The Syrian conflict: consequences for Australia
The Hon Anthony Whealy QC
The Arab Spring, a term coined and popularised by Western media, had its genesis in Tunisia. In early 2011 the Tunisian success – the ousting of an unpopular leader – emboldened similar anti-government protests, riots and civil insurrection in other Arab countries. These included Egypt, Libya, Yemen and later Syria.
Hope was raised in the Western world that these movements may have heralded not only the fall of dictatorial and oppressive governments but also the rise of democracy in the Arab world. Did it presage, dare we say it, peace in the Middle East.
Now some four years later, we look on in dismay. Our hopes are almost completely dashed. Tunisia, the great examplar of the Arab Spring, is struggling politically and is in dire straits economically. In March, gunmen from Libya attacked the Tunisian capital’s Bardo National Museum, killing 21 foreign tourists. Partly as a result of this, and for other reasons, new laws have been enacted. These ban criticism of the military, muzzle journalists and impose severe penalties for ”disturbing the public order”. Does this herald the death of legitimate protest in Tunisia? The trampling of hard-won civil rights eg freedom of expression and freedom of the press?
The Egyptian situation is even more shattering. Ask Peter Greste what he thinks. Libya is a nightmare. Yemen is escalating daily into a fearful situation, drawing upon the age-old conflict between Sunni and Shia, and enlarging the disputation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
My particular concern is the civil war in Syria. Let me begin with a brief overview:
- As a consequence of the Arab Spring, anti-government protests aimed at ousting Bashar al-Assad escalated over some months into a full-scale civil war.
- More than 200,000 Syrians have lost their lives in four years of armed conflict.
- 11 million people have been forced from their homes – 4 million of these displaced people have fled Syria and represent a refugee exodus creating a large-scale humanitarian crisis.
- Despite UN efforts, there is at present no reasonable hope of an end to this civil war. Indeed, most recently Saudi Arabia has formed a coalition with the Al Qaeda affiliation Nusra Front to combat Assad and Hezbollah. Assad has retaliated by barrel-bombing towns and cities occupied by the rebels.
A potted history
In March 2011 in the southern city of Deraa protests broke out after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who had painted slogans on a school wall. Several demonstrators were killed by security forces in these protests. This incident was the trigger for nationwide protests calling for Assad’s resignation. Within a short time, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country. Formation of rebel brigades within these protest groups heralded the emergence of a full-scale civil war, escalating the conflict and eventually engulfing the principal cities of Damascus and Aleppo. By August 2014 over 190,000 people had been killed.
What followed then can be briefly stated: the civil war escalated beyond a mere battle between those who supported Assad and those who didn't. It became a much broader sectarian battle pitching the country’s Sunni majority against the President’s Shia Alawite sect. Ominously, it drew into the conflict neighbouring countries and indeed world powers. In turn, this led to the rise of rebel Jihadist groups, often warring among themselves for supremacy. It spawned as we know, the eventual emergence of Islamic State with its ultimate stronghold in Raqqa. ISIS gained control and sway over large portions of northern and eastern Syria. Later, with the establishment of its so called Caliphate, ISIS took over a broad range of territory in Iraq centring on Mosul and, until recently, Tikrit, the homeland of Saddam Hussein.
The Islamic State grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The latter group was responsible for many of the atrocities 10 years ago in Iraq but was eventually defeated by the United States and militant Sunni groups who became dissatisfied with Al Qaeda's brutality. The new Caliphate is now battling rebels and Jihadists from the Al Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front which had objected to its tactics. It is also fighting at the same time Kurdish and Syrian government forces in Syria.
In Iraq, ISIS is extracting a dreadful revenge on those who had supported the Shiite government led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It slaughters the captured Iraq soldiers or former soldiers en masse and, in a fierce propaganda campaign, it beheads foreigners and journalists eg the unfortunate James Foley. The proxy war to which I have referred has involved, on one side, Iran and Russia seeking to prop up the Alawite government of Bashir al Assad. Supporting Assad as well is Lebanon’s Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement. On the opposite side, Sunni supporters come from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Internationally the United States, United Kingdom and France have, with varying degrees of reluctance, moved towards some unacknowledged degree of support for the Assad regime, perhaps contemplating that it represents something less evil than the possible consequences arising from its defeat.
So far as Islamic state is concerned the United States has some 5000 troops on the ground in an endeavour to defeat and degrade Islamic state. It engages in regular airstrikes both in Syria and Iraq in this endeavour. Australia has been drawn into this world wind providing troops for training and other support. This was initially categorised as the provision of humanitarian aid but ultimately, once agreement was hammered out with the Iraq government, troops were sent into Iraq at the invitation of the Iraq government to provide the military training to which reference has already been made.
