Lowy Institute

Given the widespread use of social media in the contemporary age, and the lack of basic humanity shown by both the regime and the opposition forces, the Syria conflict should on the face of it engender a feeling of repulsion at the actions of both sides.

And to a degree it does. But one of the casualties of the instantaneous commentary culture has been a sense of perspective, or any incentive to engage intellectually with the problem. An emotive image is uploaded to the virtual world and what has has hitherto been an extremely complex issue is automatically simplified. In Vietnam, the iconic image of the 'Napalm girl' encapsulated, for many, the futility of the war. The image of an innocent girl caught in the crosshairs of unthinking and unfeeling American pilots who bombed the Vietnamese from 30,000 feet personalised the narrative of high-tech American forces arrayed against the low-tech Vietnamese. The iconic photo summed up what words could not: US bombing made an enemy of the innocent people it purported to be saving. 

The desire to use an image to encapsulate an argument remains. But the certainty of the anti-Vietnam movement has been replaced in the contemporary Middle East with conflicts in which neither side reflect Western values, and both sides seek Western support.

The social media battleground is a key element of both sides' information operations. The often equally odious combatants conduct these operations by appealing to the heart and not the mind. The horrible image, released by Syrian opposition forces ast week, showing a young boy named Omran in an ambulance after allegedly being pulled from the rubble created by a regime bombing run in Aleppo, received blanket media coverage. It was an image which moved a CNN presenter to tears (see above), and you would have to be made of stone not to be shaken by it.

But should it be used as a justification to take sides in the civil war? No, it shouldn't.

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There are equally horrendous images put out by regime sources which show the depravity of elements of the largely Islamist opposition. The photo of Omran in the back of an ambulance is disturbing, yet last month's footage of a boy being beheaded by individuals allegedly belonging to a US-vetted rebel group, described by the rebels as an 'individual mistake' (nb. there are no violent images in the linked article), are so disturbing that they won't be broadcast and hence won't gather the same degree of public opprobrium. And if it doesn't make the public space, it never happened.

Equally objectionable is the use of children as witnesses of record. A Syrian opposition group referring to the alleged 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta near Damascus eschews the use of adults as spokespeople in favour of children. There is no reason why an adult could not have given an account of the incident in question, and of course researchers have difficulty relying on children as witnesses. But from an information operations perspective it is obvious that using children to 'sell' one side of the argument is preferable.

This co-option of children is extended to anybody that claims to be associated with them. Jihadis from Australia often claim they were either working  or intending to work in orphanages in Syria and couldn't possibly have been going to support jihadist causes. Doctors killed in air strikes or shelling are invariably paediatricians or were carrying incubators to basements when shelling began.

My aim is not to belittle the work of doctors who work with children in conflict zones or to try to sidestep the reality that children are killed in war. Obviously this occurs. But it occurs on all sides of this conflict. Jihadis deliberately position themselves within civilian populations and store weapons and ammunition in built up areas, while government forces and their allies pay scant attention to targeting processes or ammunition selection that would minimise civilian casualties. The government forces inflict more casualties because they have more resources, but the difference is really a question of quantity of weapons and munitions, not intent. The death of any child is inexcusable, but in Syria it appears that children are being used for more than just to remind us about the futility of war.

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency


During the Vietnam War the Vietcong coined the term 'hanging onto the belts' of the enemy as a way of blunting the United States' overwhelming superiority in fire support.  In essence the tactic required the Vietcong to fight  American and allied forces in such close quarters that indirect fire support couldn't be effectively employed for fear of killing one's own soldiers.

Vietcong fighters, 1962 Enter caption  (Photo courtesy of Flickr user manhai

Fast forward 40 years and the Syrian al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (now re-branded as Jabhat Fatah ash-Sham – JFS) seek to apply the same lesson in the confusing politico-military environment that is Syria.  The group's name change has little to do with positioning itself relative to the West, at least in the short term.  Simply saying you have no direct links with al-Qa'ida while still praising them and Usama bin Laden, fighting to establish Islamic rule, and including foreign jihadis in senior positions within your ranks does little to convince people that anything but the name has changed.

In the short term the move was more about appealing to the other armed Syrian groups.  While they have successfully formed alliances with other groups and fought together with them, the fact that JAN was a proscribed group meant that allying with JAN on the ground made groups vulnerable to attack by coalition and Russian aircraft.  The Russians have not shown much inclination to differentiate between JAN and those fighting with them but the intertwining of groups, or 'hanging onto the belt' of non-proscribed Islamist and other rebel groups, has presented at times a targeting dilemma for US-led coalition airforces.

JFS also has a longer-term strategy that involves 'hanging onto the belts' of the Syrian opposition – but this time politically.  By distancing itself (publicly at least) from AQ, it hopes not only to be an acceptable political player in post-conflict Syria, but one of the leading players because only then can it implement its strategic aim of Islamic governance.  The essential first step toward accomplishing this is survival, and its tactical alliances on the battlefield have enabled this.  There are reports that it has taken the lead role in the pivotal battle for Aleppo that is currently raging.

But the 'hanging onto the belts' strategy also involves become more closely involved in the information space.  A more 'humanised' JFS becomes a more acceptable element of post-conflict Syria.  The Qatar-owned al-Jazeera has been given several interviews with the JAN emir Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani and there have long been reports that Qatar saw JAN as one of 'its' groups in Syria.  There are no doubt efforts afoot to 'rehabilitate' the group now that it has split from al-Qa'ida, although there is no indication at present that Washington is buying it.

