ALISON BROINOWSKI. What side are we on in Syria and Iraq?

Dec 20, 2016

The mainstream media are agonising about the Syrian government‘s nearly completed overthrow of rebels and the devastation of Aleppo. But the fog of war is not a sufficient excuse for their utter confusion about who the enemy is. The Australian Government doesn’t seem to know either, nor to have any idea what a successful outcome would be. As the latest example of vacuum that is at the core of our defence and foreign policy, we can expect soon to be involved in retaking Fallujah for the Iraqis against whom US and coalition forces led by Australian General Jim Molan fought over it in 2004.

The government of Syria was on the list of seven regimes targeted in the US neo-cons’ grand reform plan for the Middle East. After overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the US helped establish a Sunni anti-Assad force that later, transformed into Islamic State (IS), rapidly took over territory in both Iraq and Syria. Salafi IS fighters oppose the Shia-dominated government of Iraq, which the US supports, so IS is the Americans’ declared enemy in Iraq, but is fighting Assad, the US’ enemy in Syria. So are the ‘moderate’ rebels whom the US supports, and who may well trade American arms to IS. Turkey too, opposes IS, but is more concerned to fight its Kurdish separatist supporters. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states back the rebels against IS and its declared caliphate, and fight the US’ proxy war in Yemen. This year Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have helped to push IS forces out of the Syrian cities they occupied in 2104-5, but they may well regroup in Iraq. If the US and its allies have learnt anything from the Iraq war, it is that regime change is fraught with dangerous consequences.

As for Australia, the pattern established in the Vietnam war still holds, apparently: Australia volunteers to join an American war, confects an invitation from the receiving state, and then regardless of the legality, fights whoever the US designates as the enemy. Since Tony Abbott re-committed Australian troops to Iraq in 2014, mission creep has followed in classic fashion. First there were humanitarian missions; then he sent Special Forces; then regular troops went to train Iraq’s army; then RAAF bombers began operating in Iraq from their base in the Gulf. In July 2016, just after the election, Malcolm Turnbull quietly let it be known that the RAAF would bomb Syria too. Although the Abbott and Turnbull governments repeatedly claimed to have an invitation from Damascus for these deployments, none was publicly produced, and the Australian military in Iraq were reported to be there on diplomatic passports.

The legal status of Australia’s actions seems to count for little with the Government, which periodically puts out dubious explanations about what it is doing. On 30 September 2014 the Government claimed it had legal advice that justified bombing Syria, but it has not been released. On 17 November 2015 Julie Bishop said she had a request for defence against Syria from the Government of Iraq. She cited the collective self-defence provision of Article 51 of the UN Charter, which James O’Neill and other lawyers have shown does not apply. The former lawyer expressed another curious justification for attacks in Iraq and Syria, claiming that IS observes no borders, so Australia doesn’t have to either. On 3 December 2015, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi contradicted the Australian Foreign Minister, emphasising ‘a lack of need for troops in Iraq,’ adding that he had not asked any country to ‘send ground troops to Iraq.’ That means foreign ground troops are not there at Iraq’s invitation, nor for collective self-defence, and so their presence effectively constitutes an invasion.

Australia is confronting the legal consequences of all this. The Government’s response appears more often to be guided by ‘might makes right’ than by international law. Paul Maley reports (Australian, 15 December 2016: 9) being told by a senior airforce officer that on 30 June – that is two days before the Federal election – the Australian military changed its rules of engagement to ‘allow more flexibility and risk in its targeting.’ The weapons release rate for Australian F/A 18s bombing Mosul, in Iraq, was increased from 40 percent to 61 percent – that means the proportion of bombs they drop in each raid. Loosened restrictions, Maley was told, enable the bombers to hit ‘harder targets’ in ‘more complex areas’, implying they are less constrained by the risk of collateral damage. He reported that ‘war crimes laws’ were changed because they were excessively onerous, and to meet concerns about defence personnel being open to prosecution. He didn’t explain what war crimes laws those are, how or by whom they have been changed.

Underlying this euphemistic quasi-legal defence-speak is a troubling set of probabilities. First, it seems the ADF’s rules of engagement were changed by the Defence Force itself, not by the Minister, precisely when the government was in caretaker mode, and before a new Minister had been appointed. Second, if the government of Iraq had requested the RAAF in June 2016 to intensify its bombing of Mosul, that invitation could have been tabled in Parliament at any time in the following six months, not merely revealed to a journalist now in the summer recess. This suggests surreptitious motives. Third, no Status of Forces Agreement for Australian military in Iraq has been produced, although Julie Bishop tried for months to get one in 2015. This means defence personnel who don’t have diplomatic passports can be tried and jailed for offences in Iraq, and they and those who command them can be accused of war crimes. This seems to be what is causing current concern.

The situation in Syria is even more serious. As Kellie Tranter, another Brisbane barrister like James O’Neill, has learned from an FOI response , that successive Australian Ministers have resorted to non-legal arguments to justify bombing Syria. In August 2015, for example, Turnbull said, ‘While there is little difference between the legalities of air strikes on either side of the border, there’s no difference in the morality.’ Australia’s Permanent Representative at the UN, Gillian Bird, argued that the Syrian government was ‘unwilling or unable’ to prevent IS from attacking Iraq from Syria, and this justified Australian air strikes across the border. Her Syrian counterpart wrote to the UN Security Council on 17 September 2015, accusing Australia, France and the UK of ‘taking measures’ against Syria, and denying that Syria was unwilling or unable to control IS. He cited Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others as countries which ‘arm, shelter and train the terrorist groups IS, Nusrah Front and others associated with Al Qaida.’ Of course Australia’s measures against Syria were taken at the behest of the US, which has since changed its mind, and hence Australia’s mind has changed too.

A timely appeal for independent defence and foreign policy by 24 Australians with long international experience is unlikely to inspire the Government, even at this critical time, to think for itself.

Dr Alison Broinowski, a former Australian diplomat, is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform, Vice-President of Honest History, and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

Share and Enjoy !


Receive articles straight to your Inbox

How often?

Thank you for subscribing!