More Incoherence in Syria Policy
EDITOR'S CHOICE | 11.09.2015

More Incoherence in Syria Policy

As expected, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced a decision by the government to participate in airstrikes on ISIS strongholds inside Syria. But what was less expected was the decision — taken at the same Cabinet meeting and announced at the same press conference — to accept an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees, along with spending $A44 million supplying 240,000 refugees with “cash, food, water and blankets” in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

The cost to Australia of accepting these additional refugees — almost doubling the projected intake for the year — has been estimated at around $A700m over the next four years.

​​To be sure the decision to take in the extra refugees and provide additional humanitarian support was welcomed by most Australians — even many of those who hitherto might have been anti-immigration or opposed to such largesse on purely economic grounds — and it has bi-partisan support. The decision however to join the bombing fray may not be as enthusiastically received.

In response to Abbott’s declaration — made presumably to justify the decision and offset anticipated criticism — that the legal basis for the air strikes is “the collective self-defense of Iraq,” Independent MP Andrew Wilkie said dropping bombs on Syria would be “illegal, ineffective and dangerous”. Regardless, Wilkie ​almost certainly will be echoing what is likely to be the reaction of a significant number of Australians once the reality of the decision takes root in the public consciousness — especially in the wake of the decision to accept the increased refugee intake.

Wilkie added the following: “These air strikes just won’t work. You can’t defeat an unconventional enemy like Islamic State by dropping bombs.”

Even before Abbot’s decision, in a recent article published in the Australian Financial Review, Geoff Winestock reported that neither the U.S. nor Australia can expect the end the war in Syria while they oppose both sides in the conflict. Now for many this might be a no-brainer, but Winestock’s observations nonetheless bear repeating, since logic has never been highly prized much less frequently invoked in either Washington’s or Canberra’s responses to the so-called “war on terror.”

What makes Winestock’s observations compelling is that he was reporting on his recent interview with Australian Jeremy Salt, author of the book The Unmaking of the Middle East – A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands. Salt is a former journalist turned academic, and is currently professor of politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.

Salt’s view – tendered a couple of days ​earlier – is as ​pessimistic as it is unsettling. In commenting on the possibility that the Australian government — under the auspices of its relentlessly unquestioning alliance with the U.S. — will join in the bombing of ISIS strongholds inside Syria’s borders, he says, “the push by the Abbott government for bombing Islamic State might be a nice token of our commitment to U.S. alliance, but it is practically useless and … could make Australians more of a target for terrorists.”

Along with more broader considerations from other sources, we will return to Salt’s summation of the situation shortly. But it should be noted that the refugee crisis is reaching levels not seen since Adolf Hitler blew his brains out in the Berlin Bunker at the end of World War Two. We are witnessing a perpetual motion catastrophe in the making that was inescapably underscored recently by the sight of a young Syrian refugee boy Aylan Kurdia’s body washing up on a Turkish beach. Folks here in Australia and elsewhere are beginning to seriously question the “wisdom” of this nonsensical, unnecessary and pointless war.

As Ben Eltham from alternative Aussie news-site New Matilda reported, “What can explain the outpouring of grief and compassion that those photographs have provoked, except the extraordinary power of those images? Certainly we knew, or should have known, about the perils of refugee movement and the horror of the Syrian civil war. But somehow, perhaps understandably, it had been easy for too many to look away.”  

If there is any lasting good that might come from this little boy’s tragic death, it may manifest itself not just in a more compassionate response both in Australia and elsewhere to the refugee crisis — clearly the single biggest catalyst underpinning the government’s decision to substantially increase the refugee intake — but a greater awareness of the factors which have led us all to this point. For it is those factors that far too many folks found it easy to “look away” from. In reality, it could well be argued we have been doing that since America’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

Although precipitated by the Arab Spring of 2011, the Syrian civil war is one that had its genesis in the years leading up to 9/11. Like Iraq, Libya and Yemen, it is another recurrent exercise by America’s neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in creating further mayhem and chaos in the Greater Middle East in the absence of any coherent, logical framework for doing so.

Australia’s prime minister is, like most of his predecessors, ready, willing and able to do Uncle Sam’s bidding regardless of the strategic logic, much less the morality or legitimacy under international law. Some time ago, he reinforced his own and probably the bulk of the Australian population’s limited understanding of both the nature and the history of the conflict by describing the Syrian war as one being fought between the “baddies” and the “baddies.”

It would appear that viewpoint remains in place. Abbott was roundly criticized for this comment not just for its lack of sophistication and over-simplification but as much for the contradiction ​and the ignorance ​inherent in the remark. It seems as far as Jeremy Salt is concerned, that “contradiction” is brought into sharp relief with the following question: “Who do you want to have in power in Syria? This is the question [that needs] to be asked in Canberra and Washington.”

With the failed states of Iraq, Yemen and Libya providing us all with ample evidence — the refugee crisis alluded to earlier being Exhibit A in this respect — as to what happens when there is a power vacuum created by such interventions, this is a question that needs addressing urgently. In this Salt is emphatic: Australia and the U.S. must resolve this fundamental policy “contradiction” in relation to the Syrian war:

“On the one hand, we oppose Islamic State but in the other, we are equally determined to overthrow IS’s arch-enemy, the government of Bashar al-Assad, which still rules more than half the country, including Damascus.”