But few in the jihadist milieu are expecting a radical change; rather they are geared more towards making JFS prime among, but indistinguishable from, other rebel groups. By doing so, they hope to protect themselves from a more coordinated air campaign and perhaps, in the future, once administrations change in Washington, to benefit from Hillary Clinton's as-yet undefined no fly or safe zones.  And while dealing with the Russians on Syria has been anything but easy for Washington given the relative disparity in leverage and military commitment to the country, there are some indications that the JFS strategy is showing the first signs of working.  Last month the Washington Post was critical of reported discussions between Washington and Moscow to share targeting intelligence to allow for more effective targeting of JAN (the editorial was written before the name change).

'Hanging onto the belts' was only ever a tactical approach used by the Vietcong to achieve a broader strategic aim. Forty years later and a continent away one Islamist group appears to be using the Vietcong approach both tactically and strategically. No one, however, should be under any false illusion as to what the JFS strategic aim is.


Any marketer will tell you that when you think you've got a good product but it's not selling, then it's time to change the marketing. With that in mind, we should lend little weight to yesterday's announcement by the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), Muhammad al-Jawlani, that his jihadi group has broken with al Qaeda.

The move has been foreshadowed for several weeks; not for any ideological reasons but because of the military pressure JAN was under from Russian airstrikes and the increasing speculation about a Russia-US agreement that would allow for cooperation on the targeting of ISIS and JAN.

The group's name has been changed from JAN (Victory Front) to Jabhat Fatah ash-Sham (Levant/Syria Conquest Front) and the black shahada flag swapped for a brighter look in white, with a new logo. In reality though, little has changed. The announcement praises both al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden and states that the newly-branded organisation remains committed to jihad and indeed seeks to unify the jihadist groups in Syria (presumably under its own leadership). Its tactic of re-branding itself as a type of moderate Syrian resistance group is also undermined by Jowlani's previous assertion in a TV interview that JAN had about 30% foreign fighters, as well as the fact that one of the three people featured in the announcement was an Egyptian, Abu Faraj al-Masri.

The early reaction indicates that an appropriate degree of cynicism is being exercised. The State Department said that they judged groups by what they did, not what they called themselves, and US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said it was a PR move designed to avoid being targeted militarily.

Western countries and the UN should move quickly to include the group's new designation among the names used by JAN in their proscription legislation. There is nothing in the announcement that indicates they have changed their core ideological outlook, nor that they have given up armed jihad in Syria. As David Cameron once said, 'We should be intolerant of intolerance', and as we are seeing around the world there is nothing more intolerant than an armed jihadist group.


It has been written before, quite correctly, that a key strategy in dealing with the terrorist threat is national resilience. And one part of developing such resilience is language. The wrong choice of words can unnecessarily inflame or sensationalise a situation. Conversely, rational and thoughtful language can put contemporary issues into perspective and build resilience.

Earlier this week on the Ten Network current affairs program The Project, host Waleed Aly, addressing the Sonia Kruger 'controversy', described himself as scared, afraid for his country and terrified about what the fear of terrorism was doing to friends and family. But this earnest confession was simply another example of the way our socially-mediated society has made words such as 'scared' and 'terrified' rather meaningless.

I say this based on events both one century ago and half a century ago. One hundred years ago this week the 5th Division of the 1st Australian Imperial Force lost more than 1900 dead and 3500 wounded in one day. I can only imagine what terrifying thoughts were going through their minds as they climbed over the top of the trench and into the withering machine gun fire from German forces. And I can only imagine what Australian society did to cope with this national tragedy.

Fifty years ago next month the late Corporal Philip Dobson was on the battlefield in South Vietnam treating wounded Australian soldiers, the other medics in D Company 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment either dead or wounded. With New Zealand artillery fire crashing around him and incoming fire from the Viet Cong shredding the rubber plants around him, he must have been very, very scared.

Rather than deciding which television personality had a right to be scared and to what degree, The Project could have used the events of a century ago at Fromelles to put the terrorist threat into perspective, and the efforts of Corporal Dobson half a century ago to put the concept of fear into perspective.  Because the program was focused on the concerns of two media personalities, an excellent opportunity was lost to use a high-rating television show to help build societal resilience by referring to times when real fears were overcome and real resilience was required.

I wonder what the men of the 5th Division or the rain-soaked soldiers of D Company would have thought of television personalities describing their fears as a result of a terrorist attack that occurred over 10,000 km away, or how the Australian public was able to cope with the death and wounding of 5500 Australians in 24 hours. The currency of fear has certainly been degraded since that time.


Although coups and the Turkish military used to be synonymous, this weekend's attempted coup, while disturbing, was in the end not a very well executed one.

The plan was launched after working hours and while President Recep Erdogan was on holidays, which showed a sense of timing. Apart from this though, it was littered with fundamental errors. To begin with, when you are committing regicide, the first target has to be the regent. Erdogan may have been isolated for a short period of time but he wasn't detained or otherwise neutralised. Coup plotters only have the element of surprise for a short period of time. They have to create the impression the coup is a fait accompli and they are firmly in control in order to maintain momentum and quickly win over those outside the secret planning bubble that has existed up until the coup commences. This didn't happen. The plotters also failed to control all the means of communication (a difficulty in contemporary coups given the plethora of media platforms and broadcasters), and had insufficient ground troops to conduct the tasks a successful coup requires.

