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Syria: Bombs, Borders and Boarders

Monday, 2 November 2015  | Gordon Preece

The catastrophe of Syria’s emptying and Europe’s and Australia’s contradictory attempts to respond was captured recently in an image. This was not the most influential, visceral image of three year-old Aylan Kurdi’s limp body face down on a Turkish beach. It was an Age cartoonist’s picture of Mr Abbott as lifesaver lifting some Syrians with one hand from the water and holding others under-water with the other.

Innocents caught in the middle flee the bombs and barbarism of the Assad regime and IS. Thankfully, 12,000 will be taken in by Australia, but somewhat reluctantly, out of our existing refugee numbers, and not including Syrians already in indefinite offshore detention. The decision was made and implemented more rapidly to bomb IS in Syria, to protect Iraq from IS incursions. The jarring juxtaposition of these admittedly difficult decisions deserves consideration together, not in isolation. This article addresses the two aspects side by side under the rubric of respecting borders and welcoming boarders.

Firstly, we must ask how seriously complex the Syrian situation is. As Channel 4’s Paul Mason summarises: ‘a democratic uprising became a civil war, got hijacked by Islamists, was abandoned by the west, and became a bargaining piece in a bigger standoff with Putin’s Russia. The Syrian uprising failed because Putin re-armed a military that was teetering, and because Iran’s proxy… Hezbollah … helped defeat the moderate opposition. And because –Qatar and Saudi Arabia withheld aid from secular opposition forces in order to strengthen their own [and Turkey’s] proxies the… Army of Conquest’.

Meanwhile Russia is renewing the Cold War, stone-walling the UN Security Council with China, has a strategic port in Syria, and is concerned at Chechen jihadists fighting with IS. Russia is hence training Assad’s forces and supplying bombers.

This is a complex, quadrilateral civil war. Any outside military action will likely have unintended consequences. The complication for those, like Australia, bombing the ISIS ‘death-cult’ alone, is that there are several death-cults or worshippers of Mars involved (without engaging in the fallacy of moral equivalence with IS). The question is, ‘How will bombing IS help end the contagious conflict in Syria?’ 75% of civilian casualties are due to Assad, not IS.

The next key question is: ‘What is the intended goal?’ There is consensus that it involves a diplomatic settlement including Russia and any western nations militarily involved. This may involve partition, or de-facto control zones, and definitely IS’s degrading and destruction. Should fighting IS, in both the West’s and Russia’s interests, be used as a bargaining chip to force Assad to step down while maintaining his regime as the best of a bad bunch, just as Saddam at least maintained order and a secular, non-sectarian state? This is perhaps ‘making the best of it’, as theologian John Stackhouse named his book on Christians and society.

As former PM Abbott helpfully said: ‘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… This is not an attempt to build a shining city on a hill, … to build a liberal, pluralist, market democracy overnight in the Middle East’. Nonetheless, bombing IS in Syria may not further this modest outcome.

Often ignoring these words, the West regularly repeats its Middle-East mistakes through a naïve faith in bare democracy without religious and minority rights built up over millennia. And Australia keeps unthinkingly jumping into others’ wars, saying, ‘Yes we can!’ to Obama, or allegedly pleading with him to ask us, without proper parliamentary debate and decision, unlike the more vigorous and thoughtful UK parliament that Mr Blair and Mr Cameron have had to face.

Secular realpolitik does not understand Middle-East religious rifts. Islamic divisions merge into Cold War divides. The US uses Sunni states Arabia, Qatar and Turkey as regional proxies, as Russia does with Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah. But the US-Iran nuclear deal (which I support) has alienated US proxies who now have their own plans for a Syrian opposition.

Further complicating matters, the increasingly erratic Erdogan regime (AKP) in Turkey, which hosts 2 million Syrian refugees, camouflaged its fighting ISIS to bomb Kurds in Iraq. It is now warring with the Kurdish Workers party (PKK) in Turkey. So what protections will be provided for Syria’s Kurds in a post-war carve-up?

The next question is legality. Any attack on Syrian soil should be justifiable on international humanitarian law and just war grounds: i.e. an overwhelming humanitarian need; last resort; and proportionality of armed action. The UK may justify their intervention given evidence of immanent, intended attacks on UK soil by IS-trained UK citizens (two now killed by UK drones). But part of proportionality is prevention of non-combatant casualties. Even drones are only as good as their very remote intelligence, often killing civilians. This is even more the case with more conventional air strikes: ‘243 civilians, including 74 children, have died in coalition air strikes since last September’ (Syrian Network for Human Rights, cf. Airwars.org 256 named civilian casualties).

The RAAF have dropped more than 500 bombs on IS in Iraq the last year. But there are regular reports of civilian casualties. Chris Woods, chair of Airwars.org, argues that ‘if Australia is extending its operations into Syria – a fraught and more challenging environment than Iraq – there will be a continuing risk of civilians being killed in Australian air strikes’. Further, Australia is ‘way down the bottom of the transparency table’ (R. Pollard, ‘Syria’s hidden body count,’ Sunday Age, 20/9/15, 30). These likely civilian losses must be minimised. They are much more than mere ‘collateral damage’, or unintended means to an end-of-IS. They are also prime recruiting material for IS.

