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Abbott's first foreign test: pulling policy fat from diplomatic fire

Tony Abbott's first international test as prime minister is also likely to be his toughest, when he meets with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today. It will be a remarkable feat if he can pull the policy fat from the diplomatic fire.

In the balance lies Australia’s critical relationship with Indonesia. Not only has Abbott’s signature "turn back the boats" policy been comprehensively rejected by the Indonesian government, Indonesia has now fired a real warning shot across Australia’s diplomatic bow.

The "unintentional" release of the notes of the conversation between foreign ministerial counterparts Julie Bishop and Marty Natalegawa late last week was a blunt warning: the issue may blow up further if not resolved quickly.

Abbott’s dismissal of his asylum-seeker boats policy as a "passing irritant" in the wider bilateral relationship with Indonesia will be viewed as arrogant. Arrogance is a quality not much appreciated in Indonesian political society, and especially not from Australian politicians. It is also incorrect to treat it so lightly, given the issue is now central to a complex web of arrangements.

At primary risk is Indonesia’s existing co-operation with Australia against the people-smuggling trade. This then segues into other areas of security co-operation, including on terrorism and wider security issues.

The awkwardness of Abbott's visit has been underscored by the inept intervention by former foreign minister Alexander Downer on Thursday. Downer's status as a former Coalition foreign minister means his "pious rhetoric" comment against Indonesia will be read in Jakarta as informing the Australian perspective.

Asylum-seeker boats leaving Indonesia are a private and, at most, criminal matter. If they do breach Australian sovereignty, it is not a consequence of Indonesian state policy.

By contrast, Australia’s "Operation Sovereign Borders" of sending boats in international waters back to Indonesia is official state policy. On this, Downer blundered and Indonesia holds the high diplomatic ground.

Abbott distancing himself from Downer’s statement will be seen as just as unconvincing as Natalegawa’s claim of the "unintentional release" of notes of his conversation with Bishop. The distinction on issues of sovereignty and official policy can be expected to be brought to Abbott’s attention .

Australia has recently enjoyed a positive relationship with Indonesia, overwhelmingly because of the benign political character of President Yudhoyono. But Natalegawa’s release of the Bishop conversation notes reflects a growing impatience with Australia. If Abbott persists, bilateral relations could quickly collapse to the lows of 1999, when Australia intervened in East Timor.

Indonesia has always been important to Australia, but is increasingly so. Its economy, growing at over 6% a year, is due to overtake Australia’s by 2017, while it is Australia's 13th biggest trading partner (and growing).

Importantly, Indonesia is Australia's pivot into ASEAN, including the security-focused ASEAN Regional Forum, as well as a key partner in APEC and wider regional relations. Add to that key sea lanes and air routes, and you have a relationship that Australia cannot afford to get wrong. All of this will be on the table when Abbott and Yudhoyono meet.

The question will be, then, whether Abbott throws overboard his "turning back the boats" policy in favour of greater regional co-operation. The alternative might instead be looking at throwing overboard a large part of the bilateral relationship with our closest neighbour.

Russia the real winner of Syrian negotiations

The "framework agreement" reached over the weekend between United States Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (pictured) to identify and destroy chemical weapons in Syria is a positive step in a war to date characterised only by negatives. But it has created a series of new complications for the US.

Assuming that Syria’s Assad regime is not rapidly shifting its stockpile of chemical weapons to secure sites beyond its borders, Syria’s chemical weapons will be identified by the end of the week and, over coming months, retrieved -- in the middle of a vicious civil war -- and destroyed. Syria will also sign the convention against the use of chemical weapons, for what little that might be worth.

It is also standard -- if not formally acknowledged -- practice for the side giving up weapons to underestimate the weapons it has in order to keep some in reserve.

US President Barack Obama has been quick to say that a military response remains an option if President Bashar al-Assad's regime does not comply with the terms of the agreement. But the agreement specifies that if Syria does not comply, the matter will be referred to the UN Security Council.

With Russia’s veto power that is, of course, a dead-end. Following its recent indecision, a US response is possible, but far from definite.

The rebel Free Syrian Army is, unsurprisingly, furious about the agreement. As it correctly notes, in terms of the proportion of deaths, chemical weapons are not the issue. Conventional weapons have taken what is now estimated to be over 100,000 lives; chemical weapons perhaps a thousand or so.