While Erdogan's sense of mission has led him to make significant foreign policy mistakes and alienate many leaders in the region and the West, domestically he maintains a large and well-organised support base. By failing to silence him, the coup plotters allowed Erdogan to quickly mobilise his national support base in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he helped to found.

There were reports that the mosques used their public address systems to sound the call to prayer and to get people out on the streets to protest against the coup. All imams are appointed and paid for by the Religious Affairs Department and very much owe their allegiance to the Islamist AKP. Once the pro-government supporters were mobilised, the insufficiency of the forces at the coup-plotters' disposal became readily apparent. It didn't last much past daybreak.

In response Erdogan has moved more quickly and ruthlessly than the coup plotters did.

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Thousands of members of the military and judiciary have been detained and responsibility for the coup has been sheeted home to supporters of Erdogan's former ally but now foe, Fetullah Gulen, resident in the United States. On what evidence this is based is unclear and the Gulenists have vehemently denied any involvement. For Erdogan though they are handy scapegoats whether the claim is true or not. It means he can not only portray the group, that also claims religious legitimacy through a more secular Islamic outlook, as being a threat to national security, but can also implicitly implicate Washington by decrying its refusal to extradite Gulen to Turkey.

This approach also means that he doesn't have to acknowledge any domestic sources of discontent against his rule, while at the same time allowing him to quarantine the bulk of the military from public criticism. Erdogan needs the military now more than ever as an effective force as he has security issues on the border with Syria and is fighting a semi-conventional war in the country's southeast against Kurdish groups.

The sources of discontent

For all of the president's domestic strength and authority however, there is no getting away from the fact there is discontent. Parts of the military and other sections of society are unhappy with Erdogan's aggregation of power at the expense of democratic checks and balances, including an independent judiciary and free press. Erdogan's foreign policy errors in Syria and poor relations with Russia after the downing of a Russian aircraft, along with suspicion from Egypt and many of the Gulf states at his links with the Muslim Brotherhood, have impacted on Turkey domestically. Islamic State has conducted attacks against Turkey with a focus on tourist infrastructure. This, along with the Russian economic sanctions, has made a difficult economic picture in Turkey even worse.

His domestic opponents will not have welcomed the attempt by the military faction to overthrow the democratically elected government (and kill more than 200 people in the process), regardless of how authoritarian that government has become. But the fact that a coup attempt was made points to the magnitude of the fissures in Turkish society. The coup plotters claimed to be acting to restore democracy without a hint of irony. However, they also pointed to the need to stem corruption and the move away from secularism, both claims that resonate with a significant element of the Turkish population.

To many leaders, an attempted coup would give one pause for thought as to the direction they had taken a society. But Erdogan cares little for introspection and is driven to a large extent by ideology. He has made his way in the hard scrabble of Turkish politics with a firm belief in using power to shape society, and the fewer constraints on that power the better. He is little interested in repairing fissures in society, rather he is focused on punishing those who were directly involved in the coup and in purging those who may support opposing views to that of the AKP. He was swift to single out the judiciary (which he believes is full of Gulenists) for punishment following the coup. Reports suggest he has ordered the arrest of more than 2500 judges and prosecutors, along with nearly 3000 military personnel who have been detained.

The political prospects for Turkey do not look good. It has a domestic terrorist problem from Islamic State and Kurdish groups, is fighting Kurds in the south east, and is under pressure to control foreign fighters entering and leaving Syria, All of this while hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Turkey, once seen as the exemplar for secular, democratic Islam is no longer viewed in that way. Its tourist trade (accounting for 13% of GDP) has suffered grievously. Still, expect little to change following the coup other than a continued consolidation of power by Erdogan and a purge of his political opponents on a grand scale. As Erdogan told a crowd shortly after restoring control: 'The strong are not always right, but the right are always strong'.

Photo by Defne Karadeniz/Getty Images


On 21 May ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called on the group's supporters to conduct attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The message has been an effective one, as demonstrated by a number of attacks perpetrated and claimed by ISIS, including the latest in Baghdad. Each is horrifying in its own right, but collectively they are noteworthy because they demonstrate the multi-faceted way in which contemporary terrorist attacks can be conceived and launched.

Iraqis mourn after yesterday's suicide car bombing in Baghdad. (Anadolu Agency/Getty)

Our traditional views of terrorist attacks, informed by the IRA bombing campaigns and perhaps Palestinian nationalist groups, was quite linear. A central body planned and resourced the attack, perhaps deployed the attackers and planned for their return to home base after the attack had been completed. Such attacks could be successful but they could also be disrupted if one of the links in the planning chain was broken.

ISIS has demonstrated that in the contemporary world of Islamist terrorism, threats are no longer linear. In June alone we saw individuals or groups tied to ISIS conduct attacks on three continents using a variety of methods, with differing levels of support from the ISIS leadership. In July we have already seen attacks in Dhaka and Baghdad.

