Thursday 21 Nov 2019 | 19:38 | SYDNEY
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The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.

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Why America's Iraq strategy will work, and why Australia should take part

Here are three observations on Iraq:

1. Australia does have a core interest in Iraq

One of the arguments already used by opponents of any Australian participation in military action against ISIS is that Australia does not have any core interests in Iraq. Leaving aside the question of whether the strategy for Iraq is the right one, there is no question in my mind that we have a strong interest in what happens in Iraq.

Iraq does threaten core Australian interests. The existence of ISIS-stan increases the terrorist threat faced by Australians both in Australia and in our region (not to mention places Australians like to travel, such as Europe). This is because, as has been mentioned many times now, Iraq and Syria are providing military skills to extremists from Australia, but also neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia the Philippines, and around the world. These fighters are also developing connections with other extremist groups that will make them a more lethal threat in years to come.

Some will ask: why does Iraq deserve particular attention above other parts of the Middle East that are also helping to incubate a new generation of extremists? It is a good question and we should not lose sight of these other problem areas even as we focus on Iraq and Syria.

But Iraq and Syria do deserve disproportionate attention for two reasons. First, the numbers of foreign fighters is bigger than we have ever seen, even compared with Afghanistan in the period leading up to 9/11. Second, the number of Westerners is also larger, which is bad because their passports and visa-free access to a larger range of countries will make it much easier for them to cross borders.

Some will argue that a military response is not the right one to this threat and that Australia should rely on police and intelligence work and cooperation. They will point to the way this worked in the 2000s, particularly in diminishing the terrorist threat in Indonesia.

Certainly a military response won't work on its own, but neither will simply waiting for the threat to come to you. One reason the terrorist threat in Indonesia was diminished over time was because it became impossible for extremists to get the training and maintain the connections they had formed in Afghanistan. Those behind the Bali bombings were largely veterans of Afghanistan, and the hardcore part of Jemaah Islamiya behind the targeting of Westerners had intended to keep sending cadres to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training, as illustrated by the break-up of the Ghuraba Cell in Pakistan in 2003.

True, the police and intelligence effort in Indonesia was more important. But I don't think it could have been as successful without the military effort in Afghanistan at the same time.

2. The US strategy in Iraq will work, probably

A number of commentators have argued that an air campaign on its own won't defeat ISIS. This is true, but I don't think this is what the US intends. I think the US and its allies will pursue the same strategy they used successfully in Afghanistan in 2001-2 and in Libya in 2011. That is, they will provide air support to allied local ground forces teamed with Western special forces. In the case of Iraq, those allied forces will be the Kurds, the Iraqi Army and possibly local Sunni militias. In Syria it will be opposition groups opposed to ISIS.

Because it has worked before, it is reasonable to assume that the strategy will probably work again. ISIS is not that big, and is probably not as militarily competent as people think. It is true the Iraqi Army has not covered itself in glory so far, but good units can be found, and with better leadership will probably prove more effective.

But most importantly, once momentum shifts, other local militias will turn on ISIS to make sure they are on the right side when the fighting ends. Here the willingness and ability of the new government in Baghdad to reach out to the Sunnis in northern Iraq will be critical.

Of course, none of this guarantees success and there are risks aplenty. But we should not confuse the way Western countries have mishandled Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya after Ghaddafi was overthrown) for what we are about to do in Iraq. We are still pretty good at blowing stuff up. It is the building stuff after that we are not so good at.

3. There will be bleed-out

To say that the US strategy for Iraq will probably work is not the same thing, however, as saying that it is the right strategy. One of the consequences of even a successful campaign will be the bleed-out of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. The border with Turkey – the last real route into and out of ISIS-stan – is likely to remain porous, although there will be massive pressure on the Turks to seal it.

Where will these fighters go? They may turn up in other conflicts in the Middle East, or they may head to other countries, but some will go home. In all likelihood this won't be the hard core but rather individuals who received some training, maybe didn't see a lot of combat and are not prepared to stay and die for the cause.

This does raise the question of whether, by targeting ISIS, we are accelerating the problem we are most worried about. In this respect there is a case for a strategy that tries to contain ISIS in Iraq. It would require real pressure on Turkey to seal the border, which may or may not be possible for Ankara to do. It would still require action to erode ISIS on the ground by local forces over a much longer period. And for this to work it would still require some Western support, at a much lower profile than what is being proposed now, to help train and mentor those forces.

But it is a line-ball call. Simply leaving ISIS alone is not the answer. We learned from our experience with Afghanistan that extremists can and do move on to other conflicts. They can and do return home and plot terrorist attacks. Eventually the problem needs to be dealt with.

