The Australian government is a regular citer of what it calls the “rules based international order.” When it calls on other countries to desist from behaviour of which it disapproves. The recitation is frequently applied to the South China Sea where the Australian government disapproves of what it calls “Chinese assertiveness” in the region.
That this and similar phrases are never applied to the actions of Australia’s allies has long been noted. This is particularly true when the actions concerned are those of the United States, for whom the concept of a “rules based international order” i.e. the application of international law, is invariably interpreted to justify whatever action they chose to follow.
This is clearly the case in Syria, where Australia is a member of a so-called “coalition” of foreign troops fighting in that country’s ongoing war. When the Australian government announced in September 2015 its decision to join that war, allegedly on the basis of legal advice that it was able to do so and not be in violation of international law, it claimed two principal reasons for doing so.
The first was that it was in response to a request from the Iraqi government; and secondly that it was pursuant to the collective self-defence provisions of Article 51 of the UN Charter. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave these justifications to an ABC National Radio interviewer when asked a specific question about the legal basis for the Australian intervention. That the ABC simply accepted her answer and have never raised the question since is itself revealing.
That the Iraqi Prime Minster’s office issued an immediate denial that any such request had been made was never reported by the mainstream media, and the DFAT website is silent as to whether or not the Australian government reacted to Iraq’s denial of its purported request for assistance.
That Article 51 of the Charter manifestly dos not apply was also ignored by the mainstream media. The whole question of the illegality of Australia’s involvement in Syria is simply a non-topic as far as the media are concerned.
Similarly, as more and more evidence emerged that far from “fighting ISIS” the US and its allies were actually facilitating that group’s activities, the mainstream media again remained silent.
Last Tuesday, the Syrian Foreign Ministry issued a statement that could not be clearer. It said:
The presence of US forces or any foreign military presence in Syria without the consent of the Syrian government constitutes an act of aggression and an attack on the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic.
The US and Australia have definitely not been invited by the Syrian government and they certainly do not have that government’s consent. That distinction applies only to Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah forces.
Even the always-flimsy pretext of being there to “fight ISIS” cannot be sustained as those terrorist forces have now been effectively routed. ISIS fighters not killed by Syrian, Iranian and Russian forces have been allowed to retreat across the Syrian border into neighbouring countries.
Notwithstanding their military defeat, the US Secretary of Defence Mattis has announced that the US intends to stay in Syria. There is no authority for the US to do so, and the Syrian government immediately condemned the statement.
The Australian government has been conspicuously silent as to its future intentions in Syria, but it is probably a safe bet that they will do whatever the Americans want. No mention here of demanding “respect for the international rules based order.” That is clearly reserved for the actions by non-allied countries.
Similarly missing from the government’s narrative or mainstream media analysis, is any discussion of the real reasons for the Syrian intervention, nor of the real reasons the US government (and Australia?) clearly intend to stay despite the clear demands of the sovereign Syrian government.
The real reasons, it is suggested, have more to do with the geopolitical goals of the US in the region. These include “regime change” in Damascus; control of the alternative gas pipelines from the Middle East to Europe; support for Israel in its visceral hatred of Iran and desire to dominate the region; hindering the cementing of a “Shia crescent” from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon; and sabotaging by all means possible the development of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that has key connections through the region.
In respect of that latter point, there have already been significant geopolitical consequences of the BRI, as with the rapprochement of Turkey and Iran, and the expansion of Russian influence in the region. This has been not only through the BRI, but also with other major developments such as the North South Transportation Corridor from India to Russia via Iran and Azerbaijan. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has also expanded its membership and influence in the region and is the likely forerunner of a fundamentally different mode of international cooperation throughout Eurasia.
On the 22nd of this month Turkey, Iran and Russia will meet in Sochi to discuss a political settlement of the Syrian war. The United States, much less Australia, was not invited. They are clearly seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
These various initiatives, in trade, infrastructure development and the political resolution of a foreign inspired and supported attempt at the violent overthrow of the Syrian government are a model for the future. The Anglo-American imperialist model is totally discredited. The Syrian war is one of its last ditch stands. It will fail there as it is failing throughout the world.
Australia has to decide whether it wants to be part of this new world, having already rejected Chinas invitation to be a part of it, or whether it wants to follow its post world war 2 model of constant involvement in other people’s wars, usually at the behest of its “friends” who have their own agendas. It is time he clichéd reiteration of respect for the rules based order was actually put into practice.
James O’Neill is a Brisbane based barrister. He may be contacted at email@example.com