Syria: options for Australian parliamentarians, and the need for debate.

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This paper is presented by Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR) to stimulate discussion on non-military approaches to the problems in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. It is not exhaustive and does not represent agreement by all AWPR members on every detail. However AWPR members are agreed on the fact that these matters receive grossly inadequate debate in Australia, particularly in our parliament, and that they demand such debate from our elected representatives.

There is no political crisis in the world that cannot be made worse by external, including Western, military intervention, particularly in the Middle East. Much of the present turmoil in Syria is a response to the activities of Western nations spanning more than a century. The recurrent American approach is described by Professor Stephen Walt:

“We still seem to think the Middle East can be managed if we curry favor with local autocrats, back Israel to the hilt, constantly reiterate the need for US ‘leadership,’ and when all else fails, blow some stuff up.”

In the Middle East, he adds, everything the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have touched “turns not to gold but to lead or, even worse, into a violent conflagration.” America and some other countries respond too often with intensified military action, usually bombing, with no analysis of whether that is likely to help or whether it will simply increase resentment, hatred, and more recruitment to Islamic State (IS).

Western intervention has not brought lasting solutions to Middle Eastern problems, and leaders of most regional countries do not welcome it. We need to study and learn from Middle Eastern history over the past several centuries to really understand how the Arabs regard the West.

Australia cannot define a lasting solution for such an extremely complex region, let alone achieve its acceptance by other countries. We cannot even identify enemies definitively or choose allies with confidence. Australia’s credibility in the region is not helped by the fact that Foreign Minister Bishop is completely silent on the current illegal war being waged on Yemen by Saudi Arabia, with the active complicity of both the Americans and the British. She is also conspicuously silent on the recent threats by both Saudi Arabia and Turkey to (illegally) invade Syria.

However, Australia helped create the current crisis by supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which unleashed spreading sectarian conflict, destabilising the whole region, where the pathologies of past military interventions continue to mutate and multiply. Therefore, Australia and other members of the “coalition of the willing” cannot wash their hands of the current situation, and must examine ways other than ongoing warfare of bringing some relief for the long-suffering people of the region.

The Prime Minister’s announcement in January 2016 that Australia will not increase its military contributions to the US-led war against Islamic State (IS) was a step in the right direction, but it resolves nothing for the civilians for whom we are said to be fighting.
Australians for War Powers Reform has considered the facts of the situation, as far as it is possible for Western observers to do so, and some of the moral and legal principles applying to it. We offer a series of non-military options as alternatives for Australian action.


  • The war in Syria has many layers of complexity, including the following:
    • President Assad is challenged by several Syrian insurgent groups; his Alawite
      minority struggles against Sunni Muslims; the age-old Shia-Sunni hostility persists;
    • Proxy fighters opposed to the Assad regime are supported by Saudi Arabia; Iran and
      its associated group in Lebanon, Hezbollah, support Assad and his allies;
    • The Kurds in Syria struggle for autonomy and are opposed by Turkey, which
      conducts military operations against them;
    • Russia supports the Assad regime;
    • Israel and the Gulf States pursue their individual agendas;
    • The United States, having sought to depose Assad, has had second thoughts about
      the consequences;
    • The local dimensions and the broader ideological aspects are in constant flux.
  • Australia cannot secure, and therefore does not have, an invitation for its troops to operate on the ground in either Iraq or Syria. Accordingly, there is no status of forces agreement (SOFA) in place; the only legal protection our soldiers have from the operation of Iraqi domestic law is that they are carrying diplomatic passports.
  • Most of the victims of modern wars are civilians. Anything that escalates military activity is likely to increase the impact on civilians.

