Lowy Institute

Long resisted by the US for its impracticality and because it was considered too big a concession to Turkish interests, the concept of a 'no-fly zone' in northern Syria now appears to have morphed into a so-called 'safe zone'. The plan, as far as it appears to have been enunciated, involves US and Turkish aircraft (flying from Incirlik in Turkey) and possibly Turkish artillery assisting as yet unknown Syrian opposition forces to clear ISIS from as yet unknown swathes of northern Syria. Once areas are cleared of ISIS, the safe zone(s) will develop naturally, according to the Turkish foreign minister. An interesting concept.

There is often a substantial gap between announcements and execution, but this proposal has the potential to significantly change the dynamic in Syria, and possibly muddy the waters further. Here are some concerns, in the absence of much detail:

Who makes the 'safe zones' safe?

Air power alone can't do it, so there has to be a significant ground component, supported by air strikes, to seize and hold territory. While there has been some commentary that the hitherto ineffectual Free Syrian Army may be strengthened (yet again) in order to do the job, this is unlikely to occur quickly, opening up the distinct possibility that the safe zone could be held and cleared in part by anti-ISIS jihadist groups, of which there is no shortage in northern Syria.

One could even mount an argument that the recent media appearances by jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra on al-Jazeera and in The Washington Post (which I have commented on previously) have been about positioning themselves as 'acceptable' jihadis. When the New York Times describes the plan as involving the use of 'relatively moderate' insurgent groups rather than simply 'moderate' groups, it's time to start worrying.

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Things rarely occur 'naturally'

The 'naturally occurring' safe zones may allow some Syrian refugees to return to Syria, but how would these people survive? What humanitarian assistance would be provided to them and by whom? Who would provide the governance and security functions within these zones? What would be the Syrian Government's approach to them and what would the international community do if the Assad regime sought to reassert its authority over the parts of Syrian territory cleared of ISIS? Nature and politics abhor vacuums, and once safe zone(s) are created, there will always be someone who seeks to take advantage of them. The UN certainly has some concerns about the prospect of a safe zone, particularly given the lack of detail released to date.

Turkey isn't doing this for altruistic purposes

The Turkish Government has long stood accused of not doing enough to combat ISIS because President Erdogan saw Assad as the primary enemy, and because of the Government's Islamist proclivities. But now with the ISIS bombing of the town of Suruc and ISIS attacks against Islamist groups over whom Anakra has more influence, Turkey finally sees a need to join the West's campaign against the group. With the signing of the recent Iranian nuclear agreement as well, Ankara may well have concluded that it is time to accelerate its role in Syria before the easing of sanctions gives Tehran a freer hand to assist Damascus. So while Turkey may not actually occupy these safe zones, the fact that Ankara will control all the entry points means Turkey effectively controls them, and will be able to support those groups who wish to fight Assad rather than ISIS. For Ankara, this is potentially a big win.

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Despite all the backslapping after the marathon Vienna talks, which have resulted in what appears to be a triumphal diplomatic outcome, not everyone is happy. Indeed, Iran and the P5+1 may have found the one issue on which Israel and the Arab states agree: Iran cannot be trusted.

Prime Minister Netanyahu described the deal in typically understated fashion as 'an historic mistake'. Saudi Arabia stopped short of fully endorsing the agreement, saying only that it always supported a deal 'that would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon'. The short statement warns darkly that, should Iran incite regional turmoil, it 'would only be met with harsh and determined responses from the countries of the region'. The other Gulf states, who are smaller and who see economic potential in Iran, are likely to be more conciliatory. Indeed, the UAE was one of the first to publicly welcome the agreement, even if privately it despises it. Sunni Arab mistrust of Iranian intentions is palpable to anyone who travels in the region. It is largely the product of geopolitical rivalry, tinged with religious and ethnic bigotry.

Naturally, Obama and his team are well aware of how Arab states view the deal, and Washington has tried to reassure the Gulf state in particular that the US security guarantee remains in place. A key element of this reassurance was the US-GCC summit held at Camp David in May. The joint statement from the summit noted the GCC's strong support for the efforts of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, but you could sense the displeasure among GCC states, with most of its leaders finding reasons not to attend the event. Still, the statement also reaffirmed US security support for the territorial integrity of the GCC, as well as advisory support for the Arab League's proposed Arab rapid response force and GCC ballistic-missile defence.

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To reassure the Gulf states, Washington has also had to reluctantly adopted some policy positions. Washington has provided military support to the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, an operation increasingly seen as lacking any coherent campaign plan. In June the US also announced a resumption of arms sales to Bahrain, even though the State Department acknowledged that the human rights situation there remains inadequate. Although Human Rights Watch criticised the move, it too needs to be seen as part of the price Washington is prepared to pay to reassure some seriously upset regional allies.

But these travails have an upside for Washington too. Nothing says 'security reassurance' quite like advanced weaponry, and as the Arab states increasingly see their military forces as an extension of their foreign policies, demand for weapons has skyrocketed. So despite Gulf Arab disappointment with Washington; despite Saudi Arabia's flirtatious behaviour with Moscow; and despite competition from France and the UK, who market themselves aggressively in the region; it is fair to say that US arms sales to the region will largely be the means by which Washington assuages regional unhappiness with the Iran nuclear deal.

