US President Barack Obama has moved a step closer towards direct intervention in Syria with his statement that there is now evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war. Obama has previously said the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" that, if crossed, would trigger US intervention.
However, Obama has said it is not yet absolutely clear who was responsible for the use of the chemical weapons, and that it is critical to clarify this point so as to ensure international support for US intervention. His caution reflects growing concern not just over Syria's mounting death toll but international opposition to intervention as well as the inexorable drawing in to the conflict of outside forces, in particular Lebanon’s heavily armed Shiite militia Hezbollah.
Both the Bashar al-Assad government and the Syrian opposition claim chemical weapons have been used in the conflict, as recently as last Sunday. This supports earlier Israeli claims chemical weapons were being used in the Syrian conflict. There has been a high level of reluctance to take such claims on face value, however, given the disrepute of similar claims that rationalised the start of the Iraq War. Even if it can be established who has used chemical weapons -- thought to be the nerve gas Sarin -- it is not yet clear what form intervention might take, much less the shape of international reactions to such an intervention.
With the US public weary over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it is unlikely that the US would commit ground troops to Syria. A belligerent response from Syrian ally Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, are also factors against a ground intervention.
However, a bombing campaign and related air cover, as in Libya in 2011 and in Yugoslavia in 1999, have been shown to be effective in either changing the course of a ground war or compelling a government into submission. With the Assad regime only slowly losing ground in its now two-year-old civil war, such an intervention would be likely to tip the outcome against his government forces.
One factor complicating of any hastening of the fall of the Assad regime is that Syrian opposition forces are now deeply divided. The Free Syrian Army is supported by the US and its European allies, and the explicitly al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front is supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Although it wants the Assad regime to go, the US and its allies are deeply opposed to an Al Nusra takeover of Syria. A civil war between Al Nusra and the FSA is also seen as increasingly likely following the fall of the Assad regime.
On-ground intervention by Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, has led Al Nusra leaders to say that, following the fall of the Assad regime, Hezbollah's destruction will be the next priority. Contemplating a possible Al Nusra takeover in Syria and a widening of the war into Lebanon and possibly Iran, the US is focusing on how its increasingly likely intervention could shape Syria’s highly contentious future.
The media attention focused on the Boston Marathon bombers has continued to emphasise their Chechen origins, but there has been little investigation as to why the brothers attacked such a popular, internationally oriented gathering. One clue might lie with the longstanding conflict in the remote region of Chechnya.
Two Chechen-born, US naturalised brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have been identified as suspects in the bombing. Tamerlan, named after the 14th century Turkish-Mongol leader who established an empire stretching from Turkey to Tibet, and Dzhokhar, enjoying the name of the first leader of the post-Soviet break-away Chechen state, are thought to be linked to a 12-strong terrorist sleeper cell.
The FBI had interviewed Tamerlan two years ago regarding his interest in jihadist Islam after the agency was tipped off by the Russian government he could be a security threat. Nothing, however, was found to hold him. In January last year, Tamerlan returned to his native Chechnya and to nearby radicalised Dagestan for several months. He returned as a ready and waiting jihadist.
There is no particular connection between Chechnya, Dagestan and the US, nor has the US a history of involvement in the area. Chechen terrorist attacks outside Chechnya have been directed at Russia, and Russia and the US have long pursued very different and often competing foreign policy agendas. At a different stage of the Chechens' struggle with Russia, the US might even have been seen as an ally.
Along with the rest of central Asia, Chechnya came under Mongol rule from the 13th century but, when the Mongol empire collapsed, it came under Russian domination. In order to counter this new invader, the Chechens sought the protection of the Ottoman Empire and converted to Sunni Islam. By the late 18th century, Russia had expanded into the Caucasus region, formally incorporating Chechnya in the early 1800s. The Chechens rebelled against Russia during the 19th century and whenever Russia, or its successor, the Soviet Union, was weak. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechnya again pushed for independence, but its role as a key hub in Russia’s oil industry led to Russian repression and two brutal wars in which war crimes became commonplace.
