Iraq and Syria: far from simple

Renee Westra and Nathan Church, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security

Key Issues
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 and UN 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 grievances—a 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.

Australian Defence 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 regional stability’.

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 ADF notes 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.

Humanitarian assistance

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 called 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 and 2015. 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)

Islamic State influence (as at July 2016)

Source: IHS Janes, July 2016

Further reading

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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