In the evening after police stormed the Sydney cafe and three people died, an audience of 80 gathered at ASPI for the launch of a report on the initial 100 days of what will be a long campaign. The maps in the report and the interactive map of coalition airstrikes offer what good graphics often achieve—to tell you things more directly than many words.
Constant reporting makes the point that for propaganda purposes and, increasingly, as a statement of pride ISIL is throwing troops into the battle around Kobane, on Syria’s border with Turkey. The experts dismiss Kobane’s strategic value. But ISIL keeps feeding in the cannon fodder. So the coalition keeps bombing them. The graphic expression of what that means is on page 33 of the report—the biggest red blob on the map, representing 282 airstrikes around Kobane. The Kobane figure is markedly bigger than the series of blobs for strikes in Iraq. The overall total of strikes in Iraq is certainly greater than in Syria, but the concentration of air attacks on Kobane is a vivid strand of the campaign.
Just as striking is the map on page 17 showing the state of the contest for territory in November. The black dots representing ISIL-controlled territory show attack zones funnelling into Baghdad. And getting close to Baghdad; ISIL can squeeze and pressure, if not take.
The video of the ASPI launch starts with presentations by Daniel Nichola and Patricia Dias on the maps and data, followed by a panel I chaired with Peter Jennings, Tobias Feakin and Mark Thomson. The panel started with the siege and Peter’s argument that even if the gunman was crazy, he was still a terrorist and this was a terrorist act.
Then discussion moved to propaganda and the policy implications. Toby’s paper reports one striking pro-ISIL image, a photo of three bullets, each with a different top: ‘A bullet. A pen. A thumb drive…There is a different form of jihad’. On the evidence of that image, propaganda is as central as recruits and cash in reaching for the caliphate.
This war has Australians fighting on both sides. Australian jihadists are dying in Syria and Iraq as fast as they arrive, to be replaced by more Australian volunteers: 20 dead, about 70 serving fighters, and the passports of nearly 100 Australians cancelled because they were suspected of wanting to go to join the war.
The panel entered fascinating debating territory—and the audience voted—on two questions I posed, based on pieces by the Australian strategist, David Kilcullen and the ANU’s Professor Amin Saikal. The Kilcullen proposition is that 2014 saw the collapse of Western counterterrorism strategy as we have known it since 2001:
After 13 years, thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, we’re worse off today than before 9/11, with a stronger, more motivated, more dangerous enemy than ever.
The audience divided equally in the vote on whether we’re worse off today, with plenty of abstentions.
The Saikal thought is that the rise of ISIL amounts to a ‘geopolitical tsunami’. And that tsunami is one element in even bigger shifts:
From Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria and as far as Palestine and Libya, the region is experiencing long-term structural instability and insecurity. It is in the throes of major geopolitical and power shifts, the likes of which not seen since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the British–French colonial realms nearly a century ago. The old correlation of forces in support of maintaining the status quo, especially following the Iranian Revolution more than 35 years ago, has been altering. A set of new alignments and realignments along multiple overlapping and contesting regional fault lines, including sectarian divisions and geopolitical rivalries at different levels, has come to redefine the region and possibly change its traditional political and territorial contours.
Using this, the question posed was whether Australia should volunteer for a military role in a war between Sunni and Shia, in a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Two thirds of the audience voted for Australia to continue to seek a role in the Middle East conflict.
Please sample the video as you savour the paper.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video (c) ASPI 2014.