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The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.

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Syria: The battle for the east

Sryian President Bashar al-Assad claimed in September 2016 that he intends to re-establish control over the whole of Syria, and recent actions indicate this remains his strategic aim.

In the west of Syria, realising he did not have sufficient combat power to defeat the armed opposition militarily, Assad and his allies have instead adopted a twin approach of 'containing and negotiating' with the rebels. The fall of Aleppo to Assad’s forces may not have been strategically significant in and of itself, but it was a major psychological blow, and the regime used it to good effect by portraying the societal benefits of a ‘return to normalcy’ after years of conflict and ‘persuading' rebel groups to undertake a negotiated settlement (such as Waer in Homs and Wadi Barada near Damascus).

These settlements have the additional benefit to the regime of concentrating many of Assad’s opponents into the one area. Thus a mixed group of secularists, 'light' Islamists (less violent, domestically focused) and 'heavy' Islamists (more violent transnational groups such as al Qaeda and affiliates) is created, causing tensions to flare internally and allowing Assad to portray them all as being part of a broader terrorist threat.

Furthermore, negotiated settlements have allowed Assad to free some of his manoeuvre forces to head east (and to a lesser degree south). There are plenty of indications that he has indeed commenced this redeployment along multiple axes, as explained in this Aaron Lund piece. This Russian military briefing claims (from 15:20-15:50) Syrian forces have advanced to the the Syria-Iraq border south of Abu-Kemal. Syrian state TV also released pictures of what it claimed were Syrian troops at the border.

The south-eastern part of the border, however, has become somewhat problematic. A small number of US and coalition special forces troops have been operating in the vicinity of al-Tanf border crossing within Syrian territory. And, while they had enjoyed a degree of independence since they seized the border crossing from ISIS more than a year ago, they did come to the attention of Russian aircraft last year and to ISIS attention through a local counter-attack earlier this year. Now, as Damascus’ focus has shifted east, provocations in the form of land and air incursions into the area have commenced. On 18 May a convoy of pro-Assad forces was warned and then fired upon by coalition aircraft. Last week another small pro-Syrian force north of al-Tanf was engaged, and an Iranian-manufactured drone was shot down after firing on anti-Assad forces in the same area. In the last few days the US has deployed the HIMARS artillery rocket system into al-Tanf.

Some have claimed that eastern Syria is now up for grabs between US-backed and pro-Assad forces, with a possible post-Raqqa move for anti-Assad forces to take over the Euphrates River valley, including the strategically important Deir az-Zour. Another view is that the US is dedicated to stopping the establishment of a mythical ‘Iranian highway’.

But neither of these claims is based on reality. To begin with, the US and the rebel forces it supports in the southeast are small and lack armoured manoeuvre capability. Assad regime forces are now located to their north and look set to increase their number. The Syrian military has maintained a brigade under siege in Deir az-Zour, and it is difficult to see any way the US could actively support forces that would essentially be used to relieve the siege of Syrian military forces in that city. Equally important, Washington's point man on ISIS, Brett McGurk, was quoted in a 7 June press conference in Baghdad referring to the US ground force presence in Syria as saying: 'the mission is to fight Daesh. When the fight against Daesh is over, we won’t be there.'

As for the argument that Iran seeks a land bridge to the Mediterranean, nobody has yet explained why Tehran would want a vulnerable 1000km stretch of road passing through four countries in order to transport arms to its ally Hizbollah in Lebanon, a force it already supplies effectively through its Damascus airbridge. Perhaps the Assad regime’s desire to seize crossing points to Iraq has more to do with restoring international commerce and gaining the revenue such crossings produce, much as US-backed rebels controlling the Tanf crossing have started to do.

The manoeuvring between pro-Assad forces and US-backed groups in the east is interesting to watch, but observers should be wary of drawing too many conclusions about the ability and willingness of the US to influence long-term events there. The US presence is tactical and temporary, a fact fully appreciated by those who are there for the long term.  

Mindanao: In the face of a new, united threat, Duterte courts unorthodox alliances

The conflict in the Philippines’ city of Marawi has now claimed the lives of 100 people, and President Rodrigo Duterte is committed to his May 23 imposition of martial law for the entire southern island of Mindanao (in which Marawi is located). In the face of a newly-united radical Islamist opposition, Duterte appears to be trying to build a coalition of his own between government forces and various separatist groups. However, it is unclear if such an alliance will materialise, given these groups’ concerns with Manilla’s declaration of military rule. Moreover, the degree to which the President’s current strategy can effect lasting positive change in Mindanao remains uncertain.