Islam and national identity had long been fused in Chechnya and increasingly melded with jihadist Islam. Over the past 20 years, a radical jihadi ideology took over from the nationalist cause. Chechen jihadists are now found in jihadist war zones as far apart as Afghanistan and Mali in West Africa. Just as London experienced home-grown Islamist terrorism in 2005, it appears that Boston has experienced a similar attack.
But while the world increasingly focuses on the backstory of the Boston bombers, its view is distracted from events elsewhere. On the day three people were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, 10 people were killed in terrorist bombings in Iraq and 75 the day after, with hundreds more injuries. Six more were killed the day after that. On the same day, around 160 people, including 30 children, were killed in Syria, and again hundreds more were injured. This is not to mention so many other places in the world regularly and consistently racked by violence.
The Boston bombing has caused the West to sit up and take notice. Again. But complacency and a limited perspective sometimes mean it misses the bigger and much more troubling picture.
In the dog-whistle competition between major political parties against asylum seekers and the war on alleged "terrorism", the Australian government has jailed legitimate refugees, without charge, for reasons -- extraordinarily -- we are not allowed to know about. Opposition Senator George Brandis claims refugees who are deemed a "security threat" should be jailed because they entered Australia "illegally", parroting the patently misleading line put by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
The government is more careful, simply saying a group of asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status have been found to be a security threat. Prime Minister Julia Gillard says we should not second-guess ASIO's security assessment of asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees but who have had an adverse security assessment:
"They know about things like the conflict in Sri Lanka. They use the best intelligence they can to give us the best advice they can. So any suggestion that these people are just naively ringing up governments around the world and saying 'What do you reckon?' is not fair to those intelligence analysts and you should not create that perception in people's minds."
This admonishment not to ask questions, however, runs contrary to what is known about the way in which the Australian government reached previous determinations on the issue. In terrorism trials against three Sri Lankan Tamil Australians in 2010, the Australian Federal Police relied on evidence provided directly by the Sri Lankan government. That case failed on the grounds that the Tamil Tigers, with which the defendents were allegedly connected, was not actually proscribed as a terrorist organisation in Australia.
While ASIO is not just naively ringing up governments around the world, at least one government is "ringing up" Australian security agencies and providing information. That information, from a government that is under scrutiny for war crimes and continuing human rights violations, has been deeply biased, hence flawed and quite often wrong.
The ASIO finding that some Tamil refugees remain committed to achieving a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka coincides with the Sri Lankan government's own assessment of their continuing, and self-serving, threat to that state. The Tamil Tigers were destroyed in 2009, along with the deaths of some 40,000 civilians, and they no longer exist.
But in Sri Lanka, Tamils are still persecuted and "disappeared", Tamil women are r-ped, and even non-Tamil Sri Lankans are increasingly living under the Rajapaksa government's jackboot. Journalists are targeted for assassination, the high court has been emasculated, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa has removed restraints on his personalised rule.
But, having fled this environment in fear of their lives, as found by the Refugee Tribunal, former combatants or or pro-independence sympathisers are now being jailed, under secret terms that, on the face of it, fit neatly with Sri Lanka’s authoritarian regime.
The leak of the so-called "Kissinger Cables" has shown that while the US expected Indonesia would invade what was then Portuguese Timor in 1975, it did not wish to be implicated in the affair. A cable dated August 16, 1975 said that the US' "only secret" regarding Portuguese Timor was its desire not to become involved.
The cable stated that while Indonesia's "incorporation" of Portuguese Timor would be the outcome most "beneficial" for locals and the most likely to ensure regional stability, the "decision … is not for us to make, and we are determined not to become involved in the process". The cable noted that if Indonesia used aggression in the incorporation, it could have negative repercussions for military support for Indonesia.
The cable appears to show little understanding of events in Portuguese Timor at this time, given that the local UDT party, influenced by Indonesian disinformation, had attempted to stage a coup on August 10. By August 16, Fretilin forces had all but defeated the UDT and its pro-Indonesia Apodeti allies.
