The telling thing about the fact that the Abbott government begged for a US invitation to bomb Syria for domestic political purposes — first mooted by, of all people, Oz editor-at-large Paul Kelly, and confirmed today by Fairfax — is that no one is surprised; not surprised that Australian forces will be put in harm’s way for political purposes, not surprised that the illegality of such an action has been swept aside, not surprised at the clumsiness that has revealed the government’s crass tactics.
The Howard government, at least, was motivated by a flawed “I’m with Stupid” strategic doctrine when it signed up to the Bush administration’s Iraq debacle; the Abbott government doesn’t even have that. And its contribution in this instance will be even more minimalist than Australia’s contribution to the Iraq occupation: Defence Minister Kevin Andrews confirmed yesterday there would be no additional planes deployed by Australia. Defence’s Joint Chief of Operations David Johnston (not the former minister) generously said bombing in Syria would not be a “gamechanger”, indeed, there would be a “zero-sum gain” because operations in Syria would necessarily mean forgoing operations in Iraq. In a piece deeply critical of the venture into Syria, former Defence Department senior bureaucrat Allan Behm described bombing as “like putting a Band-Aid on an Ebola victim.”
As Behm correctly noted, there’s no broader strategy in place regarding Syria, where the Assad regime continues to murder its own people with an industrial efficiency that makes the savages of Islamic State look like amateurs. Or, more correctly, there is a broader strategy in place, but it’s almost laughable. Aside from apparently fairly ineffectual bombing, the United States’ Syria strategy is to spend around US$500 million training and arming “moderate” rebels to overthrow the Assad regime, displacing the more radical Islamists who have come to dominate the opposition to Assad. How’s that strategy faring? Rebels groups armed by the United States have either surrendered to IS, or defected to join IS or other hardline groups. So far just 60 rebels have been trained; US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter admitted the number was “much smaller than we had hoped for at this point”.
But it gets much worse: 22 US-trained rebels were abducted by the radical al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group al-Nusra Front immediately after they entered Syria from Turkey in late July. How did al-Nusra Front know they were coming in? Because, staggeringly, Turkish government officials told them — al-Nusra Front is, in effect, an ally of Turkey’s.
The betrayal of US-trained rebels by Turkey comes despite Turkey belatedly officially deciding to stop treating IS as a worthwhile asset in its own regional strategies — which mainly revolve around removing Assad and crushing Kurdish separatism — and actually attack it, as well as allow the US to use Turkish bases for airstrikes. Whether it changes its open-door policy in relation to the Turkey-Syria border — the main conduit for foreign fighters to replenish the ranks of IS — remains to be seen.
One observer speaking to Time described the Turkish position: “the Turkish government thinks only fighting ISIS is just dealing with the symptom and not the cause”. On this, the Turks are absolutely right, but the US and particularly the Australian governments — the latter with eyes only for trying to wedge its domestic political opponents — seem oblivious to that truth.