What are Australia’s objectives in the Middle East imbroglio? The simple answer is that it is about the American Alliance. We see ourselves as part of a global alliance led by the USA and generally supported by European powers: countries that “share our values”. We are there because they are. Therefore the fact that our military presence makes no difference to the situation in Syria or in defeating ISIS is not really relevant. Nor is it relevant that our military presence does nothing to discourage idealistic young Australians from joining ISIS and may even encourage them. Neither is it relevant that the US doesn’t really know what it is doing there. But of course domestic politics in Australia are always relevant.
Russia does have clear strategic objectives in supporting Bashir al Assad just as it does in Crimea and Ukraine. Western pressure, including sanctions, only entrenches Putin’s domestic popularity because he is seen as a strong man who defends the Motherland against foreign oppressors. So Putin does not need to give in to American and NATO huffing and puffing. Russians distrust NATO and even more the US who they do not believe have any right to the moral highground – especially since it was the illegal Coalition of the Willing that opened Pandora’s Box. So Putin will negotiate but will not give anything important away. Who is the greater evil: ISIS or Bashir al Assad? Furthermore it is increasingly obvious that the current strategy is not working so the Americans must eventually go back to the drawing board which means either go home, get heavily involved militarily on the ground or work with Assad. Russia holds the cards in the Ukraine/Crimea situation and no doubt believes it has the winning cards in Syria also. While the aircraft that strayed into Turkish airspace probably was a navigational error as the Russians claim, the Russians argue that everyone opposed to Assad is a terrorist and their aim is to support their rooster against “terrorists”. Therefore they may well be targeting non-ISIS groups opposed to Assad but they are not likely to listen to sermons from NATO. It could also be a ploy to pressure others to support Assad. As the US found out when it armed the Taliban against the USSR, it is not always easy to know who are the goodies and who are the baddies.
Australia is a babe in the Middle Eastern woods where various factions fight other factions in an ever changing kaleidoscope. We would be well advised to keep out of the region and stop kidding ourselves that we have influence. The US expects us to toe the line but we could try to persuade them to be more realistic and less ideological .However our track record is not encouraging. Russia sees us as simply a camp follower of the USA and so is not really interested in our views .Prime Minister Turnbull is showing some awareness of reality by noting that a military solution is not an option and seems to understand that our military presence in the region is more likely to radicalise young idealists than calm them down. It will be interesting to see what develops.
Cavan Hogue was formerly Australian ambassador to USSR and to Russia.