The hideous Syrian tragedy

Our armed forces have been deployed abroad opportunistically, even cynically, for decades. This must be avoided in future if they are to serve Australia’s true defence interests in future.  

With the hideous Syrian conflict now entering its 7th year, and the Iraqi conflict very much longer, it is more than time to question the role of the ADF in these conflicts. There is a large measure of cynicism in the government’s approach to the deployments of the armed forces and security generally. The problem with this approach is that deceit catches up. Going back to the Vietnam War, and since in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Syria, these ‘commitments’ and their illegalities have lacked intrinsic merit other than staying on-side with the U.S. The US being a major power can play it that way, but a ‘middle power’ like Australia risks becoming discredited in the eyes of the many other nations we may seek for diplomatic and political support in days to come. 

In our name Australian forces have been engaged in bombing operations over Syria killing innocent civilians, and wreaking destruction on their towns and cities. The conflicts there involve numerous cross-cutting issues, engaging terrorist groups (largely sectarian), national or regional militias, and the armed forces of regional powers. There are dealings going on among them to which we are not privy which could change essential strategic features overnight, when we and our forces would be stranded, both militarily and diplomatically, with nowhere to go. Sectarian conflicts are not what Australian troops should be involved in nor committed to. What considered explanation has the government given us for its continuation in Iraq and Syria? Why after all this time has it never been debated in Parliament? Is it just that the Americans are there for American reasons and that is good enough for us?

There are indications that the forces themselves have or had been given no clear idea of their purpose, and have been confused as to the status and relationships of the various groups they have been required to deal with (see the declassified Defence Department analysis on the Iraq War by Dr Albert Palazzo, then with the Defence Directorate of Army Research and Analysis (2008 – 2011)). Hidden from all at the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003 was the US’s objective of regime change. Is the ADF in the business of overthrowing foreign governments? That’s far from the orderly world we seek? In any event we should be seeking it in our region, not that of others.

The government has not demonstrated any deep understanding of the complexities involved in these conflicts anyway. As far as the general public is concerned we are engaged at one level in supporting the US to eliminate a specific terrorist group that proclaims itself a state (i.e. ISIS). At another level we are there simply to support the United States ‘whatever’  –  the word Tony Blair used to seal his commitment to President Bush prior to the Iraq invasion. This was the case too with us when we joined in that invasion. The world is different now but we are stuck in an old, dated paradigm. This is not yet 1942. But as was the case then we were not prepared for dangers in our real world. We are not in strategic terms prepared. Sectarian wars in the Middle East are not a training ground for Asia/Pacific security.

Leaving aside misconceived strategies and tactics we face the problem that in pursuing these virtually risk-free deployments in recent decades we have been committing numerous breaches of both international and domestic law, particularly international humanitarian law. Our foreign and defence policies and practices are guilt ridden. Killing innocent civilians engages public accountability in several areas of law and the Australian government has been scant in its responsibilities in that regard. There is enough barbarism in these conflicts without Australia adding to it. (See the first report for the Lancet Commission on Syria, led by the Faculty of Health Sciences at the American University of Beirut – reported in The Guardian (Australia) 15.03.17).

How is this so? In international law armed force against another country or its civilians can be justified only as an act of self-defence or with the authorisation of the UN Security Council. To argue that the conflicts in the Middle East represent a direct threat to Australia is tenuous at best. Although our forces are described as the Australian Defence Forces their role as a defence force there is difficult to sustain. As for UNSC authorisation, there is none.

Procedurally how did we come to be there? Presumably, in domestic terms, the forces are and have been operating pursuant to superior orders which must come from within the Executive of the Australian Government. The documentation in this regard is scant too, at least as a matter of form. In all the overseas situations under reference we have acted pursuant to US authorisations or arrangements, not authorisations of the affected states. There has been no request from the Iraqis (who themselves are engaged in a civil war and our involvement is partisan as between the several factions).  This is why we do not have a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq and the civil protection afforded to our troops there is ostensibly secured by the issuing of diplomatic passports.

As for Syria, regardless of what we see as the merits, our bombing is an unauthorised act of aggression against a sovereign state. The position in law can hardly get worse than that, bearing in mind the considerable civilian deaths, casualties and destruction we are causing.  In doing so we are also avoiding any  accountability to either the people of Syria or to our own citizens and residents here in Australia, some of whom have relatives in the affected areas. Is this pure indifference on the government’s part or is it hiding yet again behind the well worn mantra of  ‘operational matters’. [Evidence of this was provided in the ABC TV 7.30 Report on Tuesday 14th March 2017].

There is a large measure of cynicism in the way the government plays its cards with its armed forces and security generally. The problem with this approach is that deceit catches up. Going back to the Vietnam War and since in Afghanistan (which began honestly enough but crept beyond bounds) and Iraq, and now Syria, these ‘commitments’ have all lacked intrinsic merit other than staying on-side with the U.S. regardless of legal breaches and other consequences. The US  being a major power can play it that way, but a middle ‘power’ like Australia risks becoming discredited in the eyes of the many other nations we may seek for political support in days to come.

What should concern us even more procedurally is the way we engage in armed conflict abroad. The international dimensions have been canvassed above. Domestically we are no better off. The government asserts that its authorisations are made pursuant to the Prerogative Power. The Prerogative Power is exercised by the Governor-General in Council and no other. In the case of the Iraq invasion in 2003 the Governor-General was not even consulted, let alone the Executive Council being convened. The forces went to war on orders issued under Section 8 of the Defence Act, which is an act for the administration of the defence forces within Australia. That Act and any regulations thereunder cannot excuse the killing of civilians in Australia or abroad as a matter of Australian law, and certainly not international law. What is disturbing about this is the readiness of successive Australian governments to place the armed forces at risk of civil and criminal actions here and abroad without appropriate legal cover.

The experience over these past decades is that Australia should consider more deeply the why and wherefore of foreign conflicts, especially sectarian conflicts, before its armed forces become engaged. The decision process should be more rigorous and clear public support for any involvement should be evident. The process should involve Parliament as in almost all cases the interval between the time a war issue might arise and the need for a deployment is more than adequate for Parliamentary scrutiny and public debate. In short the War Powers must be reviewed and made acceptable to the nation as a whole.

Unfortunately Parliament itself is being very slow in taking this up. The Executives of both leading parties are loath to give up what they regard as a virtually absolute power  – and their followers are compelled to see it likewise.

The danger of course, given that absolute power eventually corrupts, is that everyone else in the country is at risk. They should be doing something about it and not being led sleep walking into our next armed conflict.


– Andrew Farran

Image: destruction in Kobani, Syria. Credit: Kareem Khadder / CNN.

First published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.

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