The US led coalition against the Islamic state now counts 62 countries among its members. These include: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain. As might be expected, the contribution of the Arab countries does not extend to troops on the ground. Australia's commitment has been to send in approximately 900 troops although these are not intended to act in direct combat roles. Australia has also provided eight combat aircraft and an early warning aircraft. Australia has also supplied a large amount of money in humanitarian aid to Iraq.
The Sunni Shia divide
I would like to divert from the Syrian civil war to say something very briefly about the Sunni Shia divide. This is important for understanding the sectarian conflict which is becoming entrenched in a growing number of Muslim countries and is threatening to fracture both Iraq and Syria. Although it is not part of this discussion, there are many academics and historians who view the United States invasion of Iraq as the primary factor which has led to the fracture and civil war in the Middle East involving the historic dispute between Sunni and Shia.
Islam’s schism, simmering for fourteen centuries, doesn't however explain all the political, economic and other factors involved in the present conflicts. But it has become one prism through which to view the underlying tensions. Two countries that compete for the leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, have used the sectarian divide to further their ambitions. How their rivalry is settled will likely shape the political balance between Sunnis and Shias and the future of the region especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.
Sunni and Shia Muslims have lived peacefully together for centuries. In some countries it has become common for members of the two sects to inter-marry and pray at the same mosque. They share faith in the Koran and the prophet Muhammad’s sayings and perform similar prayers although they differ importantly in ritual and the interpretation of Islamic law.
Shia’s separate identity is rooted in victimhood over the killing of Husayn, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, in the seventh century, and, it must be said, a long history of marginalisation by the Sunni majority. This majority, Islams’ dominant sect (roughly 85% of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims follow it) viewed Shia Islam with suspicion and extremist Sunnis have traditionally portrayed Shias as heretics and apostates.
The schism was occasioned by a debate over the succession issue following Muhammad’s death in 632. Some argued that leadership should be awarded to qualified individuals. However, others insisted that the only legitimate ruler must come through Muhammad’s bloodline. A group of prominent early followers of Islam elected Abu Bakr, a companion of Muhammad, to be the first Caliph or leader of the Islamic community. This was over the objections of those who favoured Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. The opposing camps in the succession debate eventually evolved into Islam’s two main sects. Ali became Caliph in 656 and ruled for only five years before he was assassinated. The Caliphate which was based in the Arabian Peninsula passed to certain dynasties in Damascus and later in Baghdad. However, Shias rejected the authority of these rulers. In 680 soldiers of the Caliphate killed Ali’s son, Husayn, and many of his companions in Karbala, located in modern day Iraq. Karbala became a defining moral story for Shias and the slaughter is celebrated annually in Iraq.
Sunnis dominated the first nine centuries of Islamic rule until the Safavid dynasty was established in Persia in 1501. They made Shia Islam the state religion and over the following two centuries they fought with the Ottomans, the seat of the Sunni Caliphate. As these empires faded, by the 17th century, their battles roughly settled the political borders of modern Iran and Turkey and their legacies resulted in the current demographic distribution of Islam sects. Shias comprise a majority in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain and a plurality in Lebanon. Sunnis make up the majority of more than fourteen countries world-wide from Morocco to Indonesia.
The uncertainty of Australia's continuing military role in Iraq
These questions arise immediately:
- Should we be there at all?
- How long will we be there?
- What in truth are our military objectives?
- How real is the danger of civilian deaths from coalition bombings?
- Does our mere presence in an Islamic country increase the radical extremist
arguments that we are invaders in Muslim lands?
- How can the complicated political, cultural and religious differences in the region
be resolved? Can they ever be resolved?
One matter of real concern is the emerging news that militias associated with the Iraq army are extracting a terrible revenge on the cities and towns they take back from Islamic State. It is said that the security forces and others are executing those whom they suspect of being Islamic State fighters or at least supporters of those fighters. As Shia forces push into territories held by ISIS, many Sunnis have fled from fear not only of the Shia led government but because of the vicious behaviour of Iranian backed Shia militias. It has been estimated that more than 130,000 people, mostly Sunnis, fled central Iraq in 2014. In the current chaos, it is questionable whether these displaced people will ever want to return or be able to.
Further reports indicate that the militias, under government order, are confiscating the land of people suspected of having a friendly relationship with Islamic State.
