Lowy Institute

The Paris attacks are dominating the Western press. And while all manner of commentators are offering  insights into relevance of the attacks, it is worthwhile to look at some of the broader implications.

Advanced planning and operational capabilities

These attacks are not a game changer, but they do present worrying signs that jihadi capabilities in Europe have developed a greater degree of professionalism.

People gather outside Notre Dame Cathedral during a ceremony in Paris to honour the victms (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Firstly, the operational security practiced by the attackers must have been of high quality for them to pass under the security services’ radar (unless there has been a fault with the security services’ of which we are unaware). Lone wolves are very hard to stop because of their small signature. The more complex the attack and the more moving parts it has, the greater the likelihood that it could be compromised.

Secondly, multiple attacks were carried out by the same group using both small arms and suicide vests, perhaps with the assistance of someone sent from Syria. ISIS has used suicide vests and small arms before (a lone gunman killed 38 people in Tunisia including 30 British tourists last year), and has even brought in external actors to support mass casualty attacks (as in the case of the Kuwaiti mosque bombing earlier this year). But this appears to be the first time that small arms, suicide vests and external actors have all been employed on the same operation in Europe.

If the Russian airline bombing is linked to ISIS then it indicates both an aspiration to inflict more spectacular attacks, and an improvement in the planning capabilities necessary to carry out such attacks.

The timing is unlikely to be coincidental

I have written before about the way in which ISIS seeks to dominate the media space to project a sense of omnipotence and power. This is particularly when it faces pressure on the battlefield.

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In the space of 36 hours we saw suicide bombings in Baghdad and Beirut and the attack in Paris. This is unlikely to be coincidental, and more likely to be the result of explicit direction from ISIS central or implicit guidance understood by its affiliates.

In the last week and a half, the news regarding ISIS showed Kurdish forces re-taking Sinjar in Iraq, Iraq government forces closing in on Ramadi, Syrian government forces breaking a two-year siege by ISIS of the Syrian airfield at Kwereis and the likely killing of the ISIS Western poster-boy 'Jihadi John'. With the entry of Russian forces into Syria, and the bolstering of Assad’s ground forces by Iran and its militia allies, the ISIS main forces are under increasing military pressure on multiple fronts in the Middle East.

Increases chances of negotiated solution in Syria

The Russian intervention in Syria is becoming less and less antithetical to Western interests. Although it was claimed the introduction of Russian air power made the Syrian conflict even more complicated, Moscow has always seen it in binary terms; from its point of view, you’re either with Assad or against him. And if you’re looking for a negotiated outcome the weakening of all Syrian opposition groups’ military capabilities may make them more amenable to a negotiated solution while they still have some leverage. This will be vigorously opposed by Turkey and Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but at the moment the political stocks of states ruled by Islamists are low and getting lower.

The implication of possible links between refugees and terrorism

If proven, the nexus between asylum seeker flows and terrorism will provide further impetus for increased focus (and perhaps greater compromise) on a negotiated outcome to the Syrian civil war. While the quantum of security threats posed by bogus asylum seekers remain tiny, it matters little in the court of public opinion and therefore becomes a major political issue. And any negotiated outcome, particularly one established in the not too distant future, would favour the bulk of the regime. 

If an outcome is achieved on the Syrian diplomatic front, then the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers flooding into Europe will end up back in Syria. In Syria itself, President Assad must be silently thanking ISIS every time it carries out another atrocity


The first tactical victory emerging from Russia’s intervention in Syria came not on the al-Ghab plain in Syria’s Hama province or around Syria’s divided commercial capital of Aleppo. Rather it came at the end of last month in the peaceful surrounds of Vienna. It was there the US and its regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, finally had to acknowledge what had been obvious from the start of the civil war. There can be no negotiated outcome to the Syrian crisis without Iran having a seat at the table.

So bloody-minded have the Saudis, Turks and Qataris been, and so sure they'd be able to find the right jihadist coalition with which to dislodge Syria from Tehran’s orbit, that they refused to countenance Tehran’s attendance at any of the previous conferences held to chart a way forward in the conflict.

Other than a statement of intent and a promise to meet again in a few weeks’ time, nothing concrete came from the Vienna meeting; its significance lay in the list of participants.

Russia’s air campaign in support of Assad’s Syrian government forces and Iranian-backed Shi‘a militia groups has always had a relatively limited strategic aim; to allow Damascus to win the peace. Syria’s allies know that Damascus can’t generate enough combat power to reconquer all of its territory, and neither Moscow nor Tehran are willing to do it for them. Russia has only deployed enough ground forces to protect its main airbase and a small number of forward operating bases, and possibly to provide some enabling functions to allied ground forces. If reports are true that Iranian-backed groups number around 2,000, then this also represents something far short of a game-changer.

Knowing that the only solution to the Syrian morass is a negotiated one, the Russian and Iranian intervention is designed to strengthen Damascus’ hand.