The more interesting question is what to do with the guys that do come back. At the moment, the focus in Australia and some European countries seems to be on a law-enforcement response. Clearly, however, there needs to be a case-by-case treatment. As noted, you probably won't have hardcore fighters returning home. And what you don't want to do is to push returnees onto a violent course they never intended to take because they feel persecuted. There needs to some assessment process, therefore, which looks at the legal grounds and prospects for pursuing returnees, but also looks at other factors as well. Hopefully it is something Australian officials are thinking about even as our combat aircraft taxi down the runway.

Photo by Flickr user Andos_pics.

Australia's Iraq deployment: Pragmatism over principle

The Prime Minister's unsurprising announcement of an Australian military commitment to the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition answered a few questions and raised others. I think the justification for military intervention in Iraq is relatively straightforward, but the environment within which our forces will operate is anything but.

The mission Tony Abbott described was to 'disrupt, degrade and if possible destroy this movement', a better, more nuanced formulation than Obama's simple 'degrade and destroy'. These are specific military task verbs, and 'destroying' something that is not a static target is very difficult. A movement such as IS can be rendered operationally ineffective to the point that it no longer practically exists but this will take time. Don't expect a neat surrender.

More importantly, the Australian public needs to understand that this mission is simply about targeting IS; it's not about making a better Iraqi nation. I would argue that the multiple identities (to coin a Bernard Lewis term) of Iraqis make it virtually impossible to do this in the short- to medium term, if ever. That doesn't mean we shouldn't contribute to defeating IS, but it does mean we should be mature enough to understand that this is not a binary battlefield — in other words, it's not the Iraqi government vs Islamic State.

Rather, it is IS against Iraqi Government forces, Kurdish fighters, experienced Shi'a militias (who may or may not wear Iraqi military uniforms) who see political advantage in military success and who will leverage this to advance their political aims, Iranian interests providing support to said militias (including their own advisers), and Sunni militias designed to obviate the need for Shi'a-dominated security forces in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq.

If this appears confusing that's because it is. But it doesn't lessen the threat IS poses, nor does it invalidate our decision to provide aircraft and military advisers to the region.

What it does mean is that the Government should not hide behind bland assurances that we are supporting the legitimate government of Iraq. We will likely be part of a coalition that is supporting forces acting in sympathy with the Iraqi Government — only in some cases we will be supporting actual Iraqi government forces. This is the Middle East, and in many ways this is the best that can be expected. That's why it the Australian public should be brought into the tent regarding the complexity of the societal landscape into which our forces will be deployed.

While the international coalition is being assembled, don't expect it to be anything other than a collection of states acting together for a limited period of time on a specific issue. Tony Abbott was keen to mention the fact that some Middle Eastern states had indicated that they would contribute to military operations, and included Bahrain while keeping a straight face. This is not to belittle tiny Bahrain's contribution, but rather to highlight the irony: this is a state whose minority Sunni monarchy actively discriminates against its Shi'a majority and refuses to undertake meaningful domestic reform which is now taking the fight to a Sunni jihadist group in support of Iraq's Shi'a-majority government. The UAE is also stumping up. This is a country which just a few years ago helped quell Shi'a protests against Bahrain's Sunni Government. On top of that, there is still concern over whether Iran, the regional state which (other than Syria) faces the most direct threat from IS, will be invited to a Paris meeting to discuss the issue. Regional rivalries infect so many aspects of security policy.

This is the environment into which Australian forces are being deployed. None of this is to say that the deployment is unwarranted. What should be articulated by the Government is the fact that we are simply providing a short-term military assistance mission to a deeply flawed nation in a deeply flawed region as part of a coalition, not all of whose members share our liberal democratic traditions. This is going to be the ultimate pragmatist's intervention, and the public should not be left under any false illusions that is anything else.

Obama's strategy: First thoughts

It's fair to say that President Obama is a reluctant commander-in-chief and sees the Middle East as a place where the limitations of US military force are most apparent. So his speech  tonight on America's strategy against Islamic State (IS) was from someone who wishes he didn't have to deal with what he has to. But that is what being president is about.