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I wrote previously about al Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra's attempt to go mainstream courtesy of the Qatari-owned al Jazeera television network. Now Ahrar al-Sham, a Sunni jihadist group active in the Syrian civil war, is making a bid for recognition as a more moderate, inclusive Salafist group. This propaganda piece in the Washington Post is the latest attempt to re-brand violent Islamist groups as 'moderate' simply on the grounds that they haven't publicly given their allegiance (bay'ah) to Islamic State or al Qaida.

Articles like this reveal much about the group in question by what they don't say rather than what they do. The author notes that the group's name (Ahrar al-Sham) means 'Free Men of Syria', which sounds pretty moderate until one sees the UN version, which refers to the group's full name of HarakaAhrar al-Sham al-islamiyya, or Islamic Movement of the Free Men of ash-Sham (an historical reference to an area that encompasses much more than simply modern-day Syria). The author, Labib Al Nahhas, head of foreign political relations for the group, also says the group has been incorrectly accused of being part of al Qaida's organisational structure. He neglects to mention Ahram al-Sham's close operational support and personal links with al Qaida.

Ahrar al-Sham has been in an expansionist mood over the past year, initiating non-hostile takeovers of its former Islamist partners in the now-defunct Islamist coalition known as the Islamic Front. This has meant that Ahrar al-Sham is now approaching critical mass and potentially sees itself as a rival to Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN). In contrast to JAN though, Ahrar al-Sham is not a proscribed organisation and therefore considers itself a candidate for external assistance, which will potentially allow it to position itself as the pre-eminent (and non-proscribed) armed Islamist group in Syria.

The timing of the piece is not coincidental. Washington's plan to identify, vet and train 'moderate' Syrian rebels as a counterbalance to the plethora of Islamist fighters is not going well. Last week the Senate Armed Services Committee was told that there are only 60 undergoing training. Ahrar al-Sham's not so subtle message is that it should decide who is moderate and thereby worthy of Western support, not Washington.

The fundamental Western misunderstanding of Islamist groups is ideological. Secular and liberal states consign religion to the private sphere. Islamist groups believe they are empowered to institute God's will (or their version of it) on earth. They are not variations of the European model of Christian Democratic parties, where religious beliefs inform social welfare or social justice policies only. Islamist parties by their nature are exclusionary, and this is an essential reason why such groups fail to gain traction in the secular, liberal West.

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The controversy over the naming rights to 'Islamic State' has been much ado about nothing from the start. The Prime Minister began to refer to Islamic State by its Arabic acronym 'Da'ish' from the beginning of the year, saying that he didn't like 'Islamic State' or 'ISIS' because it was a 'perversion of religion'. The French foreign minister has urged media outlets to do the same, while the British parliament debated the lexicon of Islamic terrorist groups last week. Also last week, the BBC quite sensibly resisted a push by some British MPs to change its use of the term Islamic State to Da'ish.

Those who advocate using Da'ish instead of Islamic State say the group is neither Islamic nor a state, and they argue that the name perverts the name of Islam. But these arguments open a can of nomenclature worms. If it is perverting religion to refer to Islamic State as Islamic, then what of the myriad other armed Islamist groups who hijack Islam and God to reinforce their religious credentials for power?

How should politicians refer to Hizbullah (Party of God), for instance? Isn't it also a perversion of religion to think that God would be happy for an Australian to blow up a tourist bus in Bulgaria in his name? Some Sunni Islamists in the region, including Turkey's justice minister, have demanded that Hizbullah change its name to Hizb al-Shaytan (Party of Satan), but we are yet to see the same demand from those who prefer Dai'sh over Islamic State.

And how to describe the recent execution of 18 Islamic State members by Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam)? Is a group calling itself the Army of Islam not perverting religion, just as Islamic State is?

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This must surely provide a conundrum for the Government's intelligence briefers – how do they inform the PM that Dai'sh members have been killed by a group calling itself the Army of Islam? Perhaps they could seek guidance from the PM's office as to whether they have a term for Jaysh al-Islam which neither connotes they are Islamic nor supports their claim to be an army?

And what about the Islamic Front, or any group that uses terms such as mujahideen (those engaged in jihad), muhajiroon (referring to those who followed Muhammad on his move from Mecca to medina) or ansar (referring to Mouhammad's earliest Medinan supporters). All of these have specific Islamic religious connotations that attempt to hijack religious terminology to justify killing others.

We can't stop groups calling themselves what they want to be called. Getting into detailed discussion about it is largely a waste of time.

I travel to the region frequently and the interlocutors I speak to variously refer to the group as ISIS, IS, Islamic State or Da'ish (ISIL appears to have lost currency for some unknown reason). If people in the region are relatively sanguine about the lexicon of Islamist terrorist groups, why are we in the West so concerned?

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Three terrorist attacks carried out by within hours of each other in Kuwait, Tunisia and France over the weekend raise questions about the degree of coordination between them and whether these attacks have broader implications. At the moment, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Tunisian and Kuwaiti attacks but has remained silent on the apparent 'lone wolf' attack in France. The timing of the attack reflects the fact that ISIS has called for attacks during Ramadan; the first anniversary of the declaration of the caliphate this week may also have influenced the timing.

Although a full analysis of these attacks can be better made once more details become available, there are some early observations we can make:

1. The attack plans were still pretty simple

A single person with an AK-47 at a tourist beach is going to kill a lot of people before he gets killed. A suicide bomber in a packed mosque during Friday prayers is also going to kill a lot of people. These attacks require a small support team to decide on the target and timing, to source the weapon and the explosives, and to transport the attacker to the target, but the logistic support requirements are pretty minimal for the carnage they facilitate. If the French attack was ISIS-inspired then virtually no planning is required, although the limited damage it inflicted reflects this.