There is the inescapable consideration of what happens when we do get rid of these so-called despots — Gaddafi, Hussein, Mubarak, Almost as an understatement, Salt says that in his view he doesn’t see “where America’s national interest lies in destroying the government of Syria.”

Of course, as we all know, Assad is presented as either the New Gaddafi or the New Hussein, the latest evil dictator incarnate who has to be removed from power. Yet we can also ask the following question: Assuming this is their endgame, who would the Americans prefer to negotiate with in terms of reaching some kind of resolution that reduces the violence​, neutralizes the terrorist threat, and stems the tide of refugees — the Assad regime or ISIS?

The complicating factor since the outset of the Syrian conflict has been the rise and rise of ISIS, which putting aside the reality that the “organization” is the blowback personified by America’s previous, well documented interventions in Iraq and Syria if not a direct creation of the Americans, has paradoxically prevented them from achieving what appears still to be the overarching goal: To get rid of Assad irrespective of the consequences.

It seems then the American foreign policy elites want to have their cake, and eat it at the same time. Despite the incoherence and absurdity of the policy agenda in Syria and the Greater Middle East, this “incoherence” and “absurdity” still fails to resonate with the architects ​and proponents of the policy.

All parties — the U.S., the U.K., Australia and others involved in the conflict — all keep crashing the same car, albeit into a different wall, hoping against hope that the next time it will be the wall that sustains the most damage.

For his part, in recent in-depth articles, Jonathan Marshall delivers a highly instructive “history lesson” on the background of this internecine conflict, along with showcasing its geopolitical implications and those of the global economic and social order. [See’s“The US Hand in the Syrian Mess” and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.”]

In Marshall’s view, the animus towards Syria is without doubt a legacy of George W. Bush’s administration, with former Vice President Dick Cheney and his acolytes having their grubby fingerprints all over it, an observation that will come as little surprise to many folks. And as Marshall rightly emphasizes, a proper, full understanding of the situation requires a depth and breadth of knowledge that goes back beyond the current president’s time in office.

This is not to absolve President Barack Obama from responsibility for the current situation ​ by any stretch. The U.S. Doctrine of Regime Change — in essence the very genesis of the Syrian crisis ​and that of the Middle East in general — has been “owned” by Obama now for over six years. And there is little indication that the neoconservative “regime change” strategy, which is the root cause of all these problems to say nothing of Ukraine and places in Latin America such as Venezuela and Ecuador, will disappear from Obama’s foreign policy agenda anytime soon.

As Marshall rightly points out, the Obama administration should clearly renounce “regime change” as a policy, stop financial and military support going to ISIS and other militant groups, and begin acting in concert with Russia, Iran, the Gulf states and other regional powers to support unconditional peace negotiations with Assad’s regime.

He adds, “President Obama recently dropped hints that he welcomes further talks with Russia toward that end, in the face of prospects of an eventual jihadist takeover of Syria. Americans who value human rights and peace ahead of overthrowing Arab regimes should welcome such a new policy direction.”

This, Marshall said, was not a simple case of “good-guy protesters vs. bad-guy government.” The conflict was “more complicated than that,” something that seems to have escaped all those stakeholders in Washington — and those in countries like Australia and the U.K — who are intent on removing Assad and his regime.

Marshall notes that nearly a quarter million people have perished and fully half of the country’s inhabitants have been forced from their homes since the war began in 2011. This he says has created the “worst refugee crisis in the past quarter century” with the continuing advance of brutal Islamist factions making “the chances of restoring peace and human rights seem more remote than ever.”

In his attempts to provide a greater measure of clarity — especially as to where the blame lies in respect of the current impasse — Marshall has the following to say: “Many parties are to blame, but certainly among them are interventionists in the United States and its allies who rationalized supporting the Islamist opposition — and refusing to embrace serious peace negotiations — on the grounds that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a uniquely evil dictator. That image of Assad grew directly out of his regime’s brutal response to civilian protests that began in early 2011, soon after the start of the Arab Spring.”

Yet Marshall’s analysis goes deeper, and leaves one wondering as to how this conflict could have gone on for as long as it did, if indeed Washington really wanted to resolve it. Along with pointing out the time-honored failure of the Western mainstream media (MSM) to objectively report on the tragic failures and wretched inadequacies of U.S. foreign policy — epitomized by the obsession with regime change — he has the following to say:

“In choosing to cite human rights selectively as their rationale for regime change, Western governments followed longstanding double standards. Many of the U.S-backed states involved in the anti-Assad campaign, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, have also committed gross human rights violations and war crimes, whether at home or in neighboring territories and states such as GazaYemen and Lebanon.”

As a final observation, one of the most unfortunate aspects of America’s regime change recidivism has been the unwillingness or incapacity of even its staunchest allies to let U.S. officials know where they are going wrong, instead both blithely and blindly accepting whatever foreign policy “doctrine” happens to be in play at any given time despite the absence of strategic logic.

This behavior does little to discourage those neoconservatives and liberal interventionists. Regardless of Abbott’s feeble justifications, the recent decision to “bomb, bomb, bomb” Syria by Australia is another example — if indeed it was required — that amply underscores this propensity.

Greg Maybury is a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia.

Tags: Australia  Syria