ANDREW FARRAN. ‘We must get out of Syria’

Sep 27, 2016


A comment in support of Richard Woolcott’s blog: “Australia’s Shambolic Policy on Syria – Up Shi’ite Creek Without a Paddle. – We must get out of Syria” 

Richard Woolcott has stated with clear reasons why we should get out of the Middle East conflict which threatens to broaden and involve us in an expanded war that is not in our interests. One wonders how any times these points need to be made to the government before it acknowledges the folly of its situation in Iraq/Syria. It is too late to make amends for our part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That damage has already been done. But in staying on as we have in that region we are compounding all previous errors of judgment, breaches of law, and the death and destruction that have resulted.

Prime Minister Turnbull has returned from Washington after yet another briefing spinning optimism about a successful end point to come. Even if ISIS is put into a corner or even destroyed the inherent elements of the conflict will prevail.

But does the government understand the baggage it is carrying?

Look at the charge sheet:

  • We are involved in bombing a country that is recognised as a sovereign state without its invitation to do so, a breach of the UN Charter with respect to acts of aggression.
  • We are engaged in Iraq on the side of a very unpopular and corrupt government which is one of many factions in the conflict. We are there without a status of forces agreement which would provide protection for our forces should they run into trouble under Iraq law. Indeed the ploy adopted to avoid that has been to issue ADF personnel with diplomatic passports. As former Defence Secretary Paul Barratt has written in a recent letter to the Prime Minister:

    “As well as being a misuse of diplomatic passports – these people are not diplomats – this situation denies ADF members deployed in Iraq the benefit of treaty-level arrangements defining the circumstances in which they may kill or capture Iraqi citizens or foreign insurgents, or destroy property. What will happen if they commit a breach of Iraq civil law…. This misuse of diplomatic passports undermines their protective value for Australian diplomatic personnel worldwide.

  • Furthermore the authorisation of the forces being there does not accord with Australian domestic law in that this was not done under Sect 61 of the Constitution which embodies the prerogative war power exercisable only by the Governor-General in Council. Instead the government has acted under the Defence Act which relates to the management and administration of the forces in Australia. To quote Paul Barratt again:

“Only the war prerogative could safely and uncontroversially authorise the deliberate offensive causing of death, destruction or capture against the enemy.  The Governor-General is the only official to whom the power to exercise the war prerogative has been given and, being commander-in-chief, is the only one who can issue orders to the ADF to exercise powers under that prerogative. The powers of the Minister of Defence under the Defence Act were clearly never intended to have that purpose. When the regrettable circumstances arise that cause us to require members of the ADF to go overseas to kill or capture people, or destroy their property, we must ensure that there can be no question of their being held personally liable for these actions arising from legal flaws in the procedure authorising their deployment”.

The recent bombing incident involving RAAF aircraft which killed numerous Syrian forces could be a foretaste of worse to come.

The government has blithely passed over these serious considerations and the Opposition parties have for whatever reason allowed them to pass too, leaving our forces exposed not only to physical and mental risk in the Middle East in a conflict of no direct interest to Australia, but to the possibility of serious legal infractions here and abroad.

The conflicts in Iraq/Syria in which Australia has got itself involved following in the wake of the US and its interests, has been going on longer that the two previous world wars combined. It is getter fiercer and may well spread well beyond our capacity to influence it one bit; and in doing so will be a continuing distraction from major concerns and developments in our region.

Is the justification that participation in these conflicts  provides practice for our forces for wars to come, as did the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s? If that is the case it is misconceived as the defence and protection of Australia will entail very different scenarios than those being experienced in the Middle East.

A line in the sand was drawn in the Middle East in 1914 as a colonial act. That line has been the cause of much conflict for over a century but it is truly broken now. The remaking if the Middle East is a matter for the tribes, the religions and the factions involved. We are not part of that and shouldn’t be. As Dick Woolcott has asserted, we should get out.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, former senior academic in public and international law.

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