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This entails firming up the security of core government-held areas, pressuring jihadi supply lines, and weakening the strengths of the various militia groups that serve as proxy forces for regional interests. This is one reason why the Russians don’t really care which opposition group they target — all of them are antithetical to Moscow’s strategic aim. Weakening any puts the Assad regime’s backers in a stronger position during negotiations.

That is not to say that Russia has no interest in targeting Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, it’s just not Russia's primary aim. It never was. The fact that the US-led air campaign is putting pressure on ISIS in the east of the country and Kurdish groups are doing the same on the ground means the Russian air campaign can support the ground manoeuvre force and treat any rebel group as the enemy and a legitimate target.

Regional states can (and allegedly have) provided rebel groups with weapons to exact a toll on Syrian and Iranian-supported ground forces, however Russia is likely betting that this largesse won’t extend to surface to air missiles. Washington is concerned (with good reason) that providing such weapons to rebel groups, without being able to account for them once they cross the border, risks creating a much bigger problem than the one it seeks to solve. The alleged bombing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai would make the provision of surface to air missiles to any group in Syria even more unlikely.

Iranian military casualties have been growing since it has increased its forward-deployed Revolutionary Guard presence in Syria. This is indicative of the degree to which Tehran seeks an outcome in the Syrian negotiations in line with its regional strategic interests. Iran has every intention of maintaining Syria within its regional orbit, and it is investing heavily in blood and treasure to do so. It was never going to agree to any negotiated outcome at which it was not present, and the Vienna talks were a simple recognition of this.

The world can no longer publicly deal Tehran out of the Syrian solution; at the same time dealing it in is unlikely to alter Iran’s Syrian policy. Tehran has always held a strong hand in Syria; the Russian intervention and regional acknowledgment of Iranian interests in Syria have both made it stronger. 

The Lowy Institute Analysis Looking for leadership in the Arab Middle East by Rodger Shanahan was published 30 October.



It is only fitting, on the eve of the Rugby World Cup final this weekend, to take a look at the intersection between rugby union and international relations. Plenty has been written about the plethora of world leaders and even revolutionary figures such as Che Guevara who have pulled on the boots to run 'with a fine disregard for the rules of football', as did William Webb Ellis in 1823.

My first understanding of the connection between rugby and the world began at school. I was a Rugby League player in primary school, but once I hit Year 5 I had to play Rugby Union and it stayed that way for the next 40 years.

One week while I was at school we were given free entry to nearby Chatswood Oval in the afternoon to watch Gordon play the visiting Argentinian club side Rosario. It opened my eyes to a world much broader than the one on the lower north shore which I occupied, and I've been a student of the world and of rugby since.

Rugby is in many ways a metaphor for the international order. Like international law, the rules of rugby are complex, ever changing and always open to interpretation. And in rugby there is a neutral arbiter to ensure these rules are adhered to. In this way however, soccer probably better mirrors the real world as opposed to the idealised one that rugby represents. Whereas in rugby the referee is called 'sir' and is approached only by the captain wherever possible, in soccer the referee is cajoled, abused and called anything but sir.

Like states in the global economic system, rugby is also unique in the way in which it welcomes all body shapes to use their comparative advantage to find their place. Those of stout frame? Front row. Tall? Lock. Fitness freak? Breakaway. Short and an ability to annoy people? Halfback. Fast? Fullback. No apparent comparative advantage? Wing.

In this World Cup we have seen the game mirror other aspects of the real world.

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The unipolar rugby system where New Zealand rules supreme is still in evidence, but like the US in the real world, New Zealand's days of dominance may soon end (my unbiased prediction is this Saturday night). And whereas the BRICS represent the potential new wave of world powers on the international scene, the Rugby World Cup has thrown up its own version of the BRICS. Argentina represents the urbane and increasingly confident South American element, Japan's rugby stocks are rising dramatically at the same time as its economic ones are falling, while Georgia is the Eastern European powerhouse that seeks greater international recognition and acceptance.

Indeed, Argentina's rapid rise in rugby standards following its acceptance into the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship is like the best free trade agreement outcome ever: a more level playing field ('scuse the pun) has led to increased competition, which has in turn led to a rise in standards.

Contrary to those here at home who see rugby as a niche 'establishment' sport, the Wallabies also represent the multicultural nature of Australian society. The coach, Michael Cheikha, is the son of working class Lebanese immigrants, captain Stephen Moore was born in Saudi Arabia to Irish parents, halfback Will Genia's parents are from Papua New Guinea and star player David Pocock's parents moved to Australia from Zimbabwe. Indigenous Australia is represented by Kurtley Beale, and we haven't even mentioned the Pacific Islander heritage of Kefu, Folau, Sio, Kuridrani and others.

