Home Australia ISIS, Syria And Australia’s Confused Foreign Policy

ISIS, Syria And Australia’s Confused Foreign Policy



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 j.oneill@bigpond.net.au


  1. I was listening to ABC mornings, this morning. A news item had a US spokesperson complaining about Russia – that it was interfering and bombing the rebels fighting Assad – the very rebels (terrorists) that the US were funding (to take down Assad). He essentially said that the US were at war with Assad – as described by James above.

    The media accept the atrocity with no complaints. They must be in a hypnotic state.
    And many Western leaders should rather facing war crime questions.

    • I doubt that anyone will consider the following story relevant to James’ fine article but to me it’s relevant.

      In October 1989, a pregnant woman, Carol Stuart, was killed in her car in Boston, supposedly by an African-American man who wanted money. Her husband Charles, in the front seat, was shot in the stomach. I was furious when I heard that the Catholic archbishop of Boston attended Carol’s funeral. It seemed to me that he was treating the affair as an episode of a black-white war and he had to represent the victim. Geez.

      Three months later, Charles’ bro, Matthew Stuart, confessed that Charles had killed his wife in the car and then shot himself in the stomach, in order to create the story about “the minority assailant.”
      Matthew said he had been an accomplice, and the motivation was $100,000 insurance. Charles then committed suicide and Matthew –- according to Wikipedia (CIA) — did time for obstruction of justice. (Imagine, an actual OOJ case!)

    • Not able to view Dahboo at the moment, however the references to oil/gas is Syria’s oil found in the Golan Heights by interests that, from reports includes a Mr. Rupert Murdock of News limited fame.
      James, do not expect your opinion to be referenced by News Limited media.

  2. Until Western leaders are facing charges of war crimes, this blatant ignorance of such laws will continue. When the U.N. grows some, and insists on adherence to their Charter by signed countries, only then, will we see a change.
    So I guess the ball is in the court (no pun intended) of the U.N. put up, or shut up. If the latter, what’s the point of this organization at all ?

  3. Many issues raised in this post all pointing to a massive corrupt war covered up by mass media. Israeli hospitals in Turkey just says it all.

    And now with Russia calling the west’s bluff, in actually bombing ISIS targets and the US saying their not so

    1)if the US know where ISIS are why are they not bombing the effectively, unless they don’t want them gone!
    2)Why are ISIS reportedly retreating after a few days of Russian bombing when US have had years.

    The evidence is building up about this phoney war and the new world order plan. This is a corporate war of currency. and oil control, and Russia have the upper hand. They have the gold and are exposing the west’s lies. People need to wake up and start making decisions about our future, we need to work towards self- sufficiency and sustainability. The governments won’t help us now!

C'mon Leave a Reply, Debate and Add to the Discussion