Is Australia right to bomb Syria?

Gordon Preece considers the ethics, dangers and complexities of the Syrian crisis.

Is Australia right to bomb Syria?

By Gordon Preece

September 30 2015The catastrophe of Syria’s emptying, and Europe and Australia’s floundering attempts to respond, were captured recently in two images. One was the powerful, visceral image of three year-old Aylan Kurdi’s limp body face down on a European beach. The other was an Age cartoonist’s picture of Mr Abbott as lifesaver lifting some Syrians with one hand from the water and holding others under-water with the other.

Innocents caught in the middle flee the bombs and barbarism of the Assad regime and IS. Although 12,000 will thankfully be taken in by Australia, the decision was made somewhat reluctantly. Indeed, the decision to bomb IS in Syria, to protect Iraq from IS incursions, was made and implemented more rapidly. The jarring juxtaposition of these admittedly difficult decisions deserves consideration together, not in isolation. This article addresses the two aspects side by side under the rubric of respecting borders and welcoming boarders.

First, we must consider how seriously complex the Syrian situation is. As Channel 4’s Paul Mason summarises: ‘a democratic uprising became a civil war, got hijacked by Islamists, was abandoned by the west, and became a bargaining piece in a bigger standoff with Putin’s Russia… The Syrian uprising failed because Putin re-armed a military that was teetering, and because Iran’s proxy… Hezbollah… helped defeat the moderate opposition. And because – Qatar and Saudia Arabia withheld aid from secular opposition forces in order to strengthen their own [and Turkey’s] proxies the… Army of Conquest’.

Meanwhile Russia is renewing the Cold War, stone-walling the UN Security Council with China, has a strategic port in Syria, and is concerned at Chechyn jihadis fighting with IS. It is hence training Assad’s forces and supplying bombers.

This is a complex, quadrilateral civil war. Any outside military action will likely have unintended consequences. The complication for those, like Australia, bombing the IS ‘death-cult’ alone, is that there are several death-cults involved (without engaging in the fallacy of moral equivalence with IS). The question is how will bombing IS help end the contagious conflict in Syria? 75% of civilian casualties are due to Assad, not IS.

The next key consideration is: what is the intended goal? There is consensus that it involves a diplomatic settlement including Russia and any western nations militarily involved. This may involve partition, or de-facto control zones, and definitely IS’s degrading and destruction. Should fighting IS, in both the west and Russia’s interests, be used as a bargaining chip to force Assad to step down while maintaining his regime as the best of a bad bunch, just as Saddam at least maintained order and a secular, non-sectarian state? This is what theologian John Stackhouse’s new book calls Making the Best of It.

As former PM Abbott helpfully said: ‘The outcome that we’re working towards, along with our coalition partners, is a Middle East comprised of governments which don’t commit genocide against their own people or permit terrorism against ours… This is not an attempt to build a shining city on a hill… to build a liberal pluralist market democracy overnight in the Middle East’. Nonetheless, bombing IS in Syria may not further this modest outcome.

Often ignoring these words, the west regularly repeats its Middle Eastern mistakes through a naïve faith in bare democracy without religious and minority rights built up over millennia. And Australia keeps unthinkingly jumping into others’ wars, saying ‘Yes we can!’ to Obama, or allegedly pleading with him to ask us to be included, without proper parliamentary debate and decision, unlike the more vigorous and thoughtful UK parliament that Mr Blair and Mr Cameron have had to face.

Secular realpolitik does not understand Middle East religious rifts. Islamic divisions merge into Cold War divides. The US uses Sunni states Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey as regional proxies, as Russia does with Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah. But the US-Iran nuclear deal, which I support, has alienated US proxies who now have their own plans for a Syrian opposition.

Further complicating matters, the increasingly erratic Erdogan regime (AKP) in Turkey, which hosts two million Syrian refugees, camouflaged its fighting IS to bomb Kurds in Iraq. It is now warring with the Kurdish Workers party (PKK) in Turkey. So what protections will be provided for Syria’s Kurds in a post-war carve-up?

The next consideration is legality. Any attack on Syrian soil should be justifiable on international humanitarian law and just war grounds i.e. it must satisfy the criteria of overwhelming humanitarian need; last resort; and proportionality of armed action. The UK may justify their intervention given evidence of imminent intended attacks on UK soil by IS trained UK citizens, two now killed by UK drones. But part of proportionality is prevention of non-combatant casualties. Even drones are only as good as their very remote intelligence, often killing civilians.

The RAAF has dropped more than 500 bombs on IS in Iraq over the last year. But there are regular reports of civilian casualties. Chris Woods, chair of Airwars.org, argues that ‘if Australia is extending its operations into Syria – a fraught and more challenging environment than Iraq – there will be a continuing risk of civilians being killed in Australian air strikes.’ Further, Australia is ‘way down the bottom of the [casualties] transparency table’ (R. Pollard, ‘Syria’s hidden body count,’ Sunday Age, 20/9/15, 30). These likely civilian losses must be minimised. They are much more than mere collateral damage, or unintended means to an end of IS. They are also prime recruiting material for IS.

Further, bombing within others’ borders without permission is breaking international law, unlike the Iraq situation where the coalition was invited in a year ago. Mr Abbott’s schoolyard mentality – IS is doing it, why can’t we? – provides a dangerous precedent for others to do the same. Borders, though not eternal, neutral or infallible, especially when running across tribal and religious lines, and largely imposed by imperialists post-World War I, are nonetheless, like good fences, a providentially provided (Acts 17:26) way of maintaining neighbourly relations. Respect for borders is crucial.

Loyalty to place, enabled by borders, and underestimated by cosmopolitan western jet-setters (like myself), is a critical part of human finitude. Places, with borders, are like trainer-wheels enabling us to ride into a range of wider relationships, to practise tolerance, hospitality and love, at a patient pace.

Respect for borders is important to a sense of home and enabling of hospitality and welcome to strangers. My sympathies are largely with Angela Merkel (daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor) in her opening up of Germany and seeking a wider European solution to Syria’s refugees. Pope Francis’ call for Catholic parishes to each take in one Syrian family is also exemplary. But as we see reactions from less well-off southern and eastern states stretched to the limit, and as compassion fatigue starts, we need to temper idealism and utopianism with realism. The noble European Union experiment is being stretched to the limits by capital and people flows. Its best hope is a win-win of providing new population supplements at a sustainable pace, for its dwindling populations. Also providing sufficient funding and processing for refugees in nearby lands safe, but close enough to their origins, respects the significance of place and possibility of return.

Australia’s island isolation makes Europe’s challenges unimaginable to us. Yet we are neither in paradise, nor in heaven, though to the 12,000 prospective refugees from Syria it seems like it. And we need to prepare for permanency of hospitality, with them not wanting or being able to return to a bombed-out hell-hole.

Further, in congratulating ourselves for accepting them, we shouldn’t forget the many left in unending purgatorial limbo in our detention camps dumped on our poor neighbours. We should set a time for closing the camps down.

The Revd Dr Gordon Preece is Chair and Executive Officer of the Melbourne Anglican Social Responsibilities Committee. He is also Director of Ethos, the Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society. See: www.ethos.org.au which includes information about forthcoming events, including Dr Robert Banks speaking on "The Time of Our Lives: Work-Life Balance", over dinner at DiMatinas Carlton, on 23 October.