To borrow an over-used international relations term, it is fair to say Australia has punched above its weight in rugby. This is the eighth World Cup final and Australia's fourth appearance (equal with New Zealand). We've won it twice (along with New Zealand). But unlike New Zealand, rugby is a lesser sport in Australia. In Kiwiland it is the sport of everyman, whereas in Australia we have long relied on private boys schools in Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra to keep the national team supplied. That's why the natural order of things is reversed in rugby. In pretty well every sport we play (Rugby League, netball, cricket) one expects the Kiwis to put up stiff resistance and to win occasionally, but the norm is for Australia to be cast as the big, mean, older brother and New Zealand as the plucky underdog.

But the opposite is true when it comes to rugby, which is more than just New Zealand's national sport, it is its national identity. In expat communities around the world, it is expected that an Australian will be able to bat a bit and bowl a bit. Having a few of them in your cricket team sends a message to the other pretenders. A New Zealander who turns up in an expat community without a reasonable sidestep or is unable to spiral pass both sides of the body is considered a bit of a disappointment. You expect New Zealanders to be decent rugby players because the game is in their DNA.

So when the Wallabies beat the All Blacks it is more than just a sporting loss to them — it is a blow to national pride. Losing to the Springboks isn't liked but it's tolerated because there is respect for the history of South African rugby, and the Boks are considered the closest thing to peer competitors the All Blacks have. But Kiwis know that rugby struggles for attention in Australia, so a loss to the Wallabies really, really hurts. And in a World Cup final with the imminent retirement of several of their greatest players, a loss won't just hurt – it will be humiliating.

New Zealand, prepare to be humiliated by the multicultural Wallabies.

Jules Annan/Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images


In August I wrote a piece for The Interpreter asking what Dan Tehan MP was thinking when, having received some briefings in the US and Europe, he advocated that Australia join a bombing campaign in Syria. Tehan said an expanded RAAF air campaign was necessary to stop ISIS's raping, murdering and pillaging, as well as the flow of foreign fighters. He even raised the possibility of deploying more aircraft if necessary. The MP got his way and Canberra signed up. So it is worth asking how much raping, murder and pillaging has stopped courtesy of Mr Tehan's suggestion.

On 14 September the RAAF began air operations over eastern Syria, with the then Defence Minister somewhat optimistically declaring that, despite bombing targets in eastern Syria where Syrian Government forces still operate, 'we are not involved in the broader conflict in Syria...(or) in the conflict involving the Assad regime '. With Syrian army brigades operating on the ground in eastern Syria in the very areas the RAAF was planning to operate, this assertion was always nonsense. But with Russian aircraft now operating in Syrian airspace (including around Raqqa) with the permission of the Syrian Government, the assertion becomes even more of a fantasy.

Moreover, for all the hype and hoopla surrounding the Abbott Government's announcement, the execution of the RAAF's Syria mission gives no hint of urgency and no clue why the US President would request our contribution. On 7 October the Chief of Joint Operations gave a media conference (begins at 9:45) in which he noted that since the air operations had commenced over eastern Syria, the RAAF had undertaken nine strike missions against two targets. Those targets were an armoured personnel carrier and a two-man ISIS checkpoint (begins at 26:45).

When, after a month of an air campaign extending into eastern Syria, the only targets engaged are an APC and a two-man checkpoint, the Government's argument that it has a legal mandate to attack ISIS in Syria because of the effect on the fighting in Iraq is somewhat diluted. It would be interesting to see how targeting a two-man ISIS checkpoint in Syria added to the collective self-defence of Iraq.

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The target list also falls somewhat short of The Australian's breathless pronouncement that 'The Royal Australian Air Force is likely soon to extend its bombing campaign in Iraq to include terrorist targets in Syria, to help cut the supply routes of the Islamic State terror group and destroy its main command and control centres'. An APC and two men doth not an ISIS command & control centre make.

I argued previously that Australia should avoid becoming militarily committed in Syria because of the complexity of the situation, and because there was neither an operational imperative nor a defined national interest in doing so. The entry of the Russians has made the situation even more complex, and the targets engaged after a month of operating in Syria give the lie to any argument about an operationally urgent requirement to target supply lines or 'terrorist bases'.

The new Prime Minister and Defence Minister are probably both muttering expletives under their breath at what their predecessors have signed them up for: a Syria commitment without any coherent strategic aim to support it. They may also be curtailing Mr Tehan's future prognostications on the need for increased Australian military commitments in the Middle East.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.


It is fashionable to criticise Washington's approach to the Syrian civil war. In his memoir, former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described President Obama's approach to Syria and Iraq as flawed. Obama has been roundly criticised for his 'tentative' approach to Syria. A piece on this site last week referred to the bankruptcy of US policy in the region. Even Australian pundits such as Greg Sheridan have said that 'for the last few years nothing has been all that Obama has offered.'