2. The target selection is interesting

The Tunisian target (a tourist beach) has a double advantage of not only targeting Westerners but also of dealing a significant economic blow to the Tunisian state. Tourism accounts for approximately 15% of Tunisia's GDP and thousands of European vacationers have now left the country, which goes to show you that even a single gunman with a rifle can have strategic effects.

The mosque in Kuwait is a Shaykhiyya mosque (a somewhat peripheral, more esoteric sub-group of Shi'a believers), frequented by a largely Hasawiyya group; they  are ethnically Gulf Arab, but more particularly they trace their roots back to al-Ahsa in Saudi's Eastern province. It raises the question of whether the attackers sought out the target because of these peculiarities, whether they even knew or whether they didn't care.

Relations between Kuwait's Shi'a and the Emir of Kuwait are good, so such an attack is unlikely to foment local unrest (more so now the attacker is allegedly a Saudi). So an argument can be made that the attack either simply shows ISIS's religious bigotry or that it is designed with an Iraqi audience in mind. The more ISIS targets the region's Shi'a, the less conciliatory the Shi'a government in Iraq will feel towards their Sunni countrymen and the less able it is to achieve the national unity that is the key to defeating ISIS.

3. Saudi Arabia has problems

Kuwaiti authorities have indicated that the mosque bomber was a Saudi national who flew into Kuwait on the morning of the bombing, which would indicate that there are some linkages between Saudis willing to blow themselves up and regional ISIS support cells who want to use them. There are already more than 3000 Saudis fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and one English-language Saudi newspapers reported that more than 1300 ISIS sympathisers have been arrested in the Kingdom in the last eight months. As with its al Qaeda problem a decade ago, Saudi Arabia's educational and social system makes it a rich hunting ground for would-be jihadists.

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Besides oil and sand, the other inexhaustible Middle Eastern resource is conspiracy theories. They are usually designed to blame someone else for a specific or regional woe, thus obviating the need for any form of self-analysis or introspection. Which is why I normally dismiss them straight away.

But have you heard the one about certain regional countries which want to paint the al Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra as a more pragmatic, even moderate, group which the West should work with in order to defeat Assad? This theory has been gaining traction and is concerning to anyone familiar with such groups and those backing them.


Jabhat al-Nusra leader Mohammad al-Joulani being interviewed on Al Jazeera, May 2015. (Wikipedia.)

Saudi Arabia sees the need to be dealt into the Syrian situation in a more organised way; in other words, it needs a proxy. It is a pretty open secret that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have temporarily put aside their differences in order to throw their weight behind Jaysh al-Fatah (the Army of Conquest). This has won the group some success against Assad's forces in Idlib. The rather inconvenient reality of this approach though, is the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra in the mix, either fighting alongside Jaysh al-Fatah or leading the coalition.

There appears to be a concerted campaign to bring Jabhat al-Nusra in from the cold and position it as part of the 'moderate' Islamist camp. The Saudi-owned press is doing its best, with the well-connected Jamal Kashoggi writing in May that there was a difference between killing in the name of God when applied to those who were jihadis (bad) and mujahideen (good). By differentiating between jihadis and mujahideen, some regional states are hoping to mount an argument that armed Islamist groups can be divided into 'moderates' and 'radicals'.  Even though both groups seek to establish a Syrian state under the rule of Islamic law, one group may accept something akin to constitutional limits. 

Branding Jabhat al-Nusra as mujahideen is however, no easy feat.

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The Qataris assisted with the rehabilitation project by airing an exclusive interview with the group's leader, Muhammad al-Joulani, last month. It isn't the first time he has graced Al Jazeera, appearing first in December 2013 to proclaim that the war was nearly over and that the group would achieve victory soon. Confidence certainly isn't what al-Joulani is lacking; a sense of reality perhaps, but not confidence.

Talking of reality, trying to rehabilitate an intolerant and violent al Qaida franchisee has its challenges, not the least of which is trying to justify the actions of a terrorist group proscribed in several countries (including Australia).

For instance, al-Joulani assured Al Jazeera viewers in May that, 'As for transgressing against (the Druze), this absolutely did not happen. Likewise the Nusairi Al-Lawites today, after all the massacres they committed, our religion is a religion of mercy, we are not criminal killers, we fight those who fight against us. We fight and stand against oppression.' Unfortunately, the recent execution of 20 odd Druze villagers in Syria put a bit of a crimp in this narrative. What's more, al-Joulani's reassurance that, despite the fact that he remained loyal to al Qaida, he and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were 'in one boat and we will confront the enemies of God together', should also raise alarm bells. Even though these two groups are currently at odds on the battlefield, they still share the same absolutist, intolerant views about non-believers that all radical islamists do.

So, rather than allow the triumvirate of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to try to rehabilitate a violent, intolerant, proscribed terrorist group, Western states should be calling these countries to account for their relationship with an organisation with acknowledged links to al Qaida and whose behaviour besmirches those that deal with them.

