Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced an expansion into Syria of Australia’s military operations against Islamic State (IS), joining the US, Canada and several Arab nations. Long-term success will depend upon the government investing equally in regional diplomacy and reconstruction to secure any military gains.
Remarkably, the preceding public debate has largely been muted – with a few exceptions. These have included reports suggesting that Abbott had initiated the request from US President Barack Obama for Australia’s involvement and off-hand remarks by Vice-Admiral David Johnston, chief of joint operations, that acquiescing to the US request would add little value.
Former foreign minister Bob Carr came out in support of expanding operations into Syria for moral reasons.
The decision to expand operations is justified on operational grounds. To effectively carry out its ongoing mission in Iraq, a limited expansion of military operations into Syria was necessary. Such an expansion – a legal grey area – will allow Australian aircraft to pursue IS personnel fleeing across the border and to attack their command-and-control structures used for attacks in Iraq.
Making the announcement on Wednesday, Abbott emphasised that the aircraft would be targeting IS and not the Assad regime, “evil thought it is”. Airstrikes are expected to begin with the next week.
The widening of the area of operations will not increase Australia’s current troop deployment. This is made up of 400 personnel supporting aerial missions over Iraq, 200 SAS soldiers training Iraqi counter-terrorism units and a further 300 soldiers training Iraqi forces at the Taji training base north of Baghdad.
Why now is the right time
While presented as a limited expansion driven by operational needs, the announcement is also a timely commitment with wider strategic consequences. The decision recognises a rapidly changing landscape.
In late August, Turkey began military operations against IS while continuing its rapproachment with Saudi Arabia. This coming together of two regional powerhouses, along with some European countries considering committing to the fight, makes Australia’s announcement part of a growing international consensus to act.
Additionally, Syrian-Kurdish military groups have had considerable success against IS in recent months. They have cleared key towns in northern Syria. This has left only a small area, between the Euphrates River and the town of Azaz, under IS control.
IS uses this last remaining area along the Turkish border to traffic oil and historical artefacts, resupply food and ammunition and welcome thousands of new foreign recruits.
Australia’s decision, while not committing to supporting a planned US and Turkish effort to expel IS from this northern border area, will add legitimacy to the international community’s collective action while applying military pressure to IS’s eastern operations.
What comes next?
In August 2013, Abbott cautioned against military action in Syria:
We should be very reluctant to get too involved in very difficult conflicts which we may not be readily able to influence for good.
Whether military intervention can now influence the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars for good depends upon there being an accompanying diplomatic strategy that seeks to find a durable long-term solution. Military power alone cannot address the political and ideological motivations driving IS’s successes.
The Syrian civil war is in its fifth year. More than 200,000 civilians have been killed. One-third of the country’s population – seven million people – are internally displaced. Another four million are refugees.
What was an ethnically diverse country pockmarked with different histories, cultures and languages is now uniformly divided. In the west, along the coast, are the Alawites, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s supporters. In the north are the Kurds. In the east are the Sunnis. Interspersed within these three are the minority Druze, Christians and Shia.
Nearly five years of war has effectively redrawn the borders, pushing people to move to what have become self-governed regions. As such, the international community should shift its efforts away from reviving a long-lost idea of a united Syria and instead push for peace by recognising the redrawn ethnic boundaries.
We can look to the experience of the multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina following its five-year war to see how a previously integrated and heterogeneous society became segregated through conflict, and yet managed to establish a tenuous but peaceful co-existence by establishing autonomous regions.
Similarly, we must learn from the current catastrophe in Libya and the post-invasion debacle of Iraq. In both circumstances, the international community ignored the need to commit resources after the war to sustain the peace – with devastating consequences.
For expanded military operations against IS to succeed, Australia must additionally commit non-military resources, diplomats, stabilisation and reconstruction specialists as well as financing. It must have a realistic view of the end goal and start planning to stabilise and rebuild any territory taken from IS.