Now the Russians' apparent decisiveness in deploying a modest strike force to its decades-old ally Syria has led people to claim Obama has been outmanoeuvred by Putin. But this same argument was leveled against Obama more than two years ago. It also ignores the fact that the Syria problem has always been more straightforward for Moscow than for Washington. For Russia there is simply the Assad regime and those opposed to the Assad regime. Moscow's only real question has been the degree and timing of its support to Assad.

Critiques of Obama's Syria policy ignore two inconvenient facts. Firstly, the critics have offered no credible alternative policy. Indeed, Obama was recently moved to highlight the intellectual vacuity of many of his critics when he stated:

I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions or trying to downplay the challenges involved in the situation. What I'd like to see people ask is, specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do and how would you fund it and how would you sustain it? And typically, what you get is a bunch of mumbo jumbo.

Panetta offered the fact that Washington should have armed 'moderate' rebels, without going into any detail regarding what he meant by 'moderate' or how the use of these weapons would be accounted for once they crossed the border. Outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner has even spoken of the need for US 'boots on the ground' without ever going into specifics.

For those who have cared to listen, the US Commander-in-Chief has highlighted the intractability of the situation in Syria before, along with the dearth of good options.

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In a long interview with President Obama published in 2014, David Remnick from The New Yorker asked him whether he was haunted by the situation in Syria, and his reply says all that one needs to know about how he sees Washington's role:

I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we'd have a peaceful transition, it's magical thinking. 

Added to that is the plethora of state and non-state actors with their fingers in the Syrian pie, and over whom Washington has little if any influence. And as for those who see arming the various opposition forces as some sort of panacea to Syria's troubles, Obama had this to say:

Very early in this process, I actually asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn't come up with much. We have looked at this from every angle. And the truth is that the challenge there has been, and continues to be, that you have an authoritarian, brutal government who is willing to do anything to hang on to power, and you have an opposition that is disorganized, ill-equipped, ill-trained, and is self-divided. All of that is on top of some of the sectarian divisions...And, in that environment, our best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power—mainly the Iranians and the Russians—as well as working with those who have been financing the opposition to make sure that they're not creating the kind of extremist force that we saw emerge out of Afghanistan when we were financing the mujahideen.

This is not to say Obama has gotten everything right. Indeed, it's probably accurate to say that his strategy is correct but some of the tactical execution has been poor. The major error was his use of the term 'red line' in setting the trigger for (limited) US air strikes in response to the use of chemical weapons. Although the Russians came up with a diplomatic outcome that was a net gain for regional security, Washington's lack of follow-through on the threat eroded its credibility in the region. Israel has shown the effectiveness of limited air strikes in sending a message to Damascus without becoming decisively committed.

Another tactical error has been to dally in the rebel-arming business, even though Obama himself pointed out the futility of it. There is evidence that the US-supplied weapons and some training to rebel groups in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and there has been an ill-fated push by the US to create a secular anti-ISIS militia. Obama's misstep could be explained by his need to assuage the concerns of regional states and to dissuade them from creating their own proxies (to a greater extent than they already did). Unfortunately, Obama's concerns have been borne out by the results, as 'moderate' groups supplied by Washington have allegedly been overrun by Islamists and have had their weapons taken. The idea of creating a secular anti-ISIS rebel group has also proved to be a chimera; their small numbers barely survived first contact in Syria. 

Obama has been under enormous pressure to do something in Syria, however he rightly believes that it would take an enormous commitment of blood and treasure to even begin to restore order in that blighted country. Even then, there would be no guarantee that it could resolve the underlying causes of the civil war.

When you don't control all the levers you shouldn't expect to control the outcome. So, while Washington has made some tactical errors, Obama's strategy of avoiding a decisive commitment is the right one. While it may appear a modest strategy for a superpower, none of his critics have been able to come up with anything that resembles a coherent alternative. That says much of what you need to know about Syria.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The White House.


As I wrote the other week, the Arab world, and the Gulf States in particular, have been happy to bat away any criticism of their complete refusal to resettle any refugees from Syria while leaving the West to deal with the tide of human misery.

Protests have been held in Europe debating the pros and cons of refugee policy. But not a single protest concerning the need to resettle refugees has been held in the Gulf. That's because Gulf citizens would appear to think that their governments' refusal to resettle any refugees is an appropriate response.

But there has at least been an acknowledgment that there is criticism, even if the response has been somewhat Orwellian. The Saudi-owned al-Arabiya station quoted a Saudi Foreign Ministry spokesperson as saying the reason they didn't treat Syrians as refugees was to '. . . ensure their dignity and safety' and that it has been doing a lot behind the scenes but '. . . didn't want to boast about its efforts'.

I would have thought that when you don't resettle a single refugee then it obviously makes it somewhat difficult to boast about it. But there you have it. Of course, generosity is all in the eye of the beholder. Refugees in the West expect permanent resettlement and citizenship. When the Gulf States talk refugees, they speak of 'hosting' and 'residence permits' but never, ever, citizenship. They are there temporarily.

