The Australian government should consider very carefully whether it participates in the air campaign against Islamic State in Syria, writes Ramesh Thakur.
The Australian government is considering a United States request, possibly engineered from Canberra itself, for Australian participation in the air campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Due diligence requires that the evaluation be done with sympathy tempered by caution and humility.
Decades of interventions by the West into Middle Eastern affairs have proven disastrous. Is it time to try something different?
The legal justification for bombing raids without the consent of Syria’s government is dubious. The laws of war, as enumerated authoritatively in the United Nations Charter, restrict the international use of force by all countries to just two narrow circumstances: self-defence against an armed attack, and when asked for or authorised by the Security Council. Even the responsibility to protect principle requires prior Security Council authorisation and is not a substitute for UN (in)action.
That is, unless a country is under armed attack, the Security Council, and only the Security Council, has the lawful authority to permit the use of military force against another country. Moreover, its decisions, when acting under Chapter VII of the Charter in response to a breach of or threats to international peace and security, are binding on all states, including those who voted against the resolution in the Security Council, those who are not members of the Security Council, and even those countries who are not member states of the United Nations.
At best – although many would question this – Iraq could claim the right to respond to armed attacks by the IS launched from ungoverned spaces in Syria. The Security Council has not so far authorised the use of force against IS in Syrian territory and, given China’s and Russia’s known policies and declared statements, is not likely to do so anytime soon. The last time Australia took part in an illegal war of aggression was in Iraq in 2003 under John Howard’s Government, whose cabinet included Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop, prime and foreign minister respectively today. The results are now widely acknowledged to make it one of the greatest blunders of American foreign policy ever. Between 500,000 and one million people have been killed following the invasion which settled nothing, thoroughly destabilised the entire region, sharpened the Sunni–Shia conflict across the Islamic crescent of crisis, gave strategic victory to Iran more than to any other power, and produced a mass ethnic expulsion of Christians and other minorities from Iraq.
In other words the ill-advised and widely opposed Iraq war ripened the conditions for the rise of uber-extremist groups like IS. This might suggest that those responsible for violently overthrowing the old order bear a special responsibility to restore order and good governance and limit the carnage being wreaked by IS. Possibly. But it seems unarguable that the aggressor countries of 2003, and those who have fanned the flames of violent instability in Syria, have an even more fundamental responsibility to provide shelter to the displaced and dispossessed refugees in the humanitarian crisis now spilling out of the region beyond anyone’s control.
It is a strange morality that will bomb oppressors but refuse to provide refuge to war’s victims.
There are additional problems with the morality-trumps-law argument. Throughout history, many notable persons of moral stature and courage – Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela – have refused to obey lawful commands because they were not prepared to surrender their conscience. They were prepared to pay the price, including the ultimate price, for their beliefs as the moral course of action. By contrast, today’s national leaders go to illegal wars on a professed moral justification in order to avoid having to pay any price at all.
In Australia’s intense scandal over rorting parliamentary expenses, one after another politicians, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, insisted their claims were within entitlements. That is, it was legal because the law was so ill-defined as to be meaningless and unenforceable. Abusing expense accounts may have been immoral but was legally allowed, and so the people should put their anger aside and move on; bombing Syria may be illegal but is morally the right thing to do, and so people should allow the government to get on with it.
Given its geographical location, high-income status, trade dependency, sparse population and modest military power, Australia is exceptionally dependent on a rules-based global order. In the coming decades, the single biggest potential security threat to Australia could come from an increasingly more powerful, assertive and militarist China deciding to dispense with any international legal restraints inimical to its interests. The biggest direct contribution to Australia’s own security is to bind China to the restraints of international law. Conversely, trashing the limits of law in curbing military action undermines Australian big-picture security in the changing global order.
Putting aside objective legal restrictions on the use of force and subordinating it to inherently subjective morality is high risk. It is also low reward, which calls into question the prudence and wisdom of the bombing. What are the strategic and political objectives? How would it impact the fluid military equations between Syria’s government, the IS, other jihadist rebels, ‘moderate’ rebels, and the Kurds; and the regional rivalries between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey? Could we have success and failure defined in advance, so we know when to declare victory or admit defeat and get out?
The biggest recruitment tool used by jihadists is the narrative that Islam is under assault by the Christian West; any geographical extension, broadening of targets, and intensification of bombing feeds that narrative. It also risks importing the Middle East’s sectarian schisms into domestic unrest and promoting home-grown extremism. Decades of Western interference and interventions in internal Middle Eastern affairs have proven disastrous. Is it time to try the alternative of distance and aloofness from a region and its multitude of incomprehensible conflicts? A cursory glance at the map shows the Middle East is not in Australia’s region.
Finally, because of the complexities of the conflict and the gravity of the act, no further military action – which would already represent significant mission creep – should be undertaken without debate and vote in Parliament.
The British Parliament two years ago showed how sharing the burden between the executive and legislature improves the quality and broadens the ownership of collective decisions. Since Australian governments have proven to be singularly resistant to voluntarily taking their most solemn foreign policy decision to go to war to the parliament – the morally right course of action – it is past time for a War Powers Act that imposes the legal obligation to do so.