Technical briefing to provide update on Canadian operations against ISIS

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Archived Transcript / June 12, 2015

MODERATOR : Thank you for your patience. We will now begin. General Bourgon, go ahead.

BGEN LISE BOURGON: Thank you very much. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. As the moderator said, I am Brigadier-General Lise Bourgon. I took over command of the Iraq Joint Task Force from Brigadier-General Dan Constable on May 13. I’m speaking to you today to brief you on Operation Impact, Canada’s contribution to the international action taken to weaken and beat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In central Iraq, Iraqi forces are concentrating efforts on controlling critical infrastructure and supply lines to remove ISIS from the area around the Baiji oil refinery. While the oil refinery remains protected, the government of Iraq supported by coalition air strikes has been able to establish a supply line into the facility while operations to clear the city of Baiji continue. In the western province of Al-Anbar, following the ISIS capture of Ramadi, ISIS has been stopped near Al-Eraldia (ph.) and pushed back on its advance eastward. Iraqi forces are now planning counter-attacks to recapture the city with coalition support.

In northern Iraq, Iraqi security forces, with the support of coalition air strikes, are foiling ISIS attempts to move towards Tikrit and a number of other locations along the line of contact. In Syria, coalition air strikes are forcing ISIS to give up more and more ground in the north and are keeping pressure on the armed group’s infrastructure and staging areas. Since the last technical briefing, CF-18 fighters have conducted 20 air strikes in Iraq and 2 in Syria. These strikes, which target staging areas, battle positions and an infiltration road used by the Islamic State, were carried out as part of coalition missions planned to weaken ISIS.

For instance on June 6th, our CF-18 hornet successfully dropped an earthen burn bridge span (ph.) that would have been used as a road traveled by ISIS between Baiji and Awanja (ph.). Further on June 7th, CF-18 led a coalition forces of five aircraft to successfully tracking an ISIS staging area used as a storage facility weapon, ammunition and vehicles in the vicinity of Mosul. Videos of both events are available at forcesimages.ca where they can be viewed and downloaded. On June 9th, CF-18s and coalition aircraft struck an ISIS compound near Al Asaqa (ph.) in Syria. Lastly, on June 10th, CF-18s successfully struck an ISIS fighting position in the vicinity of Baiji and on June 11th, an ISIS fighting position was struck northwest of Talafar (ph.) further degrading ISIS capability.

Of significance, on June 8th, Canada’s aircraft reached a few more significant milestones and they struck the thousandth sortie flown and exceeded 100 air strikes. Since the beginning of Op. Impact, Canadian aircraft have flown a total of 1,035 sorties. Our CF-18 fighters have completed 673 sorties, the Polaris tanker has completed 174 sorties, delivering more than 10 million pounds of fuel and our aircraft surveillance (inaudible) has flown 188 sorties.

Our team is the second rotation of Canadian military personnel deployed to the Iraq Joint Task Force. As professional and skilled soldiers, we will continue the work of Brigadier-General Constable and his staff. Through their contribution to the coalition, the members of Iraq Joint Task Force strive to demonstrate the excellence and professionalism expected of Canadian armed forces personnel both at home and abroad.

At the tier wide operational level, the coalition has halted ISIS, removing the group from 20 to 25% of the area it previously controlled while preventing it from gaining territory on a regional scale. While the events in Ramadi and Palmyra have garnered attention of late, it’s important to note that during any lengthy campaign including the coalition fight against ISIS, there are localized tactical gains and setbacks which can occur on a daily or weekly basis.

The actions of the Air Task Force, which includes the air forces, air-to-air refueling and surveillance and reconnaissance flights continue to contribute to the coalition’s mission. We are determined to play our role in the long-term success of the battle that the coalition is waging against ISIS. Thank you. I’m more than happy now to respond to any questions that you might have.

MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Operator, do we have any questions on the line?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Please press star one if you have a question.  

QUESTION: Yes, hello. Brigadier-General, Ms. Bourgon, I would like to know about the attacks, the bombing on June 9. You say that it was on June 9 in Al Asaqa in Syria. I would like to know if this operation was coordinated with Bashar Assad’s Syrian forces because Assad’s forces were in that area exactly at that time. So how were the allied forces able to intervene from the air without coordination with Assad’s Syrians?

BGEN BOURGON: Our mandate is very clear. We move against Islamic State targets provided. That’s really our target. There is no coordination with the government of Syria.