Since last week, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have been fighting an amalgamation of two distinct radical Islamist groups: Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf leader, pledged his loyalty to the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, while the Maute group explicitly aligned itself with IS somewhat later, in 2016. On May 23, government forces attempted to capture Hapilon in Marawi, but encountered joint resistance from both Hapilon’s forces and members of the Maute group, which sparked the current conflict. In March of this year, Sidney Jones wrote on The Interpreter that the relatively recent alliance-building between Hapilon, the Maute group, and other IS-aligned organisations enables more unified opposition to the government in the southern Philippines. The Marawi crisis would seem to be bearing out this claim. The Philippines’ leaders must accept that they are engaged in conflict with a newly-organised enemy that presents a more focused threat.

Duterte’s recent actions suggest that he believes a good response to united opposition is some unorthodox alliance-building of his own. Over the weekend, Duterte offered an olive branch to the Moro National Liberation Front and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the MNLF and MILF, respectively) the largest and most established groups that have fought the government for increased autonomy for the Philippines’ Moro Muslim minority. Unlike Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, neither Moro group has aligned itself with IS. Duterte proposed that fighters from the two groups could receive pay and other rewards for fighting alongside the AFP against Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. The AFP in turn would benefit from the separatists’ battle experience and knowledge of local terrain.  

Duterte claims to have received a pledge of 5000 troops from MNLF leader Nur Misuari, but there have been no corresponding claims from Misuari himself. A May 29 meeting with MILF leaders appears to have been productive; MILF leaders welcomed the idea of their troops being used to support civilians trapped in Marawi, but  did not make explicit troop commitments. Moro group leaders may oppose Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, but they may also be concerned that Duterte will turn on them under the auspices of martial law, perhaps after the threat from IS-aligned groups dissipates.

The President also called for military cooperation from the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which has been leading its own nation-wide, anti-government insurgency  centred in Mindanao. On Monday, one of the group’s key advisers said that the NPA is opposed to Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group’s violence against civilians, and expressed interest in cooperating with the government in the conflict in against Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. However, the Duterte administration recently backed out of the fifth round of ongoing peace talks with the communists after the CPP called on NPA forces to attack government troops imposing martial law in Mindanao. Given these mixed messages, government cooperation with communist militants is far from a sure thing.

The MNLF and the MILF have been engaged in peace talks with the government for decades, though these talks have moved slowly, with intermittent interruptions from outbreaks of violence. Meanwhile, a ceasefire agreed to in July 2016 between the government and the communists collapsed completely in February of this year. As mentioned above, the negotiations that have occurred since have been fitful at best.

Duterte’s new openness to rebel groups may represent a break from these groups’ troubled peace negotiations with the government. However, it would be dangerously naïve to presume that Duterte’s recent actions will bring about a lasting brighter future for Mindanao. Malcolm Cook of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies points out that Duterte already declared a national state of emergency in September after a Maute-linked bombing in Mindanao’s Davao City – and yet this was not sufficient to prevent the Marawi conflict. A recent editorial in Rappler, a Philippines news website, similarly notes that 'It [martial law] plays to our penchant for shortcuts, until it hits home. It makes us forget the real problems that have made terrorists thrive in the region.'

There are many obstacles to Duterte’s ambitious goal of an AFP-NPA-MNLF-MILF coalition. And even if such an alliance comes to fruition, it should not be seen as a means to achieving lasting peace in the southern Philippines.

Syrian safe zones: Not there yet

Last Thursday in Astana the latest agreement that attempts to establish some limited cessation of hostilities in Syria was signed. The signatories (and hence guarantors) were Turkey, Iran and Russia. Given this is the fourth attempt at a cessation of hostilities, prospects for its success appear slim. The opposition groups represented staged a walkout over a number of issues, not the least of which was the acknowledged role for Iran.

The plan allows for the creation of four zones, within which offensive military operations will cease (except against Islamic State or al-Qaeda-linked groups), as will Syrian aircraft missions above these areas (although Russian aircraft will continue to fly in a defensive role). Essential services would resume, and humanitarian aid delivery would be unobstructed. Outside of these areas, the conflict would continue.

