With much of the recent discussion about countries spying on each other, the only startling thing is that anyone would bother to feign surprise. Indonesia and Australia have long spied on each other, and they have both known about it.
The main distinctions between Australia and Indonesia’s intelligence activities are their methods and who they share information with. Australia tends to use electronic information gathering and separate analysis in Jakarta and Canberra; Indonesia’s spying tends to rely more on human intelligence.
Australia’s spying on Indonesia began in the 1950s, as Australia and Indonesia increasingly found themselves in competing Cold War camps. Australia also had a tangential role in assisting the US in supporting the failed 1957-58 PRRI-Permesta rebellion.
Australia’s spying on Indonesia increased as the two countries initially took opposing views on the future of West Papua and as the Indonesian Communist Party became more influential. Following Indonesia's military coup of 1965-66, Australia’s interests shifted to more economic concerns, but intelligence gathering continued.
In 1999, a high-ranking Indonesia general, Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, openly claimed that Australia had spies in East Timor around the time of the ballot for independence. Although it was denied at the time, Australia did have a small number of intelligence officers there, assessing the status of electoral process.
One of the more obvious findings was that Hendropriyono was a key figure in the establishment of the military-led militias, which murdered around 3000 people and laid waste to the country following the vote. Australia has since continued to spy on Indonesia, in Jakarta and Bali, as well as on activities of its more extreme Islamist organisations.
Similarly, Indonesia has long spied on Australia, although its intelligence service’s primary function, like its military, has always been focused internally. Indonesian spying on Australia was very active during the Suharto era, targeting Indonesia-focused Australian activists.
Indonesian students, in particular, have long been required to be present at and report on "anti-Indonesian" activities, such as human rights meetings and activities in support of West Papua and, in the past, Aceh and East Timor.
However, as many of Indonesia’s informants in Australia are not professionally trained, they have regularly misinterpreted events or have reported what they think their consular masters want to hear as opposed to what has actually happened. As a result, a number of Australian activists have been identified as holding different or stronger views than they do.
Indonesia has also long tapped Australian telephones, usually those connected with events within Indonesia, but it does not have an NSA-type wholesale sweep.
Individuals interested or involved in Indonesia, especially in an area that might be in some way controversial, can reasonably expect that, if not under constant surveillance, they have been and will probably continue to be spied on by Indonesian agents acting in Australia.
This is what intelligence agencies do. It was ever thus for the world’s second-oldest profession.
As was widely anticipated, former foreign minister Bob Carr has resigned from the Senate, opening the way for the appointment of a new Labor Senator in New South Wales. In announcing his resignation, Carr described his period as foreign minister as being the learning equivalent of "a dozen PhDs" and an exercise in continuity.
In a year-and-a-half as foreign minister, Carr took a "steady as she goes" approach to running Australia’s foreign relations. He term was very much a matter of locking in policies that were already in play, rather than initiating any new direction in Australia’s international outlook.
Carr noted that his approach to China was consistent with pre-existing policy of stronger engagement in trade while treading carefully on more controversial diplomatic and strategic issues. In this, Australia under Carr took a very careful line on China’s claims in the South China Sea, that the territorial disputes should be settled through a multilateral discussion.
Such an approach was diplomatically inoffensive, but not one that China was ever likely to take much notice of.
Australia’s other main achievement under Carr was its securing of a seat on the United Nations Security Council, the bid for which had been put in place by Carr’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, when he was foreign minister. Again, this was consistent with his "continuity" approach.
Carr did claim, in announcing his resignation from the Senate, that he was pleased to have presided over "improved relations with the Arab world". While Australia has had slightly closer engagement with a number of Arab states, it is difficult to see any significant improvement in relations.
The so-called "Arab Spring" has led to more chaos than order and very little democracy. Australia’s role in any of that has been at the margins, primarily as an onlooker.
Carr’s main advantage as foreign minister was his erudite and somewhat urbane personal outlook. These well complemented his top Australian diplomatic role, helping to present a somewhat more sophisticated Australian face to the world than had previously been available, or deserved.
Had he more time, perhaps Carr would have been one of Australia’s better foreign ministers. But 18 months in office is too short a tenure other than to do exactly what he did, which was keep the seat warm and not make any mistakes.
Carr will now use his "dozen PhDs" of learning as a professorial fellow at the University of Sydney.
From his output, ASPI’s Anthony Bergin likes nothing if not to test ideas in relation to Australia’s strategic positioning. His recent proposition that Australia is not so much a ‘middle power’ but a ‘pivotal power’ is a case in point . http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/is-australia-a-pivotal-power/
Bergin’s argument is that the common strategic descriptor for Australia as a ‘middle power’ does not accurately reflect its military size or capability, the size of its economy or its strategic reach. In each of these he is correct.
