Renee Westra and
Nathan Church, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security
The nature and scope of military operations in Iraq and Syria are significant issues for Australia given the evolving, long-term threat from the Islamic State.
However, as Australia’s recent commitment in the Middle East has escalated, there have been increased calls for the Government to clearly articulate its long-term strategy and allow a parliamentary debate on this complex issue.
In June 2014, Islamic extremists seized control of
Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and
routed the Iraqi army before sweeping south and
threatening Baghdad. These militants, known as the
Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or the Islamic State), declared
an Islamic state or caliphate in this captured territory and claimed political
and theological authority over the world’s Muslims. The speed and extent of the
group’s success took the world by surprise, but the group had been building for
some time, capitalising on Sunni disenfranchisement in Iraq and Syria, and the ungoverned
territory in Eastern Syria resulting from a weakened Syrian regime. In June
2014, the Iraqi Government formally requested US
assistance to ‘defeat ISIL and protect our territory and people’. Australia was
one of the states that joined the coalition in response to this request.
Loss of territory does
not equal defeat
According to RAND experts, the Islamic State has
lost around 36 per cent of its former territory in Iraq and Syria since the
beginning of coalition military operations in 2014. This includes key cities in
Iraq like Fallujah and Ramadi. But while the Islamic State’s territorial losses
in Iraq may continue, eliminating the group entirely will almost certainly be a
much more difficult, if not impossible, prospect.
It is broadly recognised that while the Islamic
State’s core territory is shrinking, it has managed to expand the reach and
territory of its formal and informal branches outside the Levant. The Islamic
State has already declared affiliates in parts of Afghanistan, Algeria,
Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Caucasus. This will
help the group continue to lay claim
to a territorially-based caliphate, and conduct attacks worldwide, despite its
losses in the Middle East.
To deflect attention from its shrinking territorial
control and counter any perceived weakness, the Islamic State has increased the
number of violent, terrorist or insurgent-style attacks throughout its core
Middle Eastern territories and its affiliate groups worldwide. So while the
group’s losses in Syria and Iraq may weaken its position in one sense, this
alone is unlikely to precipitate the group’s destruction. Many experts also argue
that we are already seeing the first stages of the group’s adaptation
as it returns to its roots as an adaptive insurgent terrorist network. RAND
analysts Howard Shatz and Erin Johnson note: ‘ending
the ability of the Islamic State to operate openly in an area does not mean
victory—it simply means that the nature of the fight has changed’.
Efforts to counter the Islamic State long-term
have, confusingly, also been complicated by the speed and success of military operations
in Iraq. Operations are moving too fast for the Iraqi Government to consolidate
its control in recaptured areas by addressing the population’s political
key factor in the Islamic State’s initial success. The willingness and
ability of the Iraqi Government to address these issues will be critical to any
lasting solution in Iraq; however, the current government is paralysed by
sectarian infighting and tensions between different groups are running high.
These conditions are unfortunately all too familiar
to those watching Iraq as the Islamic State gained its foothold in the lead-up
to the height of its success in 2014.
The Islamic State’s presence in Syria will also
continue to provide the group with a claim to territorial control in its core
territories, even if it loses further ground in Iraq. Airstrikes alone will not
destroy the group’s presence and there is no political resolution in sight that
will end the violence or re-establish some alternative form of central control
in Eastern Syria. Without a substantial challenge to its hold in Syria, the
group will retain this sanctuary and survive—as
it did prior to 2014.
Force (ADF) operations in Iraq and Syria
On 14 August 2014, the Australian Government announced
that ADF operations in Iraq had begun with the delivery of humanitarian aid to
civilians targeted by Islamic State forces. As the US-led operations against
the Islamic State in Iraq gathered pace and a broad international coalition was
established, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) also began
transporting military equipment (including arms and munitions) to Iraq to
support local forces. This action was taken in response to the Iraqi
Government’s request for assistance, under the auspices of a UN resolution
condemning the violence.
On 14 September 2014, the Chief of the Defence
Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, announced
the deployment of approximately 600 ADF personnel to the Middle East—since
known as Operation OKRA. The deployment included strike, early warning and
refuelling aircraft, Special Forces personnel to assist Iraqi forces, and other
ADF personnel attached to coalition headquarters as part of broader international
efforts. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop reiterated this commitment in her address
to the UN Security Council later that week, noting that the Islamic State
‘poses a threat to Australia, our friends in South East Asia, and beyond’.
