Lowy Institute

Unless they have been hiding under a rock, most people will realise that there’s an election coming up in the US at the end of this year. And whoever wins will have to face the usual thorny challenges thrown up by the Middle East. Fewer people however, are likely to be aware that in the Middle East upcoming elections have the potential to influence events in the longer term in that region. On 26 February Iranians will go to the polls to elect members to the Consultative Assembly (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts.


Ayatollah Khamenei at Iran Army Day on 19 April, 2014 (Photo Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This year, the election is being held in the shadows of a successful negotiated outcome to the nuclear issue and a consequent relief to sanctions. President Rouhani has been quick to take advantage of the newfound economic optimism, signing multi-billion euro economic deals with Italy, following on from a visit to Tehran by President Xi of China, where more than a dozen accords were signed

In the normal course of events, one would expect Rouhani’s moderate allies (along with some reformists) to extract electoral advantage from delivering what he was elected to do in 2013; negotiate an end to the sanctions. But Iranian elections are never conducted on a level playing field because the dynamic tension between conservative and moderate/reformist forces is ever present. In this case the hurdle that all candidates must pass is vetting by the Council of Guardians. The Council is dominated by conservatives given that its 12 members consist of six appointed by the Supreme Leader and six recommended by the Head of the Judiciary (but formally appointed by parliament), although the Judiciary Head is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader.

The parliamentary elections list has already seen the conservative forces limit the potential electoral spin-off that could accrue to Rouhani’s allies as a result of the beginning of the end of Iran’s economic isolation. More than 7,300 of the 12,000 candidates have been disqualified. These are overwhelmingly the reformist candidates; however, with a review process allowed some of them will likely be reinstated.

Perhaps the most interesting sub-drama though, has been the tussle over candidate selection for the Assembly of Experts who, among other duties, are charged with selecting the new Supreme Leader.

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There are rumours of Ayatollah Khamenei’s (the 76-year-old Supreme Leader's) ill-health, so the composition of the Assembly of Experts is taking on even more importance. The 88 clerical members of the Assembly are directly elected and serve an eight-year term, so they will, in all likelihood, meet to appoint a new Supreme Leader during their term in office. The true power lies with the Supreme Leader, so the moderates and reformists see the election as a way of advancing their own interests at some point in the future.

The only sticking point is the fact that the Council of Guardians has also sought to block Rouhani’s aspirations for a change to the Assembly’s make-up. They have allowed only 166 of the 801 candidates for the Assembly election.  Among those who were reportedly disqualified was Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader and leader of the Islamic revolution. Hassan is generally considered to be from the reformist camp and, along with the candidatures of past and present moderate presidents Rouhani and Rafsanjani (both of whom will be allowed to contest the election), could have formed the nucleus of a powerful anti-conservative bloc in a key Iranian institution. 

For all the ‘spectator at a slow-motion car crash’ interest in the Trump candidacy in the United States, elections in the Islamic Republic in February may provide a more interesting political battle between conservative and moderate forces.

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The official announcement today that the government would refuse a US request for additional assets to be deployed in the Middle East against Islamic State came as little surprise. These types of requests rarely come out of the blue, and it is likely that Washington was aware of what Canberra’s response would be before the request was sent. The Defence Minister signalled as much at the time that the request was received.

Of course an invitation to 40 countries indicates that the request was so broad and Australia’s contribution is already sufficient, so our refusal will have no consequence. At the same time, the statement indicates the ADF has increased its contribution to coalition staff from 20 to 30 personnel. Just as we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ADF has used these large coalition campaigns to give middle and senior-ranking officers exposure to planning and operational staff functions at a higher level and in a more complex operating environment than we would normally experience. It is a low-cost, low-risk, high-payoff move. It is also testimony to the standard of ADF staff officers and the level of their integration with the US military that they are accepted into senior levels in such coalitions. 

Syria is proving to be a boon for foreign militaries in terms of exposing their personnel to the rigours of operational planning and execution. Russian forces are using it as a proving ground for a raft of in-service equipment, while Iran has been further developing its capability to conduct the type of ‘train, advise and assist’ missions with the Syrian military that the US has conducted with Iraqi and Afghan forces in the past.

For both the West and the East it seems, Syria is the kind of operational proving ground gift that keeps on giving.

Photo: Australian Defence Image Library

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Demonstrators outside the Saudi Embassy, Tehran. (Getty.)