Thus a number of paradoxes emerge. Whether the United States like it or not, it must be the situation that they are being portrayed internationally as assisting Assad defeat those fighting against his regime. This is a far cry from the image the United States wish to portray or accept. Secondly, it must be the situation that the American coalition (and for that matter Australia) are, in a rough sense, seen to be working beside the Iran government backed militias on the ground in Iraq. Their behaviour, apparently as despicable as the behaviour of Islamic State, is claimed by ISIS to be supported by Australia. Thirdly, we are tacitly working with the Kurdish military groups who are seen by Turkey as their enemy.
How does all this leave us in our safe haven of Australia?
Let us for a moment returned to our own shores – thousands of miles from the seemingly insoluble problems of the Middle East.
The critical question is: Are we safe? Do our laws protect us? Or do they in fact make us less safe?
We already knew back in 2012 that Australian citizens were being recruited to fight in Syria. In our COAG report we stressed a danger that had been revealed to us by ASIO (this is now in the public domain): this was a concern that these fighters, perhaps battle-hardened and radicalised, might return to Australia and carry out terrorist attacks here in Australia.
We were sufficiently concerned to recommend, as did the Monitor for national security, (Bret Walker SC) that legislative changes should be considered as a matter of urgency to control this new and frightening risk; as it happened, somewhat belatedly, a range of new laws has now been passed beefing up control orders, creating new offences (Foreign Fighters Legislation) and placing restriction on passports. There are also laws punishing the publication of information about restricted operations and our metadata may be accessed virtually at will by a number of agencies.
What we did not envisage at the time was that the terrorists would outthink us as they clearly have done. The first mistake we made was to think that the danger posed by Australian fighters in Syria would be of the same kind as from those trained by Al Qaeda in Pakistan a number of years ago. The Al Qaeda policy was to train terrorists and to send them back to their homeland where they could carry out attacks that would frighten the governments and communities into withdrawing their troops from Muslim lands; in fact, this had some success, for example after the Madrid train bombings.
However, the Islamic State situation, as it has now developed, provides a very different model.
Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now possibly dead or certainly badly wounded, promoted a brand of Sunnism called Salafism. This expression means “the pious forefathers”. It embraces the Prophet himself and his close companions who, in this brand of the religion, are strict models for all behaviour, whether it be private or public. Baghdadi also strictly supports the concept of Takfir - that is the excommunication and slaughter of apostates. The Islamic State sees Shi'ites as apostates. Baghdadi has stated his intentions and priorities very plainly where he said:
“We must deal with the Shia first . . . then Sunni supporters of the Saudi monarchy; before we come to the crusaders and their bases."
We may not have realised it but the US and its allies are “the crusaders”.
In this context, the establishment of a Caliphate with Baghdadi as the Caliph is quite territorial in concept. In other words, those who are persuaded to join the Caliphate armies are trained to do battle in Iraq and Syria. They are not required to return to their own countries. Indeed that would be the last thing that any of the converts want. They will joyously burn their Australian passports because they have no intention of returning to this “hated” land. They would prefer to die as martyrs on Arab soil.
What Islamic State has done is twofold: first, to import propaganda through the internet to recruit radicalised young men to come and join the battle in Iraqi and Syria. Secondly, to use propaganda through the internet to call radicalised young men in Australia to carry out attacks here.
We have seen that happen in the case of Numan Haider and in the case of three men arrested in Sydney and charged with terrorist offences. More recently, there have been further arrests in Victoria, relating to two separate planned attacks.
I was on an Insight program where I sat immediately behind a young man who calls himself Abu Bakr. His anger and intolerance were palpable. He was a fully radicalised young man who, as it happens, has since been arrested and charged with a serious terrorist offence. He has pleaded not guilty and I know not whether he is guilty or otherwise. But his determination to join the Caliphate in Syria was both real and committed. His anger and resentment because he was unable to leave Australia was a frightening physical presence.
This incident gave me some insight and understanding into the attitude of these young men. They believe that Muslims are being persecuted worldwide. They believe that Western countries have sided completely with Israel, for example, in its recent bombardment of Gaza. They are driven to the margins of society by what they see as domestic persecution and international atrocities committed by the West. There is a clear feeling among these young men that they are being victimised by the police and security agencies. The rush of new laws (together with its overt politicisation by the leaders of both parties) has bred anger, backlash, distrust and something of a siege mentality.
Now whether these reactions are justified is, of course, a matter for debate. But there is no doubt that there are a group of young Australian men, principally in Sydney and Melbourne but not exclusively so, who are moved by the Islamic state propaganda to want to join their Muslim brothers overseas. When they are unable to do so, there is an inclination for them to adopt the second aspect of the propaganda, that is to set about carrying out a terrorist attack here.
