Lowy Institute

It’s not often that the maritime environment features prominently in any Middle Eastern conflict, but in the waters of the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen there have been two noteworthy incidents recently, both of which have a decidedly Australian angle (even if these weren't obvious at first).

The first incident occurred on 1 October, when a UAE-flagged catamaran was severely damaged in a missile attack allegedly using a Chinese-made C-802 launched by Houthi rebels and captured on video. The damage was extensive and several civilian contractor crewmen were wounded (though their nationalities and extent of their injuries wasn’t immediately clear). The Australian angle lay in the fact that the HSV-2 Swift catamaran was manufactured by Incat in Tasmania, a detail heralded by the Hobart-based Mercury newspaper.

In response to the attack, the US Navy sent a small naval task group to the same area, which also came under fire a little over a week later. Neither of the two missiles that were launched hit anything; indeed, it appears that both fell short either because they were interdicted or the vessels were out of range. One of the US ships fired three missiles in defence, along with some decoys. This time the Australian connection lay in one of the defence mechanisms used; the Nulka Active Missile Decoy. It was designed in Australia by Australia's DSTO (now DST Group) and produced jointly with the US. Given the controversy surrounding the use of US- and UK-supplied munitions supplied to the Gulf coalition (whose errant bombing campaign has caused thousands of civilian casualties), Canberra can count itself fortunate that the appearance of its military equipment in the civil war has been so benign.

Photo: Getty Images/Marco Garcia


I wrote previously about the practical difficulties of military intervention, difficulties which pundits and commentators gloss over when criticising Obama for doing nothing ('Syria: What Are We Going to do Now?'). 

One key element missing from the plans of the 'for God's sake let's do something' crowd is strategic intent. Political leaders must articulate exactly what they want to achieve with military force. The military planners then provide options to achieve their intent, and advise on the strengths and weaknesses of the courses of action they have developed. Most commentators demand military action without having to explain exactly what their aim is. For instance, they say they want to (1) stop civilians dying, while (2) also punishing Assad and the Russians.

Yet these goals may well be incompatible. Let's consider a couple of courses of action that might achieve each of the pundits' twin aims, and why they can't both be achieved.

Aim: Stop civilian deaths in Aleppo

The Assad regime and its supporters have encircled Aleppo with little prospect of the siege being broken. They seek to attrit the armed elements which are fighting among the civilian population. Even if the regime and Russian forces took all care to minimise civilian casualties (which they don't), innocents would still die. Assad is likely to take Aleppo and it is simply a matter of how many civilians will die before it is done.

Rather than call for military intervention to attempt the rather quixotic task of stopping Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces attacking Aleppo, a more likely path to limiting civilian deaths would be to pressure armed groups to leave Aleppo and to provide a UN presence on the ground to ensure that fighters are given safe passage out of the city.

Just as it is against the laws of war to indiscriminately conduct attacks within populated areas, it is also against the laws of war to fail to make efforts to remove civilians from areas where combatants deploy their forces. There is a strong case that in Aleppo both state and non-state actors are guilty of war crimes; one for deploying among the civilian population and the other for failing to discriminate in their attacks. So the argument that assisting safe passage for anti-Assad fighters simply rewards war criminals loses some of its cogency if one accepts that both sides have ignored the laws of war and caused suffering to civilians. One can argue relative responsibilities, but in absolute terms both are guilty. Stefan de Mistura, the UN representative on the Syria issue, even offered to escort the 900-odd al Qaeda fighters out of Aleppo.

Needless to say, under such a proposal Assad's forces would be handed a significant victory while Washington would stand accused of assisting him to expel Syrian rebels. And the regime will see that continuing its encircle-and-destroy tactics will bring success. Jihadist groups, meanwhile, will likely see it as further 'proof' that the West is complicit in the slaughter of Muslims, and this may raise terrorist threat levels somewhat. The fall of Aleppo will also put regime forces in a stronger position when the next round of Syrian negotiations commences with the new administration in Washington and limit US options for military responses in the future.

But if the aim is simply to save civilian lives then the global community should shift its effort from vague demands for military action into calling for fighters to leave Aleppo so the regime no longer has a justification to attack it.