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I'm just concluding a research trip to the Middle East, where the security situation is the most confusing I have ever seen it. I couldn't help but read two articles in the Australian press recently,  and a post on The Interpreter, advocating that Australian troops accompany Iraqi units into battle. This strikes me as ill-advised for many reasons, and the arguments made both flawed and simplistic. Just to highlight a few points and raise a few questions:

Force protection and enablers

It is nice to think that we can just re-assign the troops we have in Iraq or perhaps even send in others. Jim Molan said that 10 to 30 ADF personnel per Iraqi battalion should be about right. Peter Jennings argued that if there had been 50 or so Aussies and Yanks then Ramadi might have been held.

What neither has talked about is the force protection overheads that we demand for our soldiers on the battlefield today. Indirect fire support and a means to control and coordinate its use, protected mobility, aero-medical evacuation, intelligence and logistic support are all base-level requirements that quickly make what might appear to be a small contribution pretty big. Jim Molan said on The Interpreter that the US worked effectively with nine advisers per 500-man battalion, but he neglected to mention that the US had more than 150,000 troops in Iraq at the time.

Why should we risk our troops for the Iraqi government?

Defeating ISIS  militarily is necessary but is really just treating the symptoms rather than the disease. The causes of the disease include issues of identity, a poor state education system based on rote learning and not tied to any labour market requirements, feelings of disenfranchisement at several levels, and more. Addressing these causes requires a legislature which thinks in terms of the national interest rather than the individual, sectarian, tribal or party good.

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The inability of the Iraqi parliament to vote on the National Guard Bill before it broke for the summer vacation tells you a lot about Iraq's politicians. Stumping up Australian soldiers to risk their lives when the Iraqi political system refuses to reform or look beyond narrow self-interest simply tells the Iraqis that they can continue to ignore fundamental issues of political legitimacy without penalty.

How do ADF advisers work with Shi'a militias?

Although the advocates of getting Australian troops more involved in the Iraq fighting have cited Afghanistan and Vietnam as good examples of where this model has been tried before, neither has mentioned the fact that Iraq is totally different.

Usually in counterinsurgencies, there is a 'malign influence' on the border working against the coalition's military aims. In Iraq however, there is a 'malign influence' on the border (Iran) which not only supports the coalition's aims but is actively involved in the fighting, as well as training and advising Shi'a militias which have proven among the most effective combat troops available to the Iraqi Government. What is the Australian Government's position about sending our troops to operate alongside, and potentially in support of, these militias? If Canberra tried to stipulate that ADF troops would only support operations that didn't involve Shi'a militias, what would that mean? If the Iraqi Government pressed the point, the Australian Government would have to either withdraw the ADF or create a fantasy in which they could claim that the ADF worked parallel to, but didn't engage with, the Shi'a militias.

We have temporary interests and everyone knows it

Iran has permanent interests in Iraq and the familial and religious links between the two countries is centuries old. Tehran doesn't seek a disaggregated Iraq, as one commentator argued. Indeed, the opposite is true, and its support for the Baghdad government reflects this. The Iranians have been careful to limit their physical footprint, understanding that to overplay their hand risks an Arab backlash. Its advisers do accompany the militia groups, and they do die on the battlefield. The groups they accompany share a unique religious bond with them that justifies such sacrifice as part of their centuries-old obligation to fight oppression. Moreover, geographic realities mean that Iranians support action against what they see as a potential existential threat on their border.

By contrast, ADF members don't share any linguistic, cultural or religious links with the soldiers they will be asked to accompany. The Australian public doesn't see ISIS as an existential threat and most Australians still couldn't point to Iraq on a map. This shouldn't necessarily preclude deploying ADF members to the country (we do it often enough), but it should dictate how we employ them, particularly when regional states with direct interests in the country don't deploy troops.

Peter Jennings and Jim Molan may well be better off asking why the UAE doesn't provide an advise-and-assist capability, particularly given the UAE, like us, has experience of doing so in Afghanistan. Why doesn't Jordan, with a capable military and Iraq on its border, stump up? To say that the Iraqis would have stayed and fought if only Aussies or Yanks had been there smacks of cultural arrogance. Of course people will point out that help from Sunni Arab countries such as Jordan and the UAE may be unacceptable to the Iraqi Government, or that neither country would want to exacerbate internal tensions by supporting a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. But pressure and a strong message from Western states that regional security is a more regional responsibility than it used to be is long overdue.

The one thing my latest trip to the Middle East has highlighted is the fact that there is a new security paradigm in which regional states are expected to shoulder more of the burden. Regional states are upset at this prospect. They also worry about the interconnected nature of many of the conflicts, and the uncertain second-order effects that actions on the ground will have. Defeating ISIS in Iraq, for example, may well strengthen Iran's allies in Syria, as thousands of experienced Shi'a militia will then be free to be redeployed to strengthen a faltering Syrian Army.

Little is straightforward in the region these days, and the last thing we should be doing is involving our soldiers in ground combat in Iraq.

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It is right that we should debate such a fundamental issue as the rights and obligations of Australian citizens and the circumstances under which people no longer enjoy those rights. Most of those who have entered the debate so far are lawyers who, quite rightly, take a black-letter law approach and stress the primacy of the court system as the ultimate arbiter of questions relating to the stripping of citizenship.

This article provides a good overview of what the rules are in other countries with similar problems. With the exception of the UK, the stripping of citizenship in these countries is done by judicial proceeding, thereby giving the government the benefit of an independent and public examination of evidence.

