Articles by " Simon Longstaff"

Turkey, Islamic State and the Middle East

SoloTurk 2144 (RIAT 2014)A momentous decision was taken last week: the Turkish Parliament voted 298–98 in favour of a resolution authorising military incursions into northern Iraq and Syria, and allowing foreign forces to use Turkish territory for operations against Islamic State. That resolution takes on heightened significance with IS apparently poised to take control of Kobane—a Kurdish town just on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. Turkey, a NATO ally, is a potent force in its own right—and with a military attuned to the task of opposing everything IS stands for.

Amidst the ruins of the defeated Ottoman Empire, the great founder and architect of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, explicitly shaped the armed forces as an instrument to uphold the secular ideals he championed. The Army was to act as a check against religious or political extremism—a role it has played (occasionally in ways open to criticism) since Ataturk’s time. To a considerable degree, Ataturk’s approach was a continuation of a much older Ottoman tradition—within which the much-feared Janissaries (originally a slave army composed of men kidnapped as children from Christian lands) often played a decisive role in the selection, maintenance and deposition of Ottoman Sultans. As such, the army often acted as a force for stability in the Turkish empire—albeit at the price of contributing to the stagnation that eventually robbed the Ottomans of the vitality needed to maintain their hold on imperial power. Read more

This brief excursion into history highlights two factors. First, there are good grounds for believing that Turkish ground troops are precisely the kind of force that could deal a lethal blow to the IS fighters. Second, the modern Turkish army is predominantly a Sunni Muslim force, operating under the political direction of a President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has impeccable Islamic credentials. Turkish forces engaging IS would do so with the moral authority of an Islamic force committed to moderation within the Sunni tradition.

But such an intervention is also fraught with difficulties. There’d be deep regional antipathy to the use of Turkish arms, and no nation would be more concerned than Iran. We shouldn’t forget that the contest between the Ottoman (Turkic) and Saffavid (Persian) empires defined geopolitics in the Middle East for hundreds of years. Moreover, there are a number of reasons why modern Iran would want Turkey to remain disengaged. First, as the wider region’s Shiite superpower, Iran is keen to preserve the position of the Assad regime in Syria—a regime Turkey’s already condemned. Assad is an Alawite (a stem of the Shiite branch) and enjoys Iranian support. However, Assad’s importance to Iran has less to do with religious affiliation than his influence in Lebanon where Hezbollah (another Shiite military and political movement) holds sway with Syrian support. If Turkey were to intervene in the north of Syria, Iran would fear a progressive dismantling of its network of influence arcing from Tehran, through Baghdad and Damascus to the Levant.

It’s also likely Russia would be troubled by Turkish intervention. The stability of Assad’s regime has previously delivered regional ‘clout’ to the Russians—a useful hedge against what’s thought to be unhelpful US meddling in Iraq, Afghanistan, Arabia and the Gulf States more generally. Russia also values Syrian influence in Lebanon—not least as a means to prevent (or at least delay) the development of vast reserves of hydrocarbons stored in the Eastern Mediterranean basin. The last thing Russia wants is a rival source of energy to its own supplies to Europe. Add to that Turkey’s membership of NATO and it’s easy to see why Putin wouldn’t welcome Turkey taking a more active role against IS.

Finally, even the Iraqis are likely to be nervous about Turkish forces taking to the field against IS. That’s especially so for the Kurds—whose kinfolk in Turkish-controlled areas have an uneasy relationship with the government in Ankara. Beyond immediate issues, the long shadow cast by the defeated Ottoman Empire is enough to make even the beneficiaries of Turkish power resistant to its application. Given that resistance, the Iraqis are unlikely to welcome Turkish ‘boots on the ground’.

So, why might Turkey act in the face of such opposition? First, and most important, Turkey urgently requires a solution to the problem of refugees crossing her southern borders—over 1.5 million are already seeking shelter. Far better, for Turkey, would be the creation of safe havens in northern Iraq and Syria. But driving IS forces out of those territories currently seems beyond the resources of the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmurga. That may change—especially with increased arms flowing to the Kurds and with improved training and support strengthening the sinews of an Iraqi Army splintered by religious factionalism. Still, Turkey mightn’t have time to wait for those developments.

Second, Turkey might hope to strengthen its position with the European Union. The failure to consummate the long courtship between Turkey and Europe is a product of many factors—not least a lingering European suspicion that Turkey’s Islamic history and culture renders it incompatible as a full partner with countries informed by a predominantly Christian and liberal heritage. If Turkey risks its own blood and treasure in order to defeat Islamic extremists, it will have done its European and NATO allies a great favour. If there’s justice in the world, Turkey should expect to be rewarded for its actions.