Perhaps the most importand aspect of the leaked cable is that it confirms the expectation of Indonesia's invasion, more than two weeks before another leaked cable, on September 4, 1975, said that Indonesia's then acting foreign minister, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, acting on behalf of president Suharto, had proposed that Australia join with Indonesia, Portugal and Malaysia in sending UN-sanctioned peace-keeping troops to oversee Portuguese Timor’s decolonisation. The cable says the Australian embassy in Jakarta had responded negatively to the suggestion, given that then prime minister Gough Whitlam had previously refused to consider such an overture from Portugal.
By September 4, UDT and Apodeti forces had been defeated and already retreated across the border into West Timor, where they were re-organising with the support of -- and as a front for -- the Indonesian military. By September 4, too, Australia almost certainly knew that the Indonesian proposal was intended to obscure its intention to invade Portuguese Timor. It was already known by Australian diplomats that Indonesia's military intelligence had been fomenting a disinformation campaign about the dominant Fretilin party since earlier in the year, and promoting its local front party, Apodeti.
A Jakarta think-tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, closely linked to the Indonesian military and the generals who later led the invasion, had already drawn up plans for Portuguese Timor's "integration" into Indonesia. The CSIS had close relations with Australia's ambassador to Jakarta, Richard Woollcott, who in August 1975 recommended that Australia should accept the inevitability of the impending Indonesian invasion.
Whitlam had told parliament on 2 September that no definite proposal for including Australian peace-keepers had been put which, at this stage, was correct. The cable, however, reveals a more nuanced and considered response from Whitlam than has previously been portrayed by what appeared to be his acquiescence to, if not promotion of, Indonesia’s takeover of Portuguese Timor. A September 3 cable says that Australia could consider humanitarian assistance to Portuguese Timor, which Indonesia had earlier rejected. But it showed Whitlam would not countenance anything that had a "colonial character", such as sending troops.
Whitlam's concern at this time reflected the method of Indonesia's incorporation of West Papua in 1969, through a much-criticised show of hands by 1025 hand-picked tribal leaders. It also reflected Whitlam's support for the subsequent "Barwick Doctrine" of Australia not involving itself in prolonging unsustainable colonial arrangements.
The leaked cables add detail to understanding the events that led to Indonesia’s invasion of Portuguese Timor, which had unofficially begun in early October 1975 and officially on December 8. Most notably, they show how poor much US information was on relevant events at this time.
Almost four decades later, and more than a decade after Timor-Leste "restored" its independence, the cables are an awkward footnote to the now surprising closeness of relations between Timor-Leste and Indonesia.
Myanmar's reform program is being challenged by continuing anti-Muslim rioting, which has left 43 dead and hundreds injured in the past two weeks. The rioting has now extended beyond Rakhine State across central Myanmar (formerly Burma), with "well-organised" anti-Muslim riots in 11 Burmese cities and towns, including its second city of Mandalay, where a state of emergency has been declared, and to Pegu, just north of Rangoon.
Security forces have been accused of being unable or unwilling to control the rioting. Although Myanmar has long had a history of religious intolerance, there are also concerns the riots are being organised by factions opposed to the country's recent reforms. The anti-Muslim rioting by Buddhist nationalist extremists started in Rakhine State last December, where it left more than 180 dead. There have been reports of extremist Buddhists from Sri Lanka working with counterparts in Myanmar to promote a radical, religious-based, nationalist agenda. Burmese and Sri Lankan Buddhist communities have long had close ties, with Sri Lanka's extremist Buddhists at the forefront of Sri Lanka's increasingly authoritarian turn.
The United Nations' human rights envoy to Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, says the reluctance of security forces to crack down on the unrest suggests a possible state link to the fighting. "I have received reports of state involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes," he said. "This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the state or implicit collusion and support for such actions."
A government spokesman has denied state involvement in the riots. President Thein Sein, who has instituted many of Myanmar's recent reforms, has warned he would use force if necessary to protect lives and property from the violence. He has said "political opportunists and religious extremists" have been involved in orchestrating the anti-Muslim violence.
