Australia’s expanding war against Islamic State leaves much to be desired

1 September 2015

The application of military force may work up to a point, but beyond that a comprehensive political strategy is needed that could address the very causes that defy military solutions.

The Australian Government is set to expand Australia's participation in the US-led military operations against the Sunni extremist Islamic State beyond Iraq to hit targets in Syria.

Will this make a serious dent in the survival capability of IS, and will it help the Iraqi and Syrian peoples to free themselves from the bloody and tragic conflicts that have ripped their lives apart at unspeakable human and material costs?

The short answer is no. The US and its allies have been waging an intensive air campaign against IS for more than a year, with thousands of supporting troops on the ground, at least in Iraq.

Australia has been the second largest contributor to this campaign.

Not only have a squadron of its fighters regularly hit IS targets, but also its operations have involved some 700 troops for training and assisting the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish militia, Peshmerga to combat IS.

This carries a price tag of $1 billion a year. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has frequently voiced Australia's readiness to do more in order to destroy IS or what he has called the "death cult".

He now seems determined to respond positively to a US request, reportedly at Canberra's initiative, to authorise Australian jet fighters to hit IS targets in Syria, without the consent of the Syrian government or any supporting United Nations' resolution.

He has said that since the terrorists do not recognise borders and since the Iraqi-Syrian border has become an ungoverned area under IS, Australia is both morally and legally justified to engage in such an expansion, as the US has done for months.

There is no question that IS has emerged as a very violent, discriminatory and brutal ideological, political and territorial actor, contributing to the disintegration of an already conflict-ridden Syria and Iraq, and also posing a serious threat to these two countries neighbours and Western interests in the region.

It has committed despicable acts of atrocity in the name of Islam in the territories under its control and directed or inspired similar acts in the region and beyond, including Australia. Its attraction of thousands of mostly young Muslims from around the world is highly troublesome.

That said, the Australian government's approach as part of the US-led anti-IS operations leaves much to be desired.

The view that somehow dropping more bombs on IS targets in Iraq and Syria will make IS disappear is simplistic, to say the least.

It first of all mirrors IS's approach that national borders, for the purpose of operating against terrorists, no longer matter, and that Australia is entitled to act in the same way as IS, whose notion of khilafat, as utopian as it may be in the context of today's world, entails a borderless community of the faithful, uniting all Muslims under a single leadership.

Secondly, it ignores the complexity of the situation on the ground.

It overlooks the centrality of the very conditions that have given rise to such extremists as IS and like-minded groups, affecting the landscape not only in Syria and Iraq, but also across the Muslim Middle East domain, from Iraq to Libya to Yemen, not to mention many other parts of the Muslim world, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and some Sub-Saharan African countries.

These conditions are partly rooted in the prevailing authoritarianism or concealed authoritarianism, the gulf between the rulers and the ruled, social and economic disparities and injustices, as well as geopolitical rivalries and Israel's colonial-settler control and occupation of the Palestinian lands, and partly in external factors.

Major power interventions to shape and reshape the oil-rich and inherently volatile Middle East according to their ideological and geopolitical preferences have played their role in pouring oil on the fire.

No other power has pursued a more interventionist posture towards the region in the post-European colonial era than the US.

On average, the US has engaged in covert or overt operations, with or without help from its allies, every seven years since World War II. This is not to overlook the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Soviet rivalry with the US during the Cold War and their consequences, but to simply note that the US has been more interventionist than any other major power.

Yet none of the interventions has produced the desired results, except to interact inauspiciously with the weak domestic structures of most of the region's constituent states, preventing their peoples from having a key role in charting the destinies of their nations.

As former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said in a speech in Cairo in 2005 - something which was subsequently confirmed by former US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in his 2014 memoirs Duty - the US focused on stability and security in the Middle East for 60 years at the cost of democracy, and yet achieved neither.

It is most unfortunate that despite President Barack Obama's best efforts, the preference for the stability ahead of democracy still guides the US's Middle East policy attitude.

The Australian government's approach also falls within this dictum. Its expansion into Syria may well prove to be as unproductive as has its involvement in Iraq so far. If Prime Minister Abbott really wants to remove the IS menace, he should take the lead in advocating a Western approach that could change the very conditions that have nurtured the growth of IS and similar groups.

The application of military force may work up to a point, but beyond that a comprehensive political strategy is needed that could address the very causes that defy military solutions. If this can be done in the context of an interlocking regional and international consensus, all the better.

Without clearly articulated political objectives and a realistic security plan to support them, more bombs and more destruction can only cause more human misery and provide more oxygen to extremism, and therefore more blowbacks.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of Iran at the Crossroads (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015).

Article originally published in Fairfax Media. Read more: Follow us: @smh on Twitter | sydneymorningherald on Facebook