By James O’Neill*
A specific part of the general silence that blankets foreign affairs and defence issues in this election campaign is the complete lack of coverage of one of Australia’s wars of choice, the conflict in Syria.
In august 2015 the coalition government announced that they were considering deploying Australian military forces to Syria. No decision would be taken, they said, until they had received legal advice.
In mid-September 2015 the government announced that it was committing military forces to Syria. On the assumption that the legal advice had been obtained, a Freedom of Information request was made for a copy of that legal advice.
It would be of considerable interest if that legal advice supported Australia’s military intervention in Syria. Indeed, such an opinion would set a precedent. The FOI request was refused, but the list of documents supplied that one could not read included four that were headed “legal advice.” They were all on the same date.
The significance of the date however, was that it was given a year before the government said it was going to seek legal advice before making a decision. In short, that announcement was at best an obfuscation, and deliberately misleading the public at worst.
In November 2015 Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appeared on ABC Radio and was asked what was the legal basis for Australia joining the Syrian war. She said that it was because of a request from the Iraqi government pursuant to the collective self-defence provisions of Article 51 of the UN Charter.
There were two major problems with this answer. The first was that the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office issued a statement saying that it had not asked for and did not want any assistance from Australia or any other member of the “coalition” in its fight against Daesh.
The second problem was that Article 51 of the UN Charter manifestly did not apply. It is difficult to believe that Ms Bishop had received any legal advice to the contrary.
Once again, the Australian public were being misled. And once again the mainstream media were completely silent.
Military operations by Australian forces duly commenced in mid-September 2015. The Department of Defence’s website provides some operational details of its activities in Iraq and Syria. Three aircraft are relevant in this context. The F/A-18 Hornet is a multi-role fighter aircraft. The E-7A Wedgetail is an airborne early warning and control aircraft. The KC-30A is a multi-role tanker transport aircraft.
The DOD website also publishes monthly figures for the actions of these aircraft as to whether they were operational in Iraq and Syria.
The air operations in Syria began in mid-September 2015, immediately after the government’s announcement that they were joining that particular war. The E-7A entered Syrian air space 10 times in September 2015, 11 times in October, 9 in November, and 10 in December. There are no entries recorded for 2016 thus far.
The KC-30A’s role in Syria has been even more limited, entering Syrian air space 5 times in October 2015 and not since.
The F/A-18 is arguably the most important if the air force was actually fulfilling its mission to “disrupt and degrade Daesh aka ISIL.” The DOD website records the following “sorties” into Syria since operations began in mid-September 2015:
September 2015 18
October 2105 0
November 2015 0
December 2015 10
January 2016 6
February 2016 4
March 2016 0
April 2016 0
May 2016 0
As is well known, the Russians entered the Syrian war at the request of the Syrian government at the end of September 2015. Their fighters have flown thousands of sorties ever since, to considerable effect.
As the government has not seen fit to make any comment of substance since Bishop’s plainly wrong and deceptive comments in November 2015, we do not know what, if any, role the RAAF is playing that actually disrupts and degrades” ISIL. The actual figures suggest that the effort is minimal.
The issue assumes greater significance in the light of recent developments in the United States. The presumptive Democratic nominee for President, Hilary Clinton, is an unrepentant war hawk. She is on record as wanting to depose Syria’s legitimate President in the familiar US pattern of ‘regime change’.
That is a position supported on more than one occasion by Australia, notwithstanding its complete lack of legal legitimacy.
Clinton’s track record as Secretary of State and comments made as a candidate for the Democratic nomination strongly suggests that she wants a wider war in Syria regardless of the chaos, dysfunction and human tragedy that such policies have brought and will bring.
Among Clinton’s proposals, supported by an extraordinary statement by 51 Department of State employees, and by her equally hawk-like likely Secretary of Defence Michele Flournoy is for a no-fly zone in Syria and increased support for that fictional entity, the “moderate” rebels.
That such proposals are completely lacking in any legal basis appears not to trouble Australian policy makers whose willingness to accompany American policy on one illegal invasion after another is well documented.
The policies and actions of the US and its allies in the Syrian war, principally Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been to arm, finance, logistically support and otherwise enable, all the terrorist groups in Syria. The purported division between “moderate” and other groups is no more than a rhetorical device to obscure the real intent, which is the overthrow of the legitimate sovereign government of Syria and its President.
The recent brief ceasefire was used by the Americans to allow their overtly supported terrorist groups to re-arm and regroup. They have since resumed full-scale military operations. That would not have been possible without the assistance of the aforementioned countries, part of the so-called ‘coalition’ that the DOD says is US-led and to which Australia claims membership.
The dangers are obvious. The real coalition fighting ISIL is Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and Hezbollah. The Russians and the Iranians will very likely significantly increase their military commitment to Syria. They are operating within the confines of international law, being in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate sovereign government of Syria.
The US-led coalition, including Australia, is operating outside the confines of international law. Australia’s purported reliance upon Article 51 of the UN Charter is nonsense. If the legal advice the government received in 2014 actually said that Australia could involve itself in the Syrian war without either a resolution of the Security Council or an invitation from the Syrian government, the only two possible legal bases for becoming involved, then they should release that legal advice so that it can be properly discussed.
If, as seems far more likely to be the case, the legal advice said that Australia’s involvement without either of the two pre-conditions cited would be illegal, then the Australian people are entitled to know on what basis this country is being committed to yet another illegal war.
If, as seems likely, Hilary Clinton is elected to the US Presidency, then one of the most likely consequences will be a ratcheting up in belligerent confrontation with Russia. In Syria, that could easily involve Australia. Only a fool would see that as a desirable outcome.
It may be that recognition of the real dangers of the Syrian misadventure is one of the reasons that the RAAF, after that initial flurry in September before the Russian involvement, has effectively ceased operations in Syria. If that is in fact the case, then it is to be welcomed.
Unfortunately, we are all too often left to draw inferences from observed facts, and that may sometimes be no more than speculation. We are put in that position because neither the government nor the official Opposition thinks it appropriate that we should be informed and consulted on an issue as important as going to war.
The msm is similarly failing in its duty to inform, analyze, and where appropriate demand proper answers to well directed questions.
Our democracy is all the poorer for these failures.
*Barrister at Law He may be contacted at email@example.com
Adapted Photo: abc.net.au