While there is some possibility that religious extremists are taking advantage of Myanmar's increasing openness to press for a form of ethnic cleansing, there continues to be a military faction in the country's government opposed to its reform program. The anti-reform group has consistently been on the back foot over the past year, being replaced in senior government posts by pro-reform officers. However, the rise of religious violence has bolstered an anti-reform nationalist agenda.
Thein Sein has responded to the riots by convening a high-powered "committee" to identify and "take severe action" against the organisers of the riots. The "committee" is headed by Myanmar's Minister for Home Affairs, Lt. General Ko Ko, Aung Min (Thein Sein's "fix-it" minister without portfolio) and chief of police Brigadier General Kyaw Kyaw Tun.
The release of Australian hostage Warren Rodwell after being held hostage for the past 15 months has provided a lucky ending to hostage-taking in the southern Philippines. In a region that has had perhaps the world's most consistently high kidnapping rate for the past couple of decades, it is an especially rare outcome for a kidnapping allegedly by the Abu Sayyaf Group.
The ASG is notorious for executing its hostages if ransoms are not paid quickly. That Rodwell has been released with a payment believed to be less than 5% of the original demand of $2 million suggests that while he was indeed kidnapped, it was not by the ASG as claimed.
On Saturday morning, Rodwell was put in a boat near the town of Pagadian City and told to "paddle for your life" following the payment of what is believed to have been a little more than A$90,000. While the ASG claims an Islamist rationale and has engaged in bombings and other terrorist attacks in the Philippines, its principle method of operation has been kidnappings for ransom.
The ASG has developed a fearsome reputation for executing hostages, often by beheading, if ransoms are not paid quickly in full. This has led some counter-terrorism experts to suggest that either the ASG has "gone soft" or, more likely, the group that kidnapped Rodwell was not ASG.
"A lot of us agree that something about this whole affair does not sit right," one CT expert said shortly after Rodwell's "proof of life" video last December. He said at that time that if Rodwell were released, "he would be one of the longest foreigners ever held captive by the ASG, for the least amount of money in their sordid history".
It was noted at that time Rodwell looked relatively well, clean-shaven and did not have a gun at his head, which had been used in videos of other ASG hostages.
The Zamboanga peninsula on the island of Mindanao has for a couple of decades had a reputation as consistently the worst place for kidnapping in the world. As well as three armed separatist organisations operating in the region -- ASG, the MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front -- there are also elements of the communist New Peoples' Army and numerous freelance kidnapping gangs, all of which have competed with each other to kidnap people most likely able to pay ransom.
The ASG does not generally operate on mainland Mindanao but in the Sulu Archipelago. That Rodwell was released in an area well outside of the ASG's operational zone indicates it is likely he was abducted by a smaller kidnap gang which claimed that it was ASG in order to stimulate action on the part of parties that might consider paying a ransom for his release.
But even if Rodwell was not kidnapped by the ASG, he was lucky to have had a deal struck on his behalf to be freed. While the ASG's name may have been taken in vain, the region remains intensely dangerous, with foreigners in particular being victims of choice for kidnappers, with outcomes that are often less successful than Rodwell's.
We will never know, now, what inspired Ben Zygier to become a spy. His death, probably by suicide but who will ever really know, has put an end to that.
Plenty of red-blooded individuals who have watched one spy movie too many or been intrigued by a Le Carre novel have fantasised about becoming a spy, in much the same way that soldiers joined the army in the Great War in search of adventure; they had little or no idea what they were getting into.
Zygier chose to become an Israeli citizen in the mid-1990s, and to apply to Israel's principle intelligence agency Mossad in 2004. By the time he had completed training, he would have been aware of the less glamorous reality that occupied about 99% of intelligence.
Being an intelligence agent is overwhelmingly about gathering information, usually from quite pedestrian sources, or analysing that information. Occasionally there is scope for obtaining secret information, but that comprises a very small piece in the intelligence jigsaw puzzle.
