Reports that ISIS is relocating to the Philippines following defeats in Iraq and Syria have raised concerns about its possible spread elsewhere the region. The Australian government has offered support to the Philippines, but it should think more deeply before it slides into a conflict that develops into something it can’t control
The Government has announced that Australia has offered military assistance to President Duterte of the Philippines to help local forces fight Islamic State militants in the southern Mindanao region, particularly around Marawi, a mid-size city where ISIS claims to have established a Caliphate or a Southeast Asian base, with some 800 deaths in the process. The assistance would comprise SAS Special Forces units in an advise and assist role, not in direct combat. US Special Forces are already engaged in the area. It is understood that the offer has been accepted by the President and will include intelligence sharing following a recent meeting with Nick Warner, the fist punching director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.
This offer follows Defence Minister Marise Payne’s earlier announcement that the Philippines had accepted an offer of two AP-3C Orion surveillance aircraft “to assist its fight against extremist forces”, presumably with target guidance.
It is understood that the Philippines Government is in principle opposed to foreign ground forces being involved in local combat operations but air and sea roles may be an exception.
Australian Ministers have restated earlier claims that the “regional threat from terrorism, in particular from Daesh and foreign fighters, is a direct threat to Australia and our interests”. What is yet to be made clear are the terms of the offer, who the SAS troops would be responsible to, and what legal safeguards will exist to protect them from legal process within that jurisdiction.
It will be recalled that in the case of Iraq where we do not have a Status of Forces Agreement our troops have been issued with diplomatic passports to ensure immunity. While the Philippines are not engaged in a war in the international sense the President recently declared Martial Law and suspended Habeas Corpus throughout Mindanao.
The relevance of this is that the Philippines Government is concurrently engaged in three separate domestic wars: a war against drugs, a war against ISIS, and a war against insurrections, principally the decades long struggle of the Moro Liberation Fronts (National and Islamic) – making a clear distinction between hostilities in one or other conflict difficult at the best of times.
It is well known that in these struggles the Philippines defence and police forces have engaged in indiscriminate killings on a massive scale with little if any regard for judicial process.
This fact must further sharpen the question of where and how Australian forces in these assistance roles will be able to avoid being implicated one way or another in this level of lawlessness. And if they fail to do so at any time where that might leave them not so much under Philippines law but under our own law and relevant international conventions.
Which raises the further question: on what legal basis are such military operations against international terrorism outside Australia being conducted? As far as we know they are pursuant to simple administrative orders under Section 8 of the Defence Act which is an Act for the “general control and administration” of the Defence Forces, not an exercise of the prerogative Defence power.
Rather than setting ourselves up as a target for ISIS retaliation – a concern already evoked as a consequence of our actions in Iraq and Syria – should not these responses to international terrorism be seen in a regional context if ISIS is indeed an existential threat to the region?
What of Indonesia which has had some ISIS penetration already, and Malaysia – indeed what of ASEAN as a whole? In 2004, Australia adopted an ASEAN-Australia Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism. Would not this be an appropriate occasion to utilise that Declaration and mobilise joint forces to contain ISIS and similar penetrations into the region?
But this presupposes in the present case that the ASEAN countries see ISIS in the same light and in this context can distinguish that threat from the other warlike campaigns being conducted by the Philippines President.
The Australian government should think more deeply before it yet again slides into a conflict which starts small but develops into something it can’t control and eventually will not take responsibility for.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser and senior academic in public and international law.
At the time of writing this blog there were well sourced reports which were contradicted only this morning by the Prime Minister. That does not alter the thrust of the item which was addressing the issue of military assistance of any kind in the confused situation prevailing in the Philippines…John Menadue