After a year in which Saudi Arabia's ability to act as the regional Sunni heavyweight has been increasingly called into question, Riyadh has opened the new year up with a statement of intent, executing 47 people across 12 cities.

This was the biggest same-day execution since 1980, when 63 were executed following the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a jihadist group which declared the ruling family illegitimate. Of the 47 executed, 43 were Sunni and four Shi'a. Only one execution though, that of the Shi'a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, has elicited international condemnation. The action was widely condemned by Shi'a clerics in the region, Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad were attacked, diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh were cut, and anti-Saudi demonstrations took place in several countries with large Shi'a populations. Even the UN Secretary-General expressed dismay at the execution and voiced concern at both the nature of the charges and the legal process.

Sheikh Nimr had a long history of advocating for Shi'a community rights in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and of public and vocal opposition to the Saudi royal family.

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Whereas the bulk of the Shi'a opposition (exiled and resident) agreed to a rapprochement with King Fahd in a 1993 agreement, al-Nimr never accepted the agreement or the legitimacy of the ruling family. He continued to question the right of the House of Saud to rule over him and of his need to be loyal to them. He was a leading figure in the 2011 demonstrations in the Eastern Province and his outspoken manner made him attractive to Shi'a youth who at times questioned the relative passivity of their more politically conservative traditional leadership. Sheikh Nimr was trained in the religious institutions in Qum, but such is the transnational nature of the Shi'a faith that he acted as the representative of a Najafi-based marja'. Regardless, Riyadh always sought to paint him as an agent of Iranian interests.

Sheikh Nimr's outspokenness and recalcitrance represented a threat to the Saudi ruling order that in the past might have been tolerated. A king in a strong position and with a more certain succession plan could have silenced the dissent and avoided a regional backlash by commuting al-Nimr's sentence or substituting a lengthy jail term. However, the relatively new Saudi leadership faces multiple security challenges at home and abroad. It is locked in a battle for regional influence with its Shi'a rival Iran, and it faces significant economic pressures at home as a result of low oil prices (which accounts for 73 % of government income) as well as a costly and increasingly futile war in Yemen which has resulted in significant subsidy reductions that will affect all Saudis. 

Al-Nimr's execution served several purposes. First it demonstrated unequivocally that this ruling family will brook no dissent. Second, by conflating the executed Shi'a with the al Qaeda operatives, it sent a message that Saudi definitions of terrorism include vocal reformists. It also placated some of the House of Saud's more conservative Wahhabist support base, which had been concerned that Shi'a dissenters hadn't been treated as harshly as Sunni 'deviants'. And finally, it sent a clear message that Saudi Arabia sees its own (and the close neighbours') Shi'a communities as off-limits to foreign powers.

Riyadh would have been well aware that its actions would draw international criticism and ratchet up regional tensions, but it acted anyway. The executions, done largely for domestic effect, are further evidence that the ruling family sees aggressive responses to real or perceived security threats as the best way to shore up domestic support. It's not a good sign for 2016.

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The social media campaign run by ISIS and various other Islamists has been both voluminous and highly sophisticated. Part of its strength lies in its depiction of victorious Islamist fighters slaying Syrian soldiers, Western hostages and apostates in a particularly brutal fashion. Such images serve several strategic aims, including installing fear in the enemy and creating a publicly mediated image of invulnerability. In recent months, the intervention by Russian forces and Iranian advisers along with various Shi'a militias has upped the ante but it has also given the pro-regime forces some social media material to work with.

The breaking by Syrian forces of the ISIS-laid siege of the Kwereis Airbase earlier this month is not strategically decisive by any means, but it has both political and military significance. One the 10 principles of war I was taught decades ago and which hold true today is the maintenance of morale. The successful breaking of an ISIS siege to free trapped Syrian soldiers is both a PR coup for the Assad regime and a boost to pro-government morale.

At the national level the media plays a key role in maintaining morale. Compared to ISIS, the Syrian government's use of social media has been poor but it is now using the battlefield victory at Kwereis to differentiate its current military capabilities from dark episodes in the recent past.

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The fall of Tabqa airbase in August 2014 was both a military and domestic political failure. The video of more than 100 Syrian soldiers stripped to their underwear being marched through the desert to their execution was an advertisement for both the proficiency and cruelty of ISIS. It also reinforced the image of a Syrian regime incapable of supporting its own troops. By contrast, Syrian news reports (watch from 3:46 to 5:10 to avoid graphic footage) of the lifting of the Kwereis siege shows both the Syrian military and ISIS in a different light. The Syrians are on the offensive, aggressive and well supported while the bearded jihadists are dead. 

