Technical briefing to provide update on Canadian operations against ISIL

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Archived Transcript / December 17, 2015

MODERATOR: Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to this media briefing on Thursday, December 17, 2015 in the National Defence Headquarters multimedia centre.  We will now begin with remarks from Major General Chuck Lamarre, Director of Staff, Strategic Joint Staff, who will speak on events which happened recently which involved members of the Canadian Armed Forces who were providing training, advice and assistance to Kurdish security forces in Iraq.

MGEN CHARLES LAMARRE: Ladies and gentlemen, on the 16th of December at around 16:00 h local, ISIL forces in Iraq initiated a coordinated attack against the Kurdish security forces, the KSF front line in northern Iraq.  Before proceeding allow me to orient you to the map behind me.  In the centre of the map is the city of Mosul.  The green line indicates the separation between ISIL and the KSF.

The red arrows roughly indicate the main avenues of approach used by ISIL in this attack.  The attackers employed indirect artillery fire, a suicide vehicle borne and provided explosive devices and ground troops in an attempt to break through the KSF defensive line.  There were no Canadian Armed Forces casualties as a result of this operation.

Unfortunately our courageous KSF allies sustained a number of losses and we`d like to extend our condolences to the Kurdish people.  That said, both the KSF and our deployed Canadian Armed Forces personnel performed extremely well and the ISIL attack was defeated.

The attack resulted in multiple incursions into the KSF defensive positions. Two of those incursions happened in areas where the KSF is currently being advised by Canadian Armed Forces personnel. The KSF was initially pushed back, but before nightfall they were able to consolidate and contain the attackers.

On 17 December the KSF with the assistance of the coalition forces conducted a counter-attack.  At approximately 11:00 h the attackers were defeated and the front line was re-established.  During the attack the Canadian Armed Forces personnel deployed in Iraq in the train, advise and assist role were integral to the efforts in coordinating and de-conflicting coalition support offered to the KSF.

The KSF counter-attacks were successful in every sector.  During the counter-attacks, the members of the Canadian Armed Forces involved in this operation provided key assistance to the Kurdish forces. The presence of the Canadian soldiers in support of the Kurdish forces made it possible to coordinate movements more easily, to coordinate supporting fires and to develop accurate situational awareness for the forces involved in the combat.

During the counter-attack the Canadian Armed Forces personnel involved in support of the KSF had to employ supporting fires to defend friendly forces in the face of hostile enemy action.  CAF personnel were not principal combatants.  Our train, advise and assist role sometimes, however, involves engagements.  During the counter-attacks, the Canadian soldiers set up a casualty collection point where they treated and participated in the triage of the injured combatants.

During the operation as well, as part of the coalition strike package our CF18’s conducted a strike in support of the KSF and the contribution assisted in the re-establishment of the front line defence.  Our Canadian Armed Forces personnel working within their train, advise and assist mission and alongside their Kurdish security force allies performed very well in demanding conditions thereby highlighting the success of our efforts in helping the KSF counter the threats posed by the extremist militant group ISIL.  I will now take your questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Sir.  We will now start with questions from the floor.  There are microphones on each side of the room and we will alternate between the two. 

Please identify yourself as well as your news agency and please limit yourself at this time to one question and one follow-up.

QUESTION: Good evening General, Richard Madden, CTV National News.  I wanted to – obviously what you discussed tonight showed the use of the Canadian jets.  Any word on schedule on when the six fighter jets will return to Canadian soil?

MGEN LAMARRE: No.  We’ll do that when the Canadian government directs us to do so.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about the timing of tonight.  What was the urgency in your mind to update Canadians on this mission?

MGEN LAMARRE: This was a significant event by the sheer magnitude of what occurred and also it was impressive to see just how effective the Kurdish security forces were able to operate with the assistance of the coalition trainers that were there.

QUESTION: Murray Brewster, the Canadian Press.  Local media in Erbil is reporting that at least five positions were under assault during the last 24 hours.  It seems given the numbers involved, given the numbers of suicide bombers, that this was almost perhaps a battalion size attack.

The coalition has surveillance assets in the region.  Did the coalition or the Kurds see this coming?  If they didn’t, why not?

MGEN LAMARRE: don’t have all the details yet of how this event took place in terms of the intelligence aspects to it but there was sufficient warning to be able for them to react to it. That said, however, there was an element of surprise that ISIL was able to bring to it.  However, the KSF reacted extremely well in being able to contain it and then to repel it.

QUESTION: As a supplementary, can you give us a little bit more detail on the supporting fire that the Special Forces employed?  Was it direct fire on their part, suppressing fire?  Did someone shoot back at them?  Can you give us a little more detail on what happened?

MGEN LAMARRE: This particular instance, as the KSF were going forward to re-establish the line they came under effective fire and our guys were close enough and able to respond with fire onto those ISIL positions.

QUESTION: Justin Ling, Vice News.  Can you give us some indication of the extent of the fire that was returned from Canadian Special Forces, and by that I mean number of rounds of ammunition, light arm, handguns?  Can you give us some indication of just what that response fire was?