QUESTION: Okay, and then I read, for example, from the International Red Cross that there is aerial bombing in that area. Are the armed forces, the joint forces, that is, the allies the only ones doing the bombing, or does Assad’s army also have planes in the air bombing that area, and if this is the case, how do you coordinate it all so that you are not firing on Syrian army planes?     

BGEN BOURGON: No, there is no coordination with the Syrian army. Once again, we are going with – obviously the targets are Islamic State targets and if ever we were to see – that’s right, there is no coordination, and I can’t really go into the details if there has been any contact between Syrian planes and coalition planes.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

QUESTION: Yes, I – General Bourgon, hello, congratulations on your appointment. Listen, could you explain a bit about the strategic importance of the territories we have taken back from the Islamic State and those that have been won by Islamic State, because 25% of the territory, it depends on what territory we’re talking about. For example, the territory that we’ve won from them is more or less important strategically, while they are taking territory, for example, in Syria, bordering on Al-Anbar Province, obviously it’s not a question of percentages, but a question of the territory’s strategic importance and what can be done with it. So could you do this comparison for us?

BGEN BOURGON: Yes, somewhat, but any territory in Iraq is important. We support the Iraqi population and we support the Iraqi security forces. So overall, in terms of the operational theatre as a whole, the coalition has stopped the Islamic State. At this time, we are preventing the group from gaining more territory on a regional scale. We have had great success in northern Syria, and the Iraqi security forces have retaken Tikrit and Sinjar. We realize that there have been some small setbacks, like in Ramadi, but overall, the coalition will have been successful when the capability of Islamic State has been significantly degraded and when the Iraqi forces are in a position to ensure the long-term security of Iraq’s population. 

QUESTION: My follow-up question, Brigadier-General. Should I understand from your answer that, strategically speaking, our successes have been for the most part in the north and that in the rest of Syria, we have managed mostly to contain them, but that we are not necessarily strategically more advanced in other parts of Iraq that we were at the start of the mission?  

BGEN BOURGON: Well, our mandate here is really to support the Iraqi forces. Therefore, it is their role to retake Iraqi territory. We are there really to support them from the air with air strikes. Therefore, we’re going at their pace and we are supporting them. For the time being, we are preparing for the counter-offensive for Ramadi, but in Baiji, it has mostly been support for the status quo at this time. 

MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Next question please.

QUESTION: Yes, hello, General. So, my question, we’ve seen in recent days, in recent weeks, I see that most of the American generals and even the American Chief of Staff agree that the bombings are not the ultimate solution to the problems with the Islamic State armed group, that like you say, we are supporting the Iraqi armed forces but that the Iraqi armed forces, at this time, are not ready, they cannot handle – and most of the time are even fleeing – certain operations. Where do things stand with regard to our Canadian advisors in terms of training and mentoring in northern Iraq?

BGEN BOURGON: Right. As commander of the joint task force in Iraq, my work here is very clear. It is to support the Iraqi security forces in their fight against Islamic State by providing air support. Therefore, it is not my place to comment on the capability or effectiveness of Iraqi forces personnel. Certainly, some tactical reversals have shown us that there are lessons to be learned, and the coalition forces are working very hard in Iraq to train Iraqi personnel and that is really where we are seeing the impact our special forces are having. They are providing advice and assistance to the forces. This is ongoing, and every day, the Iraqi forces are improving.

QUESTION: And on another point, in the Syrian theatre this time, you mentioned that since the last tech brief, there have been two new strikes in Syria. In all, that makes three since the mission was prolonged and extended. Three strikes in two months, that is not a lot. Brigadier-General Constable whom I interviewed pointed out that the Syrian impact is very complicated because we actually have no JTAC on the ground, because we can’t rely on the Syrian armed forces for that. So what is the coalition, is Canada, doing now to make sure it is hitting those targets accurately, whether it’s in Raqqa or in other areas?

BGEN BOURGON: Well, finding and developing the right targets takes a lot of effort, especially in terms of the demand on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. We have to select and prioritize military objectives, taking into account operational requirements, along with the number of aircraft at our disposal in the coalition and their individual capacities. Theatre surveillance assets are always limited, and as in all operations, demand always exceeds supply. Therefore, given current conditions on the ground in Iraq, the priority for our aircraft is to provide support to the Iraqi forces on the ground.

And sure, our objective will eventually be to target a greater number of objectives in Syria. We are especially interested in focussing on the Islamic State’s operating bases and on the supply lines, but at this time, we have to maximize our air forces and juggle our priorities with regard to strikes deep into Syria with support for operations and for Iraqi forces on the ground in Iraq who are fighting every day to complete the mission.