As another Syrian who was quoted in the Saudi English-language paper The Arab News said of the Saudi generosity 'This will be a great help to my fellow Syrian visitors.' And the UAE is quick to point out how many Syrians they have given temporary residence to, but they are unable to point to how many they have resettled - because it's zero.

So what can be done to pressure the Gulf States to resettle refugees?

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Certainly Western media pressure isn't making a difference. Amnesty International and UNHCR's pleas fall on deaf ears and Western governments are likely too scared of losing valuable contracts or basing rights if they are seen to question the humanitarian nature of the Arab states.

Western Muslim communities however offer a unique lobby group that could perhaps cut through the refusal of Arab Gulf states to resettle refugees. And that push could start from Australian Muslim organisations. The Arab world holds Islam as very much a core element of their identity. Public criticism from parts of the wider Islamic community of believers could hold the prospect of 'shaming' the Gulf States into action by questioning their commitment to Islamic principles through their refusal to resettle a single refugee.

Australians like to think of ourselves as egalitarian and straight talkers. Hence it would be in line with our national character for Australian Muslim community leaders to adopt a lobbying pathway that is not available to non-Muslim Australians. Imagine the impact an open letter from Australian Muslim community leaders in major Arabic-language newspapers calling on Muslim Arab states to resettle refugees. Or of a series of interviews on Arab satellite TV doing the same. Imagine the powerful imagery of Australian Muslims protesting outside Gulf embassies in Canberra, condemning Gulf Governments' selfish refusal to resettle refugees, in contrast to Australia's long history in this field.

Imagine if Western Muslims could coordinate a global campaign of open letter-writing and demonstrations outside Gulf embassies that could really place pressure on these states to change their policy towards refugee resettlement.

The Grand Mufti and the National Imams Council were eager to tell the public in a press release that the Syrian crisis would not have been so severe had the international community (naming only Australia) '. . . fulfilled its obligations towards the plight of the Syrian people.' No mention of the Arab world's refusal to resettle a single Syrian person. The Lebanese Muslim Association issued a press release and held a press conference, but the Gulf States somehow missed out on criticism again.

Lots of talk warning Australia not to adopt a discriminatory policy towards accepting refugees based on religious identity, but not a word about states that pride themselves on their Islamic identity refusing to accept any refugees. It's an opportunity lost for Australia's Islamic leaders.

(Photo by Recep Sakar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


The Government's announcement yesterday that it would conduct air strikes inside Syria is notable more for what it didn't say than what it did. It was long on rhetoric, but short on detail, and lacked any semblance of strategic vision or acknowledgment of the potential impact on the situation inside Syria.

The Syrian targeting was spoken only in terms of its effect on Iraq, as though it will have no impact on Syria. But among the myriad issues that weren't addressed in any of the statements issued, three areas where the Government could be somewhat more expansive include the following: 

  1. Exactly what is the intent of expanding the mission? A request allegedly sent by the US to expand our air operations into Syria would indicate a degree of operational urgency or the need for additional air assets to counter the immediate threat from ISIS. But the Chief of the Defence Force indicated that the targets are just as hard to find in Syria as they are in Iraq, and that even though he has the ability to expand deployed aircraft from six to eight, he doesn't see a need to do so. So if targets are hard to find in Syria, and the military advice is that the ADF can cover targets in both Iraq and Syria with just six aircraft, there doesn't appear to be much of a burning operational need to include RAAF aircraft on the Syria Air Tasking Order. Hence the US request doesn't appear to be driven by any operational necessity.
  2. Who is in the coalition? I have written previously that most Arab states have reportedly long since left the mission to join the Saudi-led air and ground campaign in Yemen. When Prime Minister Abbott announced the coalition, he stated that it was the US, Canada, Arab countries and Turkey striking ISIS in Syria and that the UK was likely to join. This begs the question as to exactly what Arab countries he was referring to, what assets they provide currently and why he didn't name them individually?
  3. How are airstrikes against ISIS in Syria not going to impact the wider conflict there? The vague nature of the announcements indicated that the Government seeks to defend Iraq by targeting ISIS in eastern Syria – and doing so without any consequences for the conflict in Syria. In reality we will likely have so few assets deployed against targets in Syria that our operational impact will be marginal. But the situation in Syria is more complex than that in Iraq, and degrading ISIS in Syria will not simply have an effect on Iraq – there is also a chance that it will relieve the pressure on Syrian Army units operating in eastern Syria against ISIS. It may also embolden groups such as the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra to re-establish themselves in eastern Syria, where they operated before ISIS kicked them out. The Government needs to explain how the second-order effect of targeting ISIS can avoid reducing pressure on the Syrian Army in the east, and how it can prevent the expansion of other jihadi groups into the vacuum left by a degraded ISIS.