Washington has been cautious about the proposal. It sent an observer to the Astana talks for the first time, but it also quickly rejected an idea espoused by a Russian envoy that the flight restrictions outlined in the agreement would also apply to US aircraft. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis was circumspect, saying the US was examing the plan but had many questions still to be answered.

There are plenty of difficulties with the proposal including: the delay in defining the exact limits of the zones and who and how each would be protected; the absence of a conflict-resolution mechanism; and the definition of al-Qaeda-aligned groups who could continue to be engaged within the zones. The Syrian government, for example, has previously defined all armed opposition elements as terrorists, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said that non-AQ groups must not only disengage from any affiliation with AQ-aligned groups but actively work to expel them from the zones. He has also dismissed any role for UN monitors, although the proposal will itself likely go to the UN for ratification.

So another attempt at trying to impose a limited cessation of hostilities is attempted, as the UN Geneva-based political process continues. Turkey and Russia have reported ongoing violations of the ceasefire, but also an increase in the number of armed groups joining the agreement and of inhabited areas joining in the reconciliation process. Neither claim has been independently verified, of course.

On the one hand any agreement that brings relief to civilians, even if temporarily, needs to be supported. But the lack of trust between sides has not disappeared. Cynics might say that such ceasefires simply allow the Syrian government to redeploy assets to other areas, reduce operational tempo, and plan and re-equip for future operations while trying to negotiate localised outcomes in populated areas. When looking at Syria, it's hard not to be cynical.

Finding the right balance: Terrorism financing offences, charitable donations and aid

As the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq worsens, Australians are likely to donate to charities operating in the region. Some of those who give - and some of those they give to - may run the risk of inadvertently breaching laws that have made 'reckless' and indirect funding of terrorism a criminal offence.

Since 9/11, Australia’s counter-terrorism efforts have included wide ranging legislative amendments to the Commonwealth’s Criminal Code. In an attempt to combat threats in an era of heightened terrorism, there have been eight tranches of legislation covering offences that range from travelling to a conflict zone to providing support to a terrorist organisation. In 2002, as a response to the UN Security Council’s binding resolution, Australia criminalised direct funding of terrorism. In 2005, the Code was further amended to prohibit indirect and reckless financing of terrorism.

The 2005 amendments sought to ‘enhance the clarity’ of terrorism financing by criminalising the supply of funds ‘through an intermediary’. They make it a criminal offence to indirectly provide or collect funds for, or on behalf of, another person where the first person is reckless as to whether the other will use it to engage in terrorism. 

This criminal offence was created predominantly in response to recommendations made by the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) that was established in 1989 by 35 countries to combat money laundering that could be used to support terrorism. One FATF recommendation strongly encouraged states to criminalise the collection or provision of funds by any means, whether those funds are directly or indirectly used by a terrorist organisation. Although the recommended level of intent was knowledge that funds will be used to engage in terrorist activity, intention can also be inferred from objective factual circumstances. Australian legislators argue the Australian law complies with the FATF recommendation.

The Australian Commonwealth Criminal Code defines recklessness as taking a ‘substantial risk’. In this case, the risk would be that funds given or received will be used for a terrorist act. A conviction may be secured if it is regarded as ‘unjustifiable’ in the circumstances to have taken such a risk. The maximum penalty for the offence is life imprisonment. However, as this law remains largely untested, it is unclear what would qualify as a ‘substantial risk’ and satisfy the requirement of recklessness.

What about donations?

It's worth considering how this law could be applied to charitable giving.  Last year Australians discovered that two charities had raised over $1 million each for a terrorist organisation. However, while AUSTRAC, Australia’s financial intelligence agency has acknowledged these incidents, the details of the charities involved are not publicly available, meaning individuals could potentially donate to the charities involved – thereby possibly contravening the law – without knowing of their links to terrorism. While one assumes the charities involved have been deregistered, this would not prevent the charity from collecting donations. The ambiguity evident here could potentially render the offences non-compliant with international law.

The Security Council’s Resolution 1373 and the International Convention for the Suppression of Financing Terrorism urged states to criminalise the wilful provision or collection of funds with the intent or knowledge that they will be used to carry out terrorist acts. The Australian offence goes beyond this in imposing a standard lower than actual knowledge. Known as 'gold-plating', this is permitted under international law as long as the laws comply with the requisite international obligations.

