Good international citizenship and military intervention in Syria
28 Aug 2015|

A coalition F/A-18 Hornet refuels from an RAAF KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport during an operational sortie.

There is, in my judgement, one very good reason for expanding our present military operations into Syria, which is sufficient to justify it, and three very bad ones which should not be relied upon at all.

The good reason is to try to stop ISIS perpetrating further mass atrocity crimes against the people of the region, as we know all too well, from the experience of the Yazidis, and the people in the towns ISIS have occupied, that it is all too capable of committing. There is ample moral and, in a sense, political justification for that under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 2005. R2P requires the wider international community to take ‘timely and decisive’ action to protect those whom their own state is ‘manifestly failing’ in its responsibility to protect them from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and other crimes against humanity.

Of the three bad reasons, the first is to drain the Middle East swamp of terrorists. Of course we want that to happen, for good homeland security reasons among others. But for the West to see its role more in terms of destruction than containment—to wage, militarily, an ill-defined, more or less open-ended “war on terror”, killing a lot of terrorists but also inevitably causing a lot of collateral damage in the process—will inevitably generate more than enough recruits to the cause to replace the jihadists it kills.

The second bad reason, of which we have not heard much in Australia but certainly motivates some policymakers elsewhere, is to re-establish the rapidly eroding boundaries of states in the region and to create thereby the conditions for sustainable peace. That may or may not be a worthy, or achievable, geopolitical objective, but again, I don’t think it’s a fight for which we want to be putting Australian lives at risk.

The third bad reason—but unquestionably an important motivator for the present Australian Government, and some in the Opposition as well—is to extend our military operations to include Syria simply because the US wants us to do this, or we think they want us to do it (or, perhaps, because we want the US to want us to do it). As I have often said: ‘Whither thou goest, there I goest’ might be good theology, but it isn’t great foreign policy for a country that values its independence.

If Australia does embrace, as I think it should, the humanitarian, good-international-citizen national interest rationale for expanding its military commitment here, rather than any more narrowly defined traditional national security interest, that still doesn’t address the legal issue as to whether there is sufficient international law justification. Nor does it address the practical, operational issue as to how the containment of mass atrocity crimes can actually be achieved with the kind of largely airborne military intervention proposed here.

The legal justification is very grey in this area but I think that it’s just sufficient to make defensible the extension of the operation into Syria without that state’s consent. There’s no UN Security Council resolution authorising military action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and there’s no sufficient basis for claiming Australian national self-defence under Article 51 of the Charter.

But what does give some kind of cover is the notion of collective self-defence under that article, to the extent that we—along with the US—would be assisting Iraq to defend its own people from attack initiated or commanded across the border. That in turn would only enable a military response against the ISIS source of that attack: not against the Syrian government, because they are not the source of the threat to the Iraqi people at the moment.

There’s some international case law saying that collective self-defence doesn’t apply when the threat comes from a non-state actor, as distinct from another state, but that is controversial and may well be revisited.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and the US State Department have advanced another legal justification: that the relevant part of Syria is ‘ungoverned territory’—in effect, completely empty space, where international forces can more or less do what they like. I don’t think that stands up to very close scrutiny, because whatever we think of ISIS, it’s certainly occupying and governing that space at the moment. It’s better to hang one’s hat on the collective self-defence justification, with all its limitations and all its uncertainties.

The operational effectiveness issues are rather harder to address. Airborne attacks are only likely to be really effective in civilian protection operations where there is some concentration of hostile forces, not inextricably intermingled with innocent civilians. That condition can be satisfied in situations like Gaddafi’s march on Benghazi in Libya in 2011, or the ISIS attacks on the Yazidis in northern Iraq, or when it was entering towns like Mosul, or where there are identifiable command and control centres. But targeting will always be problematic, and the general objective realistically has to be one of containment, rather than degrading or destruction, of the hostile forces in question.

Nobody, least of all me, suggests that approaching foreign policymaking through the lens of good international citizenship is going to provide anything like all the answers we need in wrestling with complex problems of the kind I have been discussing. But it does give us, I believe, a much more helpful framework for dealing with the complexities of the highly interdependent world of the 21st century, with its multitude of transnational issues only capable of being solved by cooperative multilateralism, than an approach which focuses almost wholly on traditional, narrowly defined security and economic interests.

And focusing attention on what it means to be, and be seen to be, a good international citizen also sets us a challenge. A country with Australia’s general record and reputation as an energetic, creative middle power which has on many occasions in the past played a world-leading role in international diplomacy ought perhaps to be setting our sights rather higher, and acting rather more generously to those who share our common humanity around the world, than we have tended to in recent times. I hope very much that is a challenge which both sides of politics now rise to meet.