The government is keen to show a population that has seen government forces under pressure for much of the past year, alert to personnel shortages, and used to battlefield reverses, that the tide has turned. That's not to say that it has, but the use of such imagery is an important tool for maintaining morale. It may convince some that the additional support provided by Russia and Iran has meant government forces are more capable than people think. The more recent images of the relieved Syrian garrison being welcomed by family and friends further reinforces the narrative of a Syrian government with its tail up and able to support a military that it had been incapable of supporting even a few weeks previously.

It is early days yet, and Russian and Iranian strategic motives are not completely in sympathy with those of the Assad regime, but the more images of battlefield victories from pro-government forces that populate the airwaves, the easier it is to maintain support amongst pro-government elements of the Syrian population, or at least call into question the efficacy of the armed opposition. Morale and momentum are changeable commodities, and media can influence both. The Syrian government is trying to use recent battlefield advances to create a narrative of regime strength and, while it may not necessarily reflect the truth on the ground. this is certainly a stronger narrative than that of a few months ago. 

The media battle of Syria is becoming increasingly contested.

Photo courtesy of imgur user 45chris2

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The shooting down of the Russian aircraft by the Turks and the subsequent death of two Russian servicemen briefly got the tabloids talking about World War III but in reality this was never going to blow up into a direct military confrontation between Moscow and Ankara. What it did demonstrate, once again, is how focused on the short-term Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in his Syria policy.

No one will know who gave the order to shoot down the Russian aircraft, but it nearly certainly wasn't the Turkish pilot. Russia has been provocative with its airspace violations, but there is always a graduated response to these types of incidents; from verbal warnings, to visual warnings, to escorts out of the area, to shooting down. Ankara appears to have jumped from the least aggressive to the most aggressive option at lightning speed.

And now Turkey is paying for it. When taking on an adversary there are two golden rules: first, make sure you can hurt them more than they can hurt you; and second, make sure you have friends who have got your back. On the second of these points, to describe Erdogan's relationship with his NATO allies as 'good' would be overstating the case. Of course after the plane went down NATO constituted its crisis mechanisms and issued a statement publicly supportive of Turkey. But when NATO condemned airspace violations by Russia a month earlier, it noted Turkish aircraft had 'in accordance with NATO practice…closing to identify the intruder, after which the Russian planes departed Turkish airspace.' The apparent failure to follow these procedures in the latest incident is likely to be exercising the minds of some of Ankara's NATO allies.

There's not much more that NATO can do to help Turkey, or that it would really want to do. There is a widely held belief that Erdogan was complicit by commission or omission in the rise of ISIS and other violent jihadi groups by allowing the free flow of fighters and weapons across Turkey's borders in the belief that Assad could be defeated militarily and Turkey could control the rise of any Islamist groups. Turkey was also quite restrictive in how it allowed the US to use its Incirlik airbase to launch attacks against ISIS in Syria; hardly the actions of a committed NATO ally.

Russia has already demonstrated its intent to retaliate against Turkey and Turkish interests. Moscow appears to have shifted some of the weight of its air campaign to attack towns and border crossings abutting the Turkish border, as well as Turkish-backed rebel groups in Syria, a group that had already come under Russian attack prior to the shooting down. Moscow has also adopted a raft of economic sanctions against Turkey and, given Russia is Turkey's second-largest trading partner, there is plenty of scope for additional pain to be inflicted.

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Erdogan has tried to contact Putin personally but has been rebuffed to date, while Russia has demanded an apology from Turkey, which is unlikely to eventuate. Erdogan has gone so far as to say he was 'saddened' by the loss of the aircraft, but that is likely to be as far as he will go. The return of the deceased pilot's body could provide a circuit breaker, and there is little doubt back door discussions are underway to achieve this

Erdogan has proven himself to be an adept domestic politician, but on the international stage his Islamo-nationalist outlook and short-termism has resulted in Ankara becoming increasingly isolated from states that had been its close partners. The West believes it to be duplicitous when it comes to Syrian Islamists, the Arab regimes (with the exception of Qatar) believe it to be in bed with their natural enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, and it has now picked a fight with its second-largest trading partner in Russia. None of this augurs well for the future.

Photo: Mehmet Ali Ozcan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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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

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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.

 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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