By Allan Patience
The insanity of the proposal that Australia should commence bombing raids inside Syrian territory is beyond belief. Our belligerent prime minister insists that the initiative for this development came from none other than President Obama himself. Other reports suggest that Australia has actually put pressure on America, obliging it to issue an official request to join in the US military’s air strikes against the Islamic State’s (IS) bases across the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Whether it was President Obama or Tony Abbott who is responsible for the Australian government’s sudden interest in staring into the Syrian abyss, the hope is that wiser heads will prevail. Australia has much to lose and nothing of strategic significance to win by expanding its already dubious role in this appalling conflict.
There are four immediately obvious reasons why the Abbott government should resist the American “request.”
First, the current crisis in Iraq and Syria (and it’s spreading to other parts of the Middle East), ghastly as it is in every respect, is overwhelmingly the result of America and its allies’ strategic interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan since the dark days of George W. Bush’s presidency. For all the allied blood and treasure that has been so recklessly thrown into those conflicts, no end to them is in sight and on any measure their objectives have been routinely ending in failure.
Iraq is now in the grip of several murderous civil conflicts, largely between Sunni and Shiite forces. Afghanistan is an ugly confusion of Taliban and tribal conflicts and increasingly corrupt and malevolent politicians intent on feathering their own nests before the inevitable collapse of their puny government. These have provided IS with myriad opportunities to inject its merciless jihadists across the region, to its enormous strategic advantage.
This is a mess entirely of the West’s making and its only solution is for the West to butt out and leave it to the locals to sort themselves out. Of course this will result in horrendous bloodshed and brutality; but this is already happening and no matter what the West does, it is clearly incapable of stopping it.
Second, by placing itself at the side of the Americans in Iraq and Syria, the Australians are inviting and inflaming the absolutely visceral hatred of actual and would-be jihadists, both domestically and in Southeast Asia (especially in Indonesia and Malaysia). Far from minimizing potential “home grown” attacks from extremists, and from terrorist groups outside the country, our involvement with the United States in what is a doomed strategy against IS will only make things worse for us at home and abroad.
Third, the craven Australian desire to always be seen as a “loyal” ally dependent on the United States reached its use-by date long ago. The ANZUS treaty remains an instrument whose efficacy has always been determined, first and foremost, by what is in America’s interests, not Australia’s. As Malcolm Fraser argued so well last year, it is time for Australia to extricate itself from its “dangerous ally.” Just as Canada has been able to quietly avoid US pressure to join it in most of its numerous military adventures since the end of World War II and the Cold War (e.g., the Vietnam War and the Iraq War), so Australia should be now be aware that its security is not guaranteed by the treaty.
Indeed, increasingly, Australia’s national interests are at odds with the alliance with the US. Given that our security is totally bound up with what occurs in our geo-political region (East and Southeast Asia), our misplaced loyalty to the US (as opposed to being a mature and independent friend) results in our being an awkward partner in our region, not a trusted regional player.
Fourth, the actual cost of the deployment of Australian troops and materiel in the Middle East is an utterly perverse squandering of taxpayers’ funds. The monies should in fact be used for large-scale aid projects in places like Indonesia to counter the appeal of jihadist recruiters while improving Australia’s diplomacy with its neighbouring states to advance moves for finding regional solutions to problems like people smugglers and terrorists.
Australia must not expand its military deployment from Iraq into Syria. It is time to pull back from the abyss. Abbott and his defence and foreign ministers must eschew further involvement in a conflict that has no reasonable end in sight. Indeed diplomatic talks should now be under way to advise the Americans that Australia is withdrawing all of its soldiers and materiel from the Middle East completely.
Who knows, this might even lead to the Americans realizing that its strategies have been, and remain, futile, and that it too should withdraw from the conflict.
Allan Patience is a principal fellow in the Asia Institute in the University of Melbourne. He has held chairs in politics and Asian studies in universities in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Japan.
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