Canada to end air strikes in Iraq, Syria this month

OTTAWA: Canada announced Monday it will end air strikes targeting the Islamic State group in Iraq and  Syria and bring home its six fighter jets on February 22, fulfilling a campaign promise made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But the move goes against public opinion in Canada, where a wide majority support the bombing missions aimed at defeating the jihadists.

The Liberal leader had pledged in the run-up to October legislative elections to end the air strikes, which he described Monday as being good for achieving "short-term military and territorial gains" but not for "long-term stability for local communities."

Some two-thirds of Canadians polled recently, however, support the bombing mission or even want it to be expanded, in the wake of extremist attacks in Jakarta and in Burkina Faso that killed seven Canadians in January.

In place of the F-18 fighter jets, Ottawa will triple the number of special forces training Kurdish militia in northern Iraq to about 210, while a CC-150T Polaris refueling and two CP-140 Aurora surveillance aircraft will continue to play roles in the coalition, Defense Minister Hargit Sajjan told a news conference with Trudeau and senior officials.

Their deployment, which comes with hundreds of aircraft ground personnel, will last until at least March 31, 2017.

The withdrawal of Canada's warplanes is seen as a symbolic blow against unity in the 65-member US-led coalition bombing the IS group in Iraq and Syria.

Canada has been the fourth largest contributor to the coalition, until now.

But the Pentagon put a brave face on the news, focusing on Canada's "significant" new commitments rather than the loss of air power.

"The Canadian announcement is the kind of response (Defense Secretary  Ashton Carter) has been looking for from coalition members as the United States and our coalition partners push to accelerate the campaign against ISIL," spokesman  Peter Cook said.

Carter will be seeking additional contributions from partners at a NATO meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

US President  Barack Obama spoke with Trudeau on Monday to thank him for "current and new contributions to coalition efforts," the White House said.

As well, the Canadian government will provide about Can$1.6 billion (US$1.2 billion) in development and humanitarian aid and other efforts over three years "to respond to the crisis in Iraq and Syria and to address the impact on Jordan, Lebanon and the wider region," added Foreign Minister Stephane Dion and International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.

Those funds will include help for Jordan and Lebanon to bolster security as well as to feed and house refugees displaced by the conflict from neighboring countries.

Dion also promised a beefed up Canadian diplomatic role in the region.

"We know Canada is stronger, much stronger, than the threat posed by a murderous gang of thugs who are terrorizing some of the most vulnerable people on Earth," Trudeau said.

"Call us old-fashioned, but we think that we ought to avoid doing precisely what our enemies want us to do. They want us to elevate them, to give in to fear, to indulge in hatred, to eye one another with suspicion and to take leave of our faculties.

"The lethal enemy of barbarism isn't hatred, it's reason. And the people terrorized by ISIL every day don't need our vengeance -- they need our help."

About 70 Canadian military trainers have been deployed in northern Iraq since November 2014. Parliament had voted to extend the mission to March of this year, before the change in government.

The leftist New Democratic Party has called for a complete withdrawal from the Syria conflict, while main opposition Tory leader Rona Ambrose accused the Trudeau administration of "taking a shameful step backward" from the fight against "the greatest terror threat in the world."

"A great deal has changed since the prime minister made his ill-advised promise to end our combat role against ISIS," said Ambrose.

"ISIS and ISIS-inspired attacks have spread beyond the combat theater, and even claimed the lives of Canadians in recent weeks," she said in a statement.

"Halting and degrading ISIS is more critical than ever to keep people safe."

Over the past two years, Canadian fighter jets have flown 1,356 sorties over Iraq and Syria, striking weapons caches and IS fighting positions. The latest strikes focused on the vicinity of Ramadi and Mosul.

Ramadi was recaptured from IS fighters at the end of last month while the Iraqi army is deploying thousands of soldiers to a northern base in preparation for operations to retake Mosul, an IS hub, officials in Baghdad said Monday.

IS has suffered major losses since the height of its territorial control in 2014, but still controls significant areas of Iraq's Anbar and Nineveh provinces, as well as territory in neighboring Syria.


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