Lowy Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gulf states are fixated on Iran, and their belief in a zero-sum regional game has seen them try to block whatever real or perceived advances are made by Tehran. This strategic rationale has seen them back any number of actors in the Syrian morass so long as they sought to topple the pro-Tehran Assad regime, and it has also led them to intervene in Yemen, leading a coalition of other Arab states in a campaign without a well considered strategic aim in mind. So this approach has been, to put it mildly, less than successful.

Yet recently the Gulf states have begun a quieter, more asymmetric line of operation: the squeezing of Iran's invaluable Lebanese ally, Hizbullah. Last month the Gulf Cooperation Council declared Hizbullah a terrorist organisation. The Gulf states have been quick to give weight to the declaration. In recent weeks the UAE has jailed three people accused of setting up a pro-Hizbullah group, Kuwait gave 60 Lebanese between two days and two weeks to leave the country because of alleged ties to Hizbulllah, having expelled 11 the week prior. Bahrain has also expelled some alleged Lebanese Hizbullah supporters and their families. And Saudi Arabia blacklisted several companies and firms it claimed were linked to Hizbullah.

The Gulf states have also focused attention on the Lebanese state, both in an attempt to build ill will among Lebanese for Hizbullah, and to punish an earlier refusal by the Lebanese foreign minister to join in a statement by Arab states condemning the burning of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. He has claimed his refusal was based on his disagreement with the text of the letter, which he said included accusations of Hizbullah interference in Bahrain. In response, several Gulf states advised their citizens not to travel to Lebanon, while the Saudis and Bahrainis told their citizens to leave the country. Riyadh added further punitive measures by cancelling $4 billion of military and security aid to Beirut.

The Lebanese state is, of course, in no position to restrict Hizbullah's actions in the way the GCC would like. So, while the targeting of Hizbullah members and entities within their midst (if indeed all the people targeted fit this definition) can be justified on security grounds, the net effect of the travel bans and cancellation of the arms agreement is to further weaken Lebanon in the midst of a refugee crisis of unparalleled severity and an ongoing security threat posed by the spillover from the conflict in Syria. Short-term punitive measures by Gulf states do nothing to promote the stability Lebanon needs.

Photo by Flickr user openDemocracy.

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News that a Syrian military coalition has re-taken the ancient city of Tadmur (Palmyra) is further evidence of the pressure ISIS is under, as well as the ability of the Syrian military to better its opponents when it operates as a combined-arms force. In this case, the Syrian military was once again supported by Iranian advisers and Hizbullah, and Russian air power that delivered nearly 150 airstrikes in the space of three days leading up to Palmyra's fall and 40 in a 24 hour period leading to its recapture. This is a significant rate of effort and points to the intensity of the battle, as does the death of a Russian forward air controller whose position was compromised during the fighting.

The significance of Palmyra's recapture is more political than strategic at this stage. The loss of such an historic centre was a major embarrassment for the Assad regime, and its recapture (along with the breaking of the siege of Kweiris airbase late last year) adds to the narrative of a Syrian regime which feels it is still strong and capable of reasserting sovereignty throughout the country. It also dislocates the ISIS logistical effort along the main roads in the country's barren east. The reality, however, is that the Assad regime can't reassert sovereignty throughout the country, as it relies on its allies to provide much of its enabling support.

As the political negotiations continue to limp along and a reduction of violence has been achieved in many areas in Syria, any signs of Syrian government military success on other fronts against internationally-acknowledged terrorist groups can only strengthen its hand. This is particularly the case as the apparent unity of effort of the Syrian government coalition contrasts (as always) with the disunity of the various militias in the north and south of the country

On the face of it, the capture of the city could allow the regime to consolidate and strike out towards Deir az-Zour, where it has some troops holding on against ISIS forces, and/or the Iraqi border, where it could reassert control over border crossings and further restrict ISIS's freedom of ground movement. Or it could decide to strike northwards straight into the ISIS heartland of Raqqa. There are media reports suggesting the Syrian General Command has indicated that these are live options. To do this, however, the Assad regime has to be able to generate sufficient combat power to re-take these centres and then to defend and administer any ground it re-takes. More importantly, it has to convince its allies that continued offensive manoeuvre against heavily defended objectives are worth their blood and treasure. There is no doubt that the further Hizbullah gets away from the Lebanese border, the less comfortable it is spilling its blood. Moscow too would have a weather eye on its interests in determining how much air support it will want to commit to the regime, and how achievable the regime's military aims are.

