Commentators can sometimes be dismissive of Australia’s place in major international disputes. But Canberra’s positioning on the ongoing crisis in Syria is illustrative of its important role as a mediator and a voice of reason in global politics.
Australia’s role in the crisis is unique. While Canberra’s military role will always – and should always – be limited, its geographic and political distance from the crisis gives it the opportunity to say what other powers with starker interests in the region cannot.
Every major global and regional power has increasing interests at stake in the Syrian Civil War. The West is concerned with the refugee crisis; Russia is striving to maintain its strategic foothold in Syria, and the dominant regional players – Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – are becoming increasingly assertive with their own influence in post-conflict Syria.
The U.S., of course, has its legacy and credibility at stake as it watches a decade of intervention in the region spiral into greater chaos than it encountered in 2003.
Smaller regional actors, notably Lebanon and Jordan, are facing the monumental challenge of catering for the largest number of refugees seen since the Second World War, placing strains on resources and fueling domestic tensions.
All of these nations are overtly threatened in some way – if not existentially, then politically.
Australia, however, is comparably immune from the imminent threats associated with the ongoing conflict, giving Canberra a singular opportunity to act as the rational and flexible mediator in an inevitably negotiated settlement to the war.
Certainly, Canberra’s national security concerns regarding international terrorism are legitimate. The threat of extremism from the Middle East returning to Australia does exist; so too does the threat of homegrown extremists and lone wolves.
But these concerns must be placed in perspective. While challenging, they are not insurmountable, and should not dominate Australian political debate like similar challenges have in Europe, the Middle East and the United States.
Malcolm Turnbull’s measured response in his recent National Security Statement reflected this: there is no room for Australian “machismo” in Syria. Only through a “calm, clinical, professional and effective” response , he argued, can Australia negotiate these challenges.
Yes, Australia has legitimate interests in seeing peace return to Syria. But compared to all other regional and global powers vying for influence in the region, Canberra’s interests in a future Syrian state barely register.
This enables Canberra to act as a bridge between the key actors in the conflict – particularly when it comes to advocating for greater flexibility regarding Russia’s interests in the region.
While the U.S. and Europe have voiced strong opposition to Russia’s posturing in Syria and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s strident support for the Assad regime, Australia has deliberately struck a more pragmatic tone.
Julie Bishop has acted as the voice of reason from the West’s perspective, advocating for the continuation – albeit temporarily – of the Assad regime while a political solution is negotiated. That solution, Bishop has asserted, must acknowledge the Russian interests.
Notably, this is a bipartisan approach, with senior Labor opposition figures expressing similar sentiments. Even former prime minister John Howard has echoed calls for a continuation of the Assad regime until peace is reached.
The broader West and Russia have so far struggled to accommodate each other’s interests in the region due to their own conflicting desires for influence in post-conflict Syria. A stalemate of major powers has inevitably ensued.
A grand negotiated settlement might be more likely to be reached with the nuanced diplomacy of a smaller state with few geostrategic interests in the region: this role should be Australia’s.
As a middle power, coming off the back of an internationally recognized, respected term on the United Nations Security Council, Australia’s voice in this crisis carries credibility and weight. Canberra’s interests are not based on a grand desire for a role in the future of Syrian affairs. This could be particularly useful in appealing to the Middle Eastern powers and Russia.
At the same time, Australia’s sentiments are borne out of Western values and a desire to see peace in the Middle East, which appeals to Europe and the U.S.
While the Russians may have shut Australia out of recent negotiations in Vienna, this has been to Moscow’s and the West’s detriment – not to mention Syria’s.
Australia is uniquely positioned to play an influential role in the mediation between Russia, the Middle East and the West. Canberra should be given a position at the table.
Edward Cavanough is the manager of policy at The McKell Institute, an Australian public policy think-tank, and a graduate student of International Relations at the University of Sydney.