In France, a 'lone wolf' attacker killed a French police officer and his wife in front of their young child, and filmed the attack himself. Although not yet confirmed, the Orlando shooter had a history of watching Islamist videos and professed his allegiance to ISIS while shooting 49 patrons of a gay nightclub. In Yemen, four suicide bombers killed 43 soldiers and civilians in Mukalla, while in the Christian-majority village of Qa'a on the Lebanese-Syrian border a total of eight suicide bombers exploded their devices, likely feeling they were compromised on the way to another target deeper inside Lebanon. In Istanbul three attackers killed more than 40 Turkish and international citizens in a gun and bomb attack on the airport. In Dhaka it was small arms and machetes killing foreigners and Bangladeshis, and in Baghdad it was a truck bomb that killed more than 100 people.

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In the case of the French and US attacks, ISIS likely had no more of a role than to inspire the attackers through social media messaging. In the case of the bombings in Qa'a and Baghdad, the numbers and logistics involved indicate that the bombers were likely to have been centrally directed by ISIS operational planners, while in Yemen and perhaps Bangladesh the distance from Syria appears to indicate that the attackers may have received broad direction without specific support. In the case of Istanbul it may have been either of these last two options, or both.

This shows the durability of the threat ISIS will pose after it loses territory, because its model envisages three levels of support for terrorist attacks. It can provide the planning, logistics and other operational support for the attack (as in Qa'a), it can provide broad operational direction such as timing and/or broad target selection but leave the details to one of its affiliates (as was the case in Yemen), or it can simply provide inspiration through social media, as was the case in France and possibly Orlando. Of these, only the first type requires a safe base from which to operate.

When terrorists are willing to die in the conduct of their attack, the planning required for the action becomes much more straightforward — a one-way mission is always easier to plan than one in which the attackers are supposed to live to fight another day. It is easier still when the central planning authority needs simply to give guidance and to sub-contract out the operation, or when its role is simply to inspire an attacker through appeal to a certain religious identity.

Unfortunately ISIS has led the way in developing this 'new wave' of terrorism planning and execution. Such is its flexibility that it can still be partially effective even when it has lost its hold on Raqqa and Mosul. The lesson after this wave of Ramadan attacks is that we shouldn't conflate the end of the physical 'caliphate' with the end of radical Islamist terrorist attacks. 


The shocking attack by three terrorists on Kemal Ataturk airport has justifiably horrified us all.  And on the assumption that it has been carried out by Islamic State (the target selection of a tourism hub & lack of claim are similar to other such attacks) it reinforces the view that IS is seeking to pressure Ankara into providing a more permissive environment for its fighters to transit into Syria after a crackdown over the last 18 months or so.  

But our focus on Istanbul shouldn't blind us to the fact that IS has also been responsible for other attacks outside Syria over the past few days.  In Yemen, four suicide bombers killed more than 40 people (mostly soldiers) in the southern city of Mukalla, while in northeastern Lebanon up to eight suicide bombers struck in two waves in Qa'a, a largely Christian village — the indications  are that the village wasn't the real target for the bombers.

If we add to these the knife attack in France and possibly the 49 people killed in Orlando, we can see how seriously IS has taken its spokesman Muhammad al-Adnani's call for people to conduct attacks during Ramadan.  Of more concern though, is the fact that the variety of attacks illustrates the multi-faceted nature of IS as a terrorist group. Its operatives or supporters have been able to conduct attacks in three continents that have been operationally supported (as in Qa'a), operationally directed (as in Yemen), or operationally inspired (as in France).  This alone should highlight the fact that IS aims to be relevant after its loss of territory in Syria and Iraq, a fact highlighted by Adnani during his audio message for Ramadan.

Photo by Gokhan Tan/Getty Images


The controversy surrounding the the release of a draft cable critical of US government policy written by 51 State Department employees has garnered headlines, not so much for the fact that people within the bureaucracy are critical of the President's Syria strategy (given the complexity of the problem, Obama was always going to be criticised regardless of what he did) but that 51 people signed it. In reality, the cable will have no lasting effect on the way that the current US government looks at Syria, and nor should it.

Although it is a draft cable written by people who genuinely despair at civilian deaths in Syria, there are a few issues whose omission points to the practical limitations of the policy proposed by the dissenters.

Firstly, the cable tries to reduce the conflict to a choice between 'moderate' groups (who are never named) and the Assad regime. There is no mention of the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra or the much stronger and very Islamist Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (the former proscribed, the latter not), whose vision for a future Syria is the antithesis of that held by the secular liberal State Department dissenters. Is there a unified coalition opposing these radical groups? Would a protected and empowered 'moderate' opposition take on such groups to fight for secular liberal values?

More practically, the cable fails to enunciate the potential pitfalls of 'selected' air strikes. The Syrian Government knows (and the cable itself acknowledges) that punitive strikes can't do anything to tilt the balance towards the armed opposition. So what if the Syrian army loses a couple of artillery pieces or rocket launchers; they can be replaced by the Russians or Iranians within a week or two. And the regime and its supporters can hurt US interests more than the other way around because they have more skin in the game. A US air strike targets a Syrian artillery battery. Watch the Russians launch sorties against Free Syrian Army positions with the excuse that intelligence showed them operating with Jabhat al-Nusra elements. Take out a Syrian Army rocket launcher? See the regime's supporting militias start focusing on ground assaults against US-supported 'moderate opposition groups', restricting UN humanitarian convoys further. What will Washington do then?

