In August I wrote a piece for The Interpreter asking what Dan Tehan MP was thinking when, having received some briefings in the US and Europe, he advocated that Australia join a bombing campaign in Syria. Tehan said an expanded RAAF air campaign was necessary to stop ISIS's raping, murdering and pillaging, as well as the flow of foreign fighters. He even raised the possibility of deploying more aircraft if necessary. The MP got his way and Canberra signed up. So it is worth asking how much raping, murder and pillaging has stopped courtesy of Mr Tehan's suggestion.
On 14 September the RAAF began air operations over eastern Syria, with the then Defence Minister somewhat optimistically declaring that, despite bombing targets in eastern Syria where Syrian Government forces still operate, 'we are not involved in the broader conflict in Syria...(or) in the conflict involving the Assad regime '. With Syrian army brigades operating on the ground in eastern Syria in the very areas the RAAF was planning to operate, this assertion was always nonsense. But with Russian aircraft now operating in Syrian airspace (including around Raqqa) with the permission of the Syrian Government, the assertion becomes even more of a fantasy.
Moreover, for all the hype and hoopla surrounding the Abbott Government's announcement, the execution of the RAAF's Syria mission gives no hint of urgency and no clue why the US President would request our contribution. On 7 October the Chief of Joint Operations gave a media conference (begins at 9:45) in which he noted that since the air operations had commenced over eastern Syria, the RAAF had undertaken nine strike missions against two targets. Those targets were an armoured personnel carrier and a two-man ISIS checkpoint (begins at 26:45).
When, after a month of an air campaign extending into eastern Syria, the only targets engaged are an APC and a two-man checkpoint, the Government's argument that it has a legal mandate to attack ISIS in Syria because of the effect on the fighting in Iraq is somewhat diluted. It would be interesting to see how targeting a two-man ISIS checkpoint in Syria added to the collective self-defence of Iraq.
The target list also falls somewhat short of The Australian's breathless pronouncement that 'The Royal Australian Air Force is likely soon to extend its bombing campaign in Iraq to include terrorist targets in Syria, to help cut the supply routes of the Islamic State terror group and destroy its main command and control centres'. An APC and two men doth not an ISIS command & control centre make.
I argued previously that Australia should avoid becoming militarily committed in Syria because of the complexity of the situation, and because there was neither an operational imperative nor a defined national interest in doing so. The entry of the Russians has made the situation even more complex, and the targets engaged after a month of operating in Syria give the lie to any argument about an operationally urgent requirement to target supply lines or 'terrorist bases'.
The new Prime Minister and Defence Minister are probably both muttering expletives under their breath at what their predecessors have signed them up for: a Syria commitment without any coherent strategic aim to support it. They may also be curtailing Mr Tehan's future prognostications on the need for increased Australian military commitments in the Middle East.
Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.