In October 2014, the anti-Islamic State coalition
was formalised under US designator Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. The coalition has
66 members; however, only a
core group of nations conduct military operations in Iraq and Syria, which includes
Australia. The Operation’s mission
is described as: ‘by, with and through regional partners, to militarily defeat
DA’ESH (the Islamic State) in the Combined Joint Operations Area (Iraq and
Syria) in order to enable whole-of-coalition governmental actions to increase
Australia’s Air Task Group has had a prominent role
throughout the conflict in nearly two years of combat operations. It has completed
over 1,600 strike missions and delivered almost 1,300 munitions. This is in
addition to other Australian command and control and refuelling missions. The
that these have been ‘essential in enabling the Iraqi ground forces to continue
their mission to defeat Daesh’. In late 2014, the Special Operations Task Group
also commenced its advise-and-assist mission in support of the Iraqi
Counter-Terrorist Service, the special forces wing of the Iraqi military. Australian
troops have also joined with New Zealand forces in a Combined Task Group as
part of the coalition’s
Building Partner Capacity mission. This is designed to build Iraqi
resilience and capacity through the training of Iraqi forces. As at July 2016,
more than 23,000 Iraqi personnel have
received training through this program. The Government recently announced
it will also expand Australia’s efforts to include training for law enforcement
officers in line with efforts to improve other elements of the Iraqi state
needed for long-term stability.
Operations extended into Syria
On 9 September 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott indicated
that Australia would expand its commitment to Syria, with RAAF airstrikes to be
extended to Islamic State targets there, following a request from the US Government.
Prime Minister Abbott noted
that the extended operations would mirror the efforts of other allied nations already
operating in Syria to ‘help protect Iraq and
its people from [Islamic State] attacks inside Iraq and from across the border’.
The expansion of operations to Syria was justified on the basis that the anti-Islamic
State effort directly relates to Iraq’s collective self‑defence and the
continued commitment of humanitarian efforts in the region. The Syrian state’s
inability to exert control over that area and address the Islamic State threat,
negates its right to object under the circumstances.
Addressing a different dimension of the conflict, Australia
has also continued to provide humanitarian
relief to civilians inside Syria and the almost five million Syrian
refugees located in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Since 2011, the
Australian Government has given $213 million in aid in response to this crisis and
has pledged a further $220 million over the next three years, making it one of
Australia’s most significant aid efforts.
The Labor Party has consistently underscored its bipartisan support for the war
against the Islamic State. However, as the scope of Australia’s commitment has
expanded, the Labor Party has reiterated its
calls for the Government to allow a parliamentary debate on the issue and sought
clarification regarding its long‑term strategy, especially following the
expansion of the mission to Syria. Specifically, in September 2015 the Opposition
on the Prime Minister to address Parliament and outline Australia’s long
term strategy in Iraq and allow for appropriate parliamentary discussion. It also
highlighted that ‘our role militarily must be matched by renewed efforts toward
a long-term, multilateral strategy to resolve the Syrian conflict’. But the
Opposition has been careful to note it is not questioning
the Government’s prerogative powers.
The Australian Greens objected to the initial
combat operations in Iraq, stating
in September 2014 that ‘if we want to make Australia safer the best thing to do
is bring all Australians together and not follow the United States into an unwinnable
conflict in the Middle East’. To this end, the Greens introduced Defence
Legislation Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bills in 2014
These amendments proposed making it mandatory for Parliament to approve the
deployment of troops overseas (rather than it being a decision by the
Executive). The Greens have also flagged
their intention to reintroduce the Bill during the 45th Parliament.
Independent MP Andrew
Wilkie, and Senator Jacqui
Lambie, have also spoken out against the ADF deployment to the Middle East.
Debating the issue
In Australia, the Government of the day is not
required to consult Parliament before declaring war or deploying military
forces overseas. Under Australian law this is the Government’s prerogative.
In the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, the
governments of the day similarly do not have to seek approval from Parliament
before deploying troops. However, in the UK and New Zealand, conventions have
developed that see such matters generally debated in Parliament. In Canada, if
the Parliament is not already in session, then it is summoned when such a
decision is made. In the United States and some European countries, the Parliament’s
consent must be obtained to send troops overseas, or the Parliament is at least
notified of such action.
As Australia’s involvement in Iraq and Syria
continues, so too is it likely that political opposition to Australia’s military
commitment will persist, together with concerns over how Australia’s troops are
deployed in the first place.
Figure 1: Islamic State influence (as at July 2016)
Janes, July 2016
H Shatz and E Johnson, The Islamic State we knew: insights before the resurgence and their implications, RAND Corporation research report, 2015.
D McKeown and R Jordan, Parliamentary involvement in declaring war and deploying forces overseas, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 22 March 2010.
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