One of Russia's (and Iran's) major strategic aims in deploying to Syria is to demonstrate US weakness. Launching a few strikes against Syrian regime targets but with no intent of doubling down for fear of tilting the balance in Syria will just damage US credibility further. Tellingly, while the dissent memo notes that 'military steps...may yield a number of second-order effects', it never says what those second-order effects may be or how they might be ameliorated. A bit of 'red-teaming' with some uniformed colleagues from the Pentagon during the drafting may have have helped in this regard.

As an aside, I must admit that I never knew about 2 FAM 70, the US document that outlines the way US State Department or USAID personnel can express alternate views to US government policy. It beggars belief that an Australian government of either hue would ever allow such freedom of expression within a key government agency.

Photo courtesy of www.whitehouse.gov




After the worst mass shooting in modern US history, theories and accusations abound. This was a hate crime against the LGBT community, not a terrorist incident; the perpetrator was religious/not religious; he was mentally ill/not mentally ill; may or may not have pledged allegiance to ISIS prior to or during the shooting; there was no apparent direct contact with ISIS.

While more will be known as the investigation proceeds, it is fair to say that this appears to be another example of the type of ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks that ISIS spokesman Muhammad al-Adnani has called for, and which are virtually impossible to prevent. It may well be that direct links between ISIS and the shooter will not be found because they may well not exist. Under enormous pressure on the battlefield, ISIS is hardly in a position to provide operational support to attack planning in the West. That is particularly the case in the US.

But this matters little, because rather than practical support, ISIS seeks to provide inspiration. In late May the ISIS spokesman released an audio message in which he said 'Ramadan, the month of conquest and jihad. Get prepared, be ready...to make it a month of calamity everywhere for the non-believers...especially for the fighters and supporters of the caliphate in Europe and America'. Mateen's decision to purchase an AR-15 assault rifle and a 9mm pistol during the first week of Ramadan may mean that he followed Adnani's exhortation.

In this modern version of Islamist terrorism, the direct link between ISIS and the jihadi may be no more than the al-Adnani missive. Buy yourself a military-grade semi-automatic weapon, select a soft target, transport yourself there then begin shooting. The whole operation is made all the easier because God loves jihadis, so there is no need to plan an escape. Terrorism has never been more straightforward.

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The investigation may reveal a history of viewing or downloading online ISIS or other Islamist material, or of suspicious travel or contact with radicals, or it may not. But the publicity that Adnani's calls for attacks in the West has received may even render a history of viewing material online irrelevant.

This is identity terrorism, where ISIS appeals to people based on their version of Islamic identity that is simple, and guidance that is broad: kill people in your own countries; make something of your life by supporting the aims of one's Islamic brothers fighting oppression in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen.

Occasionally, ISIS plans and executes an attack, as was the case with the 2015 Ramadan suicide bomb attack on a Shi'a mosque in Kuwait that killed 26 people. And in the case of the Paris and Brussels attacks, some experienced ISIS personnel were involved. But the signature left behind by more complex planning and attacks can lead to compromised operations, so ISIS-inspired rather than ISIS-planned terrorist attacks have become the norm in the West.

Targeting and operational planning is left up to the individual. With this loose guidance, it is possible for jihadists to combine personal hatreds with direct action. The San Bernardino shooting in December last year targeted Syed Farook's colleagues, while in the Orlando case the target was a gay nightclub more than 150km from where the shooter lived, perhaps reflecting the shooter's alleged homophobia. As far as ISIS is concerned the target matters little, as long as it causes a significant number of casualties and can be claimed by the organisation.

So, rather than deciding whether such attacks are conducted by homophobes, or angry men with invisible lives, or by the mentally ill, we should try to understand the ability of ISIS to motivate small numbers of Muslims to kill their fellow citizens by appealing to a distorted sense of religious identity, and to channel the anger that real or perceived injustices have fomented. And in this regard we are still some way from understanding the triggers that enable some Muslims to equate their religious identity with an obligation to kill innocents from all walks of life and from all faiths and ethnic groups. Until we do, expect more of these types of attacks, even after ISIS suffers a terminal defeat on the battlefield.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Victoria Pickering






The reported death of another Australian fighting for the Kurdish YPG is sad news. But he was engaged in illegal activity, a point made clear by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Some argue that, given the circumstances surrounding the battle against IS, we should treat such volunteers differently to other foreign fighters. At first glance this looks like an appealing argument. But the conflict in Syria is much more complex than people who hold this view acknowledge. Before others come out in support of the actions of such people, there are a couple of questions worth asking, and some answers worth mulling over:

1. We're all fighting Islamic State so what's the problem? The problem is that tactical and strategic aims aren't the same thing. Just because YPG are fighting IS doesn't mean YPG does not have broader strategic aims, such as autonomy or independence, that are definitely not shared by the Australian — or any other Western — government. Western governments can modify the political and military support they provide to the Kurds to give weight to shared tactical aims; individuals don't have that luxury.

2. The US is supporting YPG forces, so why can't Australian citizens? The first assertion is perfectly true, but given it is a state actor with control over the deployed assets, the US can ensure that its assets (both ground and air) are used against targets that are exclusively part of the anti-IS campaign. If the targets aren't tied to that aim then the support can be denied or withdrawn. The same can't be said for individual 'volunteers' in YPG. Once you're a foreign fighter you lose control over your destiny; when you cross the border you can be used by YPG against anyone YPG is fighting. Rebel groups have accused the YPG of being little better than proxies for Assad's forces, while YPG forces have also clashed with pro-Assad forces recently in Qamishli.

