The Politics    Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Baddies and bad ideas

By Michael Lucy

Baddies and bad ideas
Photo: David McClenaghan. © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence
The bombs may land in Syria, but the real target is at home

It’s been two years since Tony Abbott famously described the Syrian civil war as a case of “baddies versus baddies”. It was a foolish turn of phrase, but he wasn’t altogether wrong.

On one side is the government of Bashar al-Assad, the Ba’athist authoritarian who inherited power from his father in 2000 and instigated harsh crackdowns after the anti-government protests in the Arab Spring of 2011. There are several other sides. After the crackdowns, renegade army officers formed the Free Syrian Army and began an armed rebellion, which escalated into war. In 2012, the Kurds in Rojava, along the northern border with Turkey, began seizing territory to protect themselves from the ongoing war. Various jihadist groups have also joined in, chief among them the al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda. Initially allied to al-Nusra, Islamic State forces entered the fray in mid 2013 and now hold vast swathes of Syria’s east to the Iraqi border.

Various foreign powers are heavily involved: the Assad government receives support from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia; the rebels from the US, UK, France and to a lesser degree Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Islamic State is believed to receive funding from various Persian Gulf countries, and sometimes quiet facilitation from Turkey. The Syrian Kurds have the backing of the Kurds in Iraq.

Assad and his forces have been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and Islamic State makes no secret of its own atrocities. Between 200,000 and 300,000 people have been killed directly in the conflict, around half of them civilians, according to various estimates. Almost 4 million Syrians have fled the country, and perhaps another 7 million are displaced within its borders.

All of which is a long way of saying that the situation is not one that Australia can solve. Intervention will probably have bad outcomes, while staying out of it will also have bad outcomes.

 Still, Tony Abbott has at last decided that one baddie is more bad than the others – Islamic State, or “the death cult”, is more evil than the Nazis, as he told us last week – so today he announced that Australian forces will join the US in bombing Islamic State targets in Syria. At worst, the bombing will harm civilians and infrastructure without doing significant damage to Islamic State. At best, by damaging Islamic State it will strengthen the position of Assad, whom it can be hard to see as much better.

In good news, Abbott does seem aware that military interventions in the Middle East are not always successful. The quote is worth a read:

The outcome that we’re working towards, along with our coalition partners, is a Middle East comprised of governments which don’t commit genocide against their own people nor permit terrorism against ours. That’s what we’re working towards, where this is not an attempt to build a shining city on a hill. This is not an attempt to build a liberal pluralist market democracy overnight in the Middle East. That’s been tried and it didn’t magnificently succeed.

This announcement was paired with a declaration that Australia will take in 12,000 Syrian refugees in addition to our existing quota. This is very welcome, and it’s tempting to leave it at that. Despite the appearance that the government was dragged to the decision, and the suggestion that Christians may receive priority, there’s not much use criticising someone when they do the right thing.

And as usual, the desired effects of today’s twin decisions are to be found in Australia rather than elsewhere: the increased refugee intake, no matter how much compassion Abbott and company had in their hearts when they decided on it, is also a sop to public sentiment; the bombing, whatever it achieves in Syria, will help the government to produce a steady supply of national security announceables. Politicians always need to be at least half cynics.


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Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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