The siege which brought Sydney to a shutdown when Man Haron Monis captured hostages at the Lindt cafe was perhaps something of an aberration in this context. Yet undeniably it had an Islamic state overtone. Monis was a deluded and aberrant individual who had been vetted carefully by the authorities over a long period of time. They did not consider him to be terrorist. He may not have been a terrorist but he was a very dangerous man and it is regrettable, indeed tragic, that he was not put under some type of control at an earlier point of time.
Our police and intelligence agencies have largely protected us. Indeed since 9/11 they have foiled a number of serious terrorist plots more large scale than the recent incidents. But how long can they protect us?
There are a number of steps we must take in this country. I would list them as follows:
- We must be open and sympathetic to the grievances felt by Muslims: we don't have to agree with them but we should not reject them outright. They should
become a point for discussion and healthy debate.
- We should encourage the resolution of these grievances by political and
- We must encourage and engender a broad dialogue with Muslim communities
and their members.
- We must engage in dialogue with Islam itself. This could be dialogue between
Christian leaders and Muslim spiritual leaders in Australia and overseas. Dialogue with the Muslim community and with Islam itself will not be easy. We should recognise this but should not shirk from engaging in this way.
- We should put time and effort and where necessary money into positive counter radicalisation programs.
For example, it was recently announced that the police and other frontline agencies in Western Australia have begun special training to help them identify men and women at risk of being radicalised by terrorist recruiters. This training is based on a course recently prepared by Monash University and has as its aim to engage with worried families and friends. The idea is to encourage them to come forward freely so that help may be given to them, their children and families.
It has taken far too long for programs of this kind to be implemented in Australia. It is many months since the Commonwealth government announced that a very large amount of money would be put into such programs. It is only now getting underway. It will be necessary also to conduct assessments of these programs in an endeavour to test their efficacy and where necessary improve them. Again, this has to be done in consultation with the communities from which the recruitments are most likely. Simply throwing money at the problem will not work.
There is a view amongst some academics and especially those on the right who tend to take a somewhat extreme position: “the fault is with Islam”, they say. We are being too politically correct in not confronting Islam with its own inner stress on Jihad, and in some contexts violent Jihad. These views, however, are essentially divisive. Moreover, at a practical level, they are not helpful. They head nowhere. We cannot ban Islam as a religion in Australia. We cannot expect Islam to reform overnight or perhaps at all. We cannot segregate the followers of the Islamic faith in Australia. We cannot refuse entry into Australia of those who follow the Islamic faith. We have to come to terms with this and we have to enlist the aid of the Muslim community in preventing radicalisation of young people.
The Islamic State
Finally I return to the Islamic State. How dangerous is it? Our Foreign Minister said most recently that it poses a greater threat perhaps than communism or the Cold War. But does it really? Islamic State is a land based group occupying a reasonably large area, a little larger than the size of Great Britain. But it has no navy. It has no air force. Happily, it has no access to nuclear weapons. Its combat force is probably limited to about 40,000 troops, not much larger than the size of one or two American divisions. The majority of Muslims world-wide do not support the so-called Caliphate.
Importantly, the ideology is based upon a strong concept that sees, as Mohammed did, an ultimate battle for supremacy in Istanbul with the Apocalypse looming thereafter. It is not immediately concerned with battles in far off foreign lands. It is true that the Caliphate represents an ideology. In that context, a military victory will not be possible by the means presently being adopted by the United States. Our presence in Iraq and our support for the United States does not foreshadow a military victory. This I think is really recognised by all. The political, cultural, religious and geopolitical problems of the Middle East are too complicated for such a simple solution. America failed in its bid to train Iraqi troops a decade ago and, on one view of it, its failure has led to the installation of the Islamic State. The same methods, repeated on a much smaller scale, are unlikely to bring the Islamic state to its knees.
As foreshadowed by my earlier remarks, the difficulty we confront is reinforced by the atrocious behaviour of Shia military militias as they retake territory and towns previously held by ISIS. Our military intervention may be in fact be counter-productive. Do we “pal-up” with Assad or some other distasteful tribal leaders? Will we be seen as progenitors of a Shiite slaughter of Sunni people.
The real danger is that the entire region (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon) may blow-up and end up in a catastrophic battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. What is our position in this situation?
The future I am afraid is very bleak but not simply because of the Islamic State. It is bleak because it is difficult to see an end to the conflict in the Middle East without a myriad of national and geopolitical factors being resolved. Our best strategy is to help devise a broad strategy for the region. At present we have none other than a military one which cannot possibly succeed.
In the meantime, we can only pray that further terrorist attacks will not occur in Australia.
As I said in my speech to this conference four years ago:
“The simple fact is that, for a whole range of complex reasons there are people who want to kill us and who have not stopped trying . . . We may all be tired of the war on terror. But it is not, alas, yet tired of us.”