15th April 2018
The Western strikes on Syria have raised the question: what if Australia is asked to join potential future military action against Bashar al-Assad?
While the possibility of a regime-change war still remains unlikely due to Syria’s nuclear-armed backers in Moscow, it is worth examining what Australia’s interests are in this conflict.
These are particularly important for politicians to note, given opposition to such action in the public crosses the ideological spectrum, uniting the traditional anti-war Left with the new anti-establishment Right.
The primary and incontestable priority for any government is the security of its own citizens.
In terms of the long-term security of the Australian people, any escalation of the Syrian conflict would be disastrous, and worse still if we were to become involved against the Syrian state.
The US-led missile strikes on chemical weapons targets went further than the attacks of 12 months ago, but the impact is far less than the “World War III” many feared.
History shows that the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad will likely increase the terror risk faced by Australians. The overthrow of a similar Baathist, secular dictator in Iraq, also based on accusations of WMDs, increased rather than decreased the terror threat.
It led to more terror recruits, destabilised the Middle East, established breeding grounds for terror groups and gave birth to the Islamic State group.
The subsequent Libya intervention, a report by the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee found, was also based on faulty intelligence and overblown claims.
It underestimated the threat from jihadi rebels and turned the country into a failed state complete with terror training camps.
The flow-on effect of both these wars is encapsulated in the Manchester terror attack, carried out by a member of IS who had trained in post-war Libya.
Furthermore, we are a nation within Asia and, whether we agree with them or not, it matters to our strategic interest what Asian powers think.
The largest power within our region, China, has made its position clear, holding live-fire navy drills in the Taiwan Strait reportedly as a show of support for Russia over Syria.
The establishment of multiple fronts between multiple Great Powers in otherwise unrelated parts of the world is a classic element of world wars.
Australian involvement would also position us in opposition to nations like India, with whom many assert we should strengthen our strategic ties, including those who say we should do so as a way to mitigate potential threats from Beijing. India has consistently opposed the overthrow of Mr Assad.
Asian countries’ opposition is likely fuelled by historical memory. Like them, Syria was subject to colonial rule and suffered bombardments or suppression where civilians were killed by two of the very nations bombing Damascus today — Britain and France.
All of this is of course in addition to the unthinkable eventuality of our involvement making us a target for one of Russia’s nuclear warheads.
Our alliance with the US would survive us declining a role in Syria. ANZUS does not obligate us to join this fight, just as it did not obligate us to help invade Iraq.
The US, like all countries, has its foreign policy shaped by numerous power groups who wield influence (the American people, political leaders, institutions, lobbies, corporate interests and others).
Our security ties with the US and any protection we receive will continue as long as it aligns with the interests of these players. Washington will not act out of sentimental affection to the country that has most proved its loyalty by volunteering for every adventure.
The justification for Western escalation was couched as preventing/punishing Assad for using chemical weapons.
Australia has a moral interest in seeking to dissuade potential future use of chemical weapons, given the threat they pose to civilians during conflict and given we seek to uphold international law which prohibits their use.
Despite mainstream media confidence in Assad’s culpability, US Defence Secretary James Mattis, when testifying before Congress, stated “we’re still looking for the actual evidence”.
Attacking Syria prior to any Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation means that in future, rather than refrain from using chemical weapons due to fear of reprisal, states may accept that they are at risk of reprisal regardless of whether they actually use the weapons or not, altering their calculations in favour of using them.
Rebel groups themselves have been accused of possessing and using chemical weapons in the past.
The Army of Islam rebel faction which accused Assad’s forces of the attack in Douma was itself alleged to have admitted using chemical weapons against the Kurds in 2016.
Next door, Saudi Arabia has been accused of using US-supplied white phosphorous in Yemen.
If undertaking military action against those who use chemical weapons is in our interests, then we would need to broaden our sights.
The underlying tone of the West’s justification was, however, more moral than legal. Australia has a moral interest in protecting the human rights of citizens globally.
The Douma attack was reported to have killed over 40 civilians. The Syrian war has killed over half a million people, almost all by conventional weapons.
The violation of the Right to Life is a violation regardless of whether it is done with chemical, conventional or nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, any escalation against the Syrian Government on behalf of the almost-defeated rebels will likely prolong the conflict, killing thousands more.
The conflict in Iraq resulted in deaths estimated from 100,000 to a million. Libya resulted in transforming the country which had the best social development indicators in Africa into a haven for open-air slave markets.
More ominous still is the threat, however small, of global nuclear war given the involvement of Great Powers, regional powers and alliance networks — a moral weight carried by any leaders who contribute to the growth of this risk.
The Australian Government also has a democratic obligation to its people to undertake a foreign policy that reflects the public will.
Opinion polls in the UK show a tiny 22 per cent support for military strikes against Syria, in spite of the recent spy-poisoning case in Britain that likely harmed public opinion of Syria’s backer Russia.
Australian opinion is likely to be similar and may become worse if war impacts our oil supplies.
A significant part of that is due to scepticism of the justifications.
Social media abounds with people highlighting that the videos put forth of the Syria attack were submitted by a rebel group which is a party to the conflict, with an obvious interest in provoking Western involvement.
In contrast, the Syrian Government, which has all but vanquished its opponents in the war, has little interest in provoking such intervention, particularly for no military advantage.
Every Twitter post by a pro-war pundit or politician attracts a barrage of such scepticism.
More broadly, polling has shown that consistently, and across demographics, Western publics prefer a restrained foreign policy that rejects interventionism and only uses the military as a last resort.
This is partly motivated by economic concerns (Iraq cost over $2 trillion just up to 2013). It is what contributed to Donald Trump’s win in the first place.
Any potential Australian military action against Syria needs to consider these factors. At the very least the question must be asked openly and in Parliament: does it serve the national interest?
In answering, we must once and for all identify what the national interest is, namely whose interest.
It may be in the interests of foreign states, arms corporations or even foreign populations to escalate in Syria, but it is not in the interest of the Australian people.