Practically speaking, the small number of assets we have deployed means that the ADF will have a pretty limited operational effect on the ground. Of more importance though is the fact that, regardless of how limited our support is, or whether we justify it purely in terms of Iraq, we have now bought into the Syrian problem. It is not a problem that you want to buy onto without a clear understanding of the strategic aim you intend to achieve. And on the face of the announcements today, there's little evidence that we have this.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.


The humanitarian tragedy unfolding daily in Europe has forced the West to again try and redefine its obligations to those who have been made vulnerable as a result of conflict in the Middle East, particularly the Syrian civil war.

But it may also have stirred a desire to question why the burden is shared by so few countries. In particular, why are wealthy Gulf countries still able to salve their consciences by donating money to UN agencies, along with weapons to Syrian rebels, while at the same time refusing to sign the UN Refugee Convention or accept any refugees for resettlement. 

You won't hear it in polite political company of course, but Amnesty International pointed out in December last year the glaring inability of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to offer a single resettlement place for Syrian refugees. They are not the only guilty ones, but they are from the region, speak the same language, several have helped fuel the ongoing crisis in Syria, they are wealthy and have a huge appetite for expatriate workers.

One needs only to look at the table below to gauge how wealthy these states are and in some cases how many expatriate workers they import to fuel their economy, which allows them to live in a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.

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It seems to be no great sacrifice for them to open their doors to fellow Arab Muslims, allow them to settle in their countries, and in due course become citizens. For reasons that are too varied to go into in such a short space, the GCC won't sign up to the UN Refugee Convention and will remain happy for the West and some regional states to deal with the human misery that its policies help in part to create.

Sources: Arabnews.com, Migration Policy Institute, US State Department, Migration Policy Centre and Gulf Research Center, Times of Oman, Government of Kuwait

Perhaps the Australian Government could put aside aspirations for the chimera of a GCC Free Trade Agreement to publicly question the groups lack of commitment to the regional refugee crisis ,and their unwillingness to sign up to the UN Refugee Convention. Or, the Government could spend less time advocating for the Europeans to join in bombing Syria and more time in advocating for the Gulf States to join in accepting Syrian refugees. Perhaps refugee lobby groups could also expend some of their energy and advocacy in publicly questioning why the GCC appears unwilling to share the refugee burden in their own region, while Australia does.

There is something intrinsically wrong when Saudi Arabia can source 1.5 million people to act as domestic help, and a country like Bahrain can issue visas for more than 33,000 housemaids, and yet they can't even resettle one Syrian refugee. 


The Syrian Arab Armed Forces (SAAF) are fighting ISIS in eastern Syria. Australia is planning to bomb ISIS targets in eastern Syria. But Australia will not be involved in the broader conflict in Syria involving the Assad regime.

If this doesn't appear to make sense to you it's because the concept doesn't stand up to scrutiny. But according to the Defence Minister Kevin Andrews last week, Australia will somehow be able to bomb ISIS targets in eastern Syria without becoming involved in the broader Syrian conflict.

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 who 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 recognise 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.

The Government would somehow have us believe that the Syrian military is absent in eastern Syria. But eastern Syria is still a battleground for the regime, and there are several Syrian regular, Republican Guard and Special Forces brigades operating there.

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The main stronghold of the Syrian Army is Deir az-Zour, a tactically-significant city between Raqqa and the Iraqi border. Deir az-Zur is heavily contested between ISIS and regime forces, with the regime holding several positions including the military airport. This recent report shows how intense the fighting can be. The Syrian government also controls (along with Kurds) the northeastern provincial capital of Hassakeh which ISIS has tried to capture without success.

So targeting ISIS inside Syria may not actually impact ISIS's Iraq operations – the ISIS militants, equipment, HQ, or logistical facilities which the RAAF might target in Syria may actually have been directed against Hassakeh or Deir az-Zur rather than Iraq. And while the SAAF doesn't appear capable of mounting offensive operations in these areas, RAAF strikes could potentially aid SAAF defensive operations.

In other words the RAAF could be strengthening the hand of the SAAF in eastern Syria by bombing ISIS there. This is the law of unintended (or in the Government's case, unstated) consequences.

Now, if the proposal the Government is 'considering' is simply about allowing RAAF aircraft to engage ISIS convoys after they cross back into Syria from Iraq, or to engage ISIS weapons firing indirectly into Iraq from Syria, then RAAF targets could arguably be quarantined from the broader Syrian conflict. If the Government has another method by which it can ensure that only Iraq-bound ISIS fighters or equipment will be targeted, then they disclose this publicly.

Conversely, if the Government doesn't have the ability or intention to do this, then it should acknowledge that RAAF assets could, through their actions, be relieving some of the pressure on besieged Assad forces in eastern Syria. They could mount the argument that the threat from ISIS to Australian interests is greater than that from the SAAF in Deir az-Zour or Hassakeh, and they will therefore target ISIS regardless.

