The call by Liberal MP Dan Tehan for the RAAF to begin targeting ISIS in Syria, made just after his visit to the US, UK and France (but strangely, not to the Middle East), is somewhat perplexing. The Prime Minister has been notably cagey, not ruling it out or ruling it in, thus giving oxygen to the embers of the backbencher's prognostications.
It could be a feint attack designed to distract the Government's detractors from domestic issues, or it could be someone running an idea up the flagpole to see who salutes it. I write this in the event that it is the latter rather than the former, because not only should we not salute the idea, we shouldn't even be running it up the flagpole in the first place.
Suspicions about how well considered the proposal is should begin with Mr Tehan's call for Australia to lead a campaign in the UN, alongside Washington, to get global consensus on action in Syria. Because obviously nobody has tried that for the past four years. Perhaps a better use of our diplomatic resources would be to ask our friends in the Middle East why so few of them are contributing aircraft to the fight against ISIS when Australia is.
Anyway, here are a few issues people may want to think about, or have the Government think about, regarding Mr Tehan's call for the RAAF to bomb Syria (and I have not even raised the issue of legality):
- What combat power do we bring to the table and why would we dilute it? With six aircraft deployed to the UAE, we are able to generate a limited number of sorties per day. If we were to hit targets in Syria, it would come at the expense of targets in Iraq. The number of sorties we could add would make little difference, and it is likely that Baghdad would ask why we were shifting our focus from attacking targets in the country that asked for our assistance in order to attack targets in a country that hasn't.
- If it's in our national interest to bomb Syria because we have foreign fighters there, why isn't it in the Gulf States' interest? It is estimated that there are approximately 160 Australians in Syria and Iraq. There are around 3000 Saudis doing the same but the Kingdom doesn't appear to think it's in its national interest to bomb ISIS. Saudi Arabia has withdrawn its aircraft from the coalition campaign in Syria, and taken its Gulf allies with it, in order to attack Houthis and parts of the Yemeni army.
- Turkey has joined the fight against ISIS in Syria so why are we needed? The Turkish air force has more than 200 F-16s and more than 50 ageing F-4 Phantoms, which can generate significant combat power from home bases much closer to Syria than the RAAF can from the UAE. ISIS killed 32 people in a bomb attack in the Turkish town of Suruc and attacked a Turkish border post. The resultant Turkish air attacks against ISIS and Kurdish PKK positions showed just how many sorties the Turks can generate when they want to.
- Once we begin bombing targets in Syria we become responsible for what follows. Iraq is a largely binary conflict, with the Iraqi Government and its allies on one side and the ISIS coalition on the other; the friendly ground forces are supported by the air campaign. Syria is a multi-dimensional conflict involving numerous jihadi groups other than ISIS. Regardless of how minor our role may be, if you don't know what the strategic aim is in bombing Syria then don't join in. Nobody appears to have enunciated the strategic end-state that RAAF bombing of Syria is supposed to produce. What if bombing ISIS targets just over the border gives Jabhat al-Nusra a leg up over its Islamist rival? Syria is not simple and never will be.
Photo by Flickr user ermaleksandr.