Citing the rapidly escalating threat posed by the violent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) movement across northern and western Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on August 31 that Australia will join an international coalition, led by the United States, to assist “anti-ISIL forces” in Iraq. At Washington’s request, Australia will join the United Kingdom, Canada, France and Italy in providing an airlift of military equipment to the Kurds.
Australia will also participate in a humanitarian airdrop in Amreli in northern Iraq, which has faced a two-month long siege by Islamic State militants although recent reports suggest that Iraqi security forces have now regained control over the city. This follows on from an earlier humanitarian airdrop by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to Yazidi civilians who were trapped by ISIL forces on Mount Sinjar.
Abbott also announced that an Australian C-17 aircraft will be airlifting equipment and supplies to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The Kurdish Peshmerga troops are seen as a vital link in pushing back against ISIL’s ambitious expansion into northern Iraq, playing a major role in the retaking of Mosul Dam last month. They will be provided with light infantry weapons, mortars, ammunition, and rocket propelled grenades.
Speaking at a joint press conference with the Chief of the Defence Force Mark Binskin, Abbott cited the severity of the situation in Iraq as the main cause for action, which he described as “not only a humanitarian catastrophe but a security nightmare.” Australia is not acting entirely outside of its national interest, however, which the prime minister readily acknowledged. With around 60 Australians known to be involved with terrorist groups in the Middle East and 100 or so actively supporting them, he said, “the truth is that these conflicts reach out to us.”
But a distinction was drawn between Australia’s actions abroad and the possibility that they might increase the terrorist threat at home. “There is a certain type of terrorist organization which hates us, not because of what we do but because of who we are and how we live,” Abbott said. David Irvine, the Director General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), said last week that he didn’t see “any immediate correlation” between Australia’s participation in international assistance efforts in northern Iraq and the threat levels for domestic terrorism. But given the unprecedented numbers of Australians supporting or participating in terrorist activities in the region, the government has a strong incentive for supporting anti-ISIL forces.
Addressing concerns about a possible escalation to military activity, the prime minister has adopted a cautious, wait-and-see approach. “We stand ready to participate in further humanitarian airdrops in Iraq should these be required,” he said. Yet there is no envisaged role for combat troops and there had been no request by either Washington or the Iraqi government for Australia to participate in military activities. Were such a request to be made, it would be assessed by the National Security Committee and the Cabinet based on the overall objective, the specific role for Australian forces, the safety risks involved and whether the “overall humanitarian purpose [is] in accordance with Australia’s national interests.”
The decision to join international forces in providing humanitarian assistance and equipment and supplies marks a steady, if still somewhat limited, increase in Australia’s involvement in the overlapping conflicts of Iraq and Syria. With most of the world’s attention focused on the violent and barbaric acts committed by ISIL, there is fairly widespread agreement that something needs to be done to halt the advance of Islamic State forces and bring a modicum of peace and stability to the region. In committing Australia to provide humanitarian support yet leaving open the possibility of further military activity, there is always the risk that these conflicts will do more than simply “reach out to us.”