MODÉRATEUR: Thank you. Next question, please.

QUESTION: General, thanks for doing that. You kind of touched on this already but maybe you can – maybe I’ll try again. What needs to change and what needs to be done in order for us to stop some of the ISIS advances on say Ramadi or some of the other cities? Evidently the majority of our air strikes appear to not be close to these – some of these conflict zones and these areas where ISIS makes the most gains. So what needs to change or can anything change in the short term to change this?

BGEN BOURGON: Well, you know, in the short term, there has been some setbacks for the Iraqi Forces and their fight against ISIS, but I can assure that Canada along with the Middle East stabilization forces and the coalition, we’re still inhibiting the ISIS ability to move and operate at will. They’re changing their SOPs, the way they do business. They’re more traveling at night now in smaller groups. So we are making some progress. This is again a short term, there is a longer aspect to this conflict, but we’re making a difference right now.

QUESTION: I guess specifically, is there anything we can be doing differently from the air or in limited cases, on the ground that can I guess make us still more versatile in hitting some of these targets?

BGEN BOURGON: Well, I think we’re doing what we can. We’re there, supporting the Iraqi Forces. On the other side, the training that we’re doing in Iraq with the coalition, we’re really forming the next generation of Iraqi fighters and that’s when we’re going to be able – at least, when Iraq is going to be able to regain their territory and we in the Air Force and our assets, we’re going to be there to support. 

MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Operator, next question please.

QUESTION: Hi, general. Thanks very much for talking to us today. I just want to comment to Justin Ling a few minutes ago. You said we’re making a difference right now. I would like you to expand on that because I’m having a hard time seeing the benefit of the – the air strikes and the obvious deaths that go along with that, regardless of who is dying? Is it doesn’t serve the broader goal of actually defeating ISIS, you know, why do it? Like I gather that you know, when you hit the position, you kill the people who are fighting in that position or you deny that position to ISIS and – and well done, but the results that we’re seeing in a broader sense in Iraq and indeed in Syria suggest that ISIS is not being defeated. Whether it’s being degraded or not is even questionable as it seems to still be able to defeat our allied forces and seize more territory. So I’m just wondering, you know, like why go there and fly hard and fly long and drop bombs if we’re not winning?

BGEN BOURGON: Well you know, winning takes time. So right now, it’s not our fight. We’re supporting the Iraqi Forces. What we’re doing is a stopgap. We’re allowing them the time to get trained so that they can come back and do the full attack and regain their territories. So it might seem that we’re not making a difference, but we’re gaining some success on the ground and you know, again in the short term, success through the coalition is measured in terms of the overall effect in stopping the ISIS advance, rather than in terms of individual – individual sorties and strikes. So it’s not about, you know, how many strikes we do. We’re stopping them and they’re not – the situation on the ground is not worse. So we’re just buying time until the Iraqi forces is trained and equipped to make the difference.

QUESTION: Is it – is it ethical to do it this way? I mean you’ve got six aircraft, you know. Canada obviously has many more than that. If this is the fight of our times, shouldn’t you be commanding an air wing of forces there of some substance who is really assisting in the defeat of this enemy as opposed to sort of taking small bites at them over the course of what appears to be perhaps a years-long effort?

BGEN BOURGON: Well, you know, it’s hard to answer this one. We’re doing – this is much bigger than just a military operation. The military action in theatre, again like I said, are just a few amongst many more lines of operations. The global coalition to counter ISIL which has more than 60 countries is focusing on many more aspects and I’m going to read you a couple. You know, they’re stopping the flow of foreign terrorist righters. They’re trying to cut the ISIS funding sources. They’re providing humanitarian assistance. They’re trying to counter the message from ISIS and they’re supporting the stabilization efforts. So in theatre right now on the ground, that’s what I can talk about, it’s the military line of operation and what we’re doing is enabling the Iraqi security forces in their fight against ISIS by providing them air support.

QUESTION: But I gather you’re not actually enabling them because they’re losing in Ramadi, they’re losing in other places and in Syria, they’re at the gates of Al Asaqa.

MODERATOR: Thank you.

BGEN BOURGON: Well, you know...

MODERATOR: No, go ahead general.

BGEN BOURGON: No, that’s okay.

MODERATOR: Ma’am, go ahead.