So, is the deployment of Turkish forces imminent? Probably not. The degree of latent opposition to Turkey seizing and holding Iraqi and Syrian territory is enough to justify caution. Furthermore, there’s the Turkish government’s own antipathy to the plight of the Kurds. But the mere threat of Turkish military involvement may be enough to galvanize others—notably the Iraqis—to do what needs to be done. Indeed, Turkey’s strategic value may be less a matter of what it does than what it might do. For example, one wonders what strategic concessions might be made by the likes of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia simply in order to keep Turkish soldiers at home.

Simon Longstaff is executive director of St James Ethics Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user Andrew Menage.

Israel, Hamas and the right to self-defence

Banksy’s ‘Girl and a Soldier’, stencilled onto the wall of the West Bank in Bethlehem.

The war between the State of Israel and the foot-soldiers of Hamas is further proof of the horrors of war. But it’s also a near-perfect example of asymmetric warfare in which the weaker side in the conflict wages war by doing all it can to undermine the moral authority of its stronger adversary. If that adversary is a liberal democracy, as is Israel, then it faces ultimate defeat: lose moral authority, lose the war.

Typically, the preferred tactic of the weaker party is to prod, provoke and outrage the stronger to the point where something ‘snaps’—and the provocation is answered with a response that is indiscriminate, disproportional or both. The moment that happens, the brute force of superior arms begins to lose its effect—as allies withdraw support and even the people, in whose name the military act, begin to doubt the legitimacy of their cause.

The underlying ethical issues are a tangled thicket. One branch stems from Hamas’ refusal to recognise the right of the State of Israel to exist—another from that section of Israeli opinion that sees itself as having a divine right to occupy lands that the international community recognises as belonging to the Palestinians. Historic wrongs and miscalculations, on all sides, have led us to where we are today. Read more

The military issues are no less complex. On the one hand, Hamas is murderous in its indifference to the possibility of innocent civilians being killed by its rockets. But, a combination of military ‘incompetence’ and superior Israeli defences has meant that, in recent times, few Israeli civilians have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza. On the other hand, Israel has declared itself to be strongly committed to the proportionate and discriminate use of force, with a stated intention of minimising civilian casualties amongst the Palestinians. Yet, for all of Israel’s military sophistication, over 1,400 Palestinian civilians have been killed—many of them women and children. The numbers matter—both in terms of ethics and strategy.

Israel has invited the world to understand its predicament, arguing that no nation would sit idly by while indiscriminate rocket fire rains down on its citizens. The fact that complicates this rational and otherwise fair appeal is the singular lack of ‘success’ on the part of Hamas. Hamas’ indiscriminate use of force is deplorable, but relatively ineffective. So, while we might condemn Hamas’ intentions in the strongest terms, we can’t ignore the fact of its impotence.

Israel has a right to self-defence. But those of us who insist on recognising Israel’s rights must also insist that Israel reciprocate by respecting the rights of others. For example, Israel has breached the rights of others—and fails in its obligations to the international community—by building settlements in occupied territory wrested from the Palestinians during earlier wars (not of Israel’s making). To note this isn’t to excuse Hamas for its reckless attempt to use military force against Israeli civilians. But it’s a mockery of justice to condemn the wrongs of one side and ignore those of the other. Israel isn’t (and can’t be) beyond criticism.

Israel’s obligations also apply in relation to the means employed in exercising its right to self-defence. For example, according to the principles of ‘just war’, a state must use only the minimum amount of force necessary in order to ensure its security. That is, states aren’t permitted to eliminate each and every source of threat; rather, they may take measures to ensure that the risks associated with each threat are neutralised. Israel’s deployment of its ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence system is a perfect example of a proportionate and discriminate response to a threat.

Unfortunately, Israel has taken Hamas’ bait. Rather than managing the threats, it has eliminated the sources of rocket fire and incursions into what it claims to be its territory, knowing that Hamas’ military wing operates in areas densely populated by civilians—often under the cover of civilian infrastructure. The extraordinary level of casualties amongst Palestinian civilians is a product of Hamas’ operating environment and Israeli tactics designed to offer maximum protection to Israel’s people by projecting force from a safe distance (via missiles, artillery and tank shells).

The facts on the ground prove that whatever Israel’s stated intentions, its use of force is indiscriminate. There’s an alternative: send in, on foot, well-trained, well-armed personnel. If Israel used only professional soldiers (and not its civilian reserves) the greater risk of death, wounding or capture may be worth taking in order to avoid the loss of moral authority that comes from the indiscriminate killing of innocent people (especially women and children).

