Australian planes are set to wing it over the Syrian cauldron

Greater Australian air commitment to the campaign against Islamic State is a low-risk venture, militarily. AAP/Australian Defence

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has confirmed a US request that Australia increase its commitment to Operation Inherent Resolve against Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) would begin offensive activities in Syrian airspace.

Should Australia do so? Will it?

A geopolitical given

Under the reported terms of the request, Australian forces would expand offensive operations from Iraq into Syria – a theatre that has been almost exclusively dominated by US and Arab nations.

Given the pressure from the US, it is likely that Australia will readily commit to the expanded role. Due to its close relationship with the US since the second world war, Australia has rarely shirked from military requests from its great power benefactor. Comments on Wednesday from Vice-Admiral David Johnston, Australia’s commander of joint operations in the Middle East, suggested that the Abbott government already considered the decision as a given.

Despite the escalation, however, Johnston went on to indicate that Australian operations would be far from a “game changer” to the wider effort. The increased Australian presence adds international legitimacy to operation and is a nod towards the spirit of the ANZUS alliance. But, it is unlikely a few extra Super Hornets over Raqqah will shift much of the operational burden from the shoulders of the US Air Force, the true heavy lifter in the campaign.

Greater Australian air commitment to the campaign is a low-risk venture, militarily speaking. IS has shown no capacity to respond to strikes conducted by coalition warplanes, despite capturing an array of heavy surface-to-air missiles. Although it is possible a malfunction could lead to a disastrous outcome, similar to that of the brutal murder of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, such a scenario is unlikely.

Domestically, the benefits and negatives of a further expansion of the Australian war effort are more complex. Although a 2014 poll found that a majority of respondents were in favour of intervention against IS, recent data suggests around half now disapprove of further Australian involvement in the Middle East.

Yet, recent polls conducted by the Lowy institute and the Pew Research Centre found that the majority of Australians rank IS as their number one threat.

Stranger bedfellows?

Perhaps the most peculiar dynamic that might emerge from this is the closer alignment between the Assad government in Syria and Canberra. While the operation against IS has ostensibly been undertaken in support of the “moderate” rebels in the Syrian opposition, recent reports by analysis group Stratfor indicate that Russia may be on track to arranging a power-sharing agreement between some of these same groups and the Assad regime.

This may not be entirely fantasy. Some Syrian rebel groups are coming to view foreign jihadists as a greater threat than Assad’s Ba'athist regime.

If such rumours lead to a material agreement, then Australia and the wider Western coalition may ultimately be forced to support a new hybrid government that includes considerable portions of a regime they have long been calling on to abdicate.

A long road ahead

Although the US Department of Defence has claimed a modest number of targets destroyed since the start of airstrikes against IS a year ago, IS continues to be a dominant player in the region. Its global appeal remains high.

An increase in Australian firepower, while symbolic, will not greatly affect this fundamental reality of the Levantine battlespace.

As recent actions by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have demonstrated, the effectiveness of airpower is contingent on the user’s ability to follow up with co-ordinated ground forces that can seize occupied areas. The Gulf Arab coalition has responded to this by putting their own boots on the ground alongside local forces.

But, this is not behaviour the US or its allies are willing to replicate against IS. At the same time, most of the indigenous forces facing the jihadist group, save the Kurds, have been unable to effectively press home the advantages granted to them by coalition air support.

Further, as I wrote nearly a year ago, the foundational issues surrounding IS cannot be addressed with a mentality of “peace through superior firepower”. Decapitation and signature strikes don’t stop insurgencies specifically because they fail to target the real culprit: the bad governance that led to them in the first place.