The FSA wanted direct intervention in the hope of taking away the Assad regime’s advantage. But the US’ primary concern is being seen "to be doing something" while not becoming embroiled in another war it is very unlikely to come out of well.

In this respect, Obama faces the classic US post-war dilemma. Having engaged in unwinnable wars -- Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq II -- the US retreated to lick it wounds. The succeeding Democratic presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and now Obama – were more or less locked into an anti-intervention position, making them look weak on international issues. This, then, explains the tortured and sometimes confused rhetoric of both Obama and Kerry on the Syria issue, where they talk tough and then back off in alternating sentences. To reprise the Stephen Stills song, when "the eagle flies with the dove", it usually comes off badly for the dove.

What is not yet much acknowledged is that Russia has returned from being a struggling second-rate international power to again strutting the international stage as, more or less, the equal of the US. Kerry is no diplomatic slouch, but Lavros -- backed by the decisiveness of the bare-chested President Vladimir Putin, has put Russia at the centre of global negotiations.

In strategic terms, Russia remains very far behind the US, and it will not in the foreseeable future again challenge it -- that is now China’s job. But in diplomatic terms, with all the unburdening implied by the style, the US was played like a Russian violin.

As for the people of Syria, there has been very little change on the ground. The war continues, the Assad regime appears willing to fight to the last, and the anti-Assad forces remain profoundly divided between "moderates" recognised by the West and the al-Qaeda-aligned Syrian Islamic Front.

A final outcome remains very far away. But, should it materialise, it will probably be something like a US-Russia-backed alliance of the FSA and pro-Assad forces, if without Bashar as-Assad, opposing the SIF. This is the logic of "my enemy’s enemy is my friend".

Many observers now agree that the US intervention in Iraq should have removed Saddam Hussein but retained his Ba’athist regime in coalition with more moderate anti-Hussein elements. This would have produced the quickest and most stable outcome for Iraq, and avoided its subsequent civil war.

The last thing the US or Russia wants is for Syria to descend into a similarly interminable civil war. But, despite the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, it might be too late to avoid such an outcome.

Incoming government crashes into Indonesian diplomacy

To suggest that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has been marked by periods of instability would be less accurate to say the otherwise unstable relationship has been marked by brief periods of stability. After a few years of good relations, it again appears that Australia is headed into difficulties with its near neighbour.

Always highly sensitive around issues of sovereignty, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has rejected the newly elected Abbott government’s policy of paying villagers for information about people smugglers. He has also rejected the Coalition's otherwise poorly conceived policy of buying potential people-smuggler boats.

Indonesia had already strongly signalled its opposition to the Coalition government’s policy of "turning back the boats" ("where safe to do so"). Its view is that, once boats are in international waters, they are not Indonesia’s responsibility, nor does it have the capacity to assist boats that might get into difficulties.

These new difficulties in the relationship result directly from a significant change in Australia’s foreign policy being announced as an election promise without first having been negotiated with the principle affected party. As the incoming Coalition government is quickly learning, there is a big difference between populist pre-election promises and post-election international realism.

Similarly, comments by senior Nationals member Barnaby Joyce that he will oppose the sale of Australian agricultural land to Indonesia to raise cattle for the Indonesian market will cause long-lasting offence in Indonesia. Indonesians will rightly point out that Australia has significant investment in mining and other industries in Indonesia, but hypocritically does not wish that investment right to be reciprocal.

Australia has enjoyed several years of generally untroubled relations with Indonesia. The relationship is officially described, on both sides, as the best it has ever been. That is probably correct.

However, a very large part of that positive relationship has been a result of the benign and pro-Western leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. This has been assisted by the previous two governments’ more nuanced diplomacy towards Indonesia.

Under the surface, however, many of the longer-standing tensions and suspicions about Australia’s intentions and attitudes have remained among many senior Indonesians politicians. These suspicions, they believe, are now rapidly being confirmed.

The incoming government’s "bull in a china shop" approach to regional diplomacy was always going to test Indonesia’s patience. For senior Indonesians, and indeed many others, how one is seen to act is as important as the act itself.

But more importantly, any new tensions in the relationship will likely spill into Indonesia’s forthcoming electoral period. Yudhoyono steps down at the end of his second term next year, and his successor is much less likely to be as understanding or accommodating of Australia’s interests.