Aim: Exact a cost on the regime so it stops bombing Aleppo

This is difficult to achieve from the outset because it assumes that such actions would be lawful (which is by no means clear) and that there is a level of military action that is sufficient to dissuade Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces from attacking Aleppo but that it is not so high as to allow jihadist groups to re-take areas they have lost. That is difficult to achieve and is the main reason it hasn't been done before.

If you are to punish the regime, however, it should have shock value. The minimalist approach, with a neatly scaleable series of small target packages, is exactly what would be expected and easily countered, since the regime and its allies can continually dare you to do more. A large-scale attack that destroyed military infrastructure such as airfields, communications nodes, selected weapons systems and killed a few commanders would send a powerful message. You might also conduct a follow-up attack to hurry along the decision-making process. This is a strong and forceful approach, just as many pundits have been asking for.

But it is a one-shot (or perhaps two-shot) weapon. If the regime rides it out then either Washington would have to pummel it into submission or cease action, having weakened the regime militarily to absolutely no effect. There is also the quite real possibility that, even with the best target selection possible, several Russian or Iranian advisers would be killed, which would cause enormous problems. And most importantly, there is very little likelihood that the regime would stop bombing Aleppo as a result of such action. Indeed, given the regime couldn't exact a direct price on Washington for any attack, it would more than likely redouble efforts to batter Aleppo into submission, in order to send Washington a signal. So the military option may have the opposite result to the one it seeks to achieve, with more rather than fewer civilians killed.

These are not the mad rantings of some pro-Assad flunky. Rather they are an attempt to get pundits and commentators to intellectually engage with their calls for military action. If anything, it is a pro-Obama rant, because he alone can authorise the use of force and he alone must decide on the strategic intent and whether it can be achieved through military means. To date he has decided that it can't. It is up to his critics to offer a coherent plan that enunciates a strategic (as opposed to tactical) aim and a means to achieve it. Nobody has yet been able to do this.

Photo by Flickr user Christiaan Triebert.


As the media becomes full with images of the bombing of Aleppo, calls for military action by Washington to stop civilian deaths become louder and louder. As a former military planner though, I side with President Obama when he says that he hasn’t seen a military option that stops the civil war short of the deployment of large numbers of ground troops.

There have been myriad proposals put up by well-meaning commentators with uncertain, if any, military planning experience. None of these really engage with addressing the significant (I would say fatal) flaws inherent in each. In 2011 the Brookings Institution offered four military options in Syria but noted, even at the time, that there was 'no guarantee such options would work'. Five years later, commentators have offered up four military options that seem equally thin.

There have been calls for no-fly zones (NFZ) and safe zones, no-bomb zones, cratering of runways to stop the ability of aircraft to take off and bomb civilian targets, and better arming of opposition groups. Of course none of these options represents a strategy, simply a short-term tactic to 'exact a price' on the Syrian government sufficient to force it into serious negotiations. This assumes (erroneously in my opinion) that such an action, or combination of actions, will cause a certain reaction in the Syrian, Russian and Iranian governments. 

But in military planning the devil is always in the detail and one of Washington’s concerns is that the Syrian military coalition is not a unitary actor. The failure of a limited military response to elicit the desired Syrian/Russian response leaves Washington with two choices. It can either continually up the ante and become more involved militarily until it is decisively committed (the 'boiling the frog' theory of strategic entrapment and an unstated aim of some of the advocates), or have no lasting effect and be humiliated.

Let’s look at some of the potential problems in the suggestions that have been made. I will bypass the lack of international legal coverage for most if not all options as it is a common factor.

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NFZ/no-bomb/safe zones

This would require a willingness to challenge and shoot down Russian aircraft flying in support of a legally recognised government that has requested Moscow's military assistance, because we have to assume Moscow would challenge any such illegal construct. What if the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies decide that they will stop flying but use large numbers of artillery and multi-launch rocket systems against insurgents operating among civilian populations? Will US (and possibly Australian) aircraft be comfortable flying at 20,000 feet protecting an illegal NFZ while below them they see towns pummelled by ground-based indirect fire assets? The NFZ would look pretty ineffectual then. Conversely, how would the coalition guarantee that jihadis aren’t able to take advantage of the air cover that an NFZ provides to rest, train and plan, safe from air attack? An NFZ in the Syrian context requires a ground force to ensure that opposition forces of various hues don’t take advantage of the protection it affords: who is going to do that, and how effective would they be in identifying and stopping other groups’ fighters from taking advantage of the NFZ? 

