It would appear that the Abbott government has its heart set on bombing Syria. But it is hard to understand why.
Unlike Australia’s complicity in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, this proposal has nothing to do with consolidating the US alliance. Speaking about Islamic State’s (IS) presence in Iraq and Syria, Prime Minister Tony Abbott remarked that:
While there is a little difference between the legalities of air strikes on either side of the border, there’s no difference in the morality.
Whether it’s operating in Iraq or Syria it is an absolutely evil movement and in the end, when they don’t respect the border, the question is why should we?
This is extraordinary logic to justify a decision that is bad for a range of reasons.
Why Australia should not extend its involvement
Legal aspects have been canvassed. At best these assessments urge caution, if not opposition. The government’s approach reflects Australia’s casual attitude to the UN Charter and international law.
Australia’s military appears unenthusiastic. Its commander of joint operations in the Middle East, Vice-Admiral David Johnston, said Australia’s involvement in Syria would be far from a “game changer”. Not only would Australia’s involvement not make any difference in Syria but it would detract from its role in Iraq which, despite government spin to the contrary, is where IS originated and where its presence is most seriously felt.
A common assumption is that IS is simply a gang of murderous ruffians who can be destroyed by an air campaign supported by local ground troops. This is unduly optimistic. There is no local force, not the Iraqi or Syrian Kurds nor groups trained at great expense by the US, with the capacity to defeat IS.
Despite Johnston’s recent comments that the air war has reduced IS’s “overall effectiveness and decision-making and tactical planning”, the general view, including among the US military, is that the West is not winning the war. There is success in some areas, but IS makes ground elsewhere. High-ranking IS members are killed but then quickly replaced.
Neighbouring countries – the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris – are not contributing to this campaign against IS. They are busy committing human rights atrocities in Yemen, ignoring IS bombings inside Saudi Arabia and the widely held view is that the regime in Riyadh is IS’s real target.
The neighbours appear ambivalent about IS. Many Saudis privately support the group. Even Turkey, after announcing the start of an air campaign against IS, seems only intent on bashing the Kurds, IS’s most effective opponents.
IS is not a fly-by-night operation. Despite the horrors of the burnings, crucifixions and beheadings, it also has many of the attributes of a state. It governs the area it occupies effectively – in the case of the Iraqi provinces, more effectively than the corrupt government in Baghdad.
It is possible IS will survive for a long time, in part because Iraqi Sunnis see the organisation as preferable to rule from Baghdad and philosophically more in tune with their own views – without the grotesque killings.
Having been part of the state’s suppression of the Shi’a since Iraq’s formation, Sunnis are now suffering the agonies of defeat, exclusion from power and the revenge of the Shi’a, whose militia have been playing a major role in attempts to contain IS and whose human rights record is often little better than that of IS.
What should be done?
IS must be stopped. But, to do so, we must maintain perspective. The horrible acts that IS has committed are incomprehensible to most of us, but they are calculated. The incineration of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the beheading of 83-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, and the looting and destruction of wondrous examples of human heritage create a picture of monsters and lead us to conclusions that cloud our judgement.
IS forces have killed, brutalised and displaced many people, but the numbers don’t come near the tragedies inflicted by the Syrian regime and the other murderous gangs fighting in that country. We have not been inspired to help the nine million refugees created by Syria’s civil war. Are we really going to pretend that random bombing of possible IS targets in Syria is going to help those suffering people?
This fight is not Australia’s fight and we should keep out of it. Instead, we should respect the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes by promoting a diplomatic end to the Syrian conflict. We should be pushing those powers with standing and capacity – the UN, the US, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia – to follow through with recent tentative steps to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
That means the US and Russia engaging with the main players to find a compromise solution. It means deciding what is to take IS’s place in the areas it has conquered. Do we simply hand those areas back to the discredited governments in Baghdad and Damascus?
It means the US abandoning its demand that the first step must be the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a demand that has served as an excuse for inaction in Syria. And with US-Iran relations improving, the need to bog down Tehran in a Syrian morass has faded.