John Tulloh. Syria; a step too far for Tony Abbott.

Aug 22, 2015

It was said that in World War One the British Army laced the tea of its soldiers with bromide in order to curb their sexual impulses and concentrate on the matter at hand. It would be useful if something could be found to put in Tony Abbott’s morning cuppa to inhibit his desires for military adventures. He is like a corporal trying to please a general.

Media reports suggest he wants to oblige an American request for the RAAF to extend its Iraqi operation to Syria to combat ISIS or Daesh, as the Prime Minister calls it. At the same time, he acts like the national town crier, drawing constant attention to the threat to domestic security posed by Islamic extremists in Australia, jihadists and impressionable young Moslems who have been radicalised.

Does it not occur to Mr Abbott that, the more we get involved in a far away conflict, the more resentment and bitterness we cause among disaffected Australian citizens of Middle East origin and thus the greater the threat to the stability of our way of life?

It also raises other questions which the Prime Minister, given his repeated assertions of his concern for the well-being of Australians, should be addressing, such as:

+ What impact has the air war in Iraq had so far? Has it made any real difference to the strength and influence of ISIS? The Defence Dept’s website has a lot of bland figures which mean little. Occasionally, more meaningful information is released. But overall the fog of war information prevails.

+ Is it not about time that federal Parliament had a proper debate about the pros and cons of our participation in this conflict? Britain’s House of Commons did two years ago, voting down a proposal for military involvement against Syria for its use of chemical weapons? Why all the secrecy of huddled briefings behind closed doors and sealed lips?

+ Why should a country removed as far as we are from the Middle East be lured into its troubles when nations under greater threat, especially in Europe and elsewhere in the Arab world, leave it to others to deal with? Can it be that we are in the permanent thrall of the mighty U.S. war machine?

+ Australia went to great lengths to ‘legitimise’ our return to Iraq almost 12 months ago both on the ground as advisers and in the air. Mr Abbott is quoted as saying there is ‘no moral difference’ whether RAAF attacks ISIS targets in Syria or Iraq. Why the change of policy?

+ It is one thing to go after ISIS, but where does the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda splinter group which also operates in Northern Syria, stand in Australia’s thinking? Australia regards it as a terrorist organisation and yet it operates in coalition with the Free Syrian Army which the West supports.

+ Something like $500 million was earmarked earlier this year to cover the cost of Australia’s return to warfare in Iraq. How much has been spent so far and what domestic needs will have to be sacrificed to cover the inevitable additional funding?

+ If Australia should help in eliminating ISIS, what are the likely political, social, demographic and peace-keeping consequences for the region? In other words, are we inviting a new form of geopolitical crisis? Dr John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU, told ABC radio that he thought Australia was being baited by ISIS:

‘To me, it’s pretty compelling that this is a goading. (It) is a ‘comeon’, if you like: to spill more blood in the sandpit, if you like. And I think we need to be very, very cautious about going down that path.

‘While it is attractive to try and topple them, realistically we have to look at it and think: If we do defeat the Daeshists in Iraq and Syria, what then?’

Mr Abbott may have been a Rhodes scholar, but it is unlikely because he was outstanding at modern history. He should be asking himself: When was the last successful bombing strategy in recent times? The answer is debatable.

Vietnam was plastered with bombs and napalm, including under the concerted Operation Rolling Thunder. Overall, it made little military difference. Cambodians were subject to secret bombing from unseen B-52s at 30,000ft. The plains of Laos became a bombing free-for-all arena. The aim was to crush the Communists. It failed in Vietnam and Laos.

In 1999, all of NATO got together to bomb Serbia on the basis that it was committing atrocities in Kosovo, forcing President Slobodan Milosevic to sue for peace. Result: Thousands of Serbs being driven out of Kosovo into exile, seething resentment still to this day and social distress. The Iraqi war in 2003 was fought mainly from the air by the US-led coalition forces. The bombs certainly helped get rid of Saddam Hussein, but the effect on overall life in Iraq was catastrophic and remains so.

Syria thought it could deal with its civil war in 2011 by concentrating on air attacks, including its terrifying barrel bombs dropped from helicopters at random into civilian areas. The strategy failed catastrophically again and the country is now in such a hopeless state.

In 2011, many NATO countries got together to deal with Libya and behead the Gaddafi regime. They succeeded except look at the fractured, shambolic state that Libya is now. It back-fired in a way because Libya has become an easy conduit for thousands of asylum-seekers and economic immigrants wanting to settle in Europe.

Look also at the situation in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has plunged into mainly an air war against the Houthi rebels in the south of the country. An International Red Cross official said only this week that ‘Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years’. What’s more, the UN says the conflict has left Yemen on the brink of famine.

If there is a moral in all this, it is that meddling by anyone in the Middle East or the Arab world is asking for trouble. The best of intentions never succeed.

If there is a certainty in all this, it is that meddling causes death, displacement, destruction, untold misery and even more woe on a scale that in our comfortable Australian lives we cannot even begin to imagine.

Mr Abbott might care to listen to his chief of joint operations, ViceAdmiral David Johnston, who also told ABC radio:

‘The contribution of Australia, while always welcome, isn’t a game-changer one way or the other’.

That begs the obvious question. So does whether we would still feel strongly enough to get involved closer to the ground if we did not have the advantage of overwhelming superiority in the skies.

John Tulloh had a 40 year career in foreign news, much of it dealing with warfare and its consequences.

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