Cratering runways

This might stop fixed wing aircraft for a little while, until the runway is repaired and the planes start flying again. Okay, then we’ll bomb it again. But what if this time it’s Iranian and/or Russian airfield engineers that repair it and set themselves up at the airbase? Or if Moscow decides to deploy some Russian aircraft with Syrian aircraft on some Syrian airbases to see if Washington wants to take the risk of stopping Russian aircraft from operating, or even damage Russian aircraft should a guidance unit not function properly and a hangar rather than the runway gets hit. Or they move military aircraft to Damascus International Airport and operate from there instead. What will Washington do then? And then there’s the uncomfortable fact that rotary wing aircraft don’t need runways to operate from. They can operate from playing fields, highways, school grounds: wherever there is enough space to take off, land, refuel and re-arm.

Giving the opposition better weapons, or even man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS)

The problem, of course, with supplying weapons to rebel groups is that one loses control of them the moment they are handed over. They may be used properly or they may be on-sold, lost on the battlefield, captured by (or handed over) to fighters they were never intended them for. With small arms this is less of a problem, and even anti-armour weapons may be an acceptable risk (although US-supplied anti-tank missiles were allegedly used by Kurdish forces to destroy two Turkish tanks in August this year). But MANPADS are a proliferation line that no one wants to cross so more arms will do nothing to halt the Syrian/Russian air campaign.
Only Charles Lister from the MEI has had a crack at outlining a series of steps that constitute something that approaches a strategy, an effort for which he should be congratulated. But his proposal is practically unworkable as it requires international law to be ignored. It assumes the Russians would be willing to sit and take whatever the US throws at them. It suggests pro-Al Qaeda jihadists should not be targeted in favour of other opposition groups being made to ‘re-realise’ that the jihadists were not preferred battlefield partners, despite the fact the AQ fighters are largely Syrians and the most capable rebel military force. Any one of the assumptions on which the plan is based doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and the combination of them all even less so. 

President Obama has no shortage of commentators and pundits who have any number of suggestions for getting involved in military action in Syria, but not one of them has any coherent sense of where such action would lead, or even what to do when the opening military actions don't achieve the effect envisioned. That is the difference between the calculations of a commander-in-chief, who needs to look at things strategically, and commentators and advocates who can't see past the tactical. 

Photo: Mahmut Faysal/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


The former Member for Longman's surprise visit to Iraq is drawing plenty of criticism. The ALP's Penny Wong was perhaps the most savage, advising him that Iraq was not a 'place for people to act out their boyhood fantasies', while the foreign minister was also willing to criticise her former colleague in only slightly more diplomatic language, labeling his actions 'irresponsible'.

So should we accept that, now that Wyatt Roy is a private citizen released from the strictures of office, he should be allowed to do what he wishes?

To begin with, there appears to have been little that was private about this visit. Mr Roy's trip to 'see a mate' and speak to captains of Kurdish industry and policy-makers to inform himself of the situation, sounds defensible. But you don't serve in politics without learning a thing or two about self-promotion, and while Mr Roy may not be over-endowed with judgment, he has certainly retained his media savvy. It appears he was traveling for at least part of the time with a UK strategic communications representative from the conservative side of politics, which likely goes some of the way to explaining how this private research trip suddenly resulted in an exclusive story complete with still and video footage broadcast by SBS, followed by an exclusive op-ed for The Australian.

The op-ed was part travelogue, part random foreign policy mutterings. Roy suggested Canberra push for Kurdish independence in Iraq, which must have had DFAT shaking its head in bemusement. Comparing the Kurdish region with Dubai and then with East Timor left me befuddled, I must admit. Still, having complained about the lack of Australian diplomatic representation in Erbil when there were 'like, 27 other countries' diplomatically represented, reasoned thought about the broader regional context and Australia's interests doesn't appear to be Roy's strong suit.

