A year ago I wrote about the rather facile argument the government ran when announcing its expansion of air operations inside Syria, which suggested it could somehow bomb IS targets in eastern Syria without becoming involved in the broader Syrian conflict.
As I explained then, that claim didn't stand up:
The minister somehow believes this because the RAAF will not be operating over Assad-controlled western Syria or Damascus, and that Australia can somehow magically target those ISIS elements that exclusively operate in or support the conduct of operations in Iraq. The foreign minister and the rest of the government trot out the line that ISIS doesn’t recognize borders and that attacking the group in Syria is the same as attacking them in Iraq.
This is, of course, nonsense as ISIS has the ability to redeploy forces where it perceives the operational need to be. ISIS elements in Syria operate against the Syrian regime and may also support fighting in Iraq.
Along with the more cautionary comment that:
...what they shouldn’t do is create the impression that an air campaign in Syria can be sanitized to such an extent that the RAAF will only be targeting ISIS fighters who will only operate in Iraq, and that the strikes will not have an impact on the broader conflict in Syria.
Now we have Australian aircraft involved (we're not sure what 'involved' actually means), it may well be time for the government to admit what it failed to do a year ago: we are in the multi-layered, complex conflict that is Syria.
Thinking that one could somehow 'ring-fence' Islamic State in eastern Syria, and target them without lightening the load on the Syrian military who were fighting them in Deir az-Zour for instance, never made any sense at the time, and makes even less sense now. Of course prosecuting IS targets in Deir az-Zour would assist the Syrian government. Little was made of that at the time by the fourth estate.
Now, however, if the reports are true, a coalition airstrike has weakened the very forces that are fighting Islamic State on the ground. Exactly how this occurred and the obvious intelligence/procedural failures that led to it will be revealed by the investigation. Russia is making merry at the political level as a consequence, which is somewhat hypocritical given its approach to collateral damage mitigation.
At this point, Canberra would be wise to fess up to the nature of our involvement in Syria. As much as politicians would like to say we are only involved in the war against Islamic state in Syria, it is impossible not to be involved in the broader Syrian war if you're bombing targets in eastern Syria. Potentially dozens of dead Syrian soldiers are testament to that.
Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images