BGEN BOURGON: OK, thanks.  Again like you know, there has been some setback, but overall, there’s also been some movement and it – again, we can’t look at yesterday, we need to look at tomorrow and the success that will happen. It’s just too easy to look at the setbacks, but you know, we’ve taken some of the ground in the north. Baiji is going very well. There, we’re supporting and assisting coalition and the Iraqi security forces to set up the counter-offensives in Ramadi. So you know, again there’s little – there is small success every day and we just keep going forward.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Operator, next question please.

QUESTION: Yes, hello. I just want to help out my English-speaking colleague who was unable to join the conference call. So I would like to ask you, General, to answer in English the question I put to you a bit earlier about coordination. So if Canadian planes are striking in Syria, how can – and are striking at Al Asaqa where the – half of Assad army is involved, how can they do it without coordinating with the Syrians?

BGEN BOURGON: Well again, like I said in French, you know, we’re going against ISIS targets in Syria and those are our targets, given as our mandate and there is no coordination right now being done with the government of Syria.

QUESTION: So then again my follow-up question was so how – how do you identify the targets if you’re not talking to the Syrian army? Where do you get the information to identify the targets and have you got involved at all with Syrian – the Syrian Army planes who also may be doing strikes in that area?

BGEN BOURGON: No, I mean we’re identifying our targets the same way we’re identifying our – identifying our targets in Iraq. We have intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that are flying and the targeting again is being done in a vigorous manner with input from a number of specialist personnel, such as intelligence, legal and operational staff. So we see the targets from above and then we make sure that we have the right information to avoid civilian casualties or any collateral damage and then when the time comes, we will do the targeting but there is no contact with the Syrian government or Syrian forces on the ground.

MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. We seem to have gone full circle. We’ll go with our last question now. Operator?

QUESTION: I’m trying this again, but can you kind of explain to us what can change on the ground here? So evidently you know, as noted, we only have six planes, that’s a fraction of what the Americans have. Is there room for us to send more planes over there and do more strikes? On the other end of it, is there a possibility that we can look at changing our targeting practices to expand the number of strikes we’re looking to do or extend the number of targets that we’re looking to hit? I mean can things change in order for us to increase the – I guess the cycle of our strikes against ISIS?

BGEN BOURGON: Well, again you know, I go back to our mandate. It’s always been to assist the government of Iraq in its defence against ISIS and again, we’re doing that by providing support to the Iraqi security forces. We are targeting what we can and what we – as part of the legal contract that we have to avoid – we’re going after legal targets and we’re doing that. I’m not sure that having more planes would make a difference. Right now, the responsibility and the next part of the operation is for the Iraqi forces to do the combat on the ground. We’re supporting them. We’re going at their pace and when the counter-offensive for Ramadi gets on, then we’ll be there, ready to go and support them.

QUESTION: And so do you think, when that – when some of these counter-offensive actually get launched, when the Iraqi forces are able to launch some of the actual missions or the Kurds or what have you, the – I guess the number of these strikes are going to increase and the size and the importance of these strikes are going to increase? 

BGEN BOURGON: Can you repeat that again, sir?  You were broken from this side.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. So once those counter-offensives do get launched and you know, the actual fighting on the ground intensifies, but we’ve already seen of that, do you think when the counter-offensives begin, we’re going to see more strike and we’re going to see the number of strikes increase, when that actually launches and on the flip side of this, why haven’t we seen more strikes when the Iraqi forces are losing these cities?  Why don’t we see Canadian forces – or Canadian airplanes hitting targets when the Iraqis are being pushed back?

BGEN BOURGON: Well, you know, we are – we are supporting the Iraqi forces in their defence. We are right now – we are right now in a position that the counter-offensive is going to start eventually. Okay, in the meantime we’re looking at what’s around Ramadi to try and facilitate a little bit when the assault and the counter-offensive is going to start. So we are there but again, the ISR, the targeting is so dependent on ISR, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that it’s difficult. I mean you can have hundreds of hours of a platform flying to get the information because again our strikes need to be super precise and we need to avoid any civilian casualty and we need to avoid collateral damage. So it takes a lot of time to develop a target that meets the standard of Canada and the coalition.

MODERATOR: Excellent. Thank you, ma’am, for participating today. As a reminder to everyone you can access visual products at forcesimages.ca. Thank you again for your cooperation and have a great weekend. Thank you.

BGEN BOURGON: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. This concludes today’s conference call at this time. Please disconnect your lines at this time and thank you for your participation.

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