3. What does Turkey think of all this? The Turkish sensitivity to the provision of support for Kurdish groups was amply demonstrated when pictures of US Special Forces wearing YPG colour patches became public. This decision by local commanders to establish a degree of solidarity with their supported forces was understandable at the tactical level but strategically not smart, and it was countermanded once it became known by the Turkish government and a higher coalition headquarters. Think then how the Turkish government feels about Australians fighting for YPG who Ankara sees (with quite some justification) as a sub-branch of the PKK (a listed terrorist group). At present (and even more so in the post-IS phase) the Australian government needs the support of the Turkish government to assist it in identifying, detaining and repatriating Australian Islamists fighting for IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Ankara is hardly going to bend over backwards to cooperate with Canberra if it feels that Australia is keen to prosecute Islamist foreign fighters but not so keen to prosecute YPG/PKK fighters.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kurdishstruggle


For such a nondescript city in Iraq, Fallujah has name recognition beyond its importance. In Western military circles at least the name is synonymous with the 2004 battle that turned into the bloodiest urban assault undertaken by the US military since Vietnam.

Iraqi soldiers at Garma, part of the Fallujah operation (Photo: Ali Muhammed/Getty Images)

This time around, though the circumstances are different, it is once again a fight against Sunni insurgents who have had the benefit of long periods to establish defensive positions above and below ground. Regardless of the number of fighters inside the city, the urban environment offers the defenders many advantages, and diminishes the effectiveness of some of the attackers' advantages, particularly air power.

Much is riding on the outcome for the Iraqi government. The under-siege prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who announced the beginning of the assault on national television, seeks to shore up his position with a decisive victory. Of course the inevitable civilian casualties will be prime material for his enemies to use against him even if the assault goes to plan, and none other than Grand Ayatollah has called for restraint to be used during the battle. Videos of Iraqi forces assisting some civilians to flee have already begun to emerge and more of these should be expected as part of the political PR campaign.

Part of the difficulty for the Iraqi government is the confusing command and control arrangements between the various parties involved; the Iraqi army assaulting the city; the Iraqi police units providing support; the various Shi'a militias grouped under the Popular Mobilisation Units (some very loosely, if at all) who are supposed to conduct supporting attacks; and the Iraqi and coalition forces (including from the Australian Defence Force) who supply the air support and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC). With the number of differing (and some potentially competing) agendas among those groups, it will take an impressive commander (and/or advisory staff) to effectively coordinate everyone's efforts.

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The Shi'a militias have so far satisfied themselves with conducting operations on the perimeter as part of the outer cordon. They have promised to leave the main assault to Iraqi government forces, but this has not stopped them from capitalising on their participation through selected photos circulated to the media including one allegedly featuring the scarlet pimpernel of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Qassem Suleimani 'coordinating actions' in Fallujah.

It will be interesting to see the degree to which Islamic State is willing or able to commit resources to the battle. US–supported forces operating under the Syrian Democratic Forces banner (largely the Kurdish YPG) have commenced an advance south towards the outskirts of Raqqa. IS leadership in Raqqa will therefore have to deal with its more proximate threat while simultaneously addressing the assault on Fallujah. Defeat in Fallujah should be inevitable, and if the cordon built up over the past few weeks and months has been even partially effective it should have made IS's ability to move fighters in or out difficult but not impossible. IS has already attempted to position itself ideologically for the fall of Fallujah in its most recent audio recording in which spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani claims that the loss of cities does not mean they are defeated as long as they retain the will to fight. 

IS may well see strategic utility in suffering a defeat while imposing an enormous cost in civilian lives and damaged infrastructure. This could breed ongoing ill-well among the Sunni Iraqi population, laying the groundwork for a sympathetic Sunni environment into which some of its Iraqi members could continue to operate after IS loses its territory. In this scenario, it would make sense to retain a relatively significant force in Fallujah. But if IS has deemed the defence of Mosul and Raqqa to be its main effort, it may well have withdrawn fighters and perhaps left local IS members to die in place. Until the battle proper is joined we won't be any the wiser as to how IS views the defence of Fallujah.

What is certain is that the re-taking of Fallujah may lead to nought strategically if it is not re-built and administered effectively and efficiently. Only then can the Iraqi government have any hope of extending its writ into the Sunni heartland of western Iraq. But that is for the future. For the moment, re-taking Fallujah will maintain the momentum of the Iraqi Security Forces and allow them to switch the main effort to the main prize perhaps before year's end — Mosul. 

Ali Muhammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


Most people will perhaps by now have an inkling that the war against Islamic terrorism will go on much longer than the wars in Syria or Iraq. The narrative is too compelling for some to give up, governance too poor to stop people being attracted to that narrative, and identities too complex to provide a counter-narrative that addresses everyone’s perceived injustices. Understanding the deep-seated nature of the problem, Washington has had to tread a fine line. It seeks to avoid becoming decisively engaged, so as not to exacerbate the situation and become the problem rather than part of the solution, while deploying sufficient military and diplomatic support to try to contain the situation and steer it in a desired direction. None of it is, or will be, neat.