Further, bombing within others’ borders without permission is breaking international law, unlike the Iraq situation where the coalition was invited in a year ago. Mr Abbott’s schoolyard approach—IS is doing it, why can’t we?—provides a dangerous precedent for others to do the same. Borders are neither eternal, neutral nor infallible, especially when running across tribal and religious lines, and largely imposed by imperialists post-WWI. Nonetheless, they, like good fences, are a way of maintaining neighbourly relations. (They may even be providentially provided [Acts 17:26].) Respect for borders is crucial.

Loyalty to place, enabled by borders, and underestimated by cosmopolitan western jet-setters (like myself), is a critical part of human finitude. Places, with borders, are like trainer-wheels enabling us to ride into a range of wider relationships, to practise tolerance, hospitality and love at a patient pace.

Respect for borders is important to a sense of home and enabling of hospitality and welcome to strangers. My sympathies are largely with the Angela Merkel (daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor) and her opening up of Germany and seeking a wider European solution to Syria’s refugees. Pope Francis’s call for Catholic parishes to each take in one Syrian family is also exemplary. But as we see reactions from less well-off southern and eastern states stretched to the limit, and as compassion fatigue starts, we need to temper idealism and utopianism with realism. The noble European Union experiment is being stretched to the limits by capital and people flows. Its best hope is a ‘win-win’ of providing new population supplements at a sustainable pace for its dwindling populations. Also, providing sufficient funding and processing for refugees in nearby lands that are safe, but close enough to their origins, respects the significance of place and possibility of return.

Australia’s island isolation makes Europe’s challenges unimaginable to us. Yet we are neither in paradise nor in heaven, though it seems like it to the 12,000 prospective refugees from Syria. And we need to prepare for permanency of hospitality, with them not wanting or being able to return to a bombed-out hell-hole.

Further, in congratulating ourselves for accepting them, we shouldn’t forget the many left in unending purgatorial limbo in our detention camps, dumped on our poor neighbours. We should set a time for closing them down. We also need exit strategies to prevent unending ‘mission creep’ of foolhardy bombing expeditions in their backyards, producing more civilian casualties and refugees.

PM Turnbull and his all-female Foreign Affairs and Defence pairing need our prayers, as does the hapless and hardened Mr Dutton, sadly retained as Border Force Minister. More ministry, less military force and secrecy in its operations are needed, for Syria’s situation will not be solved quickly. And climate change refugees that Mr Dutton contemptibly laughs about, will soon be at our borders. This is not a temporary emergency, but the new globalised world order of people movements, not just goods movements. Neo-liberals in principle, should be open to a regulated, sustainable movement of people and labour, not just goods. We need borders, but we need to be open-hearted to temporary, and where necessary, permanent boarders too.


Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos.


Scott Buchanan
November 25, 2015, 11:48PM
Hi Gordon,

A dense and thought-provoking article, to be sure. Just a couple of points for reflection (having engaged in unavoidable "cherry-picking"!). I think you're right to draw attention to the unintended consequences of outside military intervention, and how any action needs to be undertaken with the utmost care. I have just finished reading AJP Taylor's "The Origins of the Second World War," where the theme of unintended consequences - leading ultimately to the greatest conflagration in human history - is a persistent theme in the book.

However, I suppose there are also unintended consequences of failing to do anything at all. Not that doing something for the sake of looking useful is advisable, but if one takes ISIS as an example, there are a number of key humanitarian and security concerns that might legitimate any action taken against that group. You asked how bombing ISIS might help end the Syrian conflict. As some commentators have suggested (Paul Sheehan and Greg Sheridan among them), whilst the Assad regime has prosecuted the war with appalling savagery, this has stemmed partly from desperation - itself borne out of the knowledge that if it loses this war, it may well mean a genocidal bloodbath at the hands of Sunni extremists. If ISIS can be defeated, it breaks the power of Islamic extremism arrayed against Assad, thus removing one reason for the regime's desperate - and brutal - approach to the conflict, and providing space (so the theory goes) for a political solution to be negotiated.

I'm also not sure that labelling Abbott's suggestion to cross into Syria a "schoolyard approach" is entirely fair. As is well known, ISIS does not simply operate in Iraq; it has many of it strongholds in Syria. Indeed, Raqqa, in eastern Syria, functions as the group's capital and headquarters, whilst it sells a lot of oil on the black market via smuggling routes across the border into Turkey. Assuming the organisation's destruction is a worthwhile goal, then it would seem impossible to achieve if coalition forces are unable to strike it in Syria. I'm certainly not suggesting some sort of gung-ho, Rambo-style intervention, without due consideration of international law and convention. However, if members of ISIS can simply run across the border from Iraq into neighbouring Syria, whilst Australia, the US, et. al., are hamstrung by overly restrictive engagement regulations, I'm not sure how the stated goals can be prosecuted successfully. Far from being a schoolyard attitude, I think Abbott's comment reflected the necessity of at least giving thought to an important expansion of the mission against ISIS. Otherwise, we're ultimately wasting time, money and resources (and that's without considering the notoriously ambiguous effects of bombing alone).

Again, much stimulus in the article for further thinking.

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