There is also a small operational branch of most intelligence agencies, who engage in hostage rescue or, very rarely, covert attacks. These agents are commonly former special forces soldiers or special operations police. There is limited overlap between operational agents and information gathering agents.
Fairfax's ex-Middle East correspondent Jason Koutsoukis reveals more fascinating details today. Zygier's first significant assignment was to infiltrate a company with links in countries that were hostile to Israel. As with much intelligence gathering, it was relatively dull work. Being a good spy, however, requires focused attention to even the dullest detail, which is where the occasional gems of information might lie.
But Zygier lacked that focus and the greater purpose of his role. He was sacked from his public position and recalled by Mossad to a desk job. That was where fantasy and reality collided.
Wanting to return to field work, Zygier initiated an unauthorised plan to gather information from a Hezbollah operative. As is convention, he had to establish his own bona fides and, in doing so, became the pawn in the more experienced Hezbollah operative's game. Zygier gave away extremely valuable information, in exchange for nothing. Two Mossad informants in Hezbollah was subsequently arrested and jailed. The only surprise there is that they were not summarily executed.
Regardless of his intentions, Zygier had crossed an un-crossable line; he had made a mistake from which one does not recover. That he was also jailed was testament to Mossad's essential internal fairness. Many other organisations would simply have made Zygier "disappear". In any case, Zygier faced an extended jail term, a bleak future in Israel and the end of whatever dreams he might have had.
There is, then, little motive for Zygier's death to have been other than self-inflicted. But if it was otherwise that, too, would be of little surprise. Clearly there was little sense of loss by Zygier's guards at his death.
The lesson in this, if one was needed, is that intelligence work, while critically necessary, is often dull, poorly rewarded, with little glamour and usually no action. People who want to become spies are usually the least suited to the task.
The best spies are quiet, nerdy detail-freaks who have little appetite for drama or action and who are usually tapped on the shoulder, rather than volunteering. Zygier did not fit this mould and, for this poor fit, he ultimately ended up dead.
Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste has been an inconsistent one but, despite some partisan positioning, has considerably improved since the events within Timor-Leste in 2006. In particular, as Timor-Leste’s close neighbour and largest development aid provider, Australia looms large in Timor-Leste’s international orientation.
Because of the relative size and potential capacity to influence, Australia’s decisions can sometimes have, or be seen to have, disproportionate effect within Timor-Leste. Responses from within Timor-Leste, either directly or indirectly, can in turn sometimes be disproportionate by way sub-consciously redressing that perceived imbalance. This has, in the past, led to some difficulties in the bilateral relationship, if of a largely symbolic kind.
However, formal relations between the two countries have remained strong and there is a growing maturity in the relationship on both sides, reflected in a greater mutual appreciation of each other’s interests, perspectives and needs.
Importantly, too, because Australia was home to a significant proportion of the solidarity movement that supported independence for Timor-Leste during the period of occupation and because Timor-Leste has since been the home to arguably Australia’s strongest community to community network (‘Friendship’ network), there remains a remarkably close and often detailed relationship between many Australians and many Timorese. Moreover, since 1975 (and perhaps before), Timor-Leste has resonated deeply among a large proportion of the Australian population, arguably in a way that no other place has done. 14 years after Timor-Leste voted for independence and 11 years after it was formally achieved, Timor-Leste continues to occupy a place in the Australian public imagination much larger than its actual size or objective importance (considerably though that is) would imply.
Australia formally has a strong commitment to helping ensure stability and security in Timor-Leste, as demonstrated by Australia’s substantial aid program and its recent history of commitment to the International Stabilisation Force and in other areas.
From Timor-Leste’s perspective, it is a small and strategically vulnerable state that finds its principle security not in any specific relationship but in engaging as much as possible with the wider global community, in particular through multilateral fora. Timor-Leste does enjoy strong relations with a number of specific countries, including (not in order) Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Portugal, Brazil, China, the US and Japan. These relations are of varying direct importance, but each sits within a constellation of relationships that allows Timor-Leste to seek support in differing and sometimes not mutually advantageous quarters. The benefit of this strategy is that it allows Timor-Leste a degree of independence that might otherwise be compromised by excessively close relations with any one country (or strategically aligned cluster of countries). Australia should not be concerned with this strategy, but rather understand Timor-Leste’s desire for a wide range of friendships and actively support that.
