Australia Begins Flights Over Syria

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Australia Begins Flights Over Syria

Will incoming PM Malcolm Turnbull continue Tony Abbott’s gung-ho policy on Syria?

Australia Begins Flights Over Syria

Australian fighter jets on their first mission over Syria.

Credit: Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

While all attention in Australia is understandably focused on the change in Canberra – the third time in five years a sitting Australian prime minister has been deposed in a party room ballot – Australia did conduct its first mission into Syria this weekend, although it dropped no bombs. The decision to bomb Syria was announced in the middle of last week, around the same time the soon-to-be former Prime Minister Tony Abbott also confirmed Australia would accept a one-off intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees, on top of the 13,000 Australia already accepts. Australian media has largely reported the two in the same story, and the government was using the humanitarian crisis to prosecute its argument for expanding bombing.

We recently reported that Australia was considering accepting a U.S. request to bomb Syria’s east and noted that many military personnel and strategists didn’t think much of the plan, in terms of its utility or effects. The mission would involve Australia’s airpower in Iraq, which is relatively small at six F/A-18F Super Hornets, a control craft and a tanker. These assets would “take a left turn” into Syria, according to Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, the head of Australia’s Defence Force, speaking to News Limited. No extra craft will be sent. Australia has already flown some 700 sorties. No more planes will be deployed.

We’ve reported on Australia’s mission to Iraq several times before. Australia has been conducting sorties, but also training and delivery of humanitarian assistance. It has deployed a total of 700 personnel, from those supporting the aerial missions in Iraq and those training Iraqi soldiers.

“This is a training mission, not a combat mission. Nevertheless, it is a mission which is necessary, because obviously in the face of the initial death cult onslaught, the Iraqi regular army melted like snow in summer. That’s been a disaster for the people of Iraq, millions of whom now live in a new dark age,” Abbott said earlier this year. He even made a surprise visit there in January. Abbott was always very keen on the fight against ISIS, something critics in Australia have noted.

The government said that the request to join efforts in Syria came during a phone conversation with Barack Obama in mid July, though a formal letter was sent to the Australian embassy in Washington in late August. Obama earlier thanked and praised Australia as a strong ally in the fight against ISIL (his term for ISIS), saying last year, “Time and again, Australia has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States on issues of critical international security.  Today is no different. We have seen Australian participation as part of a coalition dealing with ISIL in Iraq.”

Australia is joining the U.S., but also Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Canada, Bahrain and the UAE in this US-led campaign. France is beginning surveillance flights over Syria, also.

Regarding the U.S., this recent ASPI piece is worth a look. In “Letter from Washington” Claude Rakisits writes, “This (the first anniversary of the beginning of the bombing campaign going largely unnoticed)  is quite incredible given that by 31 August 2015 the air war alone had cost the U.S. Treasury well over US$3 billion, or about US$9.4 million per day. Since the beginning of the bombing, there have been almost 20,000 bombs and missiles dropped by American and coalition aircraft for an estimated 15,000 ISIS fighters killed.” Given Australia’s six planes are a small contribution in comparison, the impact on ISIS seems a reasonable question. It is a point noted by Rodger Shanahan at Lowy’s Interpreter blog, where he wonders, given that the targets are so hard to find in both nations, what the point might be.

Is this allowable under international law with no formal request from Syria? At best it’s confusing. Iraq, of course, formally requested foreign assistance. But an international law expert at the Australian National University, Don Rothwell, quoted in August by the AP was not optimistic: “combat operations in Syria would be going well beyond the remit of the current legal framework.”

Optimists, such as Dennis Dragovic writing at the Conversation hopes it will legitimize international action and thinks there may be targets to hit in Syria:  “Such an expansion – a legal grey area – will allow Australian aircraft to pursue IS personnel fleeing across the border and to attack their command-and-control structures used for attacks in Iraq.”

We noted last week the assessment of strategists and army personnel: This will do little either way to really combat ISIS. That did not deter the government, nor did the Greens staunch opposition, with leader Senator Richard DiNatale and WA Senator Scott Ludlam both attacking the plan in Parliament, echoing the line of former Greens leader Christine Milne’s fears of “mission creep” should Australia engage in battling ISIS in Iraq.

A statement by DiNatale says, “There is no legal basis for airstrikes in Syria and there is no clear strategy. This should be a decision for the Parliament, not a besieged prime minister desperate to save his political hide.” Neither Ludlum nor DiNatale think much of the strategy behind the expanded bombing campaign, preferring a humanitarian and diplomatic response.

Labor seems to generally support the move but says that bombing is no long-term solution and a multilateral political solution, and removal of Assad, will be better. Humanitarian assistance for those fleeing either ISIS or Assad must be improved, said Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokeswoman and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek.

Australia will also take 12,000 Syrian refugees, preference given to women, children and those from persecuted minorities (Christian and Muslim). Though the story is often seen through the prism of the European crisis, the refugees will come from camps in the Middle East. Even some from the federal government’s own party have suggested, as New South Wales State Premier Mike Baird has, that 20,000 might be a better number. However for a government usually so hardline on refugees 12,000 is a fairly significant number and even ahead of Labor’s earlier suggestion of 10,000.

This has been a move that has largely been welcomed in Australia, even by fans of Stop the Boats policy. But what of the man who ousted Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull? He has called on Australia to be “big hearted,” and was pushing for the country to accept Syria’s Christian minority, while his re-elected deputy, Julie Bishop, who has been foreign minister and deputy leader in the Abbott government, was pushing for the Yazidis. While it seems likely then that a Turnbull government will remain open to accepting the Syrian refugees, with Abbott’s ouster, Washington has lost its biggest booster for Australian action against ISIS.