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Staring into the Syrian Abyss

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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  1. M-R

    But what can we do ? – the bloody ALP appears to think it’s a good thing, too (the morons) !

  2. denis crowther

    all independents

  3. Matters Not

    Can only agree with the arguments advanced in this article. I note that we are to ‘let the people decide’ when it comes to marriage equality because the Parliament won’t exercise its constitutional power. Further, there is a proposal to decide who shall be the symbolic head of State. Yet when it comes to the much more important decision as to whether we bomb an ‘enemy’ causing also the deaths of thousands of innocents (collateral damage), then the people get absolutely no say at all.

    Yes we all know that Abbott engineered this reckless ‘adventure’ and we also know he’s doing it for base political motives.

    As I understand it, there’s only three justifications for bombing in another State. First, one can be invited to do just that, as is the case in Iraq. Second, one can use a United Nation’s resolution but there has been no such UN resolution. Third, one can argue that the nation and its people are under threat which is probably the justification that will be used. But make no mistake, it’s a very, very long bow indeed. It’s worthy of an Agincourt award.

  4. Carol Taylor

    M-R, can Labor do otherwise? To our friends in the msm, any hint of failure to support the US 100% (and LNP policies) means that Labor is on the side of terrorism. Note what happened when Tanya Pliberseck suggested dropping food parcels..”a terrorist’s picnic” was the response from J. Bishop resplendent with front page mock-up of Ms Pliberseck as a “jihadi bride”.

    If only the msm would think, perhaps even read Mr Allen Patience’s article and realise that air strikes are going to make Australia a target for those extremists far closer to home, in Indonesia and Malaysia..far less safe, rather than more safe. Perhaps the Australian people should realise that bombing people in some far away Middle Eastern country has ramifications far closer to home than they realise.

  5. Kaye Lee

    The prospect of Australia extending air strikes from Iraq into neighbouring Syria is an act of “desperation” by a prime minister in urgent need of a byelection win, Pakistani-British intellectual Tariq Ali has declared.

    “What politicians still fail to realise is that the more that they go into these countries, the more the war will come back to them. They hate seeing the link, but without the link you can’t understand the rise in jihadi currents in the West. Why weren’t they there 30 years ago?”

    He argues that centrist parties – rather than presenting voters with a genuine choice – are in lock step; competing to gain power and to appease markets in mildly different ways.

    “You can’t retreat into identity politics or into single-issue campaigns. Which are all important, I don’t want to be got wrong on all that, I’m for all that. I’m for the campaigns against fracking. I’m for the campaigns designed to make people aware of what human agency is doing to the planet, you know, the ecological issues. But without a political force none of these things can really be carried through.”


  6. mars08

    Is there any direct threat to Australia’s security which is imminent AND verifiable?

  7. Ricardo29

    This is a lucid and compelling assessment of the situation but Abbott, Bishop et al won’t listen, they think looking tough on terrorism overseas us a vote winner. I hope the people of Caaning let them know it isn’t.

  8. Kaye Lee

    Yes there is mars08

    Tyrannical citizenship bill an attack on our liberties

    Ben Saul, professor of international law at the University of Sydney: “For a democracy ostensibly committed to liberal values, basic rights and the rule of law, this bill is particularly bad, even by the low standards of some other Australian counter-terrorism laws. It should not be passed … Exiling or banishing Australian wrongdoers is primitive, medieval, simplistic and dangerous.”

    Anne Twomey, professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney, thinks the bill is “a consequence of making policy on the run and pursuing thought bubbles and sound bites … a textbook example of the sort of fiasco that occurs when [proper cabinet and governmental] processes are not followed.”

    The Law Society of NSW says the bill is “inconsistent with the presumption of innocence”.

    The Australian Bar Association says the bill seeks “to avoid the prohibition on the executive exercise of judicial power by means of a legal fiction”.

    The Commonwealth Ombudsman points out that someone declared a non-citizen “is highly likely [to] spend an extended [and possibly indefinite] period in immigration detention in Australia”. No trial, no conviction, indefinite incarceration


  9. M-R

    Carol, surely any political party cannot allow itself to have policy dictated by the msm ? – especially OUR msm ! 🙁
    But it’s true: if ever we needed proof that such is what’s going down, these days, it’s the way the LNP climbs onto the msm bandwagons that roll past; for I don’t believe it’s the other way ’round.
    I have a dream, and it’s of the day when politicians have the strength of belief and the intelligence to round on this kind of fear-mongering – both in the parliament and through the presses – in a style reminiscent of Gareth Evans, say …
    Sighh …

  10. hannahquinn

    Added to these four points is the fact that every time we, the West, go in and ‘destroy’ these groups, another and worse one rises in its wake. When will it end? Not by repeating the same actions time and time again. We need wiser heads than the likes of Abbott’s and the West’s war machine grappling with these issues. It’s blatantly apparent that what we’ve done so far is an abject failure on every level imaginable.