Indeed, there remains a good possibility that Indonesia’s next president will run a distinctly "nationalist" agenda, which will almost by definition be combative towards Australia. As Indonesia’s economy continues to grow strongly and its strategic value only develops in importance, how Australia engages will become increasingly critical.

Australia has long acknowledged that its future lies in closer engagement with Asia, confirmed yet again by the Asia century white paper. Good relations with Indonesia are central to that engagement. Australia’s new government would do well to remember that, and to act accordingly.

Russia may yet offer US a Syrian lifeline

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's sudden willingness to put its chemical weapons under international -- i.e. Russian -- supervision might allow the regime to avoid a US attack while at the same time preserving its advantage in Syria's civil war. Despite tough rhetoric from the United States, if an agreement can be reached on the modalities of safeguarding the chemical weapons, the US can avoid becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict while still, more or less, saving face.

President Barack Obama's delineation of the "red line" that would trigger intervention if crossed trapped the US into acting in Syria. Not to do so would have been a serious blow to the US’ pre-eminent standing in global affairs.

But to strike without UN Security Council approval would have drawn international opprobrium and likely have escalated involvement by Russia and Iran. The logic of intervention, too, would be to step up from "degrading" the Assad regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons and probably damaging its air power to damaging the regime’s wider capacity, allowing greater prospects for regime change.

At this stage, the US is not backing down on its internal discussions about attacking Assad's regime. But its rhetoric should now be read primarily as keeping up pressure on Russia to finally act to help moderate the conflict. Having Russia involved in Syria would help prevent the US from being drawn into a no-win situation. Should the US intervene, it will create four problems that do not currently exist.

The first problem is that any hope for detente with Russia would collapse, raise the spectre of opposition on a range of other global issues the US is trying to manage, including China’s strategic manoeuvring, a nuclear armed Iran, and a mad and bad North Korea. It would also damage the opportunity to work with Russia on the mutual concern with the spread of international jihadist Islamism.

The second problem is that any US intervention in Syria would turn a number of its Middle Eastern friends into critics, based not on their strategic alliances but on the "great unbeliever" again imposing its will on Islamic land. One should not underestimate the offence to Muslims caused by non-Islamic military involvement in Islamic countries.

The third problem is that if the Assad regime were to fall, Syria’s patchwork of over a dozen ethnic groups would descend into an ethnic cleansing bloodbath. The conflict would also almost certainly spill over into Lebanon and further destabilise Iraq and perhaps Jordan and would pose a greater threat to Israel.

The fourth problem is that while few like the Assad regime, everyone but Saudi Arabia and Qatar are much more concerned about the likely jihadist Islamist alternative. Should Assad be toppled, the Syrian Islamic Front -- a coalition of radical Salafi jihadist organisations linked to al-Qaeda -- would very likely defeat the alternative anti-Assad Free Syrian Army.

This would create a combative Islamist state in the heart of the Middle East. The US and Russia would be equally aghast at this eventually.

At least with Russia now offering to "safeguard" Syria’s chemical weapons -0 if with conditions - the possibility they will fall into the hands of a combative Islamist state would be removed. And the US may be able to avoid again setting itself up as Islam’s "great Satan".

Assuming it can obtain sufficient guarantees, the US will likely accept Russia’s offer. More than punish Assad, the US wants to preserve its credibility while extricating itself from a situation it has never wanted to be in and that, on balance, it knows will only get worse.

Pause for thought on Syrian chemical attacks -- and reprisals

As the United States and its allies -- including Australia -- move closer to intervening in the Syrian civil war, more questions are emerging over the chemical weapons attack which is the pretext for that intervention. Challenging questions are being asked about the motive behind the attack, as well as the consequences of a response to it.

The US has been reluctant to intervene in the Syrian conflict, yet drawn a "red line" which, if crossed, would trigger an intervention. The question now being asked is why Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would unnecessarily provoke the US into a response?

Assad knew that, once publicly committed, the US could not back down from its threat to intervene. For US President Barack Obama to make such a threat and then not carry it through would weaken its international status and prompt further possible tests of its strategic resolve.

The evidence, too, is that despite the huge cost in civilian lives, the Assad regime is at least holding its own in the civil war and has made recent gains. These gains have been largely due to logistical support from Russia, China and Iran, and the intervention of Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon.

This, then, begs the questions of why it would resort to using chemical weapons when there is no pressing need to do so, and especially knowing it would engender an external military response?

