Syria: It's What Isn't Being Said That's Of Interest
The Government's announcement yesterday that it would conduct air strikes inside Syria is notable more for what it didn't say than what it did. It was long on rhetoric, but short on detail, and lacked any semblance of strategic vision or acknowledgment of the potential impact on the situation inside Syria.
The Syrian targeting was spoken only in terms of its effect on Iraq, as though it will have no impact on Syria. But among the myriad issues that weren't addressed in any of the statements issued, three areas where the Government could be somewhat more expansive include the following:
Exactly what is the intent of expanding the mission? A request allegedly sent by the US to expand our air operations into Syria would indicate a degree of operational urgency or the need for additional air assets to counter the immediate threat from ISIS. But the Chief of the Defence Force indicated that the targets are just as hard to find in Syria as they are in Iraq, and that even though he has the ability to expand deployed aircraft from six to eight, he doesn't see a need to do so. So if targets are hard to find in Syria, and the military advice is that the ADF can cover targets in both Iraq and Syria with just six aircraft, there doesn't appear to be much of a burning operational need to include RAAF aircraft on the Syria Air Tasking Order. Hence the US request doesn't appear to be driven by any operational necessity.
Who is in the coalition? I have written previously that most Arab states have reportedly long since left the mission to join the Saudi-led air and ground campaign in Yemen. When Prime Minister Abbott announced the coalition, he stated that it was the US, Canada, Arab countries and Turkey striking ISIS in Syria and that the UK was likely to join. This begs the question as to exactly what Arab countries he was referring to, what assets they provide currently and why he didn't name them individually?
How are airstrikes against ISIS in Syria not going to impact the wider conflict there? The vague nature of the announcements indicated that the Government seeks to defend Iraq by targeting ISIS in eastern Syria – and doing so without any consequences for the conflict in Syria. In reality we will likely have so few assets deployed against targets in Syria that our operational impact will be marginal. But the situation in Syria is more complex than that in Iraq, and degrading ISIS in Syria will not simply have an effect on Iraq – there is also a chance that it will relieve the pressure on Syrian Army units operating in eastern Syria against ISIS. It may also embolden groups such as the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra to re-establish themselves in eastern Syria, where they operated before ISIS kicked them out. The Government needs to explain how the second-order effect of targeting ISIS can avoid reducing pressure on the Syrian Army in the east, and how it can prevent the expansion of other jihadi groups into the vacuum left by a degraded ISIS.
Practically speaking, the small number of assets we have deployed means that the ADF will have a pretty limited operational effect on the ground. Of more importance though is the fact that, regardless of how limited our support is, or whether we justify it purely in terms of Iraq, we have now bought into the Syrian problem. It is not a problem that you want to buy onto without a clear understanding of the strategic aim you intend to achieve. And on the face of the announcements today, there's little evidence that we have this.