In such a short speech, it is difficult to capture the intricacies of a strategy to deal with as complex a problem as IS in Iraq and Syria, but I thought Obama laid out as clear a plan for public consumption as was feasible at this stage. Some early thoughts:

  1. A clear and ambitious mission: It doesn't get much clearer than 'degrade and destroy', but the second part is harder than the first. The first part is already occurring, with over 150 airstrikes ordered. 'Destroying' is harder, but given that IS is a coalition, stripping away its less ideological elements and then scattering its core may render it as ineffective as al Qaeda currently is. Whether IS will be completely destroyed or just morph into something smaller will be for people to judge in the future. The effect may well be the same.
  2. Play to your strengths: As has been the case throughout his time in office, Obama was keen to emphasise that the ground combat would not be carried out by US forces, and that Washington would provide the technologically advanced enabling support such as airstrikes to support local ground efforts. The US will also provide training and organisational support that allows Iraqi forces to engage IS. This effort still involves an additional 475 US military personnel, but gives Obama and his military the flexibility to disengage relatively quickly or to withdraw support if the Iraqi political class ceases to play along.
  3. Watching the language: Coalition building in the Middle East is a fraught process and despite Obama's very public mentioning of the fact that 'we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region', it is likely that many of those same partners will provide limited support. As an aside, the use of the term 'Arab' as opposed to 'Sunni Arab' was deliberate and a desire to downplay the religious issue that permeates much of the regional hand-wringing over the issue.
  4. This is going to take a long time: Coalition building takes a long time, force generation and deployment takes a long time, training and mentoring takes a long time, degrading and destroying takes a long time. Be prepared for the long haul.
  5. Authorising Sunni militias: Shi'a militias are part of the Iraqi landscape and in some instances they have been resurrected for the fight against IS. The Sunni National Guard units that will now be stood up sound awfully like a Sunni militia, no matter how much they may be dressed up as being part of the Iraqi military.
  6. The Syria issue: Not mentioned a lot but where it was, Obama raised more questions than he answered. Although Obama said the US was ramping up its military assistance to the Syrian opposition, it wasn't spelt out exactly which opposition he was talking about, how they would be deployed or sustained, or who they would fight (just IS, Jabhat al-Nusra also, the Assad forces, or the Islamic front?). Syria is not a binary issue.

 

Quick Comment: PM Abbott's visit to India

This week the Lowy Institute's International Security Program Director Rory Medcalf and Research Associate Danielle Rajendram discuss Prime Minister Tony Abbott's visit to India. The visit marked an acceleration of the Australia-India relationship, with a deal for Australia to sell India uranium and a pledge for closer strategic and economic ties.

Photo courtesy of the Prime Minister's Office.

Syria and Iraq: Why did Obama bring religion into it?

In this fast-paced world of media grabs, it is easy for selective quoting to misrepresent what leaders say. In his 28 August press conference for instance, when President Obama was asked whether he needed Congressional approval to go into Syria and attack Islamic State, he said 'I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet.' President Obama was excoriated for not having a Syria strategy years after the crisis began, when he was actually commenting on the military approach to IS in Syria.  Clumsy language perhaps, but he wasn't evincing a complete absence of US strategy towards Syria.

More disturbing was a comment a little further into his press conference. In talking about the future of President Bashar al Assad in light of the IS threat, Obama said 'I don't see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority Sunni and has not so far, you know, shown any willingness to share power with them or in any kind of significant way deal with the longstanding grievances that they have there.'

With this simple sentence Obama virtually sidelined religious minorities in the region, appeared to indicate that Sunni Islam was the region's political as well as religious orthodoxy, and suggested that only 'they' could rule and guarantee stability at the same time. Rather than simply state that Assad's illegitimacy rested on his flouting of international norms and lack of popular consensus, Obama bought into the religious argument.

Now, one could be kind and say Obama has to talk this way because Washington is trying desperately to build a coalition of apparently reluctant regional Sunni states to take military action against Sunni jihadists operating in a Shi'a Arab majority country. But part of the problem with the region is the way in which Sunni-majority states (and some Shi'a majority states, it must be said) see religious identity is a precondition for political leadership, thereby marginalising the rest.

Obama's use of religious identity in discussing the region's politics also exposes him to accusations of double standards. What about Bahrain, for instance, where the Sunni minority actively discriminate against the Shi'a majority with no effort being made to work towards a substantive power-sharing arrangement? But the Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, and if Obama's rather strange words are to be taken at face value, political discrimination is only practiced against Sunnis.

I'll write more in the future about the strange bedfellows that a regional and Western anti-IS coalition is going to throw up, and the double standards that are likely to abound when they take military action. But a president trying to put such a group together would do well to steer clear of any reference to religion. Religious identity is part of the problem in the region, and including it in his speeches and statements will just leave Obama open to the religious intolerance practiced by both Sunni and Shia.

Photo by Flickr user James Gordon.

