We should not have to resort to speculation about what our troops are doing either in Syria or in the Philippines. But the mere mention of Islamist terrorism now generates an armed response.
When several prominent Americans visit Australia in succession, it’s a warning that something serious is about to happen. Last year US Admiral Joseph Aucoin, Commander of the US 7th Fleet, arrived to warn us that we must push back against China in the South China Sea. Then came another Admiral Jonathan Greenert to tell Australia the US wants to put warships in the port of Darwin. In April, Vice President Mike Pence arrived to ‘reassure Australia of the closeness of the relationship’ under the Trump administration. North Korea tensions, the South China Sea, trade, regional security, and military tensions were also on the agenda. After him in May 2017 came Republican Senator John McCain to beg us to show patience, and even leadership, in coping with President Trump. At the end of May former ADF head Admiral Chris Barrie warned that having been involved in proxy wars in the Middle East for two decades, Australia was ‘sleepwalking’ towards a major war.
So it seemed in Syria, for after a series of American bombing raids that were said to be ‘mistakes’ – in one of which more than 60 Syrian soldiers died in September 2016, and the RAAF was involved – the US on 19 June 2017 shot down a Syrian fighter plane and two Iran-supplied drones that had reportedly attacked the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) are Arabs and Kurds allied in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, and are among several groups of so-called Islamic ‘moderates’ supported by the US. After the strike, which was in the ‘deconfliction zone’ bordering Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, the US did not even claim to have made a mistake. On 20 June, the ADF halted Australian air operations when Russia announced that it would scramble its fighter planes, track US-led coalition aircraft and drones in the area, and shut down the hotline between the two sides. How long Australia’s ‘temporary’ suspension of RAAF flights over Syria will continue, we have not been told (Rory Callinan, Australian, 21 June 2017).
Russia has also called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council. If this occurs, the illegality of Australia’s bombing of Syria could be exposed once again. For not only does Syria pose no threat to Australia, we are effectively attacking the government of a sovereign state which has shown itself to be increasingly in control of its territory, and which has certainly not invited us to bomb its forces. In doing so, our leaders are evidently committing the war crime of aggression, and they would be wise to make the suspension permanent.
Australia has also been sleepwalking in Indonesia and the Philippines. Earlier this year Saudi Arabia announced generous funding for Wahhabi proselytisers in nominally secular Indonesia and in the southern Philippines, reviving concerns about fundamentalists in their outer provinces and the rise of Islamist activism. In May Islamic State (IS) announced the establishment of the ‘Islamic State-Eastern Region,’ and just before Ramadan, some of its members suicide-bombed a Jakarta bus station. Others besieged Marawi city in Mindanao. In June when the four Muslim rebel groups currently active there declared allegiance to IS, two RAAF Orion aircraft were dispatched to the Southern Philippines to join US Orions in fighting the ‘terrorists’ and supporting President Rodrigo Duterte, who in the past had shunned any American re-occupation of bases in the Philippines and was prepared to negotiate with China in respect of disputed islands in the South China Sea.
In Mindanao, people in the Muslim community (‘Bangsamoros’) traditionally engage in piracy, smuggling and kidnapping. The latest of several Moro groups to become prominent are Abu Sayaaf and the Maute, allied under Isnilon Hapilon who is wanted by the FBI for terrorism. Now they have been joined by brothers from Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Yemen. The predominantly Christian government in Manila has for decades responded to the Moros with oppression, and last December Duterte arrogantly rejected a ceasefire offered by the Maute (Peter Hartcher, SMH 20 June 2017).
Australia had rural development programs and Catholic priests in Mindanao for decades, and occasional threats, attacks and abductions occurred nearby, but we never called in the ADF. The rationale was that offering local people better conditions would deter them from joining the rebels in the jungle and on the Sulu Sea. But in the Southern Philippines, piracy, gun-running, and dope dealing always paid better than tenant farming for rich absentee landlords. Duterte’s ‘extra-judicial killings’ of thousands of those engaged in the drug trade have fomented Muslim outrage and desire for vengeance. As Hartcher observed (20 June 2017), the events in Marawi show that ‘any part of the planet that is ungoverned, or even just poorly governed, is ripe for jihadi land grab’.
Obvious similarities exist with the Cold War period, when Communists were the nominal enemy and Western countries tried to suppress nationalist guerrilla movements against local dictators. Now we hear that Islamism in Southeast Asia could reach Australia creating a revived domino effect. Malaysia is sending naval support to the Philippines, and Indonesia, where official concern about copycat operations is growing, has done the same. No one inquires, apparently, why Trump doesn’t pressure his Saudi Arabian friends to stop funding and arming Salafists in Indonesia and the Philippines, or how Duterte’s extra-judicial murders are forgiveable when Assad’s killings of Syrian citizens are not.
As for Australia, if we never sent Orions during decades of Moro uprisings, why are we doing so now? We can speculate that the mere mention of ‘terrorism’ engages the national security industry and generates media excitement out of proportion to the event itself. We can imagine what our American visitors want us to do. We can also expect that a Western armed response will attract more Islamist recruits and more publicity, generating an endless revenge cycle.
We should not have to resort to speculation about what our troops are doing either in Syria or in the Philippines. Deployment of the ADF is an act of war, which should be openly debated and voted on by the Parliament, with clear objectives and strategies. As long as these are absent, Australia will continue to sleepwalk into disastrous wars, dreaming that the US will protect us.
©2017 Alison Broinowski
Dr Alison Broinowski was an Australian diplomat in the Philippines from 1974 to 1978. She is Vice President of Honest History and of Australians for War Powers Reform, whose websites have shorter versions of this article.