If this episode were just about a self-aggrandising visit to northern Iraq with an accompanying media blitz we could dismiss it as simply the actions of an ex-politician trying to maintain a profile. But it is potentially more serious than this. If something had happened to Roy while he was there, even something as common as a car accident, it is likely the Peshmerga would be on the phone to the Australian Embassy in Baghdad seeking assistance for another Australian traveler in trouble overseas. Only this time it wouldn't be some drunk tourist in Bali who lost his passport, it would be an ex-minister in a war zone. And in an active conflict zone a car accident may well be the least of his (and consequently the Australian government's) problems.

There is also the rather clumsy way a recent ex-minister from the Coalition government has publicly contravened the travel advice issued by his former colleague so that she had no alternative but to publicly criticise him. Politics is hard enough without having one of your own go all Walter Mitty on you.

Photo by Flickr user Giorgio Montersino.


A year ago I wrote about the rather facile argument the government ran when announcing its expansion of air operations inside Syria, which suggested it could somehow bomb IS targets in eastern Syria without becoming involved in the broader Syrian conflict.

As I explained then, that claim didn't stand up:

The minister somehow believes this because the RAAF will not be operating over Assad-controlled western Syria or Damascus, and that Australia can somehow magically target those ISIS elements that exclusively operate in or support the conduct of operations in Iraq. The foreign minister and the rest of the government trot out the line that ISIS doesn’t recognize borders and that attacking the group in Syria is the same as attacking them in Iraq.

This is, of course, nonsense as ISIS has the ability to redeploy forces where it perceives the operational need to be. ISIS elements in Syria operate against the Syrian regime and may also support fighting in Iraq.

Along with the more cautionary comment that:

...what they shouldn’t do is create the impression that an air campaign in Syria can be sanitized to such an extent that the RAAF will only be targeting ISIS fighters who will only operate in Iraq, and that the strikes will not have an impact on the broader conflict in Syria.

Now we have Australian aircraft involved (we're not sure what 'involved' actually means), it may well be time for the government to admit what it failed to do a year ago: we are in the multi-layered, complex conflict that is Syria.

Thinking that one could somehow 'ring-fence' Islamic State in eastern Syria, and target them without lightening the load on the Syrian military who were fighting them in Deir az-Zour for instance, never made any sense at the time, and makes even less sense now. Of course prosecuting IS targets in Deir az-Zour would assist the Syrian government. Little was made of that at the time by the fourth estate.

Now, however, if the reports are true, a coalition airstrike has weakened the very forces that are fighting Islamic State on the ground. Exactly how this occurred and the obvious intelligence/procedural failures that led to it will be revealed by the investigation. Russia is making merry at the political level as a consequence, which is somewhat hypocritical given its approach to collateral damage mitigation.

At this point, Canberra would be wise to fess up to the nature of our involvement in Syria. As much as politicians would like to say we are only involved in the war against Islamic state in Syria, it is impossible not to be involved in the broader Syrian war if you're bombing targets in eastern Syria. Potentially dozens of dead Syrian soldiers are testament to that.

Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


Ronald Reagan famously said of a nuclear agreement with the then Soviet Union that it was based on an attitude of 'trust, but verify'. Perhaps slightly contradictory but very realpolitik nonetheless. Thirty years later, Secretary of State John Kerry's admission that the latest Syrian cessation of hostilities agreement is 'not built on trust' tells you perhaps all you need to know about its likelihood of long-term success.

There are holes in the agreement that you could drive a truck through. Among other things, it requires the practical assent of the Assad regime, the Iranian government and the pro-Assad militias that are largely supported by Iran. There is no enforcement mechanism in place for those who breach the conditions of the agreement. It requires seven days of ceasefire (excluding actions against Islamic State) before a US-Russian coordination centre is established to target agreed locations of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. And it requires non-proscribed armed groups to dissociate themselves from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (there are already reports that the islamist group Ahrar al-Sham has come out against the plan). Meeting any one of these conditions is difficult. All of them together is much more so but if there was any easy way out of this impasse it would have been tried long ago. Something needs to be done but in an environment as complex an environment as Syria, expectations must remain low.

