When Tony Abbott says he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself on Australia’s Middle East commitment – specifically about joining air strikes – what he means is that he can’t get ahead of Barack Obama.
The government announced on Sunday that Australia would help transport stores of military equipment, including arms and munitions, to Kurdish fighters in Iraq.
This was at the Americans’ request as part of a multi-national effort that also included the United Kingdom, Canada, France and Italy. The arms, sourced from eastern Europe, will be handed over on the ground.
Abbott told a news conference, at which he was flanked by the Australian Defence Force chief, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, that cabinet’s national security committee had taken “a decision in principle” and the cabinet supported that decision.
Asked about timing, Abbott said it was taken to the cabinet earlier than cabinet’s meeting a week ago. The request was made “in general terms some time ago [and] crystallised into specificity a few days ago”.
Apparently a general request was put out to relevant countries around mid-August: eastern European countries were asked for weapons and the others for transportation assistance.
It can be presumed that the next steps in the escalation of Australia’s role are already in the pipeline.
Just as the weapons airlift was briefed by the government to the News Corp Sunday papers before being announced, so the next stage was flagged in Saturday’s Australian.
The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, who is close to Abbott, wrote that the government was considering deploying SAS soldiers, Super Hornet fighters and sophisticated airborne early warning and control aircraft as part of the fight against Islamic State.
Notably, Sheridan said that the SAS special forces were “not conventional combat ground forces” and so their deployment would not breach the government’s commitment not to put combat troops on the ground.
This followed Defence Minister David Johnston last week saying, when asked on the ABC’s Lateline whether the Prime Minister’s promise of no combat troops included the SAS: “Well, no combat troops on the ground. If you define the SAS as combat troops, that’s the answer.”
When Abbott on Sunday was asked to guarantee no special forces would be sent, he did not do so.
The ground component would be significant - the special forces’ part would be defined as activities that help enable the air strikes and perhaps provide some sort of training for the Kurdish fighters.
But the course and timing of events depend on American decisions. The US wants the Iraqis to form an inclusive government (deadline September 10 when the new prime minister takes over) and is also putting pressure on neighbouring countries to ensure they don’t undermine the efforts against Islamic State.
Developments, such as how things work out with the new Iraqi administration, could always blow things off course. But barring that, the US activity can be expected to escalate and Australia’s involvement would be set to deepen significantly.
With parliament entering the second week of its sitting fortnight, Sunday’s announcement will change the political emphasis. The battle over the budget won’t disappear but it will be somewhat relegated in the news.
Quite apart from the substance of this very serious situation with Islamic State, Team Abbott is attuned to the political implications domestically.
It gives the Prime Minister an opportunity to rise above the day-to-day fray. So far the national security issue has worked to his advantage.
He is linking what happens far away to Australia’s backyard. “While we understandably shrink from reaching out to these conflicts, the truth is that these conflicts reach out to us,” he said, pointing to some 60 Australians involved with terrorist groups in the Middle East and another 100 actively supporting them from here.
Abbott also specifically tied in killings overseas to the danger of terrorism at home. “If it’s right [for terrorists] to kill in the name of god in Iraq, there is no reason to think that the same people won’t do likewise if they get the chance elsewhere, including in Australia,” he said.
“The people who are active in the terrorist groups in northern Iraq and elsewhere hate us as much as they hate the people that they are currently attacking. They hate us not for what we have done, they hate us for who we are and for what we are.”
So far, the threat level hasn’t been raised in Australia, although in Britain on Friday it was raised from substantial to severe.
Asked whether Australian action increased the threat of terrorism inside Australia Abbott noted ASIO chief David Irvine’s opinion last week that “in his professional judgement [there was] no specific correlation between what the Australian government might do in the Middle East and domestic terrorist threats”.
Abbot was dismissive of calls from the Greens and independent MP Andrew Wilkie that parliament should have a role in what Australia does in Iraq.
“This government’s intention is to abide by the standard conventions which have always been applied to the deployment of Australian military forces: consideration by the national security committee of the cabinet, consideration of the cabinet, and consultation with the opposition.”
For its part, the opposition has embraced the latest step and is likely to do the same with the next. Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek on Sunday was at pains to distinguish the current situation from that prevailing in the “disaster” of 2003 when Australia joined the Iraq mission.
It may get more awkward for Shorten to stick close to Abbott as the action escalates, but he knows that to do anything else will mean the government will be quick to make Labor and him the issue.
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