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June 26th 2016 print

Peter Mulherin

War? Oh, That One!

Conspicuous by its absence as a topic either party has been prepared to address: what next for Australia's ongoing military involvement in the Middle East?  Where do we stand when ISIS has been subdued and the many regional players' interests, agendas and rivalries collide?

syria bombVoters can be excused if many forget that Australia is waging war in Syria and Iraq, with national security and foreign affairs very much off the political radar this election. The failure of Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull to properly discuss our current and future military commitment in the Middle East is nonetheless inexcusable. The Islamic State is on the back foot, as the attacks on Fallujah, in Iraq, and Raqqa demonstrate. While the demise of ISIS as a semi-conventional army and the loss of territorial control may still be many months away, the fact remains that mopping up IS was always going to be the easiest task.

The reason? Islamic State is the common enemy of the West, Russia, Assad, Iran, Shia Iraqis, Kurds, and Turkey — to name only the most significant players invested in the region. The hatred of the Islamic State is the only point of agreement between most of these parties. Conflicting agendas is the norm.

The West’s motivation for degrading and destroying ISIS may once have been humanitarian, but rest assured that for the others it is not. They fight ISIS because they want something tangible — territory, power, regional influence. Amidst this imbroglio Australia will soon have some tough decisions to make as it continues to play ‘follow the leader’ foreign policy with the United States. The power vacuum that will follow the eradication of Islamic State in its current form, will lead to more conflict: definitely political, probably sectarian, possibly violent.

Russia guarantees that Assad will remain in power, meaning ongoing fighting in Syria which Sunni jihadists will exploit. The Kurds in Syria, sharing a border with a wary Turkey, have stamped their authority and indicated their territorial ambitions. They may follow the lead of their Iraqi counterparts and carve out a state of their own—the implications for Turkey, currently in the midst of a low-scale civil war against its own Kurds, are significant.

Iran hasn’t sent its best troops to fight in Iraq on a mission of charity: it wants more control over its majority Shia neighbour. Iran’s expansionist policies and regional ambitions are as blatant as they are successful. It will also fight for Assad to remain in power in Syria either directly, or through Hezbollah-esque proxies.

The Kurds in Iraq, having been armed by the West (including munition air-drops by Australia), will fight, perhaps literally, for the independence from Baghdad they have always sought. The control they gained over Kirkuk in 2014 — a northern city long claimed — and the disputed oil fields will not be relinquished.

The Shia militias and troops in Iraq — by far the largest contributors to the fight against Islamic State — will seek to maintain their hard-won control over Iraq’s armed forces and government. Their presence in the Sunni heartland in the west and north of Iraq is vital for pushing back ISIS, but leads to heightened sectarian tension.

The plight of Iraq’s Sunnis is uncertain at best. Excluded from government, having no control over oil-resources, and often seen as complicit with ISIS by Iraqi Shia, they risk being further marginalised. Understandably fearful that an Iran-influenced and pro-Shia Baghdad will not see to their interests, their options are limited and the potential consequences dire. If they feel they’ve little choice but an armed insurgency, the sectarian civil war of 2006-’07 — which required the deployment of over 25,000 additional US troops to put down — may quickly flare up again.

Australia, currently contributing nearly some 800 personnel to fight ISIS, needs to know the goals and limits of its involvement. When do the troops come home? Once ISIS controls no territory in Iraq and/or Syria? After Baghdad tries to take back Kirkuk from the Iraqi Kurds, who then will we support? What of the Kurds in Syria pushing into Turkey? After an escalating cycle of sectarian violence erupts in Iraq or Syria, what next? Do we stay involved if a successor to ISIS emerges from the ashes?

Add to the endless complexities on the ground, the future President of the United States. Hillary Clinton is undeniably more hawkish than Barack Obama on foreign policy, while Donald Trump fluctuates between making G. W. Bush look like a dove and calling all US troops home and pulling up the drawbridge. If President Clinton deploys ground troops to control the post-ISIS fallout and to avoid sectarian violence in Iraq, Australia will have to decide what it will do. If President Trump ignores civilian casualties in order to wipe out IS — exacerbating the problem by leading to mass jihadists recruitment — or if he pulls out of the region entirely, what should we do? These are pertinent questions with far-ranging implications. They should be on the national agenda.

