Richard Butler. ISIL. Ask the right questions.

Sep 19, 2014

Any assessment of what, if anything, countries outside the region should do about the seizure by ISIL of substantial portions of Syria and Iraq, should be based on the answers to three basic questions: what is the significance of this event; whose fight is it; what can be done about it, effectively.

On the principle that you will only get the right answer if you ask the right questions. It is important that these three questions be the right ones. They appear to be.

In arriving at the decision to, immediately join the US organized coalition to “ degrade and destroy” ISIL, the Abbott government advanced a simple answer to these questions.

In its view ISIL’s actions: pose a significant threat to Australia’s security and that of it’s friends; it is, thus, our fight; and, presumably it believes that the international coalition organized by the US can win this fight.

The elemental assessment of threat to Australia will have been made by competent Australian Agencies, in consultation with those of friends; particularly US and UK Agencies.

Barring a leak, we will not know what the Agencies have advised the Government and it has ruled out a Parliamentary discussion of the decision to commit Australian forces.

The main contours of the Agencies’ advice has possibly been shown by the remarkable media conference by the Prime Minister and the retiring Head of ASIO, David Irvine, in which the Prime Minister announced a significant elevation of the status of the threat to Australia but said no specific threat had been identified. Although we are now, apparently seriously threatened, Australians, he said, should go about their business as normal.

The Prime Minister has proven interesting in this context through the extent to which he seems to think: the people are truly simpletons; won’t get it but are able to be frightened; and, that he can rely on the reasoning that whatever is in US interest is in ours. Some people believe that, some don’t. Prime Minister Abbott seems not to feel the need to address it, or have it debated, publicly.

Much more important than such tired reasoning would prove to be, are the other two questions. Here, there is a serious dilemma.

By invading Iraq in 2003, the US and its friends, including Australia, played a fundamental part in creating the circumstances we now witness. Subsequent actions by the US occupying authority, then the Maliki Government in Iraq and the Assad Government in Syria, made their own

destructive contributions. The list of those who have also sought to influence, manipulate the situation to their own ends, both overtly and covertly, is very long.

It is not an oversimplification to state that the answer to the second question: whose fight is it, is that the fight belongs to those where it is taking place, in the region. No one else can solve the nationalist, political, and ethno-confessional problems involved

The states concerned, such as Iraq, are free, of course to ask for outside help. But there’s the rub.

It was intervention from the outside which authored the problem; it is such intervention which forms an extended and popular narrative within the region of: western aggression, transparent interests in oil, anti- Muslim policies etc. It is extremely difficult to see how another burst of intervention can be the cure to problems triggered initially by such intervention.

Thoughtful people in Washington and London have been making this point. Has the same been true in Canberra?

Then there’s the third question; the core dilemma: – can there be effective action?

There seems to be serious doubt that air strikes on ISIL will defeat them. The Chair of the US Joint Chief’s of Staff has recognized, in the Congress’ Armed Services Committee, that the US advisors now back in Iraq may need to be assigned to combat missions. Remember that President Obama came to office on the promise of ending US combat in Iraq.

There is also deep unrest about what action might be taken inside Syria that either does not have the agreement of the Assad government or would appear to be in support of that government. This would be unacceptable, for the obvious reasons: the innumerable dead in Syria and the 3 million refugees, from its civil war.

The idea that the self described civilized world should do nothing about a group as criminal as ISIL seems compelling, and indeed ISIL seems, perversely, to rely on this. That is presumably the point of the beheading of western prisoners; to cause western intervention, thus supporting the narrative referred to above. But knowing what exactly to do. What would be effective is still unclear.

The only solution to this dilemma on offer at present is the military action against ISIL now being set in motion, with Australian participation.

But, the necessary condition for this to succeed is actually not a military one but the forging of a common political purpose amongst the States of the region. They have a basic interest in ensuring that legitimately constituted States remain the actors in international relations, not self proclaimed entities such as the so called Caliphate. But, it is not yet clear that this common purpose is at hand.

Australia can readily endorse that interest and principle but it is not clear that this motive will be attributed to us by the States concerned rather than their seeing, once again, our simply siding with the US, on a Middle East issue, for alliance reasons, rather than because of the principle of State sovereignty.

The government should have emphasized our political and diplomatic support for that principle, rather than the allegedly heightened threat within Australia. This would have been the right decision, for the right reason.

But then, if we were to be consistent in our foreign policy we would vote in favour of a Palestinian State membership of the United Nations at the current session of the General Assembly. There’s another rub.

Richard Butler is a former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations and Executive Head of the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq. He is a Professor of International Affairs at Penn State University.

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