Russian objection excluded Australia from Syrian peace talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after an international conference on Syria, in Vienna, from which Australia was excluded. EPA/Hans Punz

Australia – despite its major military commitment to fighting Islamic State (IS) – was excluded from the Vienna weekend talks seeking a peace path for Syria because of an objection by Russia.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop queried the Americans after Australia was not invited to the October first round of these talks. The US, which has the biggest force operating against IS, agreed Australia should be asked to the November meeting, but then Russia opposed Australia’s inclusion, and also that of Japan.

The Vienna meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), held on Saturday, was attended by some 20 countries and organisations, with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov among the bevy of foreign ministers and other participants.

It is not clear why Russia objected to Australia’s presence, especially given the position put by Bishop – that discussions on a peace path should be on the basis that all options should be open – was similar to Russia’s.

Australia and Russia were at loggerheads in 2014 after the downing of MH17, but this is not thought to be a factor. Rather, it is believed the most likely reason is that the issue of Australia and Japan’s attendance got caught up in Russian-US power play.

Those at Saturday’s meeting included the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the UK, the UN and the US.

The group, despite differences on some issues, agreed to work for a nationwide ceasefire in Syria, except against IS and other terrorist groups. The meeting agreed on the need to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under United Nations auspices as soon as possible, with a target date of January 1, as part of a transition process to inclusive governance, a new constitution and free and fair elections under UN supervision within 18 months. The ISSG reiterated that IS and other terrorist groups must be defeated.

The participants expect to meet again in about a month to review progress, and Australia will seek to get itself into those talks.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in his comments after the Paris attacks, said the military defeat of IS was vitally important but ultimately the stability of Syria would depend on a political solution.

Turnbull – now at the G20 in Turkey but in close contact with Australian security chiefs – sought to reassure Australians about local safety, saying we had the best security services in the world, and to send an inclusive reminder that “we are the most successful multicultural nation in the world”.

The Australian threat level is not being raised from its current “high” – that means a terrorist attack is likely. This is the second level – “extreme” denotes an attack is imminent.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott was careful to back the Turnbull government’s handling of security, saying it was the same as when he was prime minister. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said that “today it’s more important than ever that Labor signals its ongoing support for the government and Malcolm Turnbull” on these issues.

Turnbull, asked whether the international community needed to step up its military campaign and whether Australia was prepared to do more, said Australia was making a very significant contribution. Discussions with allies would continue and Australia “will consider what future contributions and what the shape of it will be in the light of those discussions”.

Turnbull said this was a theatre in which greater co-ordination was needed by all the players.

“Ultimately while a military defeat of Daesh is critically important, longer term overall to settle Syria and to enable the refugees to return, you’re going to need a political solution.”

Pressed on the question of “boots on the ground”, he said that “the most effective boots on the ground are going to be Syrian boosts on the ground”.

He stressed that “the critical thing is achieving some degree of common purpose between the various parties in Syria” which was going to be very challenging.

“Nobody with whom I’ve spoken about the Syrian situation regards it as anything other than at the absolute height of difficulty and complexity,” Turnbull said. But there were some good signs coming out of Vienna.

If there was a transition to a new government there “may well be a role for peacekeepers,” he said. However, replying to whether there might be a role for Australia in a peacekeeping mission, Turnbull said it would be very important that any external peacekeeping forces were, wherever possible, provided by countries within the region because they would be likely to receive greater acceptance from the people of Syria.

Appearing on Ten, Abbott pushed back when invited by interviewer Andrew Bolt to criticise the government.

Abbott said IS, this “vicious, evil entity”, was getting stronger. It could not be contained – it had to be defeated. The latest atrocity, on top of other recent atrocities, “does indicate that we need to do more to tackle this toxin at its source in Syria and Iraq”. When quizzed about ground troops he said that “this is not something that I think I should be giving public advice to prime ministers and presidents on”.

He said that none of the national security policies or border security policies that were in place when he was prime minister had been changed. “And I’ve heard Malcolm Turnbull say in the Parliament, to his great credit, that it is the absolute first responsibility of government to protect its own citizens, the safety of the community is the supreme law.”

Abbott once again used the “team” language that got him into some trouble when he was prime minister, but it was qualified. “We want people who come to this country to feel absolutely welcome. But we want them to join our team. Now the policy of multiculturalism means that they join our team in their own way and at their own pace, but join our team everyone who comes to Australia must ultimately do.”

Parliament House in Canberra was lit in the colours of the French Tricolore on Sunday night.