The problem with ministerial discretion, as may be allowed in the Australian legislation (the exact proposals are not clear yet), is that there will be accusations of a star chamber operating in Canberra. And in most cases, the public has a right to know about the activities of people who have effectively, if not legally, been accused of treasonous behaviour against the Commonwealth. There appears to be a strong case that any ministerial action to revoke citizenship should follow, not replace, judicial action in the majority of cases. There are also serious questions about the net effect of removing citizenship from an Australian who theoretically can be granted citizenship of another country.

While I respect and support the view that judicial action must precede ministerial decisions, there have to be exceptions.

Nowhere in the debate so far have I seen discussion regarding the peculiarities of our current situation. We are not simply talking about people joining a regional terrorist group that plots attacks against civilian targets, or people plotting attacks in Australia. The approach to those threats is rightly led by law enforcement. But in this case, we are talking about groups of Australians taking up arms as part of a self-styled religious-extremist army seeking to overthrow governments and against whom Australian forces are deployed. Allowing dual citizens to retain their citizenship while they fight overseas may actually hinder military operations against them.

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As part of those military operations, individuals of sufficient importance are placed on a High Value Target List (HVTL), and when actionable intelligence becomes available they may be targeted. Australia faces difficulties, however, because of constraints that prohibit the passage of information on Australian citizens to third parties. Given we are in a coalition, any Australian on a HVTL is therefore protected to a degree by their citizenship. It is reasonable to expect that if he has another citizenship available to him, then his Australian citizenship should be stripped so that Australia can provide intelligence on him to the coalition, thus allowing that individual to be targeted.

It is also appropriate, on rare occasions, that this be an executive decision without reference to the judiciary. Intelligence has a limited shelf-life and the coalition of which we are a part should be given the best opportunity use intelligence against the enemy. Fighting a war only after a court's verdict is arrived at just doesn't work.

Ben Saul expressed the view in The Drum recently that 'A responsible government would not foist its terrorists onto other countries, but bring them home to face justice. Stripping citizenship...casts Australians adrift to keep killing overseas'. Saul never actually explains how the Australian Government is supposed to get into Raqqa, Mosul, Idlib or Ramadi to bring these Australians home to justice. And rather than casting them adrift to keep killing, stripping the citizenship of these terrorists may actually allow them to be killed, therefore stopping them from killing others. By contrast, not stripping them of citizenship could potentially have the effect Saul claims he wants to avoid.

Will the ability to strip dual citizens of Australian citizenship unleash the might of coalition air power against hapless teens from Sydney's west? One needs to understand that there are limited coalition assets and only relatively important people make the HVTL. If you are simply a 'humanitarian worker', 'assistant in an orphanage' or just a gunslinger, the coalition has more important people to target. That's not to say you won't be killed, but it will probably be in a random battle somewhere at the hands of Iraqi, Syrian or Kurdish forces or by other jihadis, and it will be because of who you were fighting with rather than because of who you were.

The issue of removing citizenship is important and shouldn't be taken lightly. But as part of that debate we should acknowledge the fact that the ADF is engaged in operations against against a violent non-state actor which Australians have, without coercion, traveled significant distances to join. Some of them have likely become sufficiently important to ISIS's military effort to make it onto the coalition's HVTL. If the minister has the ability to allow the coalition to gain a military advantage on the battlefield by stripping an Australian jihadi of their citizenship, he should be entrusted to use this executive power, albeit sparingly.

Outside of these relatively narrow parameters and when timeliness is not a military operational necessity, the minister should wait for the judiciary to weigh evidence and apportion guilt.

Photo by Flickr user Paul.

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Spare a thought for Barack Obama.

In dealing with the Middle East, few if any modern US presidents have been able to find a balance between upholding US ideals and meeting America's practical foreign policy goals. Obama has been dealt a poor hand in the Middle East but has tried harder than most to narrow the gap between ideals and practicalities. He is trying to introduce the concept of government legitimacy as a greater determinant in US relations with regional governments.

He also believes that US military interventions treat symptoms rather than causes, and that they have given Middle Eastern states absolutely zero incentive to reform the political and social malaise that has given rise to the insurgencies the region faces.


President Obama at Cairo University, 2009. (Flickr/US Embassy Kabul.)

Hence his moves to limit the military support he gives to the Iraqi Government. It's a way of forcing the Iraqi Government to take military responsibility for the fighting and political responsibility for establishing a functioning, unitary state not caught in sectarian, tribal and ethnic identity politics. It is also why he has limited his support to the Syrian opposition until it too establishes a military force that is not religiously inspired and presents a viable political alternative (one that is not simply reflective of the policy desires of regional sponsors).

The problem with such an approach, of course, is that it relies on your partners acknowledging that they need to earn legitimacy and not have it accorded to them. The rise of ISIS and other Islamist variants is due to a range of factors, but the perceived lack of government legitimacy is a significant element. And when he looks at the region, Obama sees his allies and their policies fueling the legitimacy problem by prioritising short-term interests over long-term solutions.

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In Syria, for instance, frustration over perceived US intransigence appears to have brought Turkey and Saudi Arabia together to fund and coordinate Islamist opposition groups whose ideological orientation is about as far from Western secular liberal values as they can be. And Riyadh's apparently aimless air campaign in Yemen has dragged Washington into a conflict it would rather have avoided. It is likely that Riyadh's desire for a Gulf air coalition for Yemen has led to a diminution (if not complete loss) of Gulf air support for anti-ISIS missions in Syria.

Then there's Iraq. Washington's frustration with Baghdad was evident in Obama's recent interview, in which he noted that 'if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.' The sentiment was echoed by his defense secretary, Ashton Carter.

