The appalling events we are witnessing in Syria and Northern Iraq are both the product and the source of powerful forces unleashed by the final collapse of the century-old efforts of the First World War victors to redraw the map of the Ottoman Empire, which had both lost the war and disappeared from history following the Atatürk Revolution. They are both cause and effect.
Within that larger picture, and most relevant to how Australia responds to it, the complex politics of the Middle East engages three of the great drivers of American foreign policy: the Wilsonian urge to spread civilisation, as defined by the United States, across the globe; the Hamiltonian urge to ensure the protection of US trade and commerce; and the Jacksonian urge to smite anyone impertinent enough to impugn the nation’s honour.
It also engages the predilection of some US policy makers to ignore the advice of their intelligence professionals and plough on regardless. Australian policy makers who fail to understand or who ignore this do so at our peril.
It certainly engages the naivety of Australian politicians in their apparent acceptance at face value of US claims that they are motivated by concerns about Weapons of Mass Destruction, human rights abuses or some threat to world peace and security, and their assumption that if we assist them in their latest military foray this will somehow generate feelings of gratitude which will make the United States more likely to come to Australia’s aid when our security is threatened.
And it engages the mendacity of those same politicians who can never quite bring themselves to reveal their intentions to the public that elected them, and will protest that ‘no decision has been made’ long after it is obvious to the most casual observer that they have committed themselves to our great and powerful ally.
In continuation of this dreary pattern of behaviour, on 3 March 2015 Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australia would increase its existing commitment to Iraq by despatching about 300 regular soldiers to train the Iraqi Regular Army. He said that the commitment would probably last two years, and that he could not rule out sending more troops in the future.
Mr Abbott denied that this latest commitment represented mission creep, but this mission has been creeping at a cracking pace ever since Mr Abbott announced by media release on 14 August 2014 that an RAAF C-130J aircraft had been brought into action for the humanitarian purpose of dropping ten pallets of supplies, mainly in the form of high-energy biscuits and bottled water, to ‘Yezidi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar by encircling ISIL forces’. He was at pains to stress at that time that the United States and Australia were simply engaged in a humanitarian mission.
By the end of August the Prime Minister had startlingly stretched the definition of ‘humanitarian mission’ to include the delivery of arms and munitions to one of the participants in this conflict, the Kurdish Peshmerga. And it just happened that there would be SAS soldiers on board in case the RAAF transport aircraft encountered trouble on the ground.
By mid-September we were contributing not only transport aircraft but FA/18 combat aircraft, a Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft, a LC-30A Multi-Role Tanker and Transport Aircraft, and 200 Special Operations military advisers.
It is hard to imagine that when Mr Abbott mobilised defence personnel from all around Australia to support the initial humanitarian mission he had given no thought to the nature and scale of the subsequent missions in which we would be participating.
The legal basis on which Mr Abbott has deployed Australian defence personnel to Iraq is highly problematic. The delivery of arms and ammunition to the Peshmerga was said to be at the request of the United States, which of course has no licence to invite anyone to conduct warlike operations in the territory of another country; more or less as an afterthought the government in Baghdad was asked to approve these operations.
This irregularity is the least of our problems. Far more serious is the fact that we have no Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq. In order to appreciate the importance of a SOFA one needs simply to reflect upon the fact that we are sending armed members of our defence force into the sovereign territory of another country. Without the consent of that country’s government, this action would amount to an invasion.
Furthermore, the fact that they are armed is an indication that we and the host government can foresee circumstances in which they might be required to kill people, in the course of which operations Iraqi civilians may be killed or injured.
It is inevitable also that sooner or later members of the ADF will find themselves attracting the attention of the Iraqi civil authorities, for something as trivial as a parking infringement, or something more serious such as a vehicle accident involving death or injury.
In order to protect the ADF members we are placing in harm’s way, and the interests of the two countries, we need clear understandings with the host government about the circumstances in which it is permissible to use armed force, what force it is permissible to use, what limitations there are on the use of force, and what happens when an ADF member is charged with an offence under Iraqi law.
The deployment of armed soldiers into another country’s territory is such a serious matter that these issues need to be covered in a treaty-level agreement between the two nations so there is no doubt whatsoever what the understandings are, that they are legally binding, and that they can neither be over-ridden by a higher authority nor set aside as a result of a change of government. Exchanges of diplomatic notes or other correspondence simply will not cut it.
