaging its finances. ISIL earns an estimated $50 million per month by selling oil on the black market — money it needs to keep its combat operations going. But the significant drop in the price of oil has started to cut into that funding.
Reports coming from ISIL strongholds indicate that salaries for troops and support staff have been significantly cut or stopped altogether, and that rations have dwindled.
Canada’s CF-18s, however, did not take part in the attacks on oil convoys and infrastructure, because the U.S. determined they were not needed.
Canadian Forces spokesman Capt. Kirk Sullivan said a number of factors determined the frequency and location of Canadian airstrikes. “The U.S.-led coalition assigns tasks to coalition nations in consideration of operational capabilities, the provision of support to Iraqi security forces’ operations, the tactical level situation, and the availability of ISIL targets,” he added.