Very few people would have been surprised at the Australian Government's announcement that the RAAF will extend its operations to ISIS targets in Syria. The announcement was made in conjunction with the decision to permanently resettle 12,000 refugees most in need out of camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, with an emphasis on women, children and families of persecuted minorities.
When Prime Minister Tony Abbott switched from refugees to jets, he segued with reference to 'heads and hearts', implying that the resettlement decision came from the heart, but the air strikes came from the head.
The Prime Minister gave a good but segmented explanation of why the Government had made the decision to expand the operations of the RAAF. He linked it into the Iraq campaign which is aimed at 'degrading and ultimately destroying' ISIS, and argued that to do this, the group needs to be attacked in both countries. He said that ISIS supports its operations in Iraq from Syria, and that you 'cannot win in Iraq without hitting Syria'.
It is in our national interests to do so, as ISIS has 'reached out to Australia', according to the Prime Minister. He pointed out that the US, Canadian and Arab air forces are presently conducting such air operations, but he did not mention that France and the UK are about to start as well. He linked the air strikes with the resettlement decision by saying that we must address the fundamental cause of the refugee problem, that is, regional conflict.
When Defence Minister Kevin Andrews spoke, he used the standard and most appropriate mantra of 'degrade and ultimately defeat', but added in 'destroy', which I have not heard the Prime Minister use since the start of the air campaign.
The Prime Minister pointed out that we are targeting ISIS in Syria, not Assad, and not Syria itself, and only mentioned legality incidentally. In further clarification of the big issues of strategy and an end state, Prime Minister Abbott said that although we are not targeting Assad, we want him to go, but we are not going to attack him. He explained his end state for the conflict as 'governments that don't commit genocide against their own people', and later added 'governments that don't allow terror attacks to be mounted from their territory.'
The Chief of the Defence Force Mark Binskin was questioned on the difficulty of identifying targets. He said that this would be as difficult as it is in Iraq, because the success of the air campaign has been to force ISIS 'underground', to limit its manoeuvre and re-supply. He indicated that the RAAF refuelling and command and control aircraft would be able to enter Syria if they needed to, that our jets were integrated into the coalition air operations and would be programmed as required, and that Australian strikes in Syria could occur within days.
Prime Minister Abbott had no reservations in saying that any Australian who fought with ISIS in Syria could be subject to air strikes by Australian aircraft.
The Prime Minister was asked if this was the start of a move to put more boots on the ground. He observed that the conflict in Iraq had moments of disappointment and frustration but there had also been moments of success. Because the future cannot be predicted, he argued, it was 'not appropriate to speculate'. The option is still there, and so it should be.
Many will not like this decision, but it would be my judgement that it will pass the 'pub test'. It is tactically obvious why the elements of ISIS supporting the war in Iraq should be attacked in Syria as well as in Iraq, by every aircraft available. As CDF Binskin says, it gives the operational commander more flexibility.
The strategic issue of using our jets in Syria is a little less clear, and may need further explanation if it becomes a bigger issue. It is understandable to most that Australia's extra six aircraft will not be decisive in the overall campaign, and therefore the question remains, why should Australia get into a fight when it doesn't have to? The answer was not given in the press conference, but I offer an explanation.
In the Second Iraq War and in Afghanistan, the allies of the US left the bulk of the fighting and most of the casualties to the US. This has resulted in a war-shy president, reacting to a war-tired nation. Forced back into Iraq, and facing challenges to NATO from Russia and from China in the South China Sea, President Obama is not showing the commitment to win the 'Third Iraq War' that he should be showing, a war that at least some of his allies now realise is necessary. Most people would not underestimate Prime Minister Abbott's personal commitment to success in Iraq. Australia is the second largest ally by size of force, and has conducted the second largest number of air strike missions.
I have accused Australia in the past of making contributions to recent wars, but not really committing to the wars themselves. That is, taking responsibility for winning. I am less critical of this deployment by Australia, but it's not altogether blameless. There is more that the coalition should be doing, more that Australia could do, that will increase the probability of success. We do not have unlimited time to be successful, and we desperately need the US to lead. Polls show that the American people are willing to put more forces into Iraq against ISIS. President Obama now needs to catch up with his people and his allies.
By extending Australian air operations into Syria, Australia has demonstrated its commitment to the full scale of operations and to the success of the war. From that position, Australia, and Prime Minister Abbott, have every right to encourage the coalition, primarily the US and principally President Obama, to take this fight more seriously against the enemy in Iraq.
Australia's six jets have achieved a lot tactically, and if they contribute even indirectly to our major ally taking this war more seriously, they might be able to pin a strategic battle honour to their colours.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.