Allan Patience. Australia and the War in Syria.

Jan 6, 2016

Repost from 02/09/2015

Australia and the War in Syria: Perverting a Noble Vision in International Law for Ignoble Domestic Political Purposes

In 2005 a summit of world leaders at the United Nations unanimously endorsed the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Along with the establishment of the International Criminal Court, it constitutes one of the most noble contributions to international law, ever. Basically the doctrine declares that where a state is incapable or unwilling to protect its citizens, the international community should come to their aid. Intervention may take one or more of several forms: debt forgiveness, manageable loans, direct financial and logistical aid, sanctions, peace keeping operations and – as a very last resort – threatened or actual military intervention.

Like so many modern legal and ethical advances, especially in international law, R2P has been honoured more in its breach than its observance. Since its endorsement by the United Nations, the international community has sat on its hands while vicious ruling elites around the world have unleashed mass atrocities on their pitiless subjects. The prime contemporary example is the criminal Assad regime in Syria. Where interventions in the name of R2P have been initiated (by the UN or other regional or global authorities), they have generally been too little too late, or so badly coordinated they have worsened the very problems they were intended to solve.

It is surely ironic, therefore, that one of the main architects of R2P, Gareth Evans, and another former Labor Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, are now urging the Abbott government to accept the alleged “invitation” from President Obama to extend Australia’s bombing of Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria. They have suggested that this proposed intervention will be in the interests of the hapless victims of the Assad regime and IS, and other opposition elements in the horrific humanitarian catastrophe that is Syria today. That is, they want us to believe that it would entail a humanitarian intervention in line with the principles of R2P. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The bombing campaigns presently being conducted by the United States, Canada, Turkey and other allies are classic illustrations of an inadequately resourced and disastrously coordinated campaign that amounts to much too little, far too late. It will not stop IS in its tracks, nor will it bring down the Assad government. Probably nothing short of a very large number of American, Saudi Arabian, Iranian, NATO and other allies’ boots on the ground will begin to achieve those objectives. As the world well knows, the likelihood of this happening is precisely nil.

Meanwhile the Erdogan government in Istanbul is using the conflict as a cover for its brutal bombing of Kurds in southern Turkey and northern Syria and Iraq. Iran and Saudi Arabia are meddling in the various conflicts in Syria to wage a proxy war for their own nefarious purposes. Russia and China are blocking any genuine R2P attempts in the Security Council. And even if IS is destroyed and Assad and his ruthless cronies are toppled, there is no plan, no strategy, in place to bring order to the region and enable the tragically suffering peoples there begin to rebuild their lives.

It is more than likely that extending bombing into Syria is illegal under international law. Moreover the puny contribution that the few sorties the RAAF is capable of mounting in Syria will be pointless as far as ending the conflict is concerned. Given the propensity for allied bombs to incur “collateral damage” it is inevitable that Australian warplanes will add to the wounding and killing of innocent civilians. Any attempts to dress this up as a humanitarian R2P intervention simply advances the despicable rationale advanced by Tony Abbott for plunging Australia more deeply into a conflict that makes no sense in terms of the country’s real security interests.

Why then is Abbott urging the Americans to let Australia lend a hand in this unholy mess? Two morally grotesque answers immediately come to mind.

First, yet again Australia is cozying up to the United States in the naïve belief that Uncle Sam needs constant assurance of our abject loyalty to the ANZUS alliance. The fact is that the US takes Australia’s uncritical support for granted, end of story.

The second answer relates to Abbott’s electoral fortunes – or misfortunes. There is clearly a belief in the government that scaring the Australian electorate is the surest way of winning the 2016 election. This perverse rationale for recklessly spending Australian blood and treasure in an unwinnable, stupidly conducted, and cruel war reeks of the very basest kind of cynicism. Abbott’s strategy must be exposed for all to see what it truly is: a desperate and despicable attempt to cling on to power, no matter what the consequences for the country or for the world.

It’s time for the Labor Opposition to take an unambiguous stand against sending Australian warplanes into Syria. Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek must denounce the plan in the strongest possible terms. They have to explain to the Australian people that their country’s involvement in Iraq and possibly Syria is in fact endangering their security, not protecting it. In addition, Labor needs to advocate a strategy for immediate withdrawal of all Australian troops and materiel from the Middle East. Bring the troops home. There is no way their presence there will end this terrible conflict or reduce the appalling suffering of the civilians on the ground.

And Gareth Evans and Bob Carr should be turning their intelligent minds to theorizing a revised version of R2P. The first version has palpably failed. It needs a comprehensive rethinking. A future Australian government should be at the forefront of advocating the new version of this noble ideal at the United Nations and every other global forum it can attend. In the meantime compounding Abbott’s lie that America wants us by its side in Syria has to be treated with the utter contempt it deserves.

Allan Patience is a foreign policy researcher in the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.


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