However, the term ‘pivotal power’ is complex. One understanding has it meaning more than just being relatively strategically strong. Indeed, Oxford Analytica defines it not as a quantitative assessment of strategic power but as being a geographic arbiter.http://www.oxan.com/analysis/dailybrief/pivotalpowers/default.aspx
Australia relative to Turkey, as Bergin notes, classifies them both as middle powers. But Turkey’s role with its neighbours, particularly Syria, Iraq and Israel, also mark it as a key regional actor and it is, thus, also considered to be a pivotal power. Closer to home, Indonesia occupies an arbitrating role in the ASEAN regions as well as in relations with Timor-Leste and Australia.
By comparison, Australia is a regional strategic power in the Southwest Pacific, but perhaps less so than it has been. In part this is due to the increasing sense of independence of some of the Pacific island states. In part it is also due to the more active soft power role being played by China in the region, which in turn buttresses this sense of independence – at least from Australia.
Timor-Leste, though geographically close to Australia and a major recipient of Australian aid and, at times, military assistance, has carved an increasingly independent path. If one can define Timor-Leste’s foreign policy, it is one of having a number of strong friends, so that it remains cosseted by some should relations with one turn sour.
Australia’s status in Timor-Leste has diminished, while that of Indonesia has increased. Timor-Leste’s police now train with Indonesian police, and there is an agreement that their armed forces also train together. Australia provides training to, but it does not train with, Timor-Leste’s defence force.
Australia’s strategic status is, on balance, perhaps slightly stronger, or perceived as such, than it has been, given its active participation in recent multilateral conflicts and as a preferred site for training by regional military officers. In another sense, in a strategic environment always in a state of flux, the precise status of any state will remain variable and, more to the point, interpretable.
But if Australia was to suddenly disappear from the strategic stage, the question is the extent to which it might matter. Bergin may be correct and Australia is indeed a pivotal state, if in its own peculiar way.
The two trips by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to Indonesia have started to give a distinctive shape to a shift in Australian foreign policy. In keeping with Abbott's assertive political style, Australia is on the diplomatic front foot, promoting his pro-Asia policy agenda.
But the forcefulness of the way in which this agenda is being pushed may leave Australia exposed to uncomfortable outcomes. We generally have good regional relationships, but the interests of our neighbours are not necessarily the same as our own interests.
Abbott's overture to China to reach a free trade agreement within 12 months is ambitious and intended to secure a long-term economic relationship with our largest trading partner. Similarly, Abbott's unambiguous message to Indonesia is that Australia will be an even more loyal friend, with less tolerance for dissent around human rights issues.
Both cases are intended to secure different aspects of Australia's national interest and being the diplomatic initiator signals Australia's positive intentions. But initiating the further development of relationships then requires that gesture be taken up by the counterpart country.
In both cases, Abbott's eagerness gives China and Indonesia greater scope for setting the terms of the relationship. Australia thus becomes the supplicant, with China and Indonesia bestowing the favours.
By placing a 12-month timeline on a free trade agreement with China, Abbott has signalled a willingness to accept previously problematic Chinese conditions. These include investments in Australia by Chinese state-owned enterprises, a lower threshold for scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board, and allowing more Chinese workers into Australia.
China's plan is to secure for itself continuing access to resources over the longer term, and to do so at a good price. Its foreign direct investments, including in Australia, achieve both those goals. Similarly, the greater its direct control over resources, the stronger its bargaining position over those resources that it does not directly control.
Abbott's recent visit to Jakarta reaffirmed Australia's commitment to Indonesia's territorial integrity. In this he was, perhaps, even more insistent than his predecessors.
In significant part this reflects the deep concern that Indonesia had with the Coalition's policy of returning asylum seeker boats to Indonesia and attendant plans to pay locals for intelligence on boat departures. That signature policy in opposition now looks to be in the process of being quietly abandoned in government, replaced by a slightly stronger version of the existing policy of bilateral co-operation.
But part of Abbott's ''total respect'' for Indonesia's territorial sovereignty and integrity was code for endorsing the status quo in the territory of West Papua. This has played out recently with the return of seven West Papuan asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and the ''voluntary'' departure of three West Papuan protesters from the Australian Consulate-General in Bali.
The seven returned to PNG would likely have qualified for refugee status had they been processed in the usual manner. Despite what could be fairly understood as a plea for asylum, the three are now in hiding from the Indonesian police.