Accountability and introspection are not characteristics often ascribed to Middle Eastern governments. It remains their default position to blame external forces for the problems of the Middle East. There is of course some merit to this, but the region's fractures owe more to internal dynamics than external ones. President Obama has been pretty consistent about how he views government legitimacy. For those in the region who fear the US is losing interest in the Middle East and its problems (and my attendance at the Doha Forum two weeks ago left me with that distinct impression) but can't understand why, they would do well to read President Obama's 2009 Cairo speech, in which he said that:

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Perhaps he, like many others, is getting tired of the region and its inability to put any premium on inclusivity and legitimacy. Few could blame him for expecting more of those who seek Washington's help.

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BBC report from September 2014.

Much has been written in the last few days about what to do with returning jihadis, a conversation sparked by the three jihadis who it is claimed want to return home to Australia. The lawyer of Adam Brookman, one of the alleged jihadists, has predictably stated that he was simply a medic and that his return could be a golden opportunity for Australian authorities to use him in a 'countering violent extremism' (CVE) role.

The Guardian has written an unquestioning account of Brookman's time in Syria. There are many holes left unexplored in his story. We're told he met an unnamed Australian 'humanitarian worker' in Turkey who somehow had the expertise to infiltrate him into Syria; that he had his passport stolen; that he only drove ambulances in Aleppo and treated injured people; that his wounds were caused by a Syrian regime bombing of the medical clinic where he was working, and that he was transported unconscious to an ISIS-controlled area. The only cliché missing is that he worked in an orphanage with sick children. Readers would be well advised to treat such accounts sceptically, as should the journalists who question such people.

The ability to appropriately punish those jihadis who return is of course dependent on the ability of prosecutors to gather enough admissible evidence to secure a conviction, as well as the view of the courts as to what sentence is appropriate for the actions of these people. The first court case involving a returned jihadi will be heavily scrutinised for this reason.

Regardless, the PM is right in arguing for tough penalties for people who have gone to Syria and Iraq believing they should fight to establish or maintain an intolerant religious state that looks to expand its control through violence.

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A fundamental precept of the international system is that the state retains a monopoly on the use of force, and anyone who seeks to circumvent that principle through joining or supporting violent non-state actors should expect the state to punish them for doing so. People who seek to return may be disillusioned, misguided or naïve but we are not talking about returning tax evaders or vulnerable people who were duped into being drug mules. We are talking about people who support the violent imposition of religious rule and who believe that God not only condones violence but in some instances is pleased by it. The concept is abhorrent and people must be held responsible for their actions.

This article in The Australian advocates a 'triage' system to separate hard-core fighters from the merely disillusioned. But such a triage system already exists insofar as the court is able to exercise discretion in the punishment it imposes on people convicted of supporting the jihadist cause. Those more peripheral are given appropriately lighter punishments, but they are punished nevertheless. 

That does not mean such people shouldn't be part of any CVE program – indeed the opposite is true. There will always be a suspicion that someone who negotiates a return to Australia and is willing to take part in CVE program has only done so to avoid punishment or have it reduced. Someone who is serving a prison term but who still wants to dissuade people from becoming jihadis is more likely to be motivated by a genuine desire to stop others from repeating their mistakes, while the targets of their message will be able to see that there is a cost to going down the extremist path.

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The newly released YouTube video featuring Australian doctor Tareq Kamleh is in many ways just another in the voluminous output from the ISIS media department. But this one has caused discussion here because of who Tareq Kamleh is. Unlike most of the other Australian jihadis we know of, he is well educated and had an occupation that was highly valued in Australian society.

In many ways though, this video is like others ISIS has released. The information it transmits is quite limited because the shooting is tightly controlled. He is in a clean medical facility somewhere, so the video seeks to portray ISIS as running a modern health and medical facility. But the viewer is denied any context. There is another ISIS video about its health services and, while the facility it shows is not nearly as clean and modern as the most recent one, it shares at least one characteristic: the camera lingers over medical machinery but few staff and visitors are ever seen.

In the video featuring the Australian doctor, the impression ISIS seeks to create is of a fully functioning hospital with high-tech equipment, but even a cursory viewing raises several questions. The incubators are all arranged along the walls, as though there are machines but few patients (it is impossible to see how many are occupied). We also see few if any other nurses or doctors in the shots in which the doctor appears. For an allegedly fully functioning neonatal unit, it seems there is plenty of equipment but few staff or perhaps even patients. Tareq Kamleh's statement to the camera even asks for medical personnel to join him in Raqqa because they have plenty of equipment but few staff.

Tareq Kamleh appears for about three minutes of the 15-minute video and he is one of only two English speakers, so the film is not aimed exclusively at the Western market.

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And while he is young and well educated in the medical sciences, like all the other jihadis he speaks of his journey as a religious rather than a humane obligation. He doesn't refer to people being killed, her refers to Muslims being killed. His is not a journey to relieve human suffering; it is an avowedly religious one to support his Muslim 'brothers'.

Before people argue that Tareq Kamleh's presence in a paediatric medical environment somehow shows him to be essentially an 'accidental jihadi', his acknowledgement that he is in Raqqa to undertake jihad ought to raise questions. If that's not enough, his Facebook page shows him in action shots with two different types of rifles and a bow and arrow, which shows some predilection for weaponry (somewhat incongruent with the carefully staged video showing the caring doctor in a neonatal ward). Then there is the claim that he had a wayward moral compass while in Australia.

