The frenzy of debate surrounding Canada's role in the military campaign against ISIS is missing one key ingredient: Ricochet has learned that our troops are already involved in the war effort, and will continue to be regardless of the decision made by Parliament.
That’s because, be they combat or other types of ancillary operations, the conduct of the war is not confined to Iraq or Syria.
Clarity on the question of precisely how many Canadian Special Operations soldiers are being deployed to assist the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq's Peshmerga forces is important. Just as important, however, are the number of preexisting arrangements which find Canadian Forces personnel serving in capacities which could involve them in operations against ISIS. These arrangements are part of what has been termed the US-based “Gulf Security Architecture.”
Are Canadian troops already stationed at a secretive US base in UAE?
Take the little-discussed US military base at Al Dhafra, near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Facing the Straits of Hormuz, it is ideally situated to keep tabs on Iran and the flow of some 40 per cent of the world's crude oil, as well as support a variety of military operations (including combat) from Afghanistan, to Iraq and Syria.
In operation since the early days of the “global war on terror” — it was only publicly revealed in 2005, when a US pilot crashed a spy plane nearby — the US Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James recently called it, “truly a hub for everything we are doing in this part of the world.” The base's value for its support to intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, and combat operations has been described by US military experts, and in diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. A 2012 Senate report also highlights the importance of the Al Dhafra base, and that it hosts US “fighter, attack, and reconnaissance aircraft,” as well as batteries of Patriot Missiles.
In addition to the US, France has had air and naval “settlements” at Al Dhafra since 2009. Recently, both the US and France have launched air strikes against ISIS from their UAE bases.
What has never been explicitly reported, or publicly acknowledged by successive governments, is how a small contingent of Royal Canadian Air Force personnel have served, and may very well currently be serving alongside US forces, at Al Dhafra, UAE
A heavily redacted memo to Foreign Minister John Baird in November 2013, released to Ricochet via the Access to Information Act (ATI), refers to how Canadian personnel “were deployed to the [UAE] as part of United States' Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) crews.” You can read the redacted memo here.
Although the memo does not mention Al Dhafra by name, it is widely known that it is the principal Middle East location for US AWACS crews. On the one hand, at the UAE's request for discretion, public statements by the US will refer to the base as being at "an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia" On the other hand, one can regularly find Pentagon solicitations for bids on projects which explicitly refer to Al Dhafra.
Follow-up queries with the Department of National Defence last March sought to determine if any Canadian Armed Forces personnel have deployed to Al Dhafra since the 2013 memo. A DND Public Affairs official stated, “for security reasons, this information cannot be disclosed,” adding “ the names and numbers of Canadian Armed Forces personnel deployed to the UAE as part of U.S. AWACS crews cannot be disclosed.”
During a separate conversation with an RCAF spokesperson, it was revealed that when it comes to Canadian participation in such missions, “anything AWACS is classified,” on a level on par with the classification given to Special Operations Forces deployments. Following recent reports indicating US and French use of Al Dhafra to launch the air campaign against ISIS in not only Iraq but also Syria, Ricochet asked the DND to clarify whether or not any Canadians are currently stationed at Al Dhafra (or any other US bases in the Gulf Cooperation Council). So far, and despite assurances to the contrary, no reply has materialized.
In the earlier interview, DND did confirm that the “co-manning” arrangement referred to in the memo is carried out under the auspices of NORAD, specifically the Canada-US North American Air Defence Modernization (NAADM) Agreement, signed in 1985. The portion of the document relating to a sub-arrangement “which governs all aspects of CAF crews co-manning on U.S. AWACS” remains classified. Any Canadians deployed to the UAE did so under the 552 Air Control Wing and the 962 Airborne Air Command Squadron.
Notably, the model for the possible Canadian participation in this aspect of the unfolding campaign against ISIS was one of Canada's little known roles in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. From March-May 2003, members of the “Canadian Contingent” at the 552nd deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of the Bush Administration's “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” And, as has been reported elsewhere, Canadians have continued to serve in similar capacities in the region since then.
Canadian Forces are already present across the region
Whether they are currently deployed to Al Dhafra or not, small Canadian Forces contingents are certainly present in the Persian/Arabian Gulf: there has been the regular rotation of Canadian naval vessels in and out of the Gulf region under the US-led Combined Maritime Task Force, since the early stages of the “war on terror.” Of course, there was the Canadian Forces' staging base in Dubai, UAE (whose name, “Camp Mirage,” could not be disclosed publicly, similar to Al Dhafra), through much of the duration of Canada’s involvement in the Afghanistan war. Canada also took a lead role in persuading the UAE to deploy some of its Special Forces units to Afghanistan, where they would operate alongside the Canadians. A small contingent of “around 17” Canadian Forces personnel are divided between deployments to key regional forward operating bases in Bahrain, Qatar, and, more recently, Jordan.
After Canada lost Camp Mirage in 2010, it was forced to seek out a new option to serve as a regional staging base. As a separate memo obtained through ATI indicates, with the assistance of a favourable intervention on the part of Kuwait’s Prime Minister, Canada has established “Operational Support Hubs” along the lines of the US “arc of stability” construct. You can read this memo here.
Announced in 2011, one of these support hubs will be located in Kuwait. Department of National Defence officials have thus far declined to comment on whether or not the Kuwait hub is operational for the current, emerging anti-ISIS campaign, but pointed Ricochet to a webpage which informs that Canada's Memorandum of Understanding with Kuwait was updated in May 2014, and that the hub is operational.
The MoU with Kuwait is just one of several security-based agreements that Canada has been negotiating with its GCC counterparts. A significant, if symbolic, indicator of the extent of growth in Canada-GCC ties was the occasion of Foreign Minister John Baird’s visit to Muscat, Oman in April 2014. Though this trip does not appear to have been reported on by any Canadian media outlet, Baird’s becoming the first Canadian foreign minister to visit each of the GCC states in his tenure is notable.
During Harper’s tenure Ottawa has been more accommodating to the desires of Canadian business, who have long demanded that the GCC be accorded a ‘priority market’ status. This has resulted in greater resources being put into the Canada-GCC relationships: more embassies, more trade offices, frequent official visits, often combined with trade junkets, by top ministers at the federal, and increasingly, provincial levels of government.
It may be that Canada's extensive, historic ties to these Arab monarchies are guiding or influencing policy choices with regard to the anti-ISIS campaign. But the discussion of Harper’s new war is incomplete without a proper examination of Canada’s widespread military presence in the region.