As the global response to terrorism financing is relatively recent, international approaches vary. The UK’s Terrorism Act requires a level of criminal intent akin to Australia. It prohibits receiving or providing funds if there is reasonable cause to suspect that it may be used for the purpose of terrorism. The US takes an intermediate approach, requiring knowledge and intent to provide support or resources that will be used in preparation for or carrying out a terrorist act. However, this same standard does not apply to giving material support, for which there is no need to prove an intent that support provided would be used to carry out an attack. Conversely, the French Penal Code and the Canadian Criminal Code, both of which have the lowest maximum penalty of the countries surveyed, stipulate the requirement of knowledge or intent that funds collected or received will be used for the commission of an act of terrorism.

Possible impact on humanitarian work

There are pertinent questions around how the 2005 law on terrorism financing affects those pursuing humanitarian goals in combat zones.

Unlike the offences of associating with a terrorist and entering a declared area (Mosul and Al-Raqqa), there is no permissible humanitarian exception to the offence of terrorism financing leaving civilians, doctors and aid workers potentially exposed.

A 2010 case in the United States, Holder v Humanitarian Law Project, is pertinent here. In its ruling, the US Supreme Court declared that training the PKK to peacefully resolve disputes, as well as in ways to comply with international humanitarian law, violated the US criminal law. The court reasoned that such support can 'free up resources that can be put to violent ends', as there was a lack of evidence that terrorist organisations 'meaningfully segregate support of legitimate activities' from terrorism. This is the US law but its reach and influence can be seen in the Australian and UK legal systems where it is viewed as an example of a state fulfilling its international obligations by exercising due diligence in preventing terrorism. Such measures, however, have to be balanced with the need for humanitarian organisations to operate in terrorist-controlled areas to aid civilians.

In 2013, a report identified the use of proscribed terrorist group Al-Shabaab by prominent international charities as a gateway to secure humanitarian access to Somali communities. More than 80 aid workers were interviewed and the majority said there was a greater chance of gaining and maintaining access if staff formed links with Al-Shabaab. This included the payment of ‘registration fees’ and ‘taxes’. The consequences that these relationships have for individual donors is yet to be explored, however Australian law does not rule out such liability. This reflects the lack of specificity in the offence that leads to legal uncertainty.

The Australian Law Council suggests that this is not the only danger in these laws, arguing they could 'serve as a hook for the exercise of a wide range of law enforcement and intelligence gathering powers'. The case of Muhammad Haneef highlighted the broad and undefined parameter of these laws, although the case was ultimately unsuccessful. Haneef was charged with intentionally providing support to an organisation and being reckless as to whether it was a terrorist organisation after providing a SIM card to a second cousin who was suspected of involvement in the 2007 Glasgow Airport bombings. After being detained for 12 days without charge, evidence showed the SIM card was not in fact used and Haneef was acquitted. It could be argued the initial charge demonstrates a dilution of what defines criminal intent.

Australian charities focused on international development sent $1.7 billion overseas in 2015. Community support accounted for 61% of this total. Community support for NGOs that provide humanitarian aid has increased by an average of 5.6% since 2010, suggesting Australians have a high level of confidence in the charity sector.

In 2015, nearly 7000 Australian charities had beneficiaries located overseas while 57 disclosed operations in Iraq and Syria. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission regulates the national charities’ register, and in 2017 alone 590 charities had their status revoked for failing to adequately account for funds collected. Although this may appear reassuring, charities that have been deregistered by the ACNC – or never registered - can still accept donations from the public, leaving open the possibility that individuals may donate funds that end up in the hands of a proscribed organisation. It is unclear whether donating to one of these charities could be construed as reckless.

Australia’s legal framework must define our approach to the fight against terrorism. However, it is equally vital that humanitarian assistance is able to reach civilians in need, no matter their location, and that those willing to give to support such assistance should not run the risk of inadvertently breaking the law. In the years ahead, the balance Australia strikes between these goals will need to be constantly re-weighed.

*Charlotte Warden is an intern in the Lowy Institute's West Asia program. She has a Juris Doctor from the University of Sydney and has a research interest in human rights law, development and the law on the use of force.