  11. Kaye Lee

    As if our six planes are going to make one bit of difference strategically. Grandstanding of the worst kind. What we should be doing is helping the millions of people displaced by this conflict. There are countries in the Middle East which have enormous resources. I agree we should leave it to them to sort out their ongoing wars while we help the innocent victims.

  12. John

    Apparently the successes claimed by the US against IS were overstated. “The Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating allegations that military officials have skewed intelligence assessments about the United States-led campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State to provide a more optimistic account of progress, according to several officials familiar with the inquiry.”

    Turkey is alleged to be playing a double game, reportedly alerting IS to the US trained “moderates” entry into Syria where they were taken hostage within minutes.
    The US obsession with regime change appears to drive this debacle yet the neo-Ottoman Erdogan and the crypto-fascist Netanyahu seem immune from a rational assessment.
    We need a public debate (or at least a parliamentary debate) on involvement in this undeclared war.

  13. mars08

    Here we go again….

    At the Nuremberg trials, the US and Britain headed the prosecution of Nazi leaders for planning and initiating aggressive war. US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the head of the American delegation stated “…launching a war of aggression is a crime and that no political or economic situation can justify it.” He also declared “if certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

    The actions of Bush, Blair and Howard brought tremendous suffering to Iraq and Syria… and allowed allowed the birth of ISIS. They should be on trial and our msm should be hanging it’s head in shame. Yet all we get is talk of even MORE aggression towards a fragile and volatile region!

  14. Maureen Walton (@maureen_walton)

    I so Agree with Kaye. We should not get invoved, as it is none of our Business. Like Iraq we can not solve their Religous problems, that have been going on for Thousands and Thousands of years.

    But we definitely should be helping the people and mostly the Innocent Children. Where are their young Men who were born in those Countries? They are on the run, as they know there is No Hope To many Disputes. So terribly Sad for all.

  15. mars08

    … we can not solve their Religous problems…

    There’s far more to it than religion. Such oversimplification does not help the debate.

  16. Kaye Lee

    There is an element of religion in it mars08, or at least people willing to use the banner of religion. There is also the fact that the CIA like to overthrow democratically elected governments and dictators and then leave. And the harm caused by the draconian sanctions that the world placed after bombing the crap out of them on our first run.

  17. Jeff Wright

    When I hear ‘the security council will make a decision in the next couple of weeks’, why do I think that decision is on the question of “when do we announce to have maximum impact on the Canning byelection?”

  18. mars08

    Kaye Lee:

    There is an element of religion in it …

    There’s also the ashes of pan-Arab nationalism from 100 years ago. And the embers of Palestine. And the flames of recent western aggression in Iraq. Not to mention thwarted notions of democracy and financial inequality.

    There are many reasons for anger in the Middle East. As you say, militant Islam is both a unifying banner and an expression off those frustrations. When people have lost faith, religion (or a twisted version of it) provides some hope.

  19. Lyndal

    Fully agree with the article – people must be allowed to work through to their own solutions, whether ‘we’ like them or not. Bombing them constantly does not enhance the abilities of the people who live in these places to organise, discuss, plan better ways of managing their own lives let alone pulling together a functional government

  20. corvus boreus

    The brief for the flyboys on Syrian missions;
    Drop bombs on the people below, milling like ants in conflict.
    Try to hit the evil death-cultists, rather than the baddies or the other baddies.
    Accidental collateral damage is to be classified as an operational matter.

  21. PopsieJ

    With the Russians supplying Syria with Mig 31s Tony a Butts shirtfront moment with Putin could backfire sooner than later

  22. stephentardrew

    Great article AIMN and am in total agreement.

    Malcolm Fraser’s book “Dangerous Alliances” should be used as our core foreign policy document coming into the future and we need to get the hell out of the Middle East.

    Get it into your thick heads Australians we are a part of Asia and the US is our biggest liability.

    We need to set ourselves effectively as a non-aligned nation between the US, EU alliance and the BRIC’s and intelligently play the role of mediator and negotiator in which we could benefit from active diplomacy.

    The Asia Infrastructure Bank is here to stay as they role out a competitive currency however if we put all of our cards in the US Wall Street basket we could well fall in a heap. We need world wide competition to prevent corporate hegemony by one country and if feasible having a third currency player would be even better.

    We have global warming to deal with an a dysfunctional financial sector and econometric model that is cyclical and unstable. The only way to disengage from these boom bust cycles is to become and independent player and do away altogether with this ridiculous austerity which has demonstrably failed universally.

    Modern Money Theory is not a radical change it is a phased shifting of focus from debt and austerity obsession to a stimulatory Keysnian economy where debt is no more than a variable that increases during slowdowns and recoveries through government stimulus and in this way the economy can find stability and equilibrium. The corporate sector also needs to be regulated and the whole notion of tax havens, minimisation and avoidance dealt with. Finance and banking need to be separated and regulated as in Glass Steigal.