Part of the problem has been finding partners that have a strategic aim that coincides sufficiently with that of the Obama Administration, and who share enough values with the US so that it can stomach working with them. It is often easier to find the the first than the second, given interests tend to be temporary while values somewhat more permanent. The difficult balancing act that Washington finds itself in the region is reflected in its piecemeal allocation of troops, all there for valid reasons, but all with their own unique operating environments and challenges.

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In Libya, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently signalled an increase to the US military presence, over and above the two small teams already in Misrata and Benghazi who have been scoping possible ground partners since late last year.

In Yemen, the US reluctantly provided limited support to the Saudi-led air campaign from its inception, but largely as a means of inserting some form of adult supervision on an organisation that had never undertaken such a campaign before. More recently though, the US has also provided a small detachment of ground troops to assist the Saudi and Emirati forces dislodge AQAP (Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula) from the coastal city of Mukalla.

And the recent visit by the new commander of Central Command, Joseph Votel into northern Syria to visit the small US military detachment there —  working with the umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) —  highlighted its role in the most intractable of the multiple conflicts in the region. There are some indications that Votel's visit has drawn criticism from some within the opposition Free Syrian Army because of the dominance of the Kurdish YPG in the SDF, further highlighting how complex the opposition picture is in Syria. And in neighbouring Iraq, Votel visited some of the several thousand US military personnel working to support Iraqi forces against Islamic State.

The term 'boots on the ground' means many things to many people, including news media. The military (and most politicians) would consider the term to mean combat manoeuvre forces, implying one is decisively committed to the fight. The presence of advisers and enabling (or supporting) forces falls short of that measure, even though there are military personnel physically present in operational areas. The media struggle to understand the difference.

What we see in the Middle East currently is a US not becoming decisively committed to the ground fighting, but deploying small groups to assist local groups that Washington can work with to engage in the contact battles. Sounds complex ? You bet. But if it wasn't it wouldn't be the Middle East.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images


The death last week of Mustapha Badredinne, Hizbullah's chief of military operations in Syria, was certainly big news. His death highlights once again the cost in senior personnel that the civil war is exacting on the Lebanese Shi'a group. In December last year, Samir Kuntar was killed in an Israeli airstrike as was Jihad Mughniyya (the son of Imad) in January. There were even some reports that the real target of the attack that killed Jihad was Badreddine, who was supposed to have been in the same convoy.

These deaths show how costly the war in Syria is becoming in personnel terms for Hizbullah. With well over 1000 combat deaths the war has taken a toll, albeit a manageable one, on the organisation. On the flip side the years of fighting has also blooded a new generation of fighters, tactical commanders and operational planners. 

But Hizbullah has also been fighting on another, less bloody, but still painful front and one in which there are no martyrs to eulogise. Washington has been waging an active campaign against Hizbullah's financial operations, likely seeing the low oil prices and expensive Iranian military operations in Syria and Iraq as a sign of a drop in financial support from Tehran.

This has been done in the past using existing powers under Executive Order 13324: in 2015, Hizbullah support networks were sanctioned in West Africa, a Lebanese-owned company in China, individuals including Badreddine in July and other individuals and companies in October last year for their role in supporting Hizbullah financially.

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A new bill designed to target Hizbullah even more specifically, the Hizbullah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015, was signed into law in December last year and action since then has been swift. In January 2016 the first individuals were sanctioned under the Act. Most importantly the Act allows the Secretary of the Treasury to prohibit foreign banks from accessing the US financial system that engage in certain specified transactions in support of Hizbullah. This has naturally caused more than a little disquiet in Lebanese banking circles.  

As well as legislative lines of operation, law enforcement have also targted Hizbullah's income streams. In February this year a multinational law enforcement operation busted a drug operation that saw Hizbullah operatives, including a senior Hizbullah money launderer, working with South American drug cartels to raise profits for repatriation back to Lebanon for Hizbullah's use.

There is nothing to suggest that either the Syrian war, or the US tightening of financial sanctions, are causing irreparable damage to the organisation, but every new sanction and every new arrest chips away at the ability of the group to fundraise freely. Even deeply ideological groups need to pay its supporters, and any long-term diminution of its ability to bestow financial largesse is something that Hizbullah will want to avoid.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user yeowatzup.


Most people understand what is involved in a ceasefire.  Fewer would be familiar with the term 'cessation of hostilities', and there would not be many at all who would know what a  'regime of calm' means. This melange of terms reflects the challenges involved in brokering any kind of reduction in fighting in the confused and confusing environment that is Syria.

Syrian kids protest against Assad Regime forces air attacks targeting Aleppo

The confusing terminology largely reflects the fact that military action was allowed to continue against the two proscribed terrorist groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.  On the face of it, this sounded like an imperfect — but feasible — diplomatic outcome.  Syrian forces used the opportunity to shift their weight of effort to attack Islamic State targets and retake the symbolically important, and operationally useful city of Palmyra/Tadmur.  Coalition aircraft, both alone and in concert with Kurdish ground forces, have kept up the pressure against Islamic State in the northeast.

And while the 'cessation of hostilities' has more or less held and led to a reduction in deaths, a golden thread has started to unravel the cessation; Aleppo.  This is not only because Aleppo has been a strategic focus of the regime since the introduction of Russian airpower allowed Syrian and allied forces to resume offensive operations, but also due to the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra operates within it.