MGEN LAMARRE: I won’t give you the whole details of things because for reasons you can appreciate we don’t reveal everything we’ve done, but at the necessary time they had the right weapons to bring on to those targets.

QUESTION: Can you give us some sense of timeline?  Was this a matter of hours?  Was this six hours, eight hours, and how fast were the CF18’s dispatched to respond to the counter-attack?

MGEN LAMARRE: The operation, I’ll give you local times for Iraq.  It started roughly at 4:00 in the afternoon, 16:00 h and it went on throughout the night. They were able to contain the attack and then able to consolidate and lead the counter-attack during the morning daylight hours the next morning.

On your second question, the CF18’s were already on a mission. They were up in the air and they had a dynamic reallocation by the coalition.  They were part of a larger strike package as well that was operating at that point.

QUESTION: Catherine Cullen from the CBC.  I’m just wondering, obviously this is likely to restart the conversation about the role of trainers, to what degree it truly is a combat role given what you’re describing.  I wonder to what degree did you anticipate situations like this when these people were deployed.  Can you expand on that idea, that this is not supposed to be a combat role but you’re obviously describing a situation where their lives were very much in jeopardy?

MGEN LAMARRE: We’re not principal combatants.  We’re there to train, advise and assist. The guys who were doing the combat of course were the Kurdish security forces and they’ve done a fantastic job of it.  In this particular case our guys are always prepared because it’s a dangerous environment.  They need to be able to defend not only themselves but the forces with which they are training and providing assistance.

QUESTION: But this was a combat situation.

MGEN LAMARRE: This was an engagement where they had to be able to return fire effectively.  The principal combatants who led into this attack to re-establish a line were the Kurdish security forces.

QUESTION: My colleagues from Radio Canada are not here. Could I perhaps ask you in French, is this a combat situation? 

MGEN LAMARRE: It was an engagement in which the Canadian forces that we deployed were there to support the Kurdish forces who themselves engaged in combat to return the line to where it had been before the attack.

QUESTION: Bruce Campion Smith, The Toronto Star.  Can you give some sense of the numbers of ISIL militants that were engaged in this initial attack?

MGEN LAMARRE: It was a significant number.  I don’t have the exact numbers as of yet but it was large enough that they were able to engage in multiple locations and multiple avenues. So the numbers were large.

QUESTION: Dozens?  Hundreds?

MGEN LAMARRE: I’d say in the hundreds.

QUESTION: Can you give some sense of the number of Canadians who were directly involved in helping to repel the offensive on the 17th?

MGEN LAMARRE: As you well know we’ve got 69 Canadian trainers providing the train, advise, assist mission and some of them were involved but I won’t go with their exact numbers.

QUESTION: Maybe I’ll take the luxury of a third question here.  The CF18’s that were involved, can you give us a sense of how many were involved?   Normally they fly in pairs of two.

MGEN LAMARRE: That was the same situation in this case.  They fly in pairs for a host of good reasons and we had a pair that were involved in that specific strike but there were other strikes that Canada was involved in during the day.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to the phone for any questions.  Please identify yourself as well as your news agency.

OPERATOR: We will now take questions from the telephone lines.  If you have a question and you are using a speaker phone please lift the handset before making your selection. 

If you have a question please press *1.  If at any time you wish to cancel your question please press #.  Please press *1 at this time if you have a question. 

There will be a brief pause while participants register for questions. Thank you for your patience.  The first question is from (unintelligible), Global News.          

QUESTION: (Technical difficulty) at 4:00 on the 16th and then the retaliation or counter-attack was the next day.  When exactly were Canadians involved at the start?

MGEN LAMARRE: My apologies.  You were quite broken up although we got the tail end of your question. 

QUESTION: I’m just wondering if you can qualify exactly when Canadian Special Forces were involved, when the start of their involvement in the whole thing began.

MGEN LAMARRE: Right from the word go.  Our folks are there to train, advise and assist and it’s a full time job so of course they were involved right from the outbreak of this particular attack and they were involved all the way through at the end and throughout they were involved in a number of capacities to provide that assistance coordination.

QUESTION: Just for some context there was a question about why you’re holding this update now.  For some context can you describe how significant this attack was? Is it so significant that it prompted you to have this update?  Is it the most significant that Canadian Special Forces have been involved in?

MGEN LAMARRE: It is the largest event the Canadian Armed Forces training up north have been involved in and what was significant about this of course was the size of the ISIL contingent that went forward to try to break through this line. 

For that reason alone it was important to be able to report that, to let Canadians know what exactly is occurring there but also to point out the success the KSF are having in being able to contain those types of attacks with some fairly heavy equipment thrown at them and of course the role our guys are playing in helping to make sure they’re trained up and prepared to face those kinds of challenges.

OPERATOR: The next question is from David Pugliese from Ottawa Citizen.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION: General, I was wondering if you could describe in a little more detail how extensive was ISIL able to break through the lines.  Did they push Kurdish and Canadian forces back and then there was the counter-attack or did they get in behind?  Can you describe that?

My second question was did ISIL have any armour to – were they using any armour in this offensive?                        