But the one unadulterated good regarding the recapture of the ancient site is that the city will be saved from the grip of an intolerant and medieval terrorist group. The UN Secretary-General welcomed its recapture. But the reaction to date of Western leaders has been muted, if not mute. At time of writing, there has been no official comment from Washington, London or Canberra. The defeat of ISIS and recapture of a UNESCO world heritage site is to be welcomed, but that it has been done by the forces of President Assad, supported by Hizbullah, makes it difficult to craft a sensible reaction to the news. Certainly this US State Department spokesperson tied himself in knots (see the accompanying Youtube clip) trying to avoid saying whether the Syrian Government's re-taking of Palmyra was a good thing or not.

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He came, he saw, he spoke well and left. The Iranian foreign minister's visit to Australia, the first in 22 years, made surprisingly few headlines. Sure, he came without a trade delegation in tow and during the middle of a sitting week but even so, for a massive underdeveloped market of over 80 million people with a significant entrepreneurial middle class and a strong education system, the media focus was pretty parochial.

The trade dimension was really the aim of the foreign minister's visit but the media paid precious little attention to it. An announcement regarding the re-opening of an Austrade office in the embassy in Tehran went largely unnoticed in favour of more locally 'important' news such as whether Iran would accept forcible removal of failed asylum seekers. I couldn't find any photos of the foreign minister and Prime Minister Turnbull in the Australian press, but one did pop up in the Qatari press.

The visit to Australia was the last leg of a six-nation Asian and Australasian trip. It is not unreasonable to believe that Australia and New Zealand were included in recognition of the fact that, among the 'Five Eyes' community, they are the only two which have maintained unbroken diplomatic representation in the Islamic Republic. No mean feat given the diplomatic travails and likely something that has been noted in Tehran.

I attended the speech Zarif gave in Sydney. He is the archetypal foreign minister — a polished professional who was able to play a very straight bat to pretty well every question asked of him. One thing that came through in his comments, which reinforces a theme that the Islamic Republic has been pushing, is that of brand differentiation between Iran and the Saudis. Both are vying for influence in the region, and Zarif was at pains to picture Saudi Arabia as the threat to stability, just as he had with his NY Times editorial earlier this year. Zarif's use of the term 'so-called allies' in reference to America's friends in the Gulf was also notable – the subtext was that these countries are not true allies, and perhaps that Iran could be. Zarif also contrasted Iran's democratic traditions (conveniently avoiding the fact that it exists within a massively constrained system of candidate selection) and the lack of such traditions elsewhere in the region.

Foreign ministers are part politician, part salesperson. On the evidence of Zarif's short visit, Iran has a skilled practitioner at the helm who is adept at both. The tussle for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be the defining theme of the next decade in the region and Iran's front-man in that competition will be hard to best.

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Results from Iranian parliamentary and assembly elections held over the weekend have not yet been finalised, however what we know so far is encouraging.

First of all, turnout is an important indicator of popular legitimacy.  Presidential elections normally see a much greater turnout than parliamentary ones in Iran, but this election also featured the Assembly of Experts.  So a turnout of around 62% of voters nationwide (50% in Tehran) for this type of election can be considered a strong one.

Second, the results reinforced the wider phenomenon of commercial and political capitals, such as Tehran, not being representative of the country as a whole.  There was without doubt a very strong showing for moderates in Tehran, with all 30 parliamentary seats going to  allies of President Hassan Rouhani. Some 15 of the 16 Assembly seats allocated to Tehran also went to moderates.  But in Iran, like nearly all countries, there is a political divide  between urban and rural areas. Those who study Iran understand that Tehran can be something of a mini political ecosystem, separate from the rest of the country.

Third, this is not so much an affirmation of reformists as a rejection of conservatives.  The widespread culling of most reformists and many conservatives by the Council of Guardians prior to the election meant that there was a limited ideological range of candidates from which to choose.  Despite this, conservatives suffered significant losses at the ballot box.  This is a vote of confidence by the public in the policies of President Rouhani, whose negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran deal) last July saw him deliver on the main electoral promise made in his presidential campaign.  The expectation is that he will have greater freedom of action to pass legislation to address the chronic unemployment and inflation from which Iran suffers. However, while there are more moderates than conservatives confirmed in parliament, there are also many independents, though we won't know the final numbers for some time. In more than 20% of seats, no candidate achieved the minimum 25% of the vote necessary to win so runoff elections will be held. This means that the true character of the parliament may not be known until May.