Shopping for Eid al Adha at a market place in Jarabulus, Aleppo (Photo: Emin Sansa/Getty)

The parties have taken advantage of the holy Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and a 'natural' lessening of conflict to use this as the starting point for the ceasefire. If it is to have any chance of success, it will be essential that the humanitarian aid that is supposed to flow during this seven days is both able to be delivered and allowed to be delivered. In the absence of any enforcement mechanism, the cost of restarting hostilities needs to be raised in order to dissuade parties from doing so. The loss of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population would be a tangible, albeit limited cost.

Of course, as with most ceasefire agreements, groups will likely seek military gains right up to the hour of implementation, knowing that their opponents will use the ceasefire to regroup, replenish and re-equip in anticipation of renewed fighting once the ceasefire breaks down. Such is the nature of these things. And the reaction from the concerned groups is what we would have expected. Outright rejection from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, caution from the Higher Negotiating Committee who wanted to see details of the enforcement mechanism (which doesn't appear to exist), and scepticism from elements of the Free Syrian Army.


The latest online magazine from Islamic State features an Australian flavour, among some other interesting aspects.

First is the name change; no longer is 'Dabiq' the title (unless this masthead continues to put out editions separately); 'Rumiya' (formal Arabic for Rome) has replaced 'Dabiq'. As most marketers will tell you, when a company's brand is on the skids then it's time for a refresh.; the same applies to jihadists. Jabhat al-Nusra has (to date) unsuccessfully tried to re-brand itself as a non-Al Qaeda jihadist group by changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, as its old name long ago became a dead weight on its leadership aspirations.

With its hold on territory becoming more precarious by the day, ISIS has possibly decided that naming your social media magazine after a town that will likely soon fall out of your control would not be a good look 'going forward'. Re-naming your publication after the centre of Christendom is a way to show what you aspire to, rather than what you have lost. It's also in line with the late Muhammad al-Adnani’s recent claims that IS did not fight for territory as a way of extolling the virtues of continuous jihadi resistance.

But of greater interest for Australians is, as always, in the local angle. While the first edition includes a range of recycled articles from its Arabic-language magazine, Rumiyah also carried a feature article on a dead Australian jihadi (obviously written by an Australian, or by an author with an Australian adviser). Australia has featured as a target in both Al Qaeda and ISIS publications before, but often in generic terms; this time there was some real specificity. Not only were they willing to engage in a bit of alliteration by asking people to target suburbs starting with the letter B (Brunswick, Broadmeadows, Bankstown and Bondi), they also named targets that would be iconic to Australians (the Melbourne and Sydney Cricket Grounds), as well as the Opera House, an international Australian symbol. They also took the opportunity to criticise two Australian Islamic figures who they believe had betrayed the jihadist cause.

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So what to make of Australia's starring role? It's difficult to say. The first possibility is that there was simply an Australian available to input some local colour tying into a story eulogising a dead Australian jihadi. If this was the case, the suburb selection was a bit random and strange; two with significant Muslim populations (Bankstown and Broadmeadows), one with a small Muslim population (Brunswick), and one with virtually no Muslims (Bondi). The buildings included two sporting venues best known by Australians and perhaps English cricket fans. We may be able to say that he wasn't a Melbournian, else he would have surely referred to 'The G' rather than the Melbourne Cricket Ground, but the fact that he criticised two Melbourne-based figures may run counter to this line of thought. Regardless, one shouldn't read anything much into the naming of either the suburbs or facilities as denoting a particular focus on them; it more likely reflected an Australian jihadi's attempt to elicit media interest in the publication.

The other possibility is that the focus on Australia in this edition is a response to the higher social media profile being built by a newly active Australian jihadi in Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra). Abu Sulayman Muhajir, a senior jihadi in the group, has recently broken his social media silence and improved his profile. The death of Ezzit Raad and the need to eulogise him may simply have given an Australian jihadi (or Australian jihadis) an opportunity to focus on their own country and let people know there were competitors to Abu Sulayman in the Australian jihadi social media milieu.

Photo: Getty Images/Universal History Archive


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