The Bush/Rumsfeld doctrine of sending a heavy American army (then backed by Australia) to drive Saddam out of Iraq is now widely seen as a mistake. But more than that, it has become a convenient straw man for the isolationists who support passivity in the Middle East. Opposition to ‘boots on the ground’ is the catch cry of both those on the isolationist right and what might be termed the Mike Carlton/John Pilger left, which leverages the West’s understandable weariness of military involvement in the Middle East.
But the question is not ‘boots on the ground’. The real question is, ‘whose boots on the ground?’
In the last few weeks Turkey has supposedly sealed its borders against ISIS infiltrators going backwards and forwards. Ankara’s Islamist leadership has a lot to answer for the backing of fundamentalists in Syria and Iraq, the resultant disasters, and concomitant refugee outflows of millions of desperate Sunni Muslims.
Just 38 miles away from the centre of the spreading evil of ISIS, whose headquarters is in Raqqa in eastern Syria, is the perimeter established by the Kurds and their new allies, the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF). Led by the Kurdish Peshmerga, this SDF includes Yazidi, Assyrian and Turkmen allies, as well as local Sunni Muslims driven out of Raqqa and who supported the Arab Spring’s democratic revolution against Assad. So far they are only lightly armed and largely untrained but, unlike the Iraqi army, whose three divisions fled Mosul at the sight of a few hundred members of ISIS, the Kurds have shown they are willing to fight.
For several weeks in September last year, we saw on the nightly news the sight of Turkey’s tanks sitting idly in the hills above the Kurdish village of Kobane, which was being assaulted by the black banners of ISIS. The Kurds fought an Alamo-style battle to hold out. Except, unlike the Alamo, they won. Eventually, the Turks were embarrassed into allowing a small column of lightly armed Peshmerga to come from Iraqi Kurdistan to relieve Kobane.
Since then, together with American airstrikes, the Kurds and their allies have progressively driven ISIS back in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) have since cut the supply lines between ISIS’s headquarters in Raqqa and the other big population centre the Islamists conquered in Mosul. The Peshmerga have pushed ISIS back further at Hassakah on the Mosul–Raqqa road. Imagine what they might do if properly armed and trained.
As Australia is the second-biggest contributor to the effort against ISIS, one wonders if the taxpayers’ dollar might be used more effectively if Australia’s trainers were sent north to the Kurdish areas where they could be trained properly, equipped by American largesse with armoured vehicles, Humvees and TOW missiles to take on and destroy ISIS in the desert badlands that straddle the Syrian-Iraqi frontier. That’s what the visiting foreign minister of the Kurdish regional government asked for when in Canberra recently.
After the latest Paris massacre, it has become clear that the passivity of the Obama Administration will no longer do. Like the Barbary pirates in the 19th century, the rapists, vandals and crucifiers of ISIS cannot be left free to plan their next terrorist attacks. They have promised a mass casualty attacks in Washington and Rome. The lone-wolf incitement by ISIS operatives, like Australian expatriate terrorist al-Cambodi (Neil Prakash), continues apace. Prakash was at least partially responsible for inciting the attacks on two policemen in Melbourne’s Endeavour Hills in September last year, and October’s ambush murder in October.
The reach of ISIS isn’t just into Australia. There is an increasing phenomenon of people in Gaza, Sinai and even in the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel associating with the ISIS brand. Decoupling ISIS from all territory it currently controls by intelligently supporting local allies like the Kurds, Yazidis, Assyrians and Sunni democrats is something that is in the narrowest definition of our national interest, as ISIS is using this territory to organise attacks far and wide. Ultimately, behind the lines, as the US Secretary of Defence has said, a small number of special forces might assist a Kurdish-led advance by calling down airstrikes and ensuring good communication.
After the slaughter in Paris, France’s Francois Hollande correctly explained that, although we didn’t initiate it, “we are at war.” Western publics won’t want American, British or Australian boots on the ground again, but they also won’t tolerate the prospect of ISIS inspiring additional murderous around the world. We should be proactively generating support from this US administration or the next, for an alliance with local allies in order to “wipe out” ISIS.
Michael Danby is the Member for Melbourne Ports. He is past chair of the Joint Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.