Australia’s shift on Syria might finally recognise the Islamic State threat

Australia’s policy on Syria should assess the threat and engage with the least worst enemy to pursue an achievable outcome. AAP

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently indicated a shift in Australia’s policy in Syria by opening up the possibility of an ongoing role for its beleaguered president, Bashar al-Assad.

The driver behind this policy shift was intense jockeying for leadership on the Syria crisis at the opening of the UN General Assembly. This diplomatic tussle was partly prompted by Russia, which began airstrikes in Syria that are aimed at securing Assad’s tenure.

Rather than being a proactive realignment, Australia’s shift in policy was a reactive realisation that it was being left behind. Holding Australia back from playing a leading role is an idealism that prevents it engaging with leaders such as Assad because of their abysmal human rights records.

This desire to only stand alongside dictators with clean hands is a novel, untried and unlikely-to-succeed approach in foreign policy. During the Cold War, backing puppet regimes, insurgents, and undesirables was common. It was an approach that wasn’t always successful – such as supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan – but at least it allowed for more pragmatic foreign policy.

In a move away from realpolitik, US President Barack Obama and Australia’s former prime minister Tony Abbott opted for a hollow façade of righteousness. They replaced the moral ambiguity of partnering on the ground with the enemy of my enemy with a false sense of purity through the use of drones, guided missiles and bombs.

The result has been a partial strategy that started off on the right track by limiting Islamic State’s (IS) expansion, but then left Western nations without a follow-up plan. What should have come next – supporting “less bad” alternatives – appears to be too distasteful for Western leaders, but not so for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The motivation for possibly partnering with Assad can be found in a common measure for the justification of military action: the proportionality of the threat.

The IS threat

In a speech in July, Australia’s then-communications minister (now prime minister) Malcolm Turnbull downplayed the threat IS poses. He argued that IS:

… is not Hitler’s Germany, Tojo’s Japan or Stalin’s Russia.

This was a strange analogy. The West is yet to see IS at its most potent. Its ideology certainly has the same genocidal aims and deluded ambitions as those named leaders.

Maybe a reminder of what IS stands for is required:

  1. Its territorial ambitions are to reach from Spain to the south of sub-Saharan Africa and east through to Bangladesh within five years.

  2. It has a policy of genocide against Shia Muslims and others not of the Book – meaning anyone who isn’t Sunni Muslim, Christian or Jew.

  3. Slave markets, rape and gruesome means of public killing have been adopted as legal norms backed by religious rulings. Children often play a part inculcating the next generation of fighters.

  4. It has called for terrorist attacks against civilians across the world.

Despite some – such as Opposition Leader Bill Shorten – having difficulty differentiating Assad from IS, the nuance is obvious. The former has respected international borders despite having an atrocious record against his own people. IS is a threat to neighbouring countries, the region, and the international community.

IS’s ability to cause mass destruction and kill millions of people is temporarily contained only because of a lack of means. But this is good luck that won’t last. Recent reporting suggests that IS is intent on obtaining a nuclear device, that it has sent 4000 fighters into Europe during this year’s migration crisis, and has begun developing crude chemical weapons.

While these claims are unverified – and dismissed by some as scaremongering – the question that needs to be asked is: why wouldn’t they?

With an ideology based upon an extreme reading of Islamic theology, IS sees the life to come as being more important than the life we live today. This interpretation, alongside an emphasis upon prophecy that sees itself and its actions as signs of the end of times, leads to a worldview that has no compunction in killing millions.

This widespread misreading of the threat IS poses is dangerous. Suggesting that a negotiated solution is possible, being reluctant to back Assad, or seemingly being more concerned with semantic sensibilities of what to call the group rather than the threat it poses all contribute to weakening the push for Australia to play a leading role in stopping IS.

Clarifying the strategy

Australia must begin by identifying a clear and realistic strategy that works towards an achievable goal. It needs to move away from the current unrealistic objective of pursuing regime change while retaining Syria as a single geographic entity. It also must steer clear of pursuing a strategy that aims to defeat IS through military means alone.

Syria can no longer remain a single entity. Demographic changes and the scale of violence have entrenched a redrawing of borders that had never represented a coherent nation of people within its borders. Instead, international pressure involving Iran, Russia and Turkey needs to be applied to seek an alternative model that could begin with a loose federation along the lines of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Dayton Agreement.

Nor can the strategy of defeating IS remain a solely military one that eschews partnership with less desirables – including, in this case, moderate Islamists or Assad.

Australia’s foreign policy should dispense with its debilitating moral constraints and idealistic ambitions and return to a realpolitik that assesses the threats and engages with the least worst enemy to pursue an achievable outcome.