Few Solutions, Little Cause For Optimism: Australia Joins The Syrian War


And so it’s official: we’re going into Syria.

At a media conference at Parliament House yesterday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced that Australia would commence bombing Islamic State forces inside the borders of Syria.

“After careful consideration and in response to the request some weeks ago by President Obama, the Government has also decided to extend Australia’s current air strikes against Daesh in Iraq to Daesh targets in Syria as well,” Abbott said.

He explained why in plain terms. Australia wants to drop more bombs on the forces of Islamic State.

“There can be no stability and no end to the persecution and suffering in the Middle East until the Daesh death cult is degraded and ultimately destroyed,” Prime Minister Abbott said. “That’s what our armed forces are doing in Iraq and we need to do it in Syria too.”

Australian Super Hornet fighter-bombers will now be tasked into the current operations of coalition air forces. According to the Chief of the Defence Force, Mark Binskin, “there is a programming of participation in strikes and we will be part of that programming henceforth.”

At least in theory, these strikes will be against Islamic State, and not, at least in theory, in support of the government forces of Bashar al-Assad.

Exactly how that works in practice must surely be anyone’s guess. The government has not been able to explain what Australia is doing bombing Syria, certainly not from any detailed legal or strategic perspective. Are we effectively supporting Assad? Can airstrikes work? What if they don’t? Will we bomb more? Will we commit troops? How deep into the quagmire will we wade?

As with so many aspects of national security, Labor has offered little or no scrutiny (let alone opposition). Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and his deputy, shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek issued a strange and conditional approval for the government’s escalation yesterday.

While putting six conditions on Labor’s support, including a debate in Parliament, the Opposition tacitly gave the government the go-ahead to bomb in Syria. “Labor supports the Government’s proposal that ADF assets should have the option to operate across the Iraqi border in Syrian airspace,” Labor’s statement read.

Leave aside for a moment the central issue here, of whether this is a good idea.

What should be even more concerning is what this escalation tells us.

The Islamic State is winning. The rogue insurgency is not being pushed back. Indeed, it appears to be consolidating its territory in the north of Syria and the west of Iraq.

Although we citizens are not privy to the high-level intelligence enjoyed by generals and prime ministers, the public source record suggests that Islamic State is making gains in Syria, and holding its own in Iraq.

The US is losing the proxy war. One analyst recently claimed the Iraqi Army “could barely defend” against IS attacks, let alone take the offensive to retake fallen cities like Ramadi.

In July, the latest batch of American-trained soldiers sent out to fight Islamic State were betrayed by informants and butchered; IS captured their Humvees and paraded them around the centre of Falluja. The Washington Post reported four days ago that “the battle to retake Ramadi is going nowhere.”

The continued existence of Islamic State is predicated on the refusal of America to re-commit major ground forces in the Middle East. This is a given under Obama; further escalation is a controversial topic for Republicans. So any action now is confined to air power and irregular operations by proxy forces trained and equipped by the US.

Air power has never won a ground war, as the US discovered in Vietnam. IS has evolved sophisticated new tactics that continue to frustrate coalition attacks. A recent report described the group’s use of huge fields of improvised explosive device as minefields. They have also pioneered an assault tactic consisting of massed suicide truck bombs, followed up by infantry.

Air power will degrade Islamic State, but ultimately only comparable commitments of ground forces will be able to defeat it.

The other, quite amazing, implication of Abbott’s bombing escalation is that it puts Australia into de facto alliance with Syria, and its key backer: Russia. This is the Russia of Vladimir Putin, a fellow that the Abbott government has not been particularly fond of.

If you can explain the strategic logic, you are indeed a supple thinker. The enemy of my enemy may indeed be my friend, but in that case Australia is now a friend of Bashar al-Assad, one of the more brutal and murderous tyrants of modern history. Assad’s actions precipitated the civil war, and his forces are by far the most destructive, laying waste that vast swathes of Syrian cities with barbaric barrel bombs. This the death and destruction that Syrian refugees are fleeing.

Russia appears to be ramping up its military commitment in support of the Assad regime. Reuters reported yesterday that Russia was committing ground forces in the north of Syria to secure a critical airfield and port.

The Abbott government has dealt itself in to a high stakes game. Events are sliding out of the control of the Western coalition, led by the United States, of which Australia is an enthusiastic member.

The implosion of Syria in the wake of brutal crackdowns against peaceful protests by President Assad has shattered a fragile geopolitics into its constituent shards. It completes a process begun by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the insurgency against it that ensued.

As Michael Williams and many others have pointed out, the disintegration of Syria marks the collapse of the old Sykes-Picot territorial states imposed by the western powers on the middle east in the wake of the First World War.

Those borders were a ruthless exercise in imperialism dictated by Britain and France. As drawn, they did not reflect local political and ethnic realities, and have often been opposed as illegitimate by the peoples they were imposed on.

War is often the incubator of new states. Already we can see lines on the map effaced by realities on the ground.

The Kurds have already carved out tacit independence in the north of Iraq. Islamic State may well be on the way to creating something similar. The rump of Iraq ruled by Haider al-Abadi is not much more than a client state, propped up by a nervous United States. Syria, meanwhile, is essentially an armed camp, as a hardcore of loyalists rallied around the throne of Assad for a final Armageddon. There is no democratic legitimacy to either the Iraqi or Syrian regimes.

This is the geopolitical situation Australia has somehow gotten itself involved in. But the government has yet to advance a compelling argument about why it is in Australia’s  interest. As even conservatives like Tom Switzer argue, “the Islamic State doesn’t represent an existential threat”.

“The best way to defeating terrorism,” Switzer observes, “is not by launching endless wars in a vast region largely hostile to westerners.”

Writing after the Second World War, British military historian Basil Liddell Hart defined grand strategy as “coordinat[ing]all the resources of a nation, or a band of nations, towards the attainment of the political object of the war—the goal defined by fundamental policy.”

But what is Australia’s fundamental policy in the Middle East? Do we even have one?

Defeating Islamic State can hardly be it: even if we were successful, what then? Defeating Islamic State would merely be the first step in any putative Middle East “solution”, a solution that would have to be more political than military.

In truth, there is no solution, and little cause for optimism.

Civil wars have a nasty habit of sucking in more and more belligerents, as the conflict generates its own logic and gravity. The war will get worse as it escalates. More people will die, and more refugees will flee. And Australia is now a part of that conflict.

Once again, Australia finds itself stepping into a faraway war – a war that nobody voted for, and that few Australian citizens understand.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.