It was right in 2014, and still is, for Australia to target ISIS. Over-simplifying the complex realities on the ground, however, and merely hoping that all the invested parties will come together for a pat on the back to celebrate the demise of ISIS, and then go home, is foolishness. Where the future prime minister of Australia will take us in the Middle East should be a key question in this election. That it is not inspires little faith in either contender.

Pete Mulherin is undertaking a PhD on Australian foreign policy towards ISIS. He blogs at petermulherin.net

Comments [4]

  1. Bill Martin says:

    ISIS is unique among violent islamist entities. It is the only such organisation that controls territory and operates as a nation state, sinister as it is. Once it is defeated, it is unlikely that others would want to emulate the failed model that attracted disasterous western intervention. In the absence of a new Islamic state, the rest of them ought to be left to their own devices to murder one another at their heart’s content until eventually they all had enough of it, however long that might take. Callous and uncaring as that sounds, what other realistic options are there? We ought not take sides ever again or get involved militarily unless our own security is threatened. Our only useful contribution might be assisting genuine refugees of the conflict in ways that helps them stay as near their abandoned homes as possible instead of becoming clients of people smugglers.

    • Ian MacDougall says:

      Bill,
      As I see it:
      After 9/11, bin Laden had Muslims cheering him all over the place. A military response was the only credible way for the Americans to proceed, and there was no strong opposition to it anywhere in the CoW. Islamism had to be convincingly defeated at the outset to stop it spreading further. The attacks on bin Laden’s HQ in Afghanistan were followed up by the successful raid on his secret home in Pakistan that finished him completely.
      But the US blundered badly in invading Iraq, a significant part of which must have been a desire on the part of Bush junior to avenge the assassination plans Saddam Hussein cooked up to rid the world of Bush senior. After Saddam’s overthrow, the Iraqi Army was simply disbanded, and all those trained men left without personal incomes. The Iraqi ‘resistance’ came out of that: spawning Islamic State.
      Islamic fascism needed an early and decisive defeat to stop it from spreading, but with minimal civilian casualties. A difficult task, but defeating Islamic State has been the kicking apart of that fire.

  2. Rob Ellison says:

    ISIS will fall no matter what we do and Trump will be late to the turkey shoot.

    “Al Raqqa is the chosen temporary capital of ISIS (DAESH), pending the capture of Damascus or Baghdad. But Al Raqqa faces a similar situation that Berlin faced in early 1945. At least two armies are racing towards it. The most substantial one is the alliance that supports the Syrian regime (Syrian Army, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, etc). Then there is an alliance that is armed and supported by the United States, dominated by Syrian Kurds in the north.

    Then there are the Iraqi military and their Iranian and local militia allies moving steadily if slowly towards Mosul. If Mosul falls, the Iraqis could find themselves tempted to join the race towards Al Raqqa as well.

    The Saudis and their putative Turkish allies have been reduced to repeated futile threats by Adel al Jubeir, the Saudi Foreign Minister, that Al Assad must go. Al Jubeir adds: by peaceful or by military means. He must be waiting for Hillary Clinton to save his bosses nuts from the Syria fire.” http://arabiadeserta.com/2016/06/

    Everyone can then can then return to the proxy wars being fought – the one that has displaced 4 million people – in which all sides bomb civilians – by combatants in the unholy cause of geopolitics. We seem likely to continue to follow the US into every misadventure on the planet – with bipartisan and public support because – while US strategic goals in no way coincide with ours – we’d have to spend a lot more on defence if we didn’t. According to Lowy Institute surveys. Perhaps the shock of Trump’s plan to make allies ante up will change that.

    I’m a bit queasy at it all. I’d rather we didn’t bomb civilians and Trump inspires the level of terror I felt when Ronald Reagan announced that he was going to start bombing Russia. At some stage Trump seems an accident prone contender for the final word and it’s likely to be whoops – I left the microphone on.