The Assad regime being evil is a morally satisfying but intellectually bereft answer to this question that does not transcend reasonable -- and growing -- doubt. It is certain that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but that is the extent of the facts.

It is possible that the order for Assad regime forces to use its chemical weapons did not come from Assad himself. A rogue commander could have used the weapons, for reasons that can only be guessed at.

But looking at who has most to gain from such an attack, suspicion falls less on the Assad regime and more on the faltering anti-Assad rebellion. External intervention could, at least initially, tip the balance of power in Syria’s civil war in favour of the anti-Assad forces.

The Assad regime's reluctance and delay in allowing in UN weapons inspectors has not helped allay suspicion that the chemical weapons attach was a deliberate act. However, had a local commander given the order, Assad would have been aware of the likely consequences and thus attempted to delay formal investigations in order to allow signs of the chemicals to dissipate.

Of the two main opposition groupings, the more secular (and Western-supported) Free Syrian Army has struggled and has the most to gain from external intervention. The Saudi and Qatar-backed and Al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front and the Syrian Islamic Front, though, would also benefit from external intervention. If intervention helped topple the Assad regime, it would ease the way towards them establishing an Islamist state.

While there is no evidence that either of these two somewhat disparate groupings are responsible for the chemical attack, one is clearly desperate and the other has, during the civil war, demonstrated its own lack of moral compunction. The hard evidence, then, beyond the simple fact of an attack, remains ambiguous.

Apart from the formal legality of a direct external intervention, careful consideration is being given to how much evidence will be needed to launch a US-led attack. There appears little ulterior reason for the US to want to intervene in the Syrian civil war, given that it is only likely to further stir up the hornets’ nest.

The US is being drawn into the Syrian civil war in a seemingly mechanistic way. Yet there remains no hard evidence as to who was the perpetrator of the chemical attack. This level of uncertainty has echoes similar to that of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction", and the continuing disaster that remains what is left of the Iraqi state.

US intervention in Syria could escalate a bloody war

If the United States intervenes in the Syrian civil war, as it is now considering doing after more than a year of refusing to become involved, it would mark a major shift but might not end the fighting.

The move towards intervention follows claims of President Bashar al-Assad’s government using of chemical weapons in the country’s stalemated civil war. If proven, the use of chemical weapons would constitute a war crime under international law. In response, the US has gathered a flotilla of ships in the area, capable of launching missile strikes against Syria.

The Assad regime has denied the use of chemical weapons. However, Medecins Sans Frontieres says more than 300 civilian dead and thousands more injured show symptoms of nerve gas poisoning.

US President Barack Obama has said establishing that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons would trigger a response. However, Russia will block international intervention in the UN Security Council. The US and its allies are, therefore, looking beyond the UN for a legal rationale for intervention.

The most likely international response will be through a coalition of countries, probably under the auspices of NATO. Such a justification would employ the language of "responsibility to protect". Syrian neighbour Turkey, a NATO member, is also likely to join the fray.

Obama had been deeply reluctant to intervene in the Syrian conflict, as anti-Assad forces could lead a sectarian massacre. He is also concerned that radical Islamist fighters could establish a new base in the political vacuum, possibly assuming control of the state. Following the Iraq debacle, Obama will also be aware of the irony and possible deception of becoming involved in a war based on the presence of "weapons of mass destruction". And, perhaps most critically, Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, would not only be deeply angered by such intervention but could also become directly involved in the conflict.

With the battling factions being supported by external actors, Syria’s civil war has been, in part, a war by proxy. That proxy war would be extended, with likely greater Saudi support for radical Islamists and, almost inevitably, dragging in neighbouring Lebanon, which in the last few days has been the site of a sectarian bombing believed to have been triggered by the Syrian war.

These outcomes are being factored in to the increasingly likely US-led response. An intervention will probably begin with missile strikes, followed by air attacks and the open provision of weapons to anti-Assad forces. A missile attack would first neutralise the Assad regime’s anti-aircraft capacity, as well as target chemical weapons sites.

A US-led attack could, initially, tip the balance of the war against the Assad regime’s forces. But should this intervention trigger a reaction from the Assad regime’s external backers, the war in Syria is likely to become not just more bloody but perhaps not any closer to a final resolution.

