What we are likely to witness, this year or later, is the 4th Iraq War – a process of reorienting the Levant around ideologically and sectarian driven forces and the undoing of the British-French (Sykes-Picot) colonial compact of 1916 (already well and truly undermined).
The outcome is likely to be a new Syria and a new Iraq, different from what emerged after both World Wars – assuming that Iran itself is not put out of the game by some massive external force. Unlikely, as Iran has demonstrated its survival staying power for centuries.
Clearly it would not be in Australia’s interests if current hostilities over Iran, following the US’s assassination of Iran’s military supremo, Major General Qassem Soleimani, and other proxy acts, were to escalate. While no one wants all-out war, war by miscalculation must be on the cards.
It is not yet clear whether the US will be pulling out of Iraq voluntarily or otherwise, or even at all, though its various military training missions could not continue amidst Iraqi hostility? But who would deal with a revived ISIS if the US were to leave? The US still have friends in Iraq (not to mention the Kurds) who will be recalling the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Need there be another bout of chaos?
Might the Australian government risk another disastrous military engagement by remaining in that region after earlier failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, under US strategic pressure? Many would say that it was well
past time that they should be reorientated to Asia/Pacific, in particular the South Pacific where we face the Chinese (or so it is said). But could these forces be withdrawn from Iraq in the face of US objections? Prime Minister Curtain did so in the face of Churchill’s, the major difference then being that we were shifting to embrace the US rather than turning away from it!
It would not be a simple matter of packing up and leaving. Australian forces currently hold and occupy valuable infra-structure at several strategic points within and near Iraq that cannot easily be abandoned or vacated, some shared with the US. There would be much to leave behind. As much as we might not want them to remain (and that should only be with Parliamentary approval) Iraq is likely to be the main battle ground for the coming phase of this hybrid war by proxy. We must assume that public opinion would want us out. Remaining would be more contentious than Vietnam ever was, or the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
Regarding the Gulf and the Navy, we can assert as we do, a separate interest from the US’s in its security notwithstanding that no Australian registered tankers may be involved. It should be noted that Japan is taking its biggest step since WW2 in terms of an overseas deployment by committing naval forces to Gulf security. How they are going about this remains to be seen. We could be in good company by keeping in step with them in that regard. It would be better if the UK and the EU were to join in too. The Iranians might acknowledge then that what these countries do there is not all about the US.
There is little to play with for Trump’s opponents over the legality of his resort to assassination as a strategic weapon, though very dangerous. While it remains a valid question it would appear that the view of many international lawyers, in the context of power politics, is that it was legal – being instant and unavoidable to protect US citizens from known threats in a quasi-military situation. See: ‘Easy call: White House order to take out Soleimani was lawful’, Alan M. Dershowitz, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Law School, The Times of London (reprinted in The Australian, Jan 7, 2020 at p. 7.
Finally, and possibly crucially, the ’X’ factor of Iran’s nuclear status might now become the ‘Z’ factor. At what point as Iran’s revived uranium enrichment program proceeds might the US decide that enough is enough?What might it then do in consequence? The equation has altered, since America’s withdrawal from the 5 Power nuclear agreement.
Finally what is this evolving hybrid military environment and why might it go from hybrid to its ultimate denouement? Waiting for the Iranian response after the Soleimani assassination, President Trump tweeted: “All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!”
For its part Iran has warned it would attack inside the US if Trump responds with missile attacks. “The fierce revenge by the Revolutionary Guards has begun….We are warning all American allies, who gave their bases to its terrorist army, that any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted. This time we will respond to you in America.”
What would Trump be referring to when he says, not just relatively,: “We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!”? A fair statement in this regard comes from the US based Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance, a non-profit, non-partisan research centre in Alexandria, VA. Like it or not, it tells of the new reality:
The Middle East and the calculus of Iran in forming its reaction from cyber, proxies, and/or raids with their power projection weapons of choice – ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned drones, and rockets which are the most capable, developed, and quantity in the region. Iran’s missile capacity is at a tremendous numerical advantage in creating instability upon Iraq, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Israel, and the United States in the region is real and upon us with aggravated intent to avenge. Current deployed United States and allied integrated air and missile defense systems are the best in the world and are operationally in place in the Middle East in GCC countries defending U.S. power projection bases and on Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) ships flanking Iran, they are not deployed in Iraq. There are no Patriot BMD deployments from either U.S., GCC or allies in Iraq. Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) in the Middle East today is not about single domain defenses, it is a multi-domain, cross service, cross ally, and fully integrated defense design to defeat an Iranian missile overmatch while enabling U.S./allied air power projection and superiority against Iran. It is a new era and evolution of deterrence that is being catapulted to existence by the real world situation in the Middle East today.
The Centre is also a major source of information about the new generation of hyper-sonic missiles (the ‘Denouement’). If conflicts like that in the Middle East are perpetuated over and over, we might all come to know more about these missiles (in real time) at everyone’s cost.
Andrew Farran, a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser.