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?
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.