Egypt's brief fling with democracy draws to a close

Egypt's police were scheduled today to break up large sit-ins in Cairo and Giza, trying to end demonstrations intended to reinstate ousted president Mohamed Morsi. Should the police proceed, there was expected to be some confrontation. But more importantly, the dispersal may be seen as the final nail in the coffin of Egypt’s very brief experiment with democracy.

The army is now clearly determining Egypt’s political process, despite the fig leaf of installing a nominally civilian administration. This was to assuage the US and to entice the country to continue its military and financial support.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to not be included in the newest administration confirmed the fracturing of Egyptian political society. This fracturing has now created space for the rise of Islamist terrorism and, in response, the increasing political grip of the army.

In this environment, Egypt is unlikely to return to elections in the foreseeable future. And any such elections would probably be boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood in any case. But the rise of political violence, in response, would rationalise the army’s seizure of effective political power and ensure that it retained a tight rein over the political process.

There was never any likelihood that the sit-in protests, which have attracted tens of thousands of supporters, would have seen Morsi returned to office. But while they have been tolerated, Egypt’s political tensions have been relatively contained.

The dispersal of the sit-ins would show Muslim Brotherhood supporters that not only is democracy in Egypt a sham but so is the legitimacy of public protest. In the face of declining options, the current political climate has led to a split within the Muslim Brotherhood, with more radical Islamist elements moving to embrace terrorism.

Confirming a move in this direction, at least 25 alleged members of the militant Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis group were killed or injured in a helicopter attack in the northern Sinai on Saturday. The Egyptian army said the group had stockpiled weapons and been involved in recent attacks against army personnel.

The al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, which was responsible for last year's attack on the US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, has also said it was collecting weapons and recruiting militants for training in preparation for war in Egypt.

Winning Egypt’s presidential elections with a 3.4% margin in 2012, Morsi was the preferred candidate of a small majority of Egyptians. But facing an unholy coalition of liberals, supporters of the ousted dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak and the army, rather than pursue moderation, Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party pushed an overtly Islamist political agenda.

Having little experience with democratic principles, including an inflexible religious-political agenda, Egypt’s fragile post-Mubarak politics was pushed to -- and then over -- the brink.

As a result, those Islamists who supported the experiment with representative democracy now see nowhere else to turn, while Islamists who never had faith in electoral politics have simply had their cynicism confirmed. With the army also having no commitment to democratic processes and Egypt’s liberals having sold out, we can expect the country’s dead democracy to be buried under increasing violence.

Carr v Bishop: business or diplomacy the foreign policy choice

If Australian foreign policy has generally been marked by bipartisanship and, frankly, an element of disinterest by voters, the Lowy Institute debate between Foreign Minister Bob Carr and opposition foreign affairs spokesperson Julie Bishop last night (Monday 5 August) changed all that. There was a clear divide between the two that could, potentially, resonate with voters on September 7.

Bishop carved out a new Coalition policy position that foreign affairs would henceforth be about trying to secure Australia's economic interests. All else fell away by comparison. "Foreign policy will be trade policy," Bishop said, "and trade policy will be foreign policy."

US embassy alert shows war against al-Qaeda unfinished

The closure of 21 United States embassies across the Middle East and Africa -- the widest such closure in US history -- demonstrates the "War on Terror" is far from over. As the threat that inspired the closures indicates, the "war" is unlikely to be concluded in the foreseeable future.

The war in Iraq has, from a US perspective, all but concluded and Afghanistan is starting to wind down. But both remain sites of conflict and will remain so as internal and regionally inspired factions compete for politico-religious control. Syria, too, has increasingly become the site for intra-religious conflict, rather than simply a civil war against a despised dictator.

The unspecified threat against an embassy was intercepted in Yemen, the key base for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While effectively independent of other al-Qaeda-named organisations, AQAP is regarded as perhaps the most dangerous of its offshoots.

Cambodian election: Hun Sen losing his tight grip on power

The only surprise in Cambodia’s elections over the weekend was that the victory for Hun Sen's Cambodian People’s Party was reduced to a comfortable rather than an overwhelming majority. For a "democracy" in which the ruling party and the state machine are, in effect, as one and there are widespread allegations of electoral fraud, the CPP’s reduced majority was a slap in the face to Hun Sen (pictured, after voting) and his strong-man style of government.

The CPP lost 29 seats to end up with a majority of just eight, for a total of 68 of the Cambodian Parliament's 123 seats. This means the CPP no longer has the two-thirds majority required to change the country’s constitution.

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