But what they shouldn't do is create the impression that an air campaign in Syria can be sanitised 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. The SAAF remain active in eastern Syria and are under attack from the very group that the Australian Government proposes we target. The Government needs to articulate very clearly how the RAAF will be able to target ISIS in eastern Syria, while avoiding involvement in the broader Syrian conflict. It's the least that the public deserves.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.


The headline above sounds like something from The Onion, but it's pretty close to the truth. An invitation to attack ISIS targets in Syria came not from the UN, nor even from a regional organisation like the Arab League. Rather, it came from Washington, in a letter dropped off at the Australian Embassy.

That alone should be enough to raise concerns that we don't really have an independent view of the conflict but are merely stumping up when the Americans ask us to. Of course, one must ask about the political timing of such an announcement and the seemingly drawn-out process of approving it, particularly given that the number of sorties our six F-18s will contribute is likely to be minimal. In terms of operational impact, our presence will contribute little.

RAAF technicians connect a guidance unit to a 1000lb bomb for an anti-ISIS strike mission. (Defence.)

But this is about more than what, if any, practical impact our presence will have. An Australian decision to join the bombing of ISIS targets in Syria represents a fundamental lack of understanding about the nature of the security issue.

Of course politicians need to simplify complex issues so they can 'cut through' with the public. But it is too simplistic for the Prime Minister to talk of ISIS as 'the death cult' and say that the morality of attacking them in Syria or Iraq is the same. The factors that have given rise to ISIS, al Qaeda and the many other Salafist groups in large part rest on the nature of the state in many Arab countries, particularly their poor governance and inability to reform.

The problem is, these countries refuse to acknowledge their role in creating the conditions for the rise of extremist groups, and the West rarely calls them on it. Australia never does.

Given the enormous humanitarian crisis in Syria, for example, why do none of the Gulf states become signatories to the Refugee Convention and accept refugees? They are fabulously wealthy countries and yet wear none of the human cost of their interference in other states. Does Australia ever publicly or privately urge these states to become responsible international citizens by taking military action against ISIS, or signing the Convention and accepting their share of refugees?

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Canberra prefers to remain mute when it comes to criticising inaction among our partners. Take the 'regional coalition' the PM refers to, which the RAAF is allegedly supporting. My understanding from recent visits to the region is that the early fanfare of Arab support to anti-ISIS missions in Syria dropped off quickly and, with the exception of some Jordanian missions, Arab states haven't been part of the anti-ISIS air campaign for a long time. Turkey's big splash about taking the fight to ISIS appears to have been a smokescreen for its real target: the Kurds. A recent media report in the UK Telegraph claims that the Turkish air campaign to date has attacked ISIS targets on only three occasions, while they have hit more than 500 Kurdish targets. Essentially, the Abbott Government appears keen to sign us up to an air campaign in which the region had a passing interest, but has now vacated.

Not that the Australian public would know anything about this. In April Prime Minister Abbott was asked whether Turkey and other regional states could be doing more to fight ISIS. He replied that:

...one of the very encouraging things about what has been a pretty dispiriting situation in the Middle East (has been) the strong cooperation with the coalition of other Middle Eastern powers. Egypt obviously is doing what it can in its own way to combat Daesh. So, are the Saudis, so are the Jordanians, so are the Emiratis. So, I don't think anyone should think that this is somehow the West versus an Islamic group. As far as I can work out, whether it be the Iranians, whether it be the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Emiratis, there is a united front against the Islamist death cult which is causing such havoc in Syria and northern Iraq.

In truth, it appears that what Australia will contribute to what looks very much like 'the West versus an Islamic group'. There could be utility in Australia publicly committing to bombing Syria if the intent was to pressure regional states to do more, particularly given the fact that states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been targeted by ISIS suicide bombers in recent months. Moreover, Turkey has the second-largest air force in NATO and the advantage of proximity; even the US Secretary of Defense has criticised Turkey's reluctance to engage ISIS with its air force.

But for Australia to take such a course, an announcement about our willingness to contribute to the Syria campaign would need to be accompanied by a diplomatic and media campaign urging regional states to do more. When the Government releases its its legal guidance about bombing targets in Syria, it should also advise Australians whether the Arab League is committed to meeting the ISIS threat, what assets regional states are contributing to the air campaign in Syria, and what pressure Australia will put on them to be an active participant against an enemy that has already attacked them, and attracted thousands of their countrymen to fight with them. The Australian Government may also want to urge Gulf states to sign up to the Refugees Convention rather than salve their consciences by simply providing funding.

If we don't do these things, we run the risk of being seen as merely contributing a few sorties to a nearly exclusively Western air campaign in a country we know little about and in an environment in which the second-order effects of our actions can't be accurately foretold, all while regional states get to sit back and advance their own agendas.


