Military engagement can’t be devised or judged in isolation from its strategic objectives. It is tactical—a means to a strategic or political end. And this places a necessarily weighty responsibility on decision makers to have a plan for the day after, and for the decade after that.
The Middle East is currently undergoing its most significant reshaping since World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The extent of the fallout from conflict and extremism was recently described by David Petraeus as a ‘geopolitical Chernobyl’.
I would suggest that never has it been more necessary to have a view about the end game, nor perhaps more difficult in the current circumstances facing the Middle East. Australia needs to guard against being dragged into a fiendishly complex proxy war where a range of countries in the region will feel compelled to pursue their own interests.
It was just over a year ago that most Australians became aware of a new force seeking to violently reshape the Middle East, and the world. The organisation which calls itself Islamic State has its antecedents in al Qaeda (AQ) and al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—organisations that we came to understand something about. But even a year ago we had very limited information about Daesh relative to the danger it presents today.
Labor supports Operation OKRA—the Australian Defence Force’s contribution to the international effort in Iraq. Our reason is principally and overwhelmingly humanitarian.
We accepted that as a member of the international community, Australia has a responsibility to protect, to respond to a legitimate request from the Iraq government and to join with other nations to protect vulnerable civilians from mass atrocity crimes.
Not insignificant to our consideration was the Iraq Government’s assessment that its aspirations for a more inclusive and democratic Iraq, and modest gains it had made, would be thoroughly undermined by Daesh. I am not going to pretend that Iraq was exhibiting consistent or significant progress on political and democratic reform, but for the first time in many years we could see inching gains in the right direction including Nouri al-Maliki’s replacement by Haider al-Abadi.
Iraq has specifically requested international support to defend itself against cross-border attacks by Daesh that the Syrian government is either unable or unwilling to prevent. By doing so Iraq has established legal authority under the principle of collective self-defence.
Labor sought its own advice on the application of the principle, and we agree that it applies.
Labor’s support is subject to several requirements. First, we have asked for a commitment that Australian operations in Syria are limited to support of Iraq’s collective self-defence; we won’t support mission creep. Second, we have requested the Government’s assurance, in advance of extended operations, that an effective combat search and rescue capability will be in place to meet the additional risks if the worst happens and RAAF personnel are downed in hostile territory. Third, we have urged the Government to engage with the UN, and to formally notify the UN Security Council about Australia’s decision. Fourth, we have called on the Prime Minister to address Parliament and outline Australia’s long term strategy in Iraq and allow for appropriate parliamentary discussion.
But our objectives for the Middle East need to be much more significant than defeating Daesh. In Iraq, our involvement is to allow the country to stand on its own two feet by supporting internal efforts toward peace and security.
The recent history of Iraq reminds us of the dangers of tactics without a comprehensive and realistic strategy. We “won” the last war, and Saddam Hussein was overthrown, but there was no strategy to govern, no vision of what the day after and the decade after would look like. The people of Iraq have suffered the consequences ever since.
The vacuum that was left created rallying points around the sectarian and ethnic fractures of the region, and was the breeding ground for AQ, AQI and Daesh. The de-Ba’athification of the public sector and demobilisation of the army were disasters that fed sectarian division and recruitment for AQ and Daesh, which boasts senior Baathists among its leadership.
A solution for the Middle East demands diplomatic efforts and the revival of a political solution. In particular, no one should believe that Syria can be bombed to peace.
The immense scale of displacement and suffering and the impacts of the Syrian conflict on neighbouring countries and Europe along with the increasing threat of Daesh and its territorial ambitions may now be so compelling that there’s new hope for a political outcome.
Alan Behm has recently observed that we’re coming very close to a situation so fractured that no one is being served by the status quo. Renewed efforts may break the impasse.
There have been roadblocks to effective UN action before now but this may be the moment they can be worked past. The US–Iran nuclear deal has been negotiated. There are reports that Russia is demonstrating an interest in a resolution to this conflict because of the risks it poses to its regional interests.
There are also reports of Russia’s desire to work with an international coalition, which would require more than careful navigation with the interests of so many parties in outcomes for Syria—Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Kurds, the list is extensive.
The humanitarian crisis in the region also demands a more significant response. We cannot let a generation of children grow up in refugee camps and temporary accommodation with no access to a proper education. And we cannot allow neighbouring countries, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to shoulder the burden any more.
In Syria we must use all available diplomatic and political means to secure support from the international community to developing a durable solution to the current crisis. This engagement should focus, in the short term, on providing safe havens and humanitarian access in Syria, meeting the urgent humanitarian assistance needs of the region. In the longer term we support an inclusive political process which can resolve the conflict in Syria.
In 1965, when the Australian Government had made the decision to send Australian troops to Vietnam, Arthur Calwell said:
‘When the drums beat and the trumpets sound, the voice of reason and right can only be heard in the land with difficulty.’
His message was that decisions on matters like military involvement require courage and conviction, must reject populism and guard against recklessness. And in that tradition the Australian Labor Party will continue to contribute to decisions on the side of reason, in the cause of humanity, and always in the interests of Australia’s national security.