Just War Theory imposes one further obligation on self-defence: the actions must ensure that the quality of the peace secured is superior to that which would have prevailed if no war had been fought. Neither side in the current conflict can make any legitimate claim to meet that standard. If anything, the current hostilities have degraded the prospect of peace, not least because they’ve driven both sides into more entrenched positions of enmity and extremism. But—irrespective of its apparent success in the field—Israel is the one losing this war because it’s the one sacrificing the moral authority it claims for itself amongst the liberal democracies.

The vast asymmetries of power and resources between the Palestinians and Israelis made it almost inevitable that Hamas would set the trap that Israel has found it impossible to avoid. Further destruction of Gaza is against the interests of all who yearn for peace in that troubled part of the world.

This is the background to what we see unfolding in the tragic events befalling the people of Israel and the Gaza Strip. The moment the ethical line is crossed, people embark on the process of calculating and declaring the relative burden of moral infamy carried by each side. But by then it’s too late for both sides—each has been irreparably damaged both militarily and morally.

Simon Longstaff is executive director of St James Ethics Centre. One of his roles is to provide support to the Australian Defence Force in its preparation of personnel prior to deployment overseas. Image courtesy of Flickr user Trocaire.

Sturm und drang: stress proofing soldiers’ ethics in Afghanistan

Greetings from the Baluchi Valley, 2010

In the midst of confusion about what led to the recent, untimely deaths of two Afghan boys, two things are clear. First, the deaths are a tragic loss. Second, no Australian who was present will have been callous or indifferent to their sad fate. In an ideal world, there would be no armed conflict—and if, on occasion, it should occur then it would be moderated by the practical application of the traditional principles of just war theory. Under conditions of discrimination and proportionality, young boys would not lose their lives simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong times. But nothing about the situation in Afghanistan is ideal. Nor could it be while insurgent forces employ tactics deliberately designed to test to the limit the capacity for ethical restraint amongst ISAF and Afghan forces.

Beyond responding at a personal level to the individual tragedy that unfolds with every death of a non-combatant, Australian personnel are also keenly aware of the strategic costs of such events. In today’s conditions of rapid and communications, where a local incident can soon find a global audience, they are also acutely aware of the maxim (quoted in an earlier post for The Strategist), ‘lose moral authority, lose the war’. It’s a maxim understood equally by both sides of the conflict in Afghanistan—but, like so much else in that theatre, it’s applied asymmetrically. Read more

The insurgents know that they cannot ‘outgun’ ISAF—that this is not our point of vulnerability. Rather, theirs is the war of the ‘gnat’—prodding and provoking until in a fit of rage and frustration the larger animal does itself an injury. What’s more, insurgents employing this tactic are willing to expose non-combatants to the risk of harm during this contest. This isn’t to say that they are indifferent to the fate of those killed and injured—but rather that, within their world, such losses might be counted as regrettable but acceptable. That said, what the insurgents think about such matters is of only minor relevance. For it’s not their ‘moral authority’ that is being put at risk, but ours. The Canadian philosopher, Michael Ignatieff, has succinctly expressed the ideal against which we choose to measure ourselves. As he puts it, the difference between a warrior and a barbarian is ethical restraint. Those who serve within the profession of arms see themselves as warriors. Indeed it’s essential that they do so if they are to enjoy support—especially at home. For without that support (or at least comfortable indifference) operations of the kind unfolding in Afghanistan would not be possible.

It’s for this reason that, in recent years, the leadership group of every Task Force has spent time examining the ethical dimension of their mission prior to making their way to Afghanistan. Under the direction of Combat Training Command (CTC Live), this preparation has gone beyond reviewing obligations of a general kind that arise under the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) or more particularly, through understanding and applying Australia’s own Rules of Engagement (ROE). Rather, the leadership group for each task force examines how to ensure that the core ethical ‘DNA’ of each task force (and its constituent parts) doesn’t mutate under conditions of isolation and intense stress. There are reasons to believe that this aspect of the preparation of Australian forces has borne fruit—with the Australian forces demonstrating real ethical restraint in their response to extreme provocation.

It’s for all of these reasons that I believe that any involvement by Australian forces in the deaths of the two boys would have been genuinely accidental.