Legal principles:

  • Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 lacked legitimacy: it was not undertaken in response to an immediate threat to Australia, nor to a resolution of the Security Council, nor to an invitation from the government of Iraq. Notwithstanding the terms of UNSC Resolution 2249 of 20 November 2015, the same would apply to any combat operations in Iraq or Syria not specifically authorised by the host government.
  • RAAF bombing of Syria is in breach of Article 51 of the UN Charter (on collective self- defence), which the International Court of Justice has ruled does not apply to Syria, where Islamic State (IS) is a non-state actor.
  • In circumstances in which bombing targets cannot be clearly distinguished from civilian ones, RAAF officers are obliged to refuse them. To do otherwise could expose them to action before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Moral principle:

When humanitarian concerns are invoked to justify Australian military action, as in the case of Syria, then the military strategies used (assuming coherent strategies exist) must have civilian welfare and protection as their purpose.

Some alternatives to military action (not in order of importance or ease of implementation):

  1. Provide adequate humanitarian aid for the millions of refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, and for other civilians suffering as a result of the war. In 2014, astonishingly, Australia ceased its humanitarian aid to Iraq: while a small amount has been restored, our humanitarian aid for the region is grossly inadequate. For example, Australia could provide aid to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. It is critical for aid to reach those within Syria and not only those displaced elsewhere in the region or further afield.
  2. Identify and support civil society groups and other regional organisations working in Syria and the region for an end to the violence.
  3. Call for a UN Security Council arms embargo on all warring parties and their suppliers. While there are enormous difficulties to be overcome in achieving an effective embargo, the role of the weapons trade must be recognised and addressed.
  4. Call on outside big-power backers (especially Russia and the US) and regional powers (such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait) to exert pressure on their proxies in Syria for ceasefires.
  5. Urge cooperation rather than competition between Russia and the US, emphasising the advantages for each nation in bringing the war in Syria to an end. Similarly, dialogue between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey must be promoted.
  6. Uphold international law and the role of the ICC in dealing with crimes against humanity and war crimes. Australia could urge the US to sign and ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC.
  7. Uphold the role of the United Nations and the pre-eminence of the UN Charter; insist that all actions taken by our allies (and by Australia) be consistent with the UN Charter and international law.
  8. Negotiate with all involved parties without whose participation no peace agreement is possible.

None of these steps is guaranteed to bring an end to the violence. No such guarantees are possible. But, unlike military “solutions”, they will not escalate the violence either. They will cost far less economically than military action, help to stem the outflow of refugees, and create goodwill rather than resentment towards Australia. Australians will be safer as a result.

None of these steps is impossible. They are more realistic than the fanciful notion that armed conflict will defeat terrorism and promote peace.

How should Australia’s role be decided?

For Australians for War Powers Reform, the priority is that any decisions to dispatch military forces, and all strategies for combatting terrorism, should be debated in our parliament, and should include rigorous examination of the objectives, and of the likely costs and outcomes, followed by a vote. The great complexity and grave outcomes of such decisions are arguments for, not against, such public debate.

The Middle East is likely to remain in turmoil for a long time. We have limited means in Australia of bringing about peace. Open, informed parliamentary debate on Australia’s role is vital, made all the more so with the possibility of an even more interventionist US president from next year.

Australian politicians owe it to their constituents to consider these options and reform the way decisions to commit troops to war or armed conflict are made.

– Australians for War Powers Reform, 23 February 2016.

Image: Australian Syrians protest in Hyde Park, Sydney, 2012 (Lauren Farrow).

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Arthur Carruthers

    Regarding the cost of Australia’s participation in the Iraq/Syria conflict:
    It would appear figures are being fudged or misrepresented by the Department of Defence.
    The annual report by Defence see: http://www.defence.gov.au/annualreports/14-15/DAR_1415_v1.pdf).
    If you look at outcome 2 of the report you will see aggregated estimated, revised and actual expenditure for operations including operation Okra. It shows that the actual spend for Operation Okra for that financial year was $159.4 million (p. 78).
    In the 14/15 period the RAAF F/A-18 Hornets flew 5054 hours
    See – http://www.defence.gov.au/Operations/Okra/ATG.asp
    The hourly cost of operating a Hornet is about $28,000.
    5054 x $28000 = $141,512,000.
    If we believe the Defence numbers that leaves $18million to pay for all the other aircraft, munitions, 200 Army ‘trainers’, transport, logistics etc etc – Impossible.
    Information on the real costs of this war is as vague as the mission.

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