In one way Tareq Kamleh is different to other Australian jihadis because of his education and academic qualifications. But his actions are the same as all the others. He has made a conscious decision that his religious identity transcends his national identity. We shouldn't be too concerned that he is educated rather than a minor criminal or a teenage delinquent. What should concern us is why he and others can come to believe that their religion justifies participation in the imposition of an intolerant and violent ruling system, and the belief that their own government has no right to stop them from being part of the project. Until we can address that, people like Tareq Kamleh will continue to pop up in strange places.

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Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal with US Secretary of State John Kerry. (US State Department.)

Planning and leading a military coalition is a complex task, and Saudi efforts in Yemen are proving no exception.

Such interventions need a defined and achievable aim; simply relying on an air campaign to reinstate a political leader who remains resident in the country which is doing the bombing has its practical and political limitations. Such operations also need to take into account the likely short- and medium-term impacts of the intervention. Coalition partners need to understand (and, even better, agree with) the intent of the operation. And in the modern age there needs to be a great deal of attention paid to collateral damage.

On all those counts the Yemen intervention is posing some serious questions for Riyadh.

The US has provided support to the Saudis, in the shape of intelligence personnel and air-to-air refuelers, but there is a sense that this is more out of a desire to reaffirm the close relationship with Riyadh than out of any belief that Saudi action in Yemen is likely to resolve matters. Riyadh and Washington have not seen eye to eye on Syria, Iran or Iraq in recent years, so if limited support for Saudi Arabia's Yemen venture is what it takes to reinforce relations, then so be it. The concerns of some US military officers — that the Saudis have neither a coherent strategic aim or an ability to prosecute the tactical battle without inflicting significant civilian casualties — are expressed in this recent LA Times article.

There is a risk that, the longer the air campaign continues, the more that disparate elements of Yemeni society will see Saudi interference as the real enemy. And to reinforce the perception that Riyadh is paying insufficient attention to the second-order effects of its intervention, there are already indications that al Qaeda elements are taking advantage of the chaos by seizing the city of al-Mukalla.

Saudi Arabia is also finding that putting together a coalition is not a straightforward matter. Pakistan for instance, was originally listed as a coalition partner, but Islamabad has now declined the kind offer, drawing opprobrium from some quarters. And to top it off, Iraq's prime minister criticised Saudi actions in Yemen during a recent visit to Washington. Leading coalitions in the Middle East is no easy business, and it won't get any easier.

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Coalitions sound great at first blush. Groups of like-minded states tackling an issue of regional or international importance. And in the Middle East there is no shortage of such issues. But, just as with any wedding or birthday gift, one should not be distracted by the shiny wrapping. We should pay attention to what's inside the box. The so-called 'coalition of the willing' that invaded Iraq, for example, was certainly willing, but it only contained four countries.

Which brings us to the issue of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. The Saudis have put together a coalition they say is designed to reinstate the legitimate government under President Hadi, whose continued existence in internal exile in Aden was coming under threat from a coalition of Zaydi Houthi fighters and troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (the Saudis and pretty well every other Sunni Arab country would have you believe that Iran is a member of this coalition too, but the evidence is pretty thin).

Washington has said that it is providing unspecified support to the Saudi-led coalition, which sounds fair enough given Riyadh has, until now at least, enjoyed a special relationship with the US. But once we have a look at the rest of the Saudi-led coalition, some concerns start to appear.

To begin with, the Sudanese government is listed as one of the contributors to the coalition, even though its leader remains indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide. The thought of someone indicted for genocide helping to restore someone else's 'legitimate government' while being assisted by the US is richly ironic, even by the Middle East's high standards.

Then there is the contribution by Bahrain, whose discrimination against its own Shi'a majority population has been documented by the US State Department and led to the military intervention in the island kingdom by Saudi and Emirati forces.

Furthermore, one could argue that, in the time-honoured tradition of 'As ye sow, so shall ye reap', Saudi Arabia's predilection for seeking to spread its intolerant Wahhabist brand of Islam led to the Zaydi revivalist movement we refer to as the Houthis. Rather than being seen as agents of Tehran, as some commentators would have us believe, the Houthis could more accurately be described as a creation of Riyadh (or at least Saudi actions decades ago).

Yep, coalitions sure sound impressive, but they often disappoint on closer inspection.

Photo by Flickr user Khaled AlQubeli.

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The problem with ideologues is that while they are ready to criticise others for their rigidly held viewpoints, they are rarely ready to recognise that they are equally rigid and intolerant.

Senator Tom Cotton, speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

Nowhere is that on better display than in the recent controversy surrounding the nuclear negotiations with Iran. It must have been a long time since a deliberately provocative, and downright rude, open letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader was penned, and even longer since such a letter was supported with the signatures of 47 US Senators.

Now I understand that junior senators like Senator Tom Cotton want to make a political name for themselves, have always had President Obama in their sights, and see issues such as this as a way to do it. But if 50 members of the Iranian Majlis had sent a similarly worded letter to the US President, what do you think the reaction of the US public, let alone the conservative faction in American politics, would have been?

