The US opposes Assad because he is not their son of a bitch and so supports a motley bag of groups with little in common who are probably no better than Assad. The elimination of ISIS is certainly desirable but it will not solve the mess that is the Middle East. Australia trots along behind the US because of the insurance policy argument.
The Syrian Government has retaken Palmyra which is a significant victory in the fight against ISIS. It is looking increasingly possible that they will also defeat the motley collection of other groups who are their enemies once ISIS has been driven out of Syria. The question is what will Australia do? Will we continue to support all or some of these opposition groups? Presumably we will follow whatever the USA does. But what will the mercurial President Trump do?
We need to be clear that US opposition to Assad has nothing to do with the fact that he is a brutal dictator which he is. The US has a long tradition of supporting and often installing brutal dictators who support US interests even if this means overthrowing democratically elected governments. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was once asked how he justified American support for the brutal Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza who was every bit as nasty a piece of work as Assad. Roosevelt replied: “Yes, I know he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”. The problem with Assad is that he is not America’s son of a bitch but Russia’s. This is why the US, and therefore Australia, supports a varied bunch of religious and other groups who may well be no better than Assad if they ever get government and hang together for any length of time. Who would replace Assad? And how stable would Syria be? And, perhaps more importantly, would the consequent instability enable ISIS to make a comeback?
Australian participation in the Middle East quagmire is all about the American Alliance and it is crystal clear that John Howard got us into this mess because of the insurance policy argument which requires us to follow the US in the hope that they will come to our aid in our hour of need. Thus the constant speeches about how we have followed the Americans into every battle they have been in since WW1 (although we did not help them invade Grenada!). Some would see this lemming like policy as a badge of shame but clearly our governments do not. Whether the Americans would listen to us telling them they are wrong now and again is a moot point but we could try. Sometimes they get it right but too often they do not.
The illegal invasion of Iraq opened Pandora’s Box and it is hard to see how it can be closed again in the foreseeable future. Australia has no real influence here and our participation simply makes us a target for religious extremists both foreign and home grown. Of course, the Americans like to have our flag along even if they don’t need our troops and that remains the whole point of the exercise for Australian foreign policy. No doubt it also has domestic ramifications by ratcheting up a climate of fear which governments promise to save us from.
Cavan Hogue was a former senior Australian diplomat and Australian Ambassador to USSR and Russia.