Anzac Day: Remembering the soldiers on unexpected battlefields

My experience of Anzac Day probably mirrors that of a lot of Australians: some initial connection with returned diggers, then a role in their commemoration. As a very young tacker I would occasionally be taken into the city to see an uncle (a World War II veteran) march. The crowds were, to a little boy at least, very large. At school cadets, there was a remembrance service around the cenotaph at Chatswood that was equally well-attended (although largely by parents).

When I joined the army and went to the Royal Military College Duntroon in the early 1980s, I was struck by how low-key Anzac Day was. Dawn service around Bridges' Grave (the first commandant, killed at Gallipoli) and a very short parade where the names of the fallen graduates were read out, then knock-off for the day. First-year cadets (referred to as fourth class) were bussed to the War Memorial prior to dawn, where we were designated as the press-ganged, semi-official but entirely untrained 'choir' and stood along the Roll of Honour above the Pool of Reflection. The gathered crowd all fitted easily around the pool area. Those who have attended dawn service at the War Memorial recently will understand what a production it has now become.

Nowadays my connection with Anzac Day is somewhat less removed. Even though all but a handful of my classmates have left the service, we have in the last few years developed a habit of Sydney-based (and visiting) former classmates gathering on Anzac Day for a few beers. We are, I suppose, a representative sample of the diversity of the last quarter-century of Australian military operations. Some among us have served operationally in combat, peace enforcement, peacekeeping, training and advisory, and evacuation roles in many countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Solomon Islands, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Somalia and elsewhere. However, such is the disaggregated nature of modern operations, with task-organised groupings or individualised rotations, that few of us actually served together on any of these operations – we all have individual rather than shared memories of these deployments. 

It is difficult to associate our group with those that my uncle used to gather with, many of whom had fought together in a conventional war for years. But warfare and military operations are rarely fixed, even if the principles underpinning them often are. What my generation's experience of military operations lacks in intensity and duration, compared to that of my uncle or the Vietnam veterans who were still around to instruct me during my years at Duntroon, it probably makes up for in diversity and complexity. And the more complex the nature of conflict, the less likely it is to be accurately foretold, which was certainly the case in my experience.

The best advice about the future conduct of military operations came in the first few weeks of my military service. The Commandant, a student of military history, told the assembled fourth class with great confidence that we should all expect to see operational service during our careers and it behoved us to master the profession of arms in order to meet whatever that conflict would be, as we would be unlikely to foretell what that service would entail. Much went in one ear and out the other in those days, when sleep was in short supply but getting yelled at wasn't. But those words stayed with me because they seemed so at odds with the strategic stability of that Cold War time.

The years passed, I graduated and I had cause to remember those words as a junior officer when I was on yet another exercise – this time trudging through the bush in Cape York as commander of an 'enemy' platoon attempting to breach the defences of the army reserve brigade defending the bauxite mining and export facilities at Weipa. That's what strategic guidance said was the most likely threat faced by Australia, and the role of the Army should therefore be vital-asset protection as the Navy and Air Force fought the good fight well offshore. I tried to master my profession as the Commandant had urged, but I was pretty sure that the operational service I would be called upon to undertake (if indeed I was to undertake any) would not be in Far North Queensland protecting mines and export facilities, regardless of what the 'strategists' posited as credible scenarios.

Events have proven both how facile the late 1980s strategic guidance was, and how prescient the Commandant's words were. My operational service took me to places I couldn't have pointed to on a map during my early years in the army, doing things strategists couldn't have foretold. And that is likely to hold true for future generations of service members, whose equipment purchases, organisational structures and basing locations will be driven by defence white papers that largely fail to predict the future. It will be left to those same service members to play the hand that events deal them, because in the end the words of advice that the Commandant gave to RMC Fourth Class in 1983 will likely hold more weight than the strategic guidance contained in all the white papers ever issued.

As well as remembering the horrors of and sacrifices involved in past wars, on Anzac Day it is worth spending just a little time thinking about the tasks we may call on our present and future service members to perform. In the next quarter-century the groups that gather to recall their own operational service will, like my own cohort, undoubtedly talk of places and tasks that either didn't feature in the current strategic guidance, or only as a least likely scenario. Lest we forget.

The popes and the Islamists

As we approach Easter, it's worth looking at how institutional Christianity and radical Islamism interact in the contemporary world. The bomb attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt highlight the occasional focus by Islamist groups on Christian targets in the Middle East.