What the letter did reveal though, is the sort of hubris that only committed ideologues can demonstrate. The sort of hubris that precipitated the White House's 2003 decision to invade Iraq as a precursor to a 'flowering of democracy' among countries and cultures and within a region that few (if any) of the key decision-makers had any idea about. The sort of hubris that also depicts the nuclear negotiations as a bilateral negotiation between Washington and Tehran. Greg Sheridan writing in The Australian said that the letter told '...the Iranian leadership...not to set too much store by any deal it gets from President Barack Obama on nuclear weapons.'

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Unfortunately, as the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed out, the negotiations involve the P5+1 with an agreement that may eventually be backed by a UN Security Council resolution. So the US Senators' open letter should have also been addressed to the British prime minister, the Russian, Chinese and French presidents, the German chancellor and the secretary-general of the UN. Because, by Senator Cotton's logic, he also put all of these leaders on notice that none of them should expect Washington to keep its word on any future agreement. In Senator Cotton's world, the P5+1 should move over and make room for the one.

Now if it was only these people exhibiting such breathtaking and public audacity then we could simply see them as petty local politicians trying to hit a pinpoint target using a shotgun. The problem is their actions are not as random as we think and, like all good ideologues (particularly ex-army officers like the good senator), they encourage supporting attacks.

Thus a few days later The Washington Post ran a somewhat poorly written, but provocatively titled op-ed, 'War with Iran is probably our best option'. I like provocative, but I like accurate even better. So when the neocon author breathlessly claims that 'Iran aims to carry its Islamic revolution across the Middle East and beyond', he ignores the fact that Iran's revolution was Shi'a-specific, and has limited appeal even among the broader Shi'a community (which itself only represents at most 20% of the global Muslim population).

That's the problem with people who over-hype Iran's regional and even at times global ambitions. Tehran faces three significant hurdles in expanding its influence even at the regional level: it has the wrong religion, is the wrong ethnicity, and speaks the wrong language. To expand its influence, Iran creates proxies and courts allies in the time-honoured tradition of countries who seek to expand their influence but have limited means by which to do it.  

There is a deep thread of exceptionalism that runs through both American and Iranian notions of self. The problem with conservative ideologues from both countries that harbour this notion of exceptionalism is that they rarely understand that it isn't a view shared by anyone outside their respective countries. Without a modicum of self-awareness, such mindsets can lead to foreign policy adventurism as they both believe in their divinely-ordained right to lead. And, while the embarrassing letter has been seen for what it is, it reveals a way of thinking that reminds us that not all dangerous ideologues reside in the Middle East.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

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During my Army career I was a military planner. I worked on lots of plans. Most were never executed, but others were. Some were standing plans that were annually revised, while others were worked up at the behest of someone higher up the operational chain. I got to know the ADF planning process pretty well and became someone that could be described as a 'military planner'.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Chief of Defence Force Air Chief Marshall Binskin inspecting damage in Queensland in the wake of Typhoon Marcia.

In the ADF, you could say the Chief of the Defence Force is formally the 'leading military planner', given he is the one who provides military advice to the Government and 'owns' Joint Operations Command. In practical terms though, the Chief of Joint Operations has carriage of developing operational plans, so he is really the ADF's leading military planner.

Service chiefs would have input into the plans as they are developed, but they aren't planners in their own right. They have a 'raise, train and sustain' responsibility, but not a operational military planning function.

So when The Australian penned this exclusive expose of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's plan to invade Iraq, I was intrigued.

According to the story, the PM raised an operational planning idea in his office and then sought the advice of Australia's 'leading military planners'. Not the normal way of doing things, for sure, but plausible. By the time I got to the second paragraph, however, my 'sloppy journalism' warning light began flashing. And when I noticed that the article failed to define who 'Australia's leading military planners' were, the light stopped flashing and just stayed on.

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Then the Chief of Defence Force weighed in to say the matter had never been raised with him formally or informally, and the vultures began to circle over the entrails of The Australian's sensational but poorly researched exclusive.

I assumed that a correction would ensue and that the journalist would have been advised by a military planner of the dictum that one should 'never reinforce failure'. So when The Australian clarified the situation this weekend I was somewhat surprised to find more imprecision and hype.

The previously reported 'unilateral invasion of Iraq' that was discussed with 'leading military planners' was now a dinner party discussion where the PM expressed frustration at the slow pace of deployment of ADF elements into Iraq (damn that Iraqi sovereignty issue) and perhaps asked aloud why we couldn't just take Mosul quickly. The main guest was the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, who The Australian breathlessly claimed was 'the Pentagon's senior official overseeing the US-led war against Islamic State in Iraq'.

Even though the term 'overseeing' is left undefined, I'm pretty sure that the senior Pentagon official overseeing the war would be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force provides air force capabilities to the CENTCOM commander (based in Florida), who actually oversees the operational conduct of the war. The US Navy, Army and Marine commanders do the same for their service branches.

But never mind, one shouldn't let inconvenient facts get in the way of a good story. Rather, my attention was focused on the fact that the people objecting to the PM's proposal had in the space of a week gone from 'Australia's leading military planners' to 'others at the table'. Perhaps the confusion over who Australia's leading military planners are could be put to bed if the list of those attending the dinner was published by the newspaper.

After reading both stories all I know is that if, during my time in the Army, I briefed an operational plan to a real 'leading military planner' that was equally poorly staffed and thought through, I would have been told in no uncertain terms where I had failed to meet expectations.

To use a military planning term, it would appear that in writing about the military planning process the journalist in question has, either wittingly or unwittingly, been part of someone's anti-Abbott 'shaping and influencing' operation.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.

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