Exclusive: Canada's elite soldiers train Kurdish troops in fight against ISIS
ERBIL, Iraq -- A swirl of smoke, then the screams.
Two men drop to the ground, “blood” squirting from wounds. Orders are barked in Kurdish as Peshmerga soldiers rush to the aid of the fallen.
At this military outpost in Northern Iraq, it’s all a drill run by Canadians, a mock mortar attack to test Peshmerga on their battlefield medicine.
Still, it’s realistic enough, thanks to smoke grenades and special-effects blood that splashes on the would-be rescuers.
Two Canadian special forces soldiers hover over the Peshmerga troops like a watchful teacher, appraising the treatment. “You’re in danger right now,” the Canadian medic warns, urging them to move themselves and the casualties to safer ground, as they’d have to do if this was a real attack.
The exercise drill wraps up and the special forces medic gathers the Peshmerga soldiers around him for a debrief. “Everything went really well. You brought your patients to a safe area. You did the treatments you were supposed to,” he tells them.
This is the face of Canada’s military mission in Northern Iraq where Canadian special operations forces soldiers have been advising and assisting Peshmerga soldiers in their battle against ISIS, also known as ISIL.
CTV News and The Toronto Star were granted unprecedented access to that mission this week. It’s the first time that journalists have ever been allowed to join special operations forces soldiers on an active operation.
The visit found soldiers keen to talk about their training, about their mission and about their membership in an elite command of the Canadian Armed Forces. It revealed the respect they command from their allies. And it underscored the close working ties between Canadian soldiers and Peshmerga forces battling to reclaim their homeland.
“We are uniquely adapted to this,” says the man who heads up Canada’s special operations forces soldiers.
Mike Rouleau, who just this week was promoted to the rank of major general, knows well the world of special forces.
He is a former assaulter with Joint Task Force 2 and past commander of unit, which is the tip of the spear within the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. He left the military in 1999 and served as a police officer in Ottawa before rejoining the military after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
He commands Canada’s shadowy soldiers, trained to handle worst-case scenarios at home and abroad.
And as experts in the craft of warfare, they are exceptionally good at passing along those skills to other militaries, a task they do here in Iraq and in other places around the globe.
From its start as a small, highly skilled team known as Joint Task Force 2, Canada’s special forces capabilities have grown into a separate branch of the military -- Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, or CANSOFCOM for short.
It boasts some 2,000 personnel, from JTF2 assaulters to operators with the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, to ace helicopter pilots, and experts trained to handle chemical and biological threats.
Canada’s special operations forces rank as among the best in the world, experts say.
“They are very, very good,” Col. Andrew Milburn, of the U.S. Marines, who commands coalition special operations forces in Iraq, told the Star.
And here in the rolling green hills of Northern Iraq, the Canadians are mentoring local Peshmerga troops on the fighting skills and military tactics needed first to contain the Islamic extremists and now to squeeze them out of existence.
It’s a mission tailor-made for special operations forces and their expertise working in small teams in complex environments with often tangled political interests and across cultural lines.
“This was classic irregular warfare in the sense that it was establishing immediately with an indigenous force, helping them achieve military objectives through our assistance. So we were well-suited to the mission,” Rouleau said.
A special operations forces sergeant sums up the mission, “In our military ethos, we have a term ‘warrior diplomats’ and that’s what we’re doing here.”
The Canadians work from several sites in Northern Iraq. Patrol Base Cirillo -- named in honour of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, killed while standing sentry at Ottawa’s National War Memorial in 2014 -- is located on the outskirts out Erbil. It serves as the logistics hub, headquarters and a place where operators from the field come to recharge.
A tactical headquarters is located further west, closer to ISIS-held Mosul, and the heart of the territory where Canadians are working alongside Peshmerga troops.
Driving there, the special forces operators move quickly through the chaotic Erbil traffic -- speed is safety, they say -- and at times the speedometer needle tops 120 km/h. The city gives way to countryside and the sights of flocks of sheep and their herders in the fields and roadside stalls selling mounds of watermelons.
In the early days, the Canadians worked out of a former border post. Since then, they've made improvements, adding modular units that house sleeping quarters, washroom and showers, an operations centre and a combined kitchen and living area, with a large TV.
During their downtime, operators make use of an open-air gym, sheltered from the hot sun by a tarp. In the ranks of special forces, rank doesn’t count here. Everyone is on a first name basis.
The training mission has changed since the Canadians first arrived back in the fall of 2014. Back then, the special forces soldiers were more active in helping hold the line. And they were busy schooling Peshmerga in military skills such as shooting, countering explosive devices, map and compass work and lessons in the laws of armed conflict. It’s estimated 2,000 Peshmerga have been trained so far.
“Since we’ve been working here in Northern Iraq, we’ve seen outstanding progress. They are very capable fighters. They will absolutely fight to the last man to protect their homes,” a major with special operations forces told the Star. (The soldiers asked to be identified by their rank only).
These days, Canadians are teaching the Peshmerga more advanced skills, like how to direct airstrikes.
“When we first got here, we were much more material to the defence of the frontline. In some cases we were calling in airstrikes using on our own resources,” Rouleau said.
“Now I feel the Kurds are in a stronger position in many ways to defend the line . . . They know how to use the global positioning systems, the radios, they know the techniques for employing air power,” he told the Star.
But the Canadians are more than just military teachers. They are a welcome reassurance, a morale booster in what has been a difficult fight against the extremists. One Pesh general estimated that his forces have lost 1,500 men since the fighting began.
“As Peshmerga we gained a lot from the Canadians, from training to help during major attacks. We thank them for all this,” one Pesh soldier told Canadian journalists as he stood watch in an observation post.
This mission has risks for Canadians too, a reality driven home by the March, 2015 death of Sgt. Andrew Doiron, who was accidentally shot by Peshmerga troops in a friendly fire incident. Three other Canadians were wounded.
The loss hit the tight-knit group hard, said a corporal who knew Doiron as a good friend and mentor. “It’s something in the community we accept might happen. But when it does happen, it’s a hard situation to deal with,” he said. In honour of his friend, the corporal has a tattoo on his left arm of Doiron’s initials and a raven, a link between this world and the afterworld.
But the Pesh, backed by the Canadians, are making gains. ISIS has been pushed back – in early days the frontline was just hundreds of metres away -- and territory recaptured.
Peshmerga fighters say they are on a mission to stem ISIS here and prevent it from spreading further. But this fight is also a deeply personal one for them, a battle to reclaim their homes and homelands, a reality understood by the Canadians.
“Sometimes I’m on the line staring at a building which has ISIS activity and one my Pesh partners will identify that building as his home,” the sergeant said.
“This is one of the fronts that is in place to protect everyone else. This is a global matter,” the sergeant said.