OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan pledged Canada's enduring support for Iraq and the war against Islamic State group on Thursday — but stopped short of extending Canada's military mission in the region, most of which is set to expire next spring.
Rather, after hosting a meeting with representatives from more than a dozen countries to discuss the future of Iraq and Syria and plot next steps in the effort to destroy ISIL (also known as ISIS), Sajjan said the government continues to weigh Canada's long-term role in the region.
"Today, we reaffirmed our focus on the enduring defeat of ISIS's own network of foreign terrorist fighters, financing and propaganda," the minister said in a statement after the meeting at a government-owned estate on Meech Lake, near Ottawa.
"Moving forward, the coalition's continued collaboration and partnership remains crucial, and the strategic advice and direction provided during this morning's meeting will be essential in shaping our next steps toward winning this fight."
The comments came shortly after Canada's top general told a parliamentary committee that while progress has been made in the fight against ISIL, it's still too early to say when Canadian soldiers might no longer be needed in Iraq.
Defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance said many of the political, economic and social problems that contributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's rise more than four years ago remain.
And while ISIL has lost all the territory it once held in Iraq, Vance says ISIL remains a threat and that Canada and its allies must remain on guard against any attempts to re-assert itself.
"At some point in the future, I would look forward to being able to provide the advice that Iraq has come far enough and (ISIL) has gone backwards enough that we don't need the military forces there anymore," Vance said. "We're not at that point right now."
A recent U.S. Defense Department report that said that ISIL has started to dig roots as an “effective” insurgent group — and that it could take “years, if not decades” before the Iraqi military can deal with it on its own.
Canada earlier this year assumed command of a NATO training mission that includes 250 Canadian troops and whose aim is to train the Iraqi military so that it can ensure security.
However, hundreds of other Canadian soldiers not assigned to the training mission have continued to fly transport and refuelling aircraft, collect and analyze intelligence and provide medical assistance to coalition efforts against ISIL, also known as ISIS.
Vance also revealed that Canada still has an undisclosed number of special-forces soldiers in Iraq who have been working with Iraqi security forces as the latter hunt down ISIL forces left over from earlier battles.
Without an extension, the non-NATO mission is set to expire in March.
The question heading into Thursday's meeting at Meech Lake was whether the federal government would opt to keep them in Iraq longer, change the overall mission or begin to withdraw from the country.
Sajjan and his co-host, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, said coming out that they had "reaffirmed our focus on the enduring defeat of ISIS and defined our vision moving forward."
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The Canadian Press