Even theocratic systems of government require popular legitimacy to survive and the mood of the electorate will certainly have been noted by the Supreme Leader and the conservative factions in Iran.  How both of them react to the electoral result, as well as how parliament forms, will determine how much progress moderates can make in shifting the tone and policies of the Iranian government.  It could be the change in the composition of the Assembly of Experts may, in retrospect, come to be viewed as more significant in the long term than the change in parliament. 

Photo courtesy of United Nations

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It is easy to be cynical about Syria. Last week's Munich meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and all interested parties (less the Syrian government and opposition groups) arrived at an agreement that sought to provide a qualified lull in the fighting and to provide limited humanitarian relief. This followed on from the failed intra-Syrian talks the week before and a renewed military offensive that has seen the Assad regime wrest the battlefield initiative from the armed opposition.

While some in the media trumpeted this deal as a Syrian ceasefire agreement, it is certainly not that. But whether you call this a cessation of hostilities, a ceasefire, or nothing much in particular, the recent agreement is possibly the first time external parties who have their fingers in the Syria pie have been able to agree on anything. That in itself is noteworthy. Perhaps excluding the combatants and focusing on their external supporters is the most appropriate way of establishing the confidence needed as a precursor to dealing with the mess in Syria.

Let's break this deal down into negative and the positive aspects. To finish on a high, let's look at the negative first.

1. Pro-Assad groups are not giving up much, militarily

Little happens immediately, with the implementation date a week (or so) away. This has been cited as necessary to work out the modalities, which would indicate that there hasn't been much work done on the implementation phase of the agreement.

Regardless, the Syrian government and its allies would never have agreed to such a deal if they felt it disadvantaged them militarily. They have had significant success in Latakia and Aleppo province recently, including the squeezing of the rebels' main supply routes into Aleppo, while the Kurds have gained territory in the east. Respites normally help rebel groups to reconstitute, but if their logistic resupply routes have been compromised and they are still under attack (see below), then an operational pause may assist pro-Assad forces more than the opposition.

2. There will still be a lot of fighting regardless of how well the agreement is implemented

Under the agreement, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra remain fair game, and operations against them will continue.

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ISIS's operating premise has largely been one of 'my way or the highway' and as a consequence its alliances with other groups have been relatively brief and limited in scope. That means it is far easier to target ISIS in isolation. Jabhat al-Nusra, on the other hand, has been much more careful in constructing military alliances in Syria, cutting its cloth to suit local circumstances. As a consequence, its fighters are intermingled with a range of other groups in a range of locations.

The ISSG has undertaken to delineate the territory held by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups designated as terrorist organisations by the UN Security Council. But when groups are as intermingled as they are in Syria, and when the tactical situation is so fluid, the ability to delineate ground 'held' by any one group will be nigh on impossible. Which means Russian aircraft and pro-Syrian ground forces could still target areas not declared free of Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS.

The only way rebel groups could avoid continued targeting would be to show that they had severed ties with terrorist organisations and physically moved away from them. In other words, the onus will be on opposition groups to split with Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. This will either weaken the opposition by splitting it militarily, or simply allow the bombing to continue. Either way, it's a win for the regime.

There is however a glimmer of positive news:

3. The humanitarian dimension

There has been a recent focus on the humanitarian situation in villages under siege by both regime and opposition forces. As always, there is a lack of objective information based on regular visits. This agreement should at least provide regular information and practical relief to besieged populations. The humanitarian aspect of this agreement has been designed to be even-handed. It will give the UN road access to previously besieged areas (and in the case of Deir az-Zour, air access using Russian aircraft) and establishes an oversight committee to regulate access. It's not much, but for the optimists among us, it's a start.

Of course, the utility of this agreement will become pretty apparent in the next one or two weeks. We will soon be able to make an informed judgment about whether it is of any practical benefit or whether it is simply another insubstantial announcement, with the real solution ultimately coming via the barrel of a gun.

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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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