Voters 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