Just as outsiders struggle with the complexities of Islam's various sects, the same conundrums often face Christians in the Middle East. Here, Orthodox sects vie with Latinate and Eastern-rite Catholic sects for space in the religious milieu. There has been little acknowledgement that religious obligation is acting as a minor motivator for Russian actions in the region. The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, signed in 1774, gave Russia a historical basis for its claim to act as protector of the region's Orthodox Christians.

But while Orthodox Christianity has great strength in the Middle East, it is really Catholicism that has global reach, and a bureaucracy to give substance to ideological orientations. Most importantly, as an institution nearly two millenia old, the Catholic Church is unconcerned with electoral cycles and has a keen sense of time. Thus, its response to radical Islamism is an interesting one.

The Catholic Church is undoubtedly a target for radical Islamists. The death of a French priest last year, killed by Islamic State militants while giving Mass in Normandy, grabbed headlines; there have been alleged plots against other Catholic churches in France. In August last year a suicide bomber unsuccessfully attacked a Catholic church in Indonesia, while an attack on the main Catholic cathedral in Jakarta on Christmas Eve in 2000 killed several people. In 2011 Boko Haram killed more than 30 people at a Christmas morning mass near Abuja, Nigeria's capital. Other attacks against Catholic churches occurred in 2012 and 2014. In Syria, Catholic Franciscan and Jesuit priests have been killed, while in Yemen an ISIS-affiliated group killed four nuns (along with twelve others) and kidnapped an Indian Catholic priest.

The Pope, as leader of a state and the Church, has had to tread a fine line in condemning attacks against the institution he leads without condemning Islam, in whose name the assailants conduct the attacks. It is a difficult path to navigate, particularly given the historical baggage the papacy carries with respect to Islam among Arabs, especially in the Levant. The 11th century French-born Pope Urban II's urging of Christians in Europe to travel to the Holy Land to 'retrieve' it from 'an utterly accursed race alienated from God' lead to centuries of cruelty and barbarity as the Crusades wrought untold harm on the Muslim world. Nearly a thousand years later, Pope Benedict XVI sparked protests across the Islamic world when he quoted Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos's critique of Islam during an address at the University of Regensburg in 2006.

But there is another element to the sometimes confrontational relationship between the Church and Islam. The papacy has been actively involved in rolling back forces fighting under the banner of Islam. In 1571 Pope Pius V put together the Holy League that defeated the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto, while in 1683 Pope Innocent XI convinced the Poles to come to the aid of the Austrians besieged by the Ottomans in Vienna, ultimately saving European Christendom from Muslim invaders.

These events would normally be of historical interest only, but Popes have had a way of combining ecumenism and differentiation when dealing with the question of Islam. The Polish Pope John Paul II was able to emphasise commonalities between the religions, but to also highlight the differences. He was also not afraid to use the papacy's martial past to send a message about the present. It was no coincidence that in 1983, Pope John Paul II attended the 300th anniversary of the defeat of the Ottoman forces (though his focus at that time was still on repression in Eastern Europe). The Vienna victory had been celebrated on 12 September as the Feast of the Most Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but that fell out of the Catholic calendar in 1970. However, on 12 September 2002, nearly a year to the day after the 9/11 attacks, the feast day that celebrated the victory of Catholic Europe over the armies of Islam was reinstated in the liturgical calendar by John Paul II.

Pope Francis has inherited the church at a time when the question of radical Islam has presented perhaps the most significant global security challenge of his papacy. He has been quick to adopt an ecumenical approach to Islam, and to downplay the religious aspect of radical Islamist terrorism in favour of emphasising its societal drivers. But he has also faced criticism for this approach from conservative wings of the church, including from the somewhat provocatively-named Lepanto Institute.

Missile strikes do not signal US shift on Syria

In a complex and confusing civil war in which decisions can result in unforeseen consequences, the Trump Administration was presented with a relatively straightforward choice and with a perfect target. Syrian military aircraft, launched from Shayrat airbase in Homs, carried out an attack that included the use of chemical weapons. That same airbase was subsequently targeted by scores of cruise missiles fired from US naval vessels in the Mediterranean.

The use of missiles avoided the need for aircraft to enter Syrian airspace and the consequent need to suppress enemy air defences in advance. An airbase is a large, flat area where assets are widely dispersed – infrastructure and aircraft can be selectively targeted and assets that need to be avoided (such as Iranian and Russian troops and advisers) can be avoided. 

