In December 2017, Australia announced the withdrawal of six RAAF Hornets from Syria. But this is not our ‘mission accomplished’ moment. The US is committed to a longer war in Syria, and its target is Iran.
Australians have little idea about what we are doing in the Middle East or why, even though our forces have been in and out of Iraq since 2003 and went into Syria in 2015. This longest war in Australia’s history is the latest in the list of foreign conflicts in which we have joined Americans, supposedly fighting communists or terrorists, but being told very little. This murky tradition revived when the Abbott government redeployed the ADF, the RAAF and Special Forces to Iraq in 2014 under Operation OKRA. They were notionally to train the Iraqi Army and help it combat IS (Islamic State), despite a denial from the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad that it had invited Australia to do so. Then in 2015, citing the need to ‘to prevent Da’esh [Islamic State] launching cross-border attacks’, Tony Abbott instead authorised Australian cross-border attacks into Syria. There, rather than fighting IS, Australia was covertly supporting the efforts by IS and others to destabilise the Syrian government – which the Prime Minister in 2014 denied was our objective (James O’Neill, Australia’s Illegal War in Syria: A Brief Update, https://newmatilda.com › International Affairs, Dec 8, 2015). American and British special forces were already in Iraq and Syria in growing numbers, but true to form, Defence wasn’t saying if Australian SAS were also there on the ground (http://www.smh.com.au/comment/ashton-carter-and-the-growing-special-forces-war-in-iraq-and-syria-20151203-glebwh.html), or what they were doing.
Since May 2017 the Department of Defence has published fortnightly reports on OKRA (Changes to reporting for ADF operations in Iraq and Syria | Defence …https://news.defence.gov.au/media/…/changes-reporting-adf-operations-iraq-and-syria). The Defence website lists RAAF missions since 2015 in Iraq and Syria, briefly showing the type of aircraft (bombers, surveillance, freight or tankers) by month, number of sorties, munitions used and fuel carried. However the OKRA reports from May to December 2017 relate only to locations in Iraq, none in Syria, and two cite no location. They are brief, formulaic and often repetitive. They use the euphemism ‘guided munitions’ for bombs, and ‘sorties’ include bombing raids. Defence admits to only eight civilian deaths in 2017, all in Mosul, seven of which in March were not caused by Australian forces. It was ‘possible’ that one death in June was a civilian (Civilian Casualty Report – Operation Okra – 30 September 2017).
On 17 September 2016, however, the RAAF admitted being involved in a Coalition attack near the strategic airport at Deir ez Zor, killing more than 80 Syrian government soldiers (James O’Neill, ‘US led coalition not fighting ISIS: it is helping them’, https://independentaustralia.net/…/keeping-us-safe-us-led-coalition-not-even-fighting-…Oct 7, 2017). After claiming this was a ‘mistake’, the ADF suspended FA-18 Hornet raids in Syria until February 2017, when they resumed without explanation. An earlier ‘mistake’ caused a shorter suspension in June 2016. This, says Tim Anderson of Sydney University, was only one of five US attacks on Syrian government forces since 2015 (http://21stcenturywire.com/2017/12/17/syria-us-war-crime-jabal-al-tharda-deir-ezzor-implausible-denials/).
The Russians and Syrians have defeated IS in Syria, and IS forces have fled the Iraqi cities they occupied since 2014. In December 2017, Australia announced the withdrawal of six RAAF Hornets from Syria, so when more civilians were killed in Deir ez Zor in January 2018, presumably Australia’s Hornets were not involved (http://sn4hr.org/blog/2018/01/14/international-coalition-forces-committed-massacre-hajin-city-deir-ez-zour-suburbs-january-13/). But this is not our ‘mission accomplished’ moment. The Defence Minister didn’t explain why our surveillance and refuelling planes continue to use Al Udeid in Qatar or Al Minhad in the United Arab Emirates. They are probably servicing US, Israeli and Saudi Arabian jets which are still active in Syria (David McIlwain, https://ahtribune.com/world/asia-pacific/2068-australia-war-on-syria.html), as well as the continuing RAAF missions in Iraq. Ironically, the US and its Saudi friends (including the UAE) accuse the Qataris of ‘sponsoring extremists’ (Qatar’s diplomatic crisis creating issues for al-Udeid military base. www.businessinsider.com/. Sep 14, 2017). In August 2017 the US admitted it has another base in the UAE (https://www.military.com/dodbuzz/2017/08/28/air-force-acknowledges-clandestine-base-in-uae Aug 28, 2017), but for the RAAF business as usual apparently continues out of its ‘logistic hub’ at Al Minhad (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-15/al-minhad:-australias-base-of-operations-in-the-middle-east/5). As well as the continuing RAAF presence in the region, 200 Special Forces and ‘trainers’ will stay in Baghdad in case ‘Da’esh’ may return (Australian warplanes to end air strike campaign against Islamic State …www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/2017-12-22/…to…syria/1725266. Dec 22, 2017).
A re-configured IS or its successor may indeed reappear in Iraq and Syria, and that appears to be what Australia is waiting for. Nearly six years ago the US began backing ‘extremists’ seeking an ‘Islamic State’ in eastern Syria, in order to ‘weaken the regime in Damascus’ (Defense Intelligence Agency, ‘Intelligence report ‘R 050839Z Aug 2012’, Levant Report, https://levantreport.com/2015/05/19/2012), and that apparently remains their intention. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has just announced that destroying IS is not enough: American forces will stay on in Syria to enable the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ to remove Bashar al-Assad and reduce Iran’s influence (‘US troops in Syria to counter Assad, Iran,’ Australian, 19 January 2018: 9). The US is training a new ‘Syrian National Army’ in Iraq near the north-east Syrian border. (https://www.globalresearch.ca/russia-charges-pentagon-with-training-ex-isis-fighters/5624244 )
Questions for Australians to ask our government include who our enemies are in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, on what legal basis our forces are deployed, and if IS has been defeated, why are they still there? To whom are we selling arms and why? When we make ‘mistakes’ what reparations do we offer? We pay for these wars, and we deserve to know the answers.
Dr Alison Broinowski is an Australian former diplomat and author. She is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform and Vice-President of Honest History.