More importantly, however, for Timor-Leste, is that it seeks to involve itself in multi-lateral institutions, notably the UN in the first instance, but is also making considerable efforts to become accepted into ASEAN, in which it has some supporters (including Indonesia, but not Singapore) and which will probably eventually accede to this request. Timor-Leste should continue to also be supported for its multilateral engagement, both for its longer term international engagement and such opportunities that might bring, and in particular to secure its long term security among a multitude of states rather than with particular states.
In particular, while Australia and Timor-Leste enjoy good and maturing relations, there are a number of steps that the Australian government could take in order to further enhance the depth and strength of that relationship.
1.The Australian government should give strong consideration to officially recognising, through a motion passed in Parliament, the role played and the substantial sacrifices made by the people of Timor-Leste in supporting Australian military forces in the defence of Australia in 1942. Further to this point, it should give full consideration to re-naming Australian scholarships to Timor-Leste students in recognition of the role played by the people of Timor-Leste as a continuing reminder of the historical and close relations that exists between the two countries (e.g. ‘Sparrow-Creado Scholarships’ or similar).
2. The Australian Government should negotiate in good faith and under the terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea with the Government of Timor-Leste over any future discussion over the sea boundary between the two countries. While there are competing claims as to whether UNCLOS I (mid-point between shorelines) or UNCLOS III (edge of continental shelf) should apply, to the extent that there might be disagreement, Australia should submit itself and comply with the rulings of the International Court of Justice. Any such negotiation or adjudication should remain consciously quarantined from the wider bilateral relationship between the two countries.
3. The Australian government should commit to continuing the current levels and extent of its aid program to Timor-Leste. Australia’s aid program to Timor-Leste remains critical to that country’s future stability and development, and it is in Australia’s ‘enlightened self-interest’ to continue to support Timor-Leste at current levels of aid, as a good neighbour, a good international citizen and because a stable and developing Timor-Leste as a neighbour is in Australia’s regional interest. In particular, Australia should continue to cooperate closely with the government of Timor-Leste and other aid providers to ensure that aid matches Timor-Leste’s development strategy and goals, and is coordinated with other aid providers to ensure minimal overlap.
While sustainability and ‘grass roots’ participation are givens in the broader development paradigm, it is critical that these two factors be front and centre of Australia’s development assistance. Grass roots or ‘bottom up’ development is necessary to ensure that the benefits of aid programs reach the people it is intended to assist and responds appropriately to their lives needs. Sustainable development is necessary to ensure that aid that is delivered is able to continue to provide benefits to its recipients after the aid provider has departed, and does not replace and then abandon previously sustainable systems (e.g. water supply, agriculture).
4. Encourage and support Australian businesses to invest in Timor-Leste, especially in employment creation industries such as agriculture and tourism. Australia has an opportunity to invest in Timor-Leste in future growth areas, in specific areas of industry and in tourism. Australia’s aid program should assist the government of Timor-Leste with standardising and simplifying investment procedures and to offer security through consistent and equal rule of contract law to help ensure that such investments are not subject to the vagaries of bureaucratic and legal application.
5. Support and extend Timor-Leste Seasonal Workers and training programs in Australia. At the time of writing, Australia had agreed in principle to extend its guest workers program to Timor-Leste. This program has the benefit of providing labor to sectors of Australian industry (e.g. agriculture) in which there is little interest in Australia, while making available to Timor-Leste the benefit of remittances which make a direct benefit to their local communities. This project should be developed and extended to ensure that there are no areas of Australian industry, especially seasonal industry, that are left wanting for labor at peak times .
