The war in Syria is extraordinarily complex. It really began in 2011 with the failures of the so-called Arab Spring.
Now the core conflict is between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel groups which oppose him. Both sides have split into several militias, which have attracted foreign fighters, including a number of Australians.
Another important aspect of the conflict involves the ethnic Kurdish minority, which is trying to carve out a de-facto Kurdish state. This has some backing from the United States, because it sees the Kurds as allies in the struggle against jihadi groups. This in turn involves Turkey, which is fiercely opposed to the emergence of a Kurdistan.
Yet another element in this complex conflict is the so-called ‘Islamic State’, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and which refers to the relatively small part of Syria ,which it occupies as its caliphate.
Internationally, Assad receives support from Iran, Russia, and more recently from China. Assad is opposed by the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.
As a result of these conflicts the original state of Syria has in fact virtually disintegrated. The situation in Iraq also impacts on the conflict. A decade of war in Iraq has produced battle-hardened Shiite and Sunni extremist groups, some supporting Iran and other supporting Saudi Arabia. There have been atrocities by both sides.
In this highly complex situation neither Assad nor the rebels are united or strong enough to win ;so the battles move back and forth, accompanied by waves of destruction.
The so-called ‘Islamic State’ has its roots in the the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Sunni extremist and Al-Qaedi affiliates moved into Iraq to fight against the United States and Iraq’s Shia majority, but it is not really a state. It has no navy, it has no air force, and it has only a pale imitation of the apparatus of government.
ISIS thrives on criticising what it describes as foreign intervention, by which it really means American led intervention. It would seem to me logical that Australia should not be involved in this continuing and possibly insoluble conflict. As one of our leading cartoonists, Bill Leak, has depicted in a cartoon labeled “up Shi’ite creek without a paddle” in The Australian, George W Bush, Blair and Howard are in a small boat heading towards a waterfall.
In Australia both the coalition and the ALP leaderships have stumbled into this mess essentially in support of the United States. It is not in Australia’s genuine national interest to be involved and it is imperative that the leaders of the coalition and the ALP recognise the complexities and realities involved in this conflict, acknowledge our mistake, and indicate that we will withdraw and concentrate our foreign, security and trade policies in our own region of the world, Asia and the South West Pacific. We simply should have never become involved in the second invasion of Iraq, or in Syria.
In New York Prime Minister Turnbull said he regretted the involvement of Australian super hornets in the bombing of Syrian Government soldiers, which killed some 90 soldiers who were fighting against ISIS. This underlined the fact that Australia should not be involved. In Washington he confidently said he had received a defence briefing on Syria, and on the coming defeat of ISIS. Has he forgotten how inaccurate Washington’s defence briefings were on Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, which have led us into three losing wars?
There can be no military solution to what is happening in Syria and Australia cannot act to assist in breaking the ongoing deadlocks.
As Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in 2014 the principle role of the Prime Minister was to make the Australian people safer. In fact, however, his decisions to involve us in the Ukraine and Syria have made the Australian people much less safe.
The increased dangers to the Australian people, which should have been avoided in 2003, can only now be lessened by publicly stressing a complete change to our policy. We must get out of Syria.
– Richard Woolcott
Former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (1988 – 2002), Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1982 – 1988).
Originally published in Pearls and Irritations.
Image: night vision of an Australian FA-18A Hornet.