And therein lies the rub.  Unlike Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra has been a much more Syrian-focused group, and much more collaborative with on-the-ground partners.  It is far more respected by locals than is Islamic State, so groups regularly form local alliances and fight with it.  More respected doesn't mean wholly respected, as indicated by protests in Idlib, and concerns about the group's renewed interest in Aleppo reported by Lebanese media.   The more cooperative environment on the battlefield though means it can be difficult to separate Jabhat al-Nusra from other, non-proscribed groups.  The Russians and Syrians don't really care, and view anyone working with Jabhat al-Nusra as fair game.  The US and its allies think the Russians and Syrians overstate the areas within which Jabhat al-Nusra operates so they can take over more territory in Aleppo.  Hence the difficulty in reconciling areas that are fair game for targeting and those that aren't.  This dilemma has resulted in a rather extraordinary proposal; a joint Russian/US violation monitoring centre,  extraordinary in its concept and extraordinary if it works.    

With the Geneva peace talks currently moribund (Germany and France are trying to perform CPR), and the cessation of hostilities hanging on by its fingernails, Aleppo has become the last hope for the reduction of fighting to stay.  But, with a regime that sees Aleppo as 'winnable', Washington which has warned Damascus against thinking this, and an opposition who continues to cooperate with a proscribed terrorist group on parts of the battlefield, the prospects for anything other than a temporary respite to the fighting appears bleak.

Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


I was in Lebanon on a research trip the week before last and nearly coughed up my foul at breakfast when I opened up the Beirut newspaper and read about the 60 Minutes crew being arrested over a bungled snatch and grab operation of two children. Much has been written about this, including the inevitable discussion about the morality of the deed, its potential effect on wider bilateral relations, and myriad other issues that fill up the entertainment, news and editorial spaces of our media. But, as a former military planner and student of the region, I was aghast at one aspect and realistic about another.

The reason I nearly coughed up my foul that morning was disgust at the jaw-dropping amateurishness of the execution and, more particularly, at the near complete lack of risk management exhibited by the decision-makers at the television network concerned.

I'm not a media professional but I do have years of operational planning experience so I assume that someone had to develop the idea and pitch it to a person in authority who then had to approve it and allocate resources. There is a saying in the military that sometimes a poor plan well executed is better than a good plan poorly executed. This fiasco had all the hallmarks of a bad plan badly executed.

When the television network dispatched a four-person TV crew to Beirut, the network accepted the risk on the crew's behalf. Planners try to control what they can control, and risk mitigate what they cannot. Neither appears to have been at play here. To start with, why did the crew have to be in Beirut at all ? Why weren't they in Cyprus, the logical destination for the getaway yacht moored at the Movenpick. If the operation was compromised (which it appears to have been from the start), then at least the TV crew would have been out of harm's way. Is the risk associated with getting a live interview a few hours earlier in Beirut than from the yacht in Cyprus worth it? I'm not in TV but I do know something about operational risk and return and there was no way the risk of having the crew in the same country, let alone the same city, in any way justified the minimal return expected.

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There didn't appear to be any operational urgency to organising this infotainment abduction, which raises even more questions as to why it was so appallingly amateurish. Nobody was going anywhere any time soon, so there was plenty of time to construct a well thought-out plan, have the legal department look at the legal framework in Lebanon to understand the legal risk the crew was being asked to accept, understand the country the crew was flying into, and do due diligence checks on the 'child recovery' agency. That agency should have been required to brief the network on the plan for the sake of co-ordination, and so the network could be assured the abduction plan was sound, operational security was tight, and it was legally covered. Sometimes plans in the military are rushed because there is a time sensitivity, but when they aren't rushed you have the luxury of time. The Nine Network appeared to have had luxury of time to plan and either ignored it or squandered the opportunity. Or that's just not the way it's done in current affairs television.

In regards to the bilateral relationship, the incident, although bad for the crew concerned and their families, is unlikely to have any real impact.

Firstly, this is not the first time media have acted badly so it's not without precedent. Secondly, despite the rather large hoo-ha being generated in Australia (particularly given it's a high-profile media crew incarcerated in a Beirut jail), Lebanon has got other, rather more newsworthy issues to deal with at the moment. To name just a few: a quarter of its population consists of Syrian refugees; there is a deadly five-year long civil war on its border that occasionally spills over; it has been without a president since May 2014; it is recovering from a nation-wide 'garbage crisis'; the Saudis have recently withdrawn $4 billion in military and security aid; and the French president is currently touring. Amongst all this, a ham-fisted child abduction abetted by a foreign TV crew is titillating but hardly ranks as a first order issue.

Opinions voiced in The Australian that this could be solved with the intervention of Iran are well wide of the mark and assume that Tehran is even vaguely interested in this overblown domestic dispute gone wrong. The fact that this is a second or third-order issue in Lebanon is a good thing in the long run. It means there is a better chance that it will be dealt with for what it is — a domestic dispute into which parties who have no right to do so have inserted themselves in a seriously amateurish fashion. Apart from the families of those incarcerated, who are paying the price for the television network's inability to understand the operational environment, planning or risk mitigation processes, we should also spare a thought for our mission in Beirut, some of whom have undoubtedly had to shift efforts from their normal job of understanding a complex country in a complex region to looking after the personnel of a media company behaving badly.