Air power to the fore in the Middle East

As a former Army officer, my service bias has always made me a believer that only events on the ground matter. The air force is a great enabler but rarely the decisive factor. But my experience of the Middle East has also taught me the value that many governments place in air power.

In the Gulf in particular, technically advanced aircraft symbolise modernity and make up for the limited manpower available to staff their militaries. And it is a service that can be both a path to, or symbol of, political authority. Both Syria's Hafiz al Assad and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak were air force pilots (and later commanders), while King Abdullah of Jordan (like his late father King Hussein) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi are both qualified military pilots.

But as the region reels from multiple security crises, it is interesting to note the degree to which air power is being used by regional forces for a multiplicity of purposes. A student of air power would do well to focus closely on the Middle East at the moment for the rich field of research it is proving to be.

Libya

Days of unverified reports of an aerial bombing by Egyptian and Emirati aircraft on a Libyan weapons storage area and Tripoli's international airport have now been verified by American officials (the officials claim they were not informed of the strikes beforehand, which is not to say they did not know about them beforehand). If true, the strike says much about UAE and Egyptian concerns regarding the need to contain the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, as well as to stymie Qatari efforts in Libya to do the opposite. It is also further evidence that the UAE is adopting a more muscular and independent approach to regional security issues.

Gaza

Up until two weeks ago, the Israeli air force had already conducted 4900 sorties against Gaza since the most recent conflict began. And yet, just as was the case in the 2006 Lebanon war, even the Israeli air force admits it cannot completely extinguish the threat of indirect-fire weapons from Gaza. 

Iraq

As politicians mull the possibility of air strikes against Islamic State, and the US increases surveillance of possible targets in preparation for future strikes, it is interesting to note that America has already flown 1500 sorties since 8 August (about 600 of these were combat sorties, which included 96 attacks against Islamic State targets). This shows again just how resource-intensive even a 'low intensity' air campaign can be, and why regional states will need plenty of enabling support if they are to take on Islamic State.

Iran

In the east, Iran triumphantly announced the destruction of an Israeli drone spying on its Natanz nuclear facility. The truth is that the drone was more likely flown from Azerbaijan, as this detailed report outlines. Secular Shi'a Azerbaijan and religiously Shi'a Iran have a rather testy relationship and Baku's cosiness with Israel has been an irritant to Tehran for years. Whether the drone was actually shot down near the nuclear facility or somewhere much closer to the Azeri border is perhaps something we'll never know, but it reinforces the type of surveillance technology available to a wide range of states.  

Syria

To all of this we could also add the fall of Tabqa airbase, the last military base held by the Syrian Government in Raqqa province, now under the complete control of Islamic State. Syrian Government efforts at targeting the militants from the air ultimately proved futile, again showing that effective aerial campaigns against ground forces require a concentration of effort and duration that few states can manage. 

Over the next few weeks it is increasingly likely that air power will be on display in the region in a significant way. For students of air power, the Middle East is certainly the place to watch. 

Photo by Flickr user Garry Wilmore.

The Islamic State's media logic

The horrific images surrounding the gruesome execution of the US journalist Jim Foley are dominating the headlines. The Islamist group had several reasons for doing what they did, and when they did it.

It reinforces the Islamic State's reputation as the baddest Islamists of them all, a useful tool when you're looking to knock off your Islamist competitors in Syria. It also shows the US that there are costs associated with its air campaign, and the warning that there is another hostage at their mercy reinforces that warning; the English language audio track was designed for the target audience.

I don't however necessarily agree that one of the aims is to goad the West into becoming more deeply involved in Iraq. The Islamic State is as aware as anyone that neither the President nor the American people are inclined to do it, and there are many more ways to skin the Islamist cat than simply put combat troops into Iraq.

But these are relatively minor aims given the shock value that the vision was intended to produce.

People already know that the Islamic State is cruel and heartless, and they know the US isn't going to stop their air attacks just because Islamic State kills a hostage. Rather, I think the main point of the exercise was to do with the timing of the release. Islamic State had just suffered a couple of battleground reverses, having been rebuffed from Mount Sinjar and more importantly losing control over Mosul Dam, an important infrastructure prize for a putative caliphate. If you want people to stay with you, join you or submit to you, it's necessary to project an image of control and martial success. Images of destroyed Islamic State vehicles and equipment and triumphant Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers celebrating over ground you've just lost isn't good for business. In the space of a few hours though, this negative imagery was swept away by an execution video; people may have heard about Mosul Dam but they aren't reminded of it because those images are no longer displayed.

The Islamic State is very good at manipulating the social and news media space. And if it takes the beheading of someone to counter images of battlefield setbacks, then so be it. Such is the calculus of Islamic State's media department. 