What has happened, however, is that the Iraqi Government has declined to give us (or the United States) a SOFA, and our soldiers have gone into a country in crisis relying on the protection of diplomatic passports, for which they would not normally be eligible. This is a highly unsatisfactory basis for deployment of the ADF, and a degradation of our diplomatic passports: these soldiers are not engaged in diplomacy on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia.
The fact that the Iraqi government is not willing to negotiate a SOFA suggests that our Prime Minister, in his desperate need to shore up his position, needs this deployment more than the Iraqis do. This is a very poor basis for placing young Australians in harm’s way, and further underlines the urgent need to shift the so-called ‘war powers’ from the Prime Minister to the Parliament.
It also suggests that, no matter how much Australian political leaders might like to insist that the deployment of our troops into a Muslim-majority country has no consequences for our security at home, the Iraqi government realises that this is a red- hot issue for them and for us.
Regarding our adversary, Mr Abbott refers to ISIS as a ‘death cult’, saying he refuses to dignify it with the title ‘state’. This is just a marketing slogan, and it is not a helpful way to explain to the Australian public what we are dealing with. Like the FLN in Algeria, the Vietcong in Vietnam or the MNLF in the Philippines, it is a formed military force which exercises territorial and administrative control over cities, transport links and other assets—in ISIS’s case oilfields.
Estimates of the size of its military component vary. There are said to be about 20,000 hard-core fighters, but it controls enough population for some analysts to put the number of people it could field if it wanted to draft military-age males under its control at more like 200,000 to 300,000. They would be only hastily trained at first, but there is no reason to believe that ISIS would be reluctant to use them as cannon fodder.
One problem with controlling territory is that it puts ISIS in a situation where it has to deliver services—water, sewerage, electricity, fuel, health and medical services, education and training—to the subject population, and it needs to defend that territory.
Unlike al-Qaeda, which sought to inflict damage without holding territory, ISIS holds itself out as a caliphate, the beginnings of the rollout of the Dar-al- Islam (Abode of Islam) in which true believers can enjoy the benefits of a life lived under sharia law and in accordance with the teachings of the Prophet. Combined with that, it offers to the committed or the adventur- ously minded the opportunity to participate in the heroic task of expanding the domain within which the true believers can live their lives. If it can’t secure its domains and expand its frontiers, it doesn’t have much to sell, and the true believers might begin to wonder whether ISIS really is an expression of Allah’s will.
Accepting that ISIS is a state-like entity, it is useful to consider it through a resilience lens as well. Although many Sunnis living within the ISIS domains might welcome the relative safety from Shia militias that ISIS provides, it is hard to imagine that many of them welcome the actual way of life they are forced to live. To that extent ISIS might contain within it the seeds of its own decay, but we should not take too much comfort from that thought. ‘Resilience’ is not synonymous with ‘niceness’, and some dreadful regimes have proved to be remarkably resilient, where resilience is defined as the capacity of a system to withstand shocks and continue to function pretty much as intended.
The Soviet regime, for example, proved remarkably resilient through civil war, forced collectivisation, famine, the purges of the 1930s and the invasion by the Third Reich, which led to the deaths of over twenty million people.
Similarly, while the High Command in Britain assessed that the bombing of German cities would fatally undermine civilian morale and bring about an earlier end to the Second World War, the more proximate threat of a Gestapo man putting a bullet behind the ear of any ‘defeatists’, or stringing them up to the nearest lamp-post, meant that the German population endured the unendurable even as cities were reduced to rubble around them.
Thus however dreadful life under ISIS might appear, and whatever privations placing ISIS towns and cities under siege might impose upon the civilians forced to live under the ISIS regime, we should not assume that it will be possible to bring about an end to ISIS’s power to wage war in some form.
It is easy enough to kill people, but it is very difficult to kill an idea.
It is one thing for the United States to be pursuing its civilising mission, defending its commercial interests and defending its honour. Australia has no business pursuing these romantic notions, and would be far better placed to have regard to the fourth great American foreign policy tradition: the Jeffersonian suspicion of foreign entanglements, which led that great statesman to ensure that the US Constitution placed the power to make war firmly in the hands of Congress, on the grounds that it needed to be kept out of the hands of the executive, which would be ever ready to use it for purposes of domestic political advantage.
Note: This article is dedicated to the late Malcolm Fraser AC CH, one of the founders of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry and a dedicated supporter of War Powers Reform.
Paul Barratt is a former Secretary to the Department of Defence. He is President of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry/Australians for War Powers Reform.