World leaders are tracing trajectories for the Syrian conflict that range from sickening to horrific. Australia too must decide where and how to play a part in defeating Islamic State, also known as Daesh, and bringing some semblance of order back to the cauldron of corpses that is Syria.
Peter Khalil argued in this newspaper yesterday that Australia’s apparent alignment with the thinking of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on the future of the Syria is muddled and problematic. By vacillating on the question of whether Bashar al-Assad should stay or go, we hamper our allies, boost the noxious ambitions of the coalescing Russian coalition, and show chinks in the armour of Western nations arrayed against a barrel-bombing despot.
Khalil wants Australia to join up the seams between Canberra, Washington and London. Instead, though, Australia can best contribute to the efforts of our friends and allies by probing the seams in our respective Middle Eastern policies. A successful Australian strategy for resolving the Syrian conflict relies on accentuating our different perspective and leveraging our unique linkages in the region.
In the new Syrian reality all options are bleak, geopolitics reigns supreme and negotiating positions are being marked out by cruise missiles. Like it or not, Russia has changed the facts on the ground and redefined the terms of any possible grand bargain.
Yesterday Russian warships launched 26 cruise missiles against rebel targets in the cities of Aleppo and Raqqa. A 10-ship- strong Russian naval taskforce is manoeuvring in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean, joining ground forces and attack aircraft operating from Russian bases in northwestern Syria. Undoubtedly, Russian special forces and intelligence officers are working closely with their Syrian counterparts on the ground to direct strikes and select targets from among the myriad rebel forces arrayed against the incumbent Syrian government.
The political landscape in the region is shifting quickly, too. In Baghdad the head of the defence and security committee of the Iraqi parliament has called for Russia to join air combat operations against Daesh, opening the door for a Russian military presence in Iraq that could be significantly larger than that of the US.
Among the Iraqi military there are some with active connections to their former Russian military trainers; Iraq’s armed forces still operate many Soviet systems. Of course some of the former Baathist Iraqi military commanders fighting with Daesh will have had Russian military training, too. Moscow and Baghdad are sharing intelligence; it is a possibility that an Iraqi invitation to the Russian military could be forthcoming.
Yesterday the chief of joint operations, Vice-Admiral David Johnston, was at pains to emphasise that the Australian military was not co-ordinating with the Russian military but had procedures in place to avoid confusion in the skies over eastern Syria.
Tomorrow the Australian Defence Force could be placed in the awkward position of flying alongside Russian aircraft over western Iraq.
Writing on the new Syrian dynamic, Foreign Policy magazine editor David Rothkopf this week outlined US President Barack Obama’s new dilemma: “He wanted out of the region. He did not want to put US boots on the ground. He wanted someone or a group from the region to pick up the slack. And that’s exactly what he’s getting.”
Australia must remain agile and pragmatic as the US and other allies map the contours of Russia’s ambitions for the Middle East. We are in no position to rule out the possibility of the Syrian regime continuing with Assad at its helm.
For a start, there are few alternatives in the Syrian government who might step up to lead a Russian-buttressed regime.
Most of Assad’s inner circle is dead; only his deputy director of national security and a mobster-like cousin remain. Neither has clean hands in this conflict and both would be as unacceptable as Assad to the many rebel groups arrayed against Damascus.
But the rebel groups on the ground in Syria shift their allegiances and manifestos every day; we should be cautious about predicting what bargain they may sign up to in the months to come.
This week the US, Britain, and other regional allies have resolutely opposed the idea that Assad could remain. Australia has not. That gives us room, in co-ordination with our Western allies, to explore alternative political settlements with Russia and Iran.
Though she has been roundly criticised for it, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is building a relationship of sorts with Tehran since her visit there in April.
That’s understandable; after all we would be foolish to rush to trust Iran, a country that still celebrates a national day dedicated to the destruction of Israel.
Australia’s relationship with Iran is fledgling and faltering, sure, but motivated by more strategic concerns than just the short-term objective of repatriating asylum-seekers.
Australia’s overriding national interest now for the Syrian conflict is to prevent it from further spilling over into an already volatile region, fuelling nuclear proliferation and a wider Sunni-Shia confrontation. Iran is centrally important to this and Australia should maintain an active diplomacy with it.
Without the baggage that the US and others have in their relationship with Iran, we may be able to explore different options or at least provide a different perspective to strategic discussions between Western allies and partners.
Australia has strengths in its diplomatic channels to the Middle East that are not immediately apparent. We have a regular dialogue with the Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates. In fact the commander of the UAE Presidential Guard and special adviser on national security is a former Australian Special Operations commander, retired major general Mike Hindmarsh.
With Turkey, another key player in the regional dynamics on Syria, we are building a more sophisticated relationship, including through the MIKTA grouping of middle powers, which recently met.
Our commemorative activities there have also strengthened the muscle of our political and diplomatic connections.
It would be too much to imagine our Foreign Minister shuttling between these capitals and sealing deals, but through quiet and active regional diplomacy we may be able to help steer some sort of regional compromise between the various blocs and global powers.
But all of this relies on not simply echoing the policy positions of our allies and friends, and being more prepared to act as a diplomatic pathfinder in pursuit of a common goal for Syria: finding the least worst option.
This article was originally published in The Australian