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18 April 2018

With Jonathan Pearlman

Balancing Syria’s terrible options

For once, it was hard not to agree with a Donald Trump tweet: yes, Bashar al-Assad is a “Gas Killing Animal”. But the difficult part comes next.

In the dark tragedy of Syria, there is no solution, and any action or inaction will involve moral and tactical inconsistency and compromise. It is impossible to determine a response for Australia, or the world, that is not flawed, but this does not automatically mean that it is better to do nothing.

There were three main courses of action in response to the suspected chemical attack on Douma, a suburb of Damascus: avoid intervening, conduct a limited strike or launch a full-scale assault – possibly including ground troops – to try to remove the Assad regime.

On Saturday, the United States, the United Kingdom and France chose the second option: their bombardment of 105 missiles targeted three apparently unmanned chemical weapons facilities. Australia was briefed but not directly involved. The Australian military had no assets to immediately deploy – its fighter jets left the Middle East, where they had been fighting Islamic State, in January – but Malcolm Turnbull signalled he would be willing to commit to future strikes. Further atrocities or a confrontation between US-led forces and Russia could make this possible. 

The conflict raises the questions of how Australia could become involved, and whether it should. 

The decision by Australia’s closest allies to attack compelled it to choose from these three terrible options. It is a question that should be considered with care, both by the government and by the people.

Turnbull expressed unequivocal support for the US-led strike, saying it was “calibrated, proportionate and targeted”, and sent a clear message about the use of chemical weapons to Assad and his backers, Russia and Iran. Labor agreed; the Greens did not, saying the missiles risked escalating a complex war.

There is much about Turnbull’s position that is flawed. It draws the line at chemical weapons but allows Assad to keep killing his citizens using artillery and barrel bombs. It leaves Assad in place and will not necessarily deter him from using chemicals – Trump bombed a Syrian airbase last April, but it has not prevented repeated use of chemicals. It does not appear to be sanctioned by international law – the United Nations Security Council could authorise an attack, but Russia can, and does, veto any such resolutions.

Against this are the arguments in favour of a strike. The use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and unlawful, and should not go unpunished. A limited strike, such as occurred on Saturday, achieves little on the ground, but this is in a sense its greatest virtue: it sends a message, without risking large-scale casualties or excessively heightening the risk of a Russian military response.

Adding to the difficulty of balancing these arguments are the shadow of the Iraq War (and the distortions used to justify it) and the character of the current US commander-in-chief, who is prone to lying, and whose motivations always appear to be coloured by self-interest and personal whims.

None of the options is good, or flawless. Some, such as a large-scale intervention, could prove disastrous. But the strike last Saturday is, at least, a defensible option, even if one disagrees with it.

This leads to the question of Australia’s potential involvement.

In the short term, an escalation seems unlikely. Trump has already declared “Mission Accomplished”. He previously revealed he was thinking about withdrawing America’s 2000 ground troops from Syria (“It’s time,” he said on 3 April, possibly emboldening Assad to attack Douma on 7 April).

But further strikes are a possibility and could be encouraged by leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron, if not Trump. There are growing calls in Washington to consider an enlarged commitment, possibly involving the establishment of a no-fly zone or even a safe zone, potentially requiring a massive ground force, to protect the Sunni population (Assad is from Syria’s Alawite minority). Australia could be called on to assist and may consider redeploying the F/A-18F Super Hornet jets that fought against Islamic State.

This could be a risky operation. Assad’s air defences are weak but could potentially be supported by Russia’s much more effective systems, which have been deployed to Syria in recent years (sixty-six of the bombs used on Saturday were Tomahawk missiles, which were fired from US navy vessels and did not require aircraft).

Australia has lost more than forty soldiers in Afghanistan: it would almost certainly be willing to risk aircraft, and potentially ground troops, if the US calls on allies in the case of a Syrian escalation. Further hostilities in Syria could pose difficult questions, and will require searching for the least bad options.


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