MGEN LAMARRE: On the first question there were a number of incursions.  I wouldn’t say they broke through the lines, far from it.  They were contained but there were incursions within what was KSF areas.  They were able to be contained within those areas and then after that they were pushed back.

They were confident also that the re-establishment of the line was secure and solid.  On the second question, as far as there armoured vehicles they have certainly VBIEDs, so vehicle borne improvised devices and those things, as you’re probably aware, they will sometimes weld on all sorts of additional plates to these types of vehicles.  That’s the kind of equipment they did have.

QUESTION: The only reason I asked about armour is they have seized some American tanks for instance.  I don’t get the sense that was involved here.

MGEN LAMARRE: To the best of my knowledge, no.

OPERATOR: Once again, please press *1 if you have a question.  The next question is from Andre St. Pierre from QMI.

QUESTION: I’m a Francophone journalist and I had a lot of difficulty understanding the beginning of the presentation.  I’d like it if you could give us a bit of a summary of the basic elements of this attack and this counter-attack, please, and if not, I don’t know if you’ll be issuing a media release tonight.  That would be really useful for us, the French-language media.

MGEN LAMARRE: I’ll do my best, starting with a summary of the beginning of the events. So, on December 16th around 4:00 in the afternoon, ISIL initiated an attack against the Kurdish front line.  At that time, they used several avenues of approach and they were able to make incursions into the Kurdish positions.

And the Kurds absorbed it.  They were able to contain the attack, and in the morning on the 17th, after completing their planning and their preparatory movements, they were able to conduct a counter-attack. At that time, the counter-attack was successful and they were able to re-establish the original line.

QUESTION: Great. Thank you.

OPERATOR: The next caller is Amanda Connelly from I Politics.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for holding this briefing tonight.  My question is with regard to the style of the attack what does it say about the evolution of ISIL’s command and control structure and particularly how has it evolved in terms of what we’ve seen from them in the past?

MGEN LAMARRE: As I indicated this was an attack that we had not seen up in that sector since we’ve been there and obviously it was a departure from what they’ve done in the past.  I would say it’s too early for me to be able to speculate on a trend or anything of the sort. 

However the thing that is encouraging and the results we have achieved and the KSF have achieved in being able to contain what was actually a fairly concentrated and well-coordinated attack and having success in being able to re-establish the line.

MODERATOR: We’ll take three more questions from the floor and that’s all we’ll have time for.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about exactly what our Special Forces guys were doing there in Mosul?  I understand we have some role to play in the upcoming battle to retake the entire city.  Our understanding is these guys were usually stationed in Erbil.  Can you give us any indication about why they’re moving and what they were doing there or why there were stationed in that general area?                             

MGEN LAMARRE: They’re doing the same thing they’ve been doing for quite a while.  It’s a train, advise and assist and when you’re advising and assisting it’s to help these forces to be able to coordinate not only the defensive postures but to be able to react exactly to this if there is an attack.  Our forces do maintain and make sure that they’re there to provide that assistance.  That’s what they were doing.

QUESTION: We know in Erbil they had specialized classrooms, little camps established.  Evidently Mosul is still a very fluid situation.  Can you give us some indication of what facilities are there?  Are these guys in trenches?  Are they in warehouses?

MGEN LAMARRE: They’re nowhere near the actual city of Mosul.  As you can tell by the diagram I have behind me, you’ve got Mosul and the actual line, the green line, is towards the east and the northeast.

The attack that came originated from the vicinity of Mosul but it took place much further to the east and to the northeast.  That’s where our guys were.

QUESTION: Richard again.  I know you’ve touched on it here and there but I’m hoping you can succinctly describe when you talk about the heavy equipment that ISIL has been using, what kind of heavy equipment are you talking about?

MGEN LAMARRE: ISIL is using VBIEDs that they themselves are helping to manufacture. They’re trying to put some degree of protection on it so they can advance towards whatever objective they want to take.  There’s a bit of cutting and welding that is taking place to put these things together.  That’s what I’m referring to.

On top of that they pack them up with explosives and it can be a devastating weapon as you’ve seen in many instances around the world with these types of weapons.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, the Canadian warplanes were effective in this fight.  In your opinion how important is it to keep those planes in the air, to continue the attack against ISIL?

MGEN LAMARRE: Of course I’ve indicated before the Canadian government will give its decision for what we’re going to do with those planes.  The coalition was able to bring forward strike fighter aircraft that were helpful in re-establishing the line.

QUESTION: Murray Brewster with the Canadian Press.  The Islamic State has used chlorine gas and chemical weapons on different occasions against the Kurds this past summer.  Was there any indication that chemical weapons were used during this attack?  As a follow-up, do the Special Forces have capability to defend against those kinds of attacks?

MGEN LAMARRE: I can’t confirm that.  You’re right, there have been reports in the past of the use of these kinds of weapons.  Specialist teams can go forward and gather up samples to confirm those types of things.

On the second question, we do have protective gear and our Special Operations Forces and all forces deployed forward do have that equipment available to them.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much.  This concludes our session.  Thank you all for your cooperation.  Have a good night.

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