By James O’Neill*
It has not taken long for expectations that the new Turnbull government would pursue more rational policies in South-west Asia to be dashed. The many absurdities and contradictions in Australia’s foreign policy stance have been brought into stark relief by the latest pronouncement of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on the on-going war in Syria.
Ms Bishop has now reluctantly conceded that the Syrian “regime” and its President Bashar al Assad no longer “must go” immediately, but should be part of a transition to a new, and unspecified, future government. Presumably one more amenable to the regional ambitions of the United States and Israel.
This changed approach by the Australian government immediately follows a change in rhetoric on the same topic by the Obama administration. The American change of tune has in turn been forced in part by the increased support for the duly elected Syrian government by its long time ally Russia.
The Americans had initially decried the Russian initiatives, noting they were “doomed to failure”. That position was untenable. On the one hand the US and its Australian ally were loud in their condemnation of ISIS, the jihadi extremists rampaging across Iraq and Syria. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s preferred description of ISIS was to call them a “death cult”, a term thankfully missing from the vocabulary of new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The Syrian government was fighting ISIS for its very existence. To decry the Syrian government’s fight, and the assistance of its ally Russia, was in effect to support those groups opposed to the Syrian government, whom the US and Australian governments were at the same time condemning. The rationale for this policy juggling was that the US was supporting “moderate” jihadists such as the al Nusra front, a branch of the al Qaeda movement started by the US in Pakistan in the 1970s. The policy shift is a belated public recognition that there was in fact no such thing as “moderate” jihadists. Weapons supplied to these so-called moderates by the US almost immediately became part of the ISIS repertoire.
There are at least some continuities in US foreign policy, albeit largely unacknowledged. Al Qaeda origins in the 1970s owed much to Saudi money and American weaponry. ISIS is merely the latest, albeit more extreme version of al Qaeda, and equally used as a tool of US foreign policy as Operation Cyclone made abundantly clear. The ISIS leader al Baghdadi, who spent two years in a special American camp in Iraq, is widely believed to be Simon Elliot, a man with links to Israel’s Mossad.
ISIS leads a charmed life in many respects. Its troops travel in convoys of brand new Toyotas across large open areas of Iraq and Syria. Despite the Americans having access to the latest satellite technology, these movements seem to be largely unhindered. They are certainly untroubled by sustained bombing attacks.
Wounded ISIS fighters are treated in an Israeli military hospital in the Golan Heights, and a Turkish hospital controlled by the daughter of Turkish President Erdogan. Apart from having easy access to the latest weaponry, provided courtesy of the “moderate” jihadists armed by the Americans, ISIS also has an assured flow of money. At least part of that cash flow comes from the sale of stolen Iraqi oil wells and sold in Turkey via a company controlled by a son of President Erdogan. Those bastions of liberal democracy Qatar and Saudi Arabia are also major sources of ISIS funding.
No word of this of course from the Australian government. Australia maintains a tactful silence on Saudi activities, including beheading more people this year than ISIS, an appalling human rights record, and a current engagement in yet another illegal war, that currently raging in Yemen. It is not called a “regime”. That is a term reserved for the government of the enemy du jour. It is not a coincidence that the deposed dictator of Yemen is a Sunni, and those fighting for Yemen’s independence are Shi’ite Houthis lined to and supported by Iran, another close ally of Syria.
Australia is now engaged in bombing targets in Syria. Quite who is being bombed and for what strategic purpose remains unclear. Equally obscure is the legal basis for Australia to be thus engaged. A Freedom of Information request has been lodged for access to the legal advice the previous Abbott government said it had considered before reaching the decision to commence bombing. The result of that request is still pending.
As best one can ascertain from vague allusions from the government’s usual supporters in the media, the “legal” basis for the Australian bombing in Syria appears to be some vague notion of collective self-defence.
The logic appears to go like this. Iraq is under attack by ISIS. The Iraq government (after some vigorous prodding) “asked” the Australian government for help. ISIS is also attacking Syria. Therefore, under this curious logic, Australia can bomb Syria as part of the collective self-defence of Iraq because one and the same group threaten both countries.
The fundamental problem with this stance, (quite apart from the dubious extent that ISIS is actually an enemy) is that the UN Charter in Article 51 and a considerable number of judgments of the International Court have carefully circumscribed the conditions under which this Article may be invoked.
It is sufficient to note in this context that the International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that collective self-defence applied only in State versus State disputes. It does not apply to non-State actors such as ISIS or any other of the myriad jihadi groups operating in Syria and Iraq.
The Iraqi government therefore has no legal right to request Australia’s assistance to bomb Syria, even if such a request was actually made, which is at best obscure. The Syrian government certainly has not sought the assistance of the Australian government. The Australian government’s decision to join in the bombing (with the French and the Americans) is therefore as confused and inappropriate as the rest of its policy for this region.
The Syrian government, for its part, is entitled to rely on the Geneva Accord of 2012 whose deliberations were conducted under the auspices of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. It was signed by a number of international governments, including the US, the UN as a body, the European Union on behalf of its members, and the Arab League.
The Accord clearly states, “the political future of Syria must be determined by the Syrian people themselves.” Two years after the Accord was signed President al Assad was re-elected with a substantial majority. The existence of this Accord, and its significance, is also conspicuously missing from the Australian government’s justifications for its actions, and any media commentary thereon.
What is really needed is a thorough reappraisal by the Australian government of its policies for southwest Asia. That is not likely to occur, under either a Coalition or Labor government. The latter’s foreign affairs spokeswoman said as recently as Saturday 26 September that a resolution of the Syrian crisis must involve President al Assad going. Neither party pauses to ponder on what possible basis such interference in the affairs of another sovereign nation exists.
Our continued unwarranted, often illegal, and ultimately fruitless pursuit of our present policies in this region is not in Australia’s national interest. A radical change is required before any further action is undertaken.
*Barrister at Law. He writes regularly on issues of international human rights law and geopolitics and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org