If Australia has switched enemies in Syria, as our allies apparently have done, the Turnbull Government owes us at least an explanation about who and why we are fighting.
Australia began bombing Syria from the air under Tony Abbott in September 2015. DFAT explained to lawyer Kellie Tranter, who asked what the legal basis was for attacking Syria:
‘The Government of Syria has, by its failure to constrain attacks upon Iraqi territory originating from ISIL bases within Syria, demonstrated that it is unwilling or unable to prevent those attacks.’
In other words, in order to support Iraq, Australia was attacking IS, which is one of the enemies of President Assad in Syria, and hence doing him a favour.
As well, in July 2016, just after the Australian election and following a visit by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, the Turnbull Government surreptitiously loosened restrictions on RAAF targeting, to allow pilots “more flexibility and risk” — that is, relieving them of former concerns about collateral damage.
Australia’s diluting to pink of the RAAF’s vaunted “red card” ban on civilian targets was not revealed until after parliament rose in December 2016. (Paul Maley, ‘Aussies intensify airstrikes on Daesh’, The Australian, 15 December 2016).
From at least 2011, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been training, arming and financing Islamist groups in Syria, in the hope that in a civil war they will overthrow Assad.
As James O’Neill points out, it has been America’s plan since 2000 to build a natural gas pipeline from Qatar through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey to Europe. Syria has resisted. Rival suppliers of gas to Europe were Iran (inhibited by sanctions) and Russia, whose pipeline was stopped by the U.S.-backed coup in 2014 from passing through Ukraine. These ambitions have nothing to do with Australia, whose official position remains that IS is our enemy. Whether Assad still is too, we are not told.
At least the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson keeps his country up to date.
Back in December 2015, well before his appointment, The Telegraph reported that he accepted Assad was a monster, but in an article written by Johnson he made a further remarkable comment summed up in its title — ‘Let’s deal with the Devil: we should work with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.’
‘we cannot afford to be picky about our allies’.
Concerned about saving Palmyra from IS occupation, Johnson asked:
‘Am I backing the Assad regime, and the Russians, in their joint enterprise to recapture that amazing site? You bet I am.’
But then, seven months later, having become foreign secretary, the bet was off.
‘the suffering of the Syrian people will not end while Assad remains in power.’
After the U.S. election, he again changed his mind, saying in late January 2017:
‘President Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to stand for election to remain in power in Syria.’
Johnson admitted that this represented ‘a complete flip flop, supporting the Russians, Assad. But I must also be realistic about the way the landscape has changed and it may be that we will have to think afresh about how to handle this.’
What had changed the landscape, of course, was Brexit and Trump. Now, Johnson is pushing for British bombing of Syria in support of the Assad Government.
So who will they bomb? IS, or the “moderate” Islamists whom the US, UK and Australia have until recently been supporting? The Trump administration claims it has such intentions. The difference between the UK and Australia is that the British parliament will presumably have to debate and vote on such a change, while if the Australian Government does the same, we are unlikely to be told it has happened for months, let alone why we are in Syria at all.
It would help Australians to understand what is being done in our name by the ADF if the prime minister, defence minister, and foreign minister explained clearly to the parliament who we are fighting and for what purpose. If Australia has switched enemies, as our allies apparently have done, they owe us at least an explanation.
Better would be if they took the opportunity to pull our forces out of this pointless war.
Dr Alison Broinowski is vice-president of Australians for War Powers Reform and vice-president of Honest History. You can follow Alison on Twitter @Alisonbroinowsk. This article was first published in Independent Australia.