This US response has been swift, targeted and, perhaps most importantly, proportionate. One of the constraints in undertaking military action against the Syrian government has been the need to do so without tipping the military balance in favour of opposition forces, whose disunity and increasingly overt Islamist influence long ago wore out Washington's patience with many of them.

We should be careful not to conflate the missile attack with any dramatic shift in US policy on Syria. There is still no rapid political resolution to the situation and therefore the primary intermediate aim is to contain the impact of the civil war. The Assad regime has had scant regard for the need to minimise civilian casualties, while at the same time the opposition deploys in and among the civilian population and within protected sites, also in breach of international humanitarian law. Neither side is blameless. But the use of chemical weapons sits well outside what has become 'acceptable', so something had to be done. Obama elected not to retaliate when chemical weapons were first used in 2013. In exchange, he got from Assad the removal of all chemical weapons. But Syria didn't live up to its side of the agreement, so Trump had little choice but to act.

Trump has set the boundaries on chemical weapons use back to where they have traditionally been, and put Russia and Iran on notice that Washington's patience has run out. But it's not likely this action will presage any fundamental change in Syria policy. Secretary of State Tillerson included the departure of Assad as one of the Administration's aims, but only as the result of an international effort and as a third priority (after the defeat of ISIS). And while Washington is obviously certain as to the 'how' of the chemical weapons attack, the more interesting question is the 'who' and 'why'. Who ordered the attack and what were they trying to achieve? That's a question to which not only Washington, but Moscow and Tehran, will be interested to find an answer.

Assad set to outlast the many who wanted him out

The language emanating from the White House concerning the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad appeared to change last week, revealing another layer in an increasingly realist foreign policy approach from Washington. President Trump had signalled during the presidential debates that his focus was less on removing Assad and more on removing Islamic State, a policy that Assad himself unsurprisingly (if cautiously) welcomed. Last week Washington’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (backed up by the White House) both indicated that the priority for the Administration was the defeat of Islamic State and that the future of Assad would be decided by the Syrian people (the same public position enunciated by Russia).

Assad has of course taken a strategic approach to his continued hold on power. His father was the great survivor of Arab politics and Bashar (buttressed by powerful allies in Russia and Iran, and able to portray the opposition as a motley collection of terrorists, Islamists and opportunists while presenting himself as the rational alternative) has sought to ‘wait out’ his opponents. In this regard at least he seems to have won out. There is much to be said about the change in tone and what it means for Washington’s Syria, but it is also worth pausing to consider how successful Assad’s ‘wait it out’ strategy has been by examining the fate of some of the world leaders who have called for his removal over the years:


Kevin Rudd: In 2011, as foreign minister in Julia Gillard's government, Rudd issued a media release stating: ‘We again call on Bashar al-Assad to step down immediately'. Rudd's second stint as Prime Minister came to end when his party lost the September 2013 election.

Julia Gillard: In 2014, after she had been ousted by Kevin Rudd eight months earlier, Gillard said: ‘We must remain open and vigilant to opportunities and strategies that will end the suffering, end the Assad regime'.


Stephen Harper: In June 2013 the then-Prime Minister said: ‘We want to see Assad depart power'. The Harper government was voted out in October 2015.


The then-President Muhammad Morsi said during an Arab League meeting in September 2012: ‘Now is the time for change ... (Assad) You will not stay (in power) for longer'. Morsi was removed from power by the Egyptian military in July 2013.


Nicolas Sarkozy said in January 2012 that Assad ‘must leave power’. President Sarkozy himself left power when he lost to Francois Hollande in the May 2012. Hollande told the UN General Assembly in September 2015 that ‘Assad is the origin of this problem, and cannot be part of the solution'. Hollande will leave office in May this year at the latest, if a second round is required in the French presidential election.


Former Prime Minister John Key said of Assad: ‘This is a guy who has used chemical weapons against his own people, against everything else. He's got to go.’ Key stepped down as Prime Minister in December 2016.


Then-Prime Minister David Cameron in July 2012: 'It is time for him to go. It is time for transition in this regime.' Cameron resigned in July 2016 after the Brexit referendum.


Barack Obama in August 2011: ‘For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside'.

Obama left offce in January this year after serving two terms as president, the maximum allowed under the US constitution.


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