The call by Liberal MP Dan Tehan for the RAAF to begin targeting ISIS in Syria, made just after his visit to the US, UK and France (but strangely, not to the Middle East), is somewhat perplexing. The Prime Minister has been notably cagey, not ruling it out or ruling it in, thus giving oxygen to the embers of the backbencher's prognostications.

It could be a feint attack designed to distract the Government's detractors from domestic issues, or it could be someone running an idea up the flagpole to see who salutes it. I write this in the event that it is the latter rather than the former, because not only should we not salute the idea, we shouldn't even be running it up the flagpole in the first place.

Suspicions about how well considered the proposal is should begin with Mr Tehan's call for Australia to lead a campaign in the UN, alongside Washington, to get global consensus on action in Syria. Because obviously nobody has tried that for the past four years. Perhaps a better use of our diplomatic resources would be to ask our friends in the Middle East why so few of them are contributing aircraft to the fight against ISIS when Australia is.

Anyway, here are a few issues people may want to think about, or have the Government think about, regarding Mr Tehan's call for the RAAF to bomb Syria (and I have not even raised the issue of legality):

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  1. What combat power do we bring to the table and why would we dilute it? With six aircraft deployed to the UAE, we are able to generate a limited number of sorties per day. If we were to hit targets in Syria, it would come at the expense of targets in Iraq. The number of sorties we could add would make little difference, and it is likely that Baghdad would ask why we were shifting our focus from attacking targets in the country that asked for our assistance in order to attack targets in a country that hasn't.
  2. If it's in our national interest to bomb Syria because we have foreign fighters there, why isn't it in the Gulf States' interest? It is estimated that there are approximately 160 Australians in Syria and Iraq. There are around 3000 Saudis doing the same but the Kingdom doesn't appear to think it's in its national interest to bomb ISIS. Saudi Arabia has withdrawn its aircraft from the coalition campaign in Syria, and taken its Gulf allies with it, in order to attack Houthis and parts of the Yemeni army.
  3. Turkey has joined the fight against ISIS in Syria so why are we needed? The Turkish air force has more than 200 F-16s and more than 50 ageing F-4 Phantoms, which can generate significant combat power from home bases much closer to Syria than the RAAF can from the UAE. ISIS killed 32 people in a bomb attack in the Turkish town of Suruc and attacked a Turkish border post. The resultant Turkish air attacks against ISIS and Kurdish PKK positions showed just how many sorties the Turks can generate when they want to.
  4. Once we begin bombing targets in Syria we become responsible for what follows. Iraq is a largely binary conflict, with the Iraqi Government and its allies on one side and the ISIS coalition on the other; the friendly ground forces are supported by the air campaign. Syria is a multi-dimensional conflict involving numerous jihadi groups other than ISIS. Regardless of how minor our role may be, if you don't know what the strategic aim is in bombing Syria then don't join in. Nobody appears to have enunciated the strategic end-state that RAAF bombing of Syria is supposed to produce. What if bombing ISIS targets just over the border gives Jabhat al-Nusra a leg up over its Islamist rival? Syria is not simple and never will be.

Photo by Flickr user ermaleksandr.


Washington's policy of recruiting, training, deploying, maintaining and supporting armed rebel groups to operate inside Syria in sympathy with Western aims of attacking ISIS while steering clear of Assad regime forces was always ambitious. Without coalition troops accompanying them, there is little to no oversight of what these forces do on the ground, including who they fight against and with. Yet the risk to Western personnel is too great to justify such a step.

The other main difficulty is in getting enough fighters to pass the vetting requirements, which essentially requires potential combatants to eschew targeting the Syrian army in favour of fighting only ISIS. 

It appears the advance guard of this US-backed New Syrian Force has not fared well, with claims that one of the leaders of the group was captured and several killed already. There are confusing reports about exactly who attacked whom, who was captured, and from what faction. One US source denied any links between Washington and the fighters involved, but this report indicates that Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaida's Syrian affiliate) attacked and captured some US-trained fighters.

Exactly who they were hasn't been confirmed, but the first batch of US-trained rebels (54 of them) did deploy by road from Turkey into northern Syria last month, so it's plausible that these latest reports refer to the same group. Even more confusingly, this Stars & Stripes report appears to indicate that the people captured were from Division 30, a Free Syrian Army element, and that the US-trained group was working with, if not embedded within, them.

Whoever they were, they were important enough to justify US air strikes to support them, even though it appears the air strikes targeted Jabhat al-Nusra rather than ISIS, which is the intended target for the New Syrian Force.

This little vignette should be a cautionary tale to those advocating greater Western military involvement in Syria. It's a confusing place where the insertion of additional forces, absent any commensurate diplomatic initiatives, is more likely to muddy the waters rather than clear them.

Photo by Flickr user Freedom House.


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

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

Who makes the 'safe zones' safe?

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

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

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Things rarely occur 'naturally'

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

Turkey isn't doing this for altruistic purposes

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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