    The final piece in the puzzle is a livable wage for all and the ending of poverty.

    An independent Australia with a wealth of resources profitability returning to this country bodes well for a good future.

    Fundamentally we must learn to stand alone focusing upon defense and avoiding offensive attacks on other countries because the are proven time and time again to fail.

  23. ISW

    Without either an offical invitation from a sovereign state, to militarily assist that state, or, a UN resolution authorising an invasion, military action by an outside state is, by way of International Law, an illegal act of aggressive war! As neither of these exists if our government authorises our military to blowup people into separate bits of protoplasm in Syria we will then have a War Criminal as a Prime Minister. If said Prime Minister has colluded with a state that then requests/coerces our government into an illegal war we will then have a traitor as a Prime Minister. If said Prime Minister was a citizen of a foreign state when becoming Prime Minister we have a foreign agent as a Prime Minister. An awesome trifecta of negative labels well suited to the public persona of said Prime Minister.

  24. Kaye Lee

    Stating that IS poses a dire threat both to the region as well as to the security of the United States, Powers writes that Article 51 of the UN charter provides countries the right to engage in self-defense, including collective self-defense, against an armed attack.

    “As is the case here, the government of the State where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks,” the letter, dated September 23, reads.

    It argues that strikes against ISIS in Syria are justified as the Syrian regime “cannot and will not confront these safe havens effectively itself.”

    “Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria in order to eliminate the ongoing ISIL threat to Iraq.”

    In addition, Washington is also conducting military action against Al-Qaeda “elements in Syria known as the Khorasan Group,” which it believes could be responsible for plotting against America and its allies.

    The air campaign against the Khorasan extremists was separate from the one targeting the Islamic State group, as the US believes they were close to carrying out “major attacks” against the West.

    Earlier in the day, US President Barack Obama said that he ordered the strikes in Syria to “disrupt plotting against the United States and our allies by seasoned al-Qaeda operatives in Syria, who are known as the Khorasan Group”.

    “Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people,” he added.

    However, the US airstrikes will not be “effective, if there is no coordination of actions on the ground and if no ground military operations are carried out,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem told RT Arabic.

    “The US is mocking the whole world when they say that they are going to coordinate their actions not with the Syrian government, but with the moderate Syrian opposition. This is funny. What moderate opposition are you talking about?” Moualem told RT Arabic. “This moderate opposition is killing Syrians just like al-Nusra or ISIS.”

    If the US “seriously wanted to fight the ISIS and other terrorist organizations,” there would be an international organization under the aegis of the UN, in which all countries would participate, Moualem said.

  25. ISW

    Shrill proclamations by the Tyrant’s rabid neocon shill do not a legality make!, in a more politically correct tone I muse: How does AIPAC’s psyhcotic Idiot Savant, localized to the opposite side of the globe, represent a “clear and present” danger to the Empire of CAOS’s homeland?

  26. mark delmege

    Yes Kaye the whole set up is a fraud. The Syrian government is doing it’s best to remove terrorist bands from their towns and cities – and with some successes – the west of the other hand has been arming them, training them and co ordinating them for years. That the US is now trying to kill some of them shows how they operate. First arming them to destroy a critic of Israel (this is the most important point) and now killing them to justify another band of terrorists to take over Syria. The war or terror has killed between 4-8 million muslim people – ordinary people just like you and me in many countries. It is a genocide of sorts.
    If Australia wanted to help remove terrorists from Syria it would have an Embassy in Syria and co ordinate with the Syrian government. But it won’t because that is not the plan. The Plan is to have an obedient client state in Syria installed and to violently overthrow the existing elected government.

    BTW this is illegal.

    I don’t believe it is the MSM pushing the government at all. In fact it is the government that controls the ABC/SBS foreign news output imo. If they took the lead and published honestly I reckon most of the other media would follow. As for religion being a factor – well it is and it isn’t. Religion is used to divide and conquer. The West has long used religion to undermine ‘pesky’ nationalist governments. They did it and are still doing it by promoting the likes of Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and other countries and they did it in Afghanistan to destroy a socialist country just as they allowed jihadists to take over Libya while they were bombing that country – just as they have in Syria and Iraq.
    No good will come from bombing Syria without direct Syrian government support direction and cooperation. Anything less will be a crime and a lie.

  27. John Armour

    Thank you Allan Patience for an enlightening article.

    Revolution is never pretty but it’s best left to those directly affected if we want solutions that last.

    That’s not in the short term (and short sighted) interests of this government however.

    And thanks to Simon for another great lampoon.

  28. mark delmege

    Revolution John Armour? Syria? I don’t think so. Mercenaries in a playground of destruction…chaos (in the crumple zone) on the edge of empire maybe but it’s not a revolution.

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