There’s one other important ethical consideration that should be considered. It concerns the balance of risk that we should ask our service personnel to bear in order to avoid civilian casualties. Specifically, should we ask our personnel to take on otherwise avoidable risks as the price to be borne for exercising discrimination and proportionality in our nation’s use of lethal force? I once discussed this question with the representative of a nation that had decided this question in the negative. This person believed that a country’s primary duty was owed to its own citizens—and consequently, they believed that firing a rocket from the relative safety of a helicopter (knowing that it would kill some innocent bystanders) was preferable to sending in ground troops who might limit casualties amongst non-combatants, but only at the increased risk of casualties or capture.

I am not indifferent to the argument that we should have a special care for the welfare of our serving men and women. However, I tend to the view that we meet our obligations to them by providing the best available training, equipment and support. In return for this, we might legitimately ask them to bear the additional risk that often comes to those who exercise the ethical restraint of warriors.

Simon Longstaff is executive director of St James Ethics Centre. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Doing the right thing is the right thing to do

Leon E. Panetta takes the oath of office as the 23rd U.S. Secretary of Defense during a ceremony at the Pentagon July 1, 2011. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Department of Defense Current Photos.

There’s an old maxim in military affairs: ‘lose moral authority, lose the war’! It’s most often quoted in the context of the conduct of armed forces towards third parties, most notably the civil population living within a theatre of operations. Occasionally, the maxim applies to one’s enemies, who may be spurred to fight on against those they consider to be a morally debased opponent. For example, fighters based in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan have been incensed by the use of unmanned drones, which they consider to be the coward’s weapon of choice.

However, there’s a further context in which the maxim applies—in relation to the quality of leadership displayed within one’s own ranks. One might suppose that it is with this in mind that US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has asked the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, to review the quality and character of ethical instruction made available to senior officers—a task given added urgency in the wake of scandal surrounding the recent resignation of David Petraeus as Director of the CIA. Read more

Panetta’s decision might well resonate with those overseeing the military affairs (no pun intended) of other countries. For example, the relevant Australian Defence Force (ADF) doctrine defining leadership (PDF) reads: ‘…the exercise of influence in order to bring about the willing consent of others in the ethical pursuit of missions’ (my emphasis). While many civilian organisations treat ethics as something merely to be ‘bolted on’ to leadership, the ADF defines leadership as an ethical practice. That is, ethics is seen to be intrinsic to the practice of leadership. This isn’t simply because Australian commanders want members of the ADF to maintain a posture of ‘moderate decency’ characteristic of the nation as a whole. Rather, the doctrine is fashioned with a hard, strategic edge, reflective of the maxim quoted at the beginning of this article. In short, there’s just too much strategic risk in unethical conduct of a kind that erodes moral authority at home and abroad.

The risks of ethical failure extend to the tactical level. Effective units depend on their leaders offering a shared a sense of purpose and a framework of values and principles that motivate and guide—especially when the best laid plans have lost their coherence in the face of operational realities. However, it’s almost impossible to build and sustain a functional ethos in circumstances in which leaders are thought to be hypocrites. Wherever hypocrisy is perceived, it generates cynicism which, like an acid, eats away at the ties that bind together communities and institutions.

Given all of the above, we should hope that Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey don’t fall into the very North American trap of equating ‘ethics’ with compliance. The last thing needed by US senior commanders is a crash course in compliance delivered by lawyers. The greater challenge is to engage the senior ranks of military leadership in reflective practices designed to give consistent, practical effect to the explicit values and principles that should lie at the heart of each individual’s command philosophy. While there’s risk in those who deliberately turn a ‘blind eye’ to wrong-doing, this is relatively minor when compared to incidents of ‘conditioned blindness’—where otherwise good people do bad things because they simply do not see their conduct for what it is. The warning signs are always the same—ask people to tell you why they do what they do and the most common response will be something like: ‘well everyone does it that way’ or ‘that’s just the way we do things around here’.

Unthinking custom and practice of this kind is a risk at every level of an organisation, including among those exercising strategic command. The risk is exacerbated with every promotion—which seems to confirm the quality of the individual’s judgement. Next comes power, with its seductive promise that there may be a point beyond which the rules designed for lesser folk no longer apply. It is significant that the Romans ensured that any general granted a triumph would have a slave travel by his side constantly whispering, ‘remember, you art but a man’.

Secretary Panetta is right to ask Dempsey to review ethics education (hopefully not ‘training’) for the most senior ranks. If all goes well, the resulting approach will work to reinforce the moral courage of US military leaders and build their capacity to make wise, virtuous and responsible decisions—as a whole—and not simply to comply with a narrow moral code.

Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Department of Defense Current Photos.