09 June 2015

What a mess

In a series of announcements in August-September 2014 the Prime Minister committed us to a steadily escalating role in northern Iraq: first humanitarian supplies for Yezidi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar, then air strikes by RAAF FA/18s and airborne support for the missions of other members of the latest US-led Coalition, then an “advise and assist” training role for several hundred soldiers.

This is presented as an operation by a US-led Coalition to degrade and destroy IS, and in early June Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said with some pride in a morning interview on Radio National that the size of Australia’s training contingent is second only to that of the US.

The fact is the principal backers of the Iraqi Government in the fight against IS are the Iranians, so the Americans find themselves de facto allies of a country with which they have no diplomatic relationship, against which they have maintained strong economic sanctions for decades, and against which they have expended considerable diplomatic energy to ensure that they are diplomatically isolated and play no significant role in the settlement of the many problems of the Middle East.

In the minds of the Iraqi Government, however, the Iranians were seen as so central to success that when the Iraqis launched an assault to recover Tikrit, Saddam’s birthplace, they reportedly neglected even to inform the Americans ahead of the event. This might have had something to do with the fact that several months after thousands of American advisers turned up to train the Iraqi Army on which they and various allies had already spent a reported $25 billion, the Iraqi Army still wasn't ready for combat. Most of the hard work would be done by Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, who reportedly made up about two-thirds of the force which the Iraqis assembled outside Tikrit for the operation.

As we now know, things didn’t go according to plan, and the ground forces were forced to call upon US air strikes, which led to American expostulation  that as a matter of policy, the United States does not coordinate...anything with Iran, and that  "The Iraqis have some homework to do on this before we are able to assist them in the area they've asked for." US air support was provided in due course, but the “liberation” of Tikrit was followed by a wave of looting and lynching.

Further evidence of the confusion emerged on 1 June when it was reported that the prosecution of a Swedish national accused of terrorist activities in Syria had collapsed at the Old Bailey, after it became clear Britain’s security and intelligence agencies would have been deeply embarrassed had a trial gone ahead. It seems that British intelligence agencies were supporting the same Syrian opposition groups the accused man was.

This whole operation against IS puts one more in mind of a dog’s breakfast than a well-organised military campaign. It seems neither to be militarily effective nor calculated to win the hearts and minds of the Sunni people living under the dominion of the Islamic State.

Nicholas Stuart summed it up well in The Canberra Times on 26 May (see Ramadi's fall signals a strategy in tatters).  Of our Prime Minister’s approach Stuart says:

Abbott's theological background hasn't served him well in the real world. He instinctively divides forces into black and white, and that's why he's finding himself out of his depth in a Middle East where there are multiple loyalties and conflicts. Should we really be surprised that the simplistic answers he advocated have failed to solve anything?

… Abbott needs to understand that the world is not engaged in some kind of Manichean struggle between good and evil: the Middle East is a complicated situation where subtlety is needed to succeed. 

It's fine to label people, or insist on particular courses of action, but unless you've got the power to enforce your desires you're wasting everyone's time. There's a rule that suggests if you don't understand something you shouldn't get involved lest you make the problem worse. Our PM should consider taking this advice.

And in a letter to The Age published on 27 May, CIAW/AWPR Treasurer Andrew Farran summed it up in a few lines – see Blindly following the US, seventh letter from the top. Andrew’s letter reads:

Tony Abbott would have us follow the US any and every where. So which country in the Middle East does the US most fear? Iran. Which force in the region does Iran most fear? Islamic State. So why is the US so opposed to IS when it could provide the required balance against Iran? Why is it so concerned with the fate of Iraq when it has become irretrievably a pawn of Iran? The region is full of contradictions. Does Mr Abbott comprehend this when he speaks of IS simply as a "death cult"?

Syria and Iraq are destroyed states. A new balance of forces is emerging based on centuries-old, pre-colonial historical and religious rivalries, in which other regional states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also involved.

This is not where Australia has direct interests nor should it be involved. The terrorist repercussions from there to here are greatly exaggerated.