Column: Lack of targets could end our mission in Iraq

There could be a pragmatic reason Canada’s six-month mission of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in northern Iraq will end as scheduled in April.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says we could run out of targets.

“Is this going to be over in six months? No,” Baird said during an interview in his Parliament Hill office. “But that doesn’t mean the combat mission will go on. It depends – will we still have targets?”

Baird told the Star that the Islamic State militants have had to radically change their tactics on the ground because of the combat mission and he boasted that Canada, as one of fewer than 10 countries he said are doing the “heavy lifting” in the region, has degraded the group financially by limiting its ability to sell oil.

He said he didn’t see the need to increase the number of Canadian military trainers on the ground, now set at a maximum of 69, and he said there were no plans to turn the mission to airstrikes in Syria right now.

“At this time we’re focusing on Iraq,” he said.

Baird spoke the same morning Defence Minister Rob Nicholson hinted from Kuwait that the mission could be extended, saying the government would “have a look” at re-upping.

But the Conservatives, who used their majority in October to deploy six CF-18s, an air-to-air refuelling aircraft, two surveillance aircraft and 600 personnel to the region, would be looking to extend the mission during what could be a perilous pre-election period.

The mission runs out at about the same time that Senate spending comes back into focus, with a major audit of Senate expenses expected from auditor general Michael Ferguson and the scheduled opening of the criminal trial of suspended Sen. Mike Duffy.

New Democrat Paul Dewar told Baird Friday that the Conservatives have left Canadians in the dark on the mission.

“We do not know whether the mission will be extended; we have not been told how much this war is costing or even, beyond counting bombs and targets, what impact the airstrikes are actually having on the ground,” Dewar said.

In fact, this under-reported war has produced very little information from anyone on the impact of the airstrikes.

There have been more than 1,000 allied strikes on Islamic State targets over four months, but even Washington is largely only logging the number and general locations of the strikes with no strategic analysis.

Baird laid out some yardsticks he said indicate success so far.

He said air combat was only one component of the Canadian response, adding humanitarian aid, diplomatic prodding of the government in Baghdad and cutting Islamic State revenue as the other keys.

“This is the biggest humanitarian crisis this century,” he said.

In Mosul, he said, people are being paid 25 cents on the dollar because Islamic State revenue from oil has been cut drastically by Canadian and allied airstrikes.

But the most important component of combating the extremist group, he said, is the diplomatic effort he is engaged in with the new government in Baghdad, which has pledged – but not yet reached – inclusiveness.

He is working with the U.S. to push Baghdad into bringing more Sunnis into government and in its key institutions, but he says progress is being made.

Canada has also airlifted about 20 planeloads of arms from the Czech Republic and Albania to the Kurdish Peshmerga in Irbil.

Baird also expressed confidence in the interview that he will soon be able to free Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who has spent more than a year behind bars in Cairo on trumped-up terrorism charges.

He pointed to the successful return of John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, two Canadians jailed in Egypt in 2013, and he said that success can be repeated.

Fahmy is serving seven years, but his lawyers last week sent a letter to Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, telling them they must do more to secure Fahmy’s release. Fahmy’s appeal is scheduled to be heard Jan. 1.

“We have a good relationship with the new government of Egypt and public hectoring in this case would be counterproductive,” Baird said.

“If I yell and scream hysterically, people say I’m using bullhorn diplomacy.

If I am too quiet behind the scenes, then I’m not doing anything.”

He said he knows Fahmy’s family wanted him to be more vocal, “but do they want me to be vocal or effective? They are not the same thing.”

In a future column, Baird reflects on Ukraine, the other foreign preoccupation of the government. A year ago, he walked with anti-government protesters in Kyiv’s Maidan Square, but today the foreign affairs minister fears Vladimir Putin’s next step and discusses how the price of oil has become a wild card in Russian strategy.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. tharper@thestar.ca, Twitter:@nutgraf1

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