The drivers for Abbott's foreign policy push are not explicit. But they can be divined from his political history. Abbott is a classical free trader, pursuing a policy in which markets are self-regulating and find their own equilibrium. An open door policy towards trade with and investment from China fits perfectly into this framework.
On Indonesia, one can detect a sensibility that reflects the strong pro-Indonesia (and anti-communist) position of his political training ground in the National Civic Council. At the time, this included opposition to East Timor's independence, and West Papua's continued incorporation.
Three decades on, Australia's interests in Indonesia are more complex. Indonesia's economy is growing, soon to overtake Australia's in total size, and it is in both countries' interests to seek and develop economic complementarities.
But Indonesia is potentially also a major strategic and diplomatic partner for Australia. It provides Australia with entree into ASEAN and can help facilitate some of its wider regional interests. How Indonesia views Australia has major implications for Australia's strategic positioning.
The relatively benign relationship that Australia has enjoyed with Indonesia over much of the past decade can be attributed to the reformist, pro-Western preferences of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. However, within a year, Yudhoyono will leave office. Abbott's commitment to Indonesia is unlikely to change, but the successor may be more assertively nationalistic. This could include requiring Australia to even more strongly oppose West Papuan activism, despite the conflict this will engender with more pro-human rights sections of Australian society.
China, too, will ultimately be concerned over its own interests and much less those of Australia. Local discomfort, if of a different type, may have to be accepted in the push and shove of competing understandings over what a more open economic relationship might entail.
The conventional approach to diplomatic relations is to take them slowly, consider their implications deeply and to proceed cautiously. This does not, however, accord with Abbott's political style.
Abbott's international agenda is appearing to be about achieving much quickly. In his rush, however, such enthusiasm for making agreements and pushing policy on the run may miss some of the implications, much less the nuances, embedded in the detail.
Australia needs stronger international linkages, not least with major trading and strategic partners. But it does not need such arrangements at any price. No agreement is better than a bad agreement.
A more cautious and considered approach to international relations will produce results less quickly. But they may be results that Australia is more easily able to live with, with fewer negative consequences, over the longer term.
West Papuan activists are testing Prime Minister Tony Abbott's statements in relation to his asylum-seeker boat turnback policy, that he has "total respect for Indonesia's sovereignty, total respect for Indonesia's territorial integrity". So far, they are having little luck.
As Abbott was preparing to leave for Bali, three West Papuan activists scaled the wall of the Australian consulate-general in Bali. The activists delivered a letter seeking the release of political prisoners jailed in Indonesia and free access to the long restricted region by the international media.
The letter also said: "We seek refuge and plead for our safety." Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb told the ABC that the men did not seek asylum for themselves, and left voluntarily within hours, and had gone into hiding.
Last week, seven West Papuans travelling by boat from Papua New Guinea to Australia seeking asylum and were returned to PNG. The legality of sending the asylum-seekers back remains in question.
Last month, the pro-West Papuan independence "Freedom Flotilla" met with West Papuan activists off-shore of the island split between the Indonesian republic and PNG. It had been told it would meet force if it tried to land at Indonesia’s most south-easterly port of Merauke.
The upsurge in West Papuan activism follows attempts by the Indonesian government to find a solution to the West Papua problem while at the same time conducting a crackdown in the territory.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s proposal is to create what is referred to as "Special Autonomy Plus", a new take on the "Special Autonomy" status granted to the province of Papua in 2001. Not only has there been little about the "autonomy" that is "special", within two years the province had been divided in two, contravening its new status.
The recent "Plus" proposal is intended to allow the more-or-less democratically elected Papua provincial government to engage more closely with the separatist Free Papua Organisation (OPM). Pro-human rights activists say the provincial government does not have power to conduct negotiations. Further, any benign intentions the provincial government might have are undermined by the Indonesian police and military’s continuing "security" approach to West Papuan activism.
As activists further note, any negotiations need to be with the national, not provincial, government. They also say that such negotiations must be conducted outside Indonesia to ensure the safety of participants, and be internationally mediated to guarantee their outcome.
With less than one year left in Yudhoyono's term as president, his two-term limit ends in September 2014, both sides have now run out of time to have such negotiations ratified by Indonesia’s legislature. But, as Yudhoyono knows, the parliament would in any case be very unlikely to accept such a negotiated settlement.
West Papuan activists therefore believe their only option now is to try to raise the issue internationally. In doing so, however, they have run up against Australia’s well established policy of supporting West Papua’s continued incorporation within Indonesia.
The West Papuan activists have also run up against Australia’s tougher position of supporting Indonesia’s "territorial integrity", hence, their "voluntary" agreement to leave Australia’s consulate-general in Bali, just ahead of the arrival of Indonesian police.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.