India links: Independence Day, Pakistan talks, Central Asia, GM crops, Hindutva and more

Iraq: ISIS's error, Maliki's mismanagement, Obama's opportunity

As events unfold in Baghdad, President Obama's decision to unilaterally withdraw US troops from Iraq in the absence of a Status of Forces Agreement appears vindicated. Prime Minister Maliki has exacerbated the sectarian nature of Iraq's politics, bringing the current crisis to a head. The White House must be thanking its lucky stars that it doesn't have troops working for a prime minister who is refusing all entreaties to leave.

Some commentators have opined that ISIS would not have had its successes in Iraq had there been a residual US troop presence. The reality is that ISIS has assiduously courted the Sunni tribes disenfranchised by Maliki's government, and the Iraqi military has become hollow and corrupt. A small residual US force would have been at best spectators to, and at worst complicit in, Maliki's mismanagement of the situation. Greg Sheridan's view in The Australian that 'a residual (US) force would have helped stabilise Iraqi politics and bolster the Iraqi military' is typical of the 'if only' brigade – it ignores the complex reality of Iraq's secular, religious and tribal dynamics.

That is why in some ways ISIS's decision to launch attacks against religious minorities and the Kurdish region has presented President Obama with a strategic gift which he has been quick to act upon. Iraq clearly needed military assistance but the US needed to offer it in such a way that it wouldn't be seen to profit Maliki politically. What better way to introduce US firepower than in support of a humanitarian cause and in defence of Kurdish-controlled areas? It came with the imprimatur of the Iraqi Government but is not directly in support of it. It is a difficult act to juggle but it gives the US some leverage: if Maliki tries to cling to power, expect a narrow range of US military support. If he leaves and is replaced by a more inclusive government, then air support could be more widely employed.

For its part, ISIS is beginning to learn the difficulty of trying to fight a conventional military campaign using captured equipment when your enemy has air supremacy. As far as we know, US airstrikes have only destroyed an artillery piece, a mortar baseplate, some armoured vehicles and a vehicle convoy, but even the rabid ideologues of ISIS will start to sense that trying to manoeuvre in the open plains of northern Iraq is fraught with danger when US strike aircraft lurk overhead. Nor will the demonstration effect of a few 500lb bombs and Hellfire missiles have been lost on the other protagonists. Iraqi and Kurdish forces are likely to fight more vigorously if they know air support is at hand. Moreover, should US air support be broadened in support of a more inclusive Iraqi government, Iraqi tribes now aligned with ISIS may decide that their interests are better served by opting out of the Islamist coalition.

These are all big ifs, and the situation in Baghdad is unfolding hour by hour. But it may well be that ISIS's decision to press ahead with attacks against minorities and the Kurds is a strategic, rather than just tactical, error.

Photo from Flickr user United States Forces Iraq.

Obama's intervention: Iraq is not Syria

The limited use of military force announced by President Obama earlier today was likely prompted by concern at the success of ISIS's latest offensives across Syria and Iraq. The jihadist group has recently redoubled its efforts in Raqqa, Syria, in an effort to take the remaining pockets of Syrian Government-held territory in the province. At the same time, ISIS's performance against Kurdish forces would have raised concern in Washington and Baghdad, and led to a re-assessment of  some overly optimistic judgments about Kurdish capabilities.

The situation facing the Yazidis and the Christians is of grave humanitarian concern. The fact that the refugees are geographically concentrated would have made air support an attractive option for the president. Add to this the fact that the sovereign Iraqi Government invited the intervention, and the stage was set for a dual humanitarian/limited direct military intervention operation to which Obama could agree.

There will of course be accusations that Obama is a hypocrite for intervening in Iraq but not Syria. That argument is simplistic and wrong. If the US is obliged to intervene militarily everywhere there is a humanitarian need, it would never stop intervening. Obama said as much in his speech. He is one of the few US leaders to understand the limits of American power. 

Moreover, the situation in Syria is far more complex. To have assisted one side would have meant breaching a nation's sovereignty (no big deal) and potentially assisting the very Islamist forces that pose a security threat to the region and the West (a very big deal). The intervention in Iraq requires Obama to do neither of those things, so the calculus is completely different.

In his speech, Obama was careful to emphasise the need for an Iraqi political solution to the crisis engulfing the country. As long as Maliki remains prime minister, there will be little appetite for substantive US air support. The intriguing question is whether a more politically inclusive Iraqi prime minister might prompt a more robust US response in terms of air support and stand-off weapons.

Photo by Flickr user Marines.

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