6. Encouragement and support for community to community relations between Australia and Timor-Leste, through Friendship groups, service organisations (e.g. Rotary), church groups, educational/school tours and other people to people relations. Australian community organisations with close links to Timor-Leste operate independently of government, often achieving very substantial results and helping to build close bilateral relations in a way that would be the envy of most other bilateral programs. However, from time to time their programs would benefit from the availability of government assistance, for example with conferences and community meetings. To this end, community groups should be formally recognised as contributing to the bilateral relationship and provision made for them to be able to seek AusAID or related assistance from time to time for specific and clearly defined purposes.
7. There has been discussion of a formal Australia-Indonesia defence alliance, which is unlikely for mutual domestic political reasons. However, a closer strategic arrangement could be reached in cooperation with Timor-Leste as a third partner. Despite their problematic history, Timor-Leste has been moving towards closerlinks with Indonesia, in particular through training of the Timor-Leste police (PNTL) with Indonesian police (Polri), and the development of military-to-military links with Indonesia, including proposed military training. Given the potentially problematic domestic orientation of Timor-Leste’s military (F-FDTL), Australia’s strategic interest in ensuring that Timor-Leste remains stable in the post-UN period could be enhanced by refocusing F-FDTL externally through a tripartite security agreement/treaty between Australia, Indonesia and Timor-Leste. In particular, extending officer training programs for Indonesia and Timor-Leste defence personnel would both assist their professionalisation and enhance both links and cross-cultural understandings between the defence forces of the three states.
The civil war in Syria looks to be entering a new and potentially more dangerous phase, with the alleged use of chemical weapons both escalating the conflict and making foreign intervention more likely. During his visit to Israel, US President Barack Obama said confirmation that chemical weapons had been used in Syria would be a "game changer".
Dozens of people have been reportedly killed in the city of Aleppo following what is believed to have been a gas attack. When news of the attack first broke, the Syrian government immediately blamed Syrian rebels for the use of chemical weapons. The rebels quickly denied responsibility, saying they had no access to such weapons and had no suitable weapons delivery systems. Obama said he was sceptical of the Syrian government's claim that the chemical weapons had been used by the rebels.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an investigation into the use of the gas as a weapon in Syria. Obama said: "When you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking at potentially even more horrific scenes than we've already seen in Syria."
Obama is now under increasing domestic pressure from both sides of US politics to intervene in the Syrian conflict. He has so far avoided intervention in the hope the war would be resolved through negotiation; however, he said the use of chemical weapons could trigger intervention.
The UK has already started to supply gas masks to Syria’s rebel fighters, along with other humanitarian aid.
If the US intervenes, it is expected to be under the rubric of the "Responsibility to Protect" policy (R2P). Under R2P, states have a responsibility to intervene in domestic conflicts when a government cannot protect its people from, or engages in, war crimes, crimes against humanity or other mass human rights abuses. There are several levels of invoking R2P, only the last of which is military intervention. Ordinarily, R2P requires the approval of the UN Security Council. However, Russia and China have both made clear they will not allow the Security Council to invoke R2P on this issue.
Obama is highly unlikely to opt for unilateral on-ground military intervention, given the US is still assessing the cost of being bogged down in Iraq and then Afghanistan. However, there is some possibility he could authorise selective air strikes against chemical weapons sights and related targets, or reach agreement with other NATO states to allow such strikes.
This would probably be less than NATO's barrage of air strikes in Kosovo in 1999, which ended Serbian occupation, and probably less than the air support for anti-Muammar Gaddafi forces in Libya in 2011. In particular, the US would be particularly concerned not to provoke Russia into also intervening, thus turning the Syrian civil war into a war by proxy between major powers.
The US is also concerned to eliminate chemical weapons from a post-Bashar al-Assad strategic equation. It fears if the Assad regime falls, weapons could fall into the hands of the radical Islamist groups that are carrying much of the anti-Assad effort. This, too, may prompt the use of air strikes.
Along with other Western states, the US wants to see an end to the Syrian conflict. But few want to see the rise of a militant Islamist state, especially one that demonstrably has access to "weapons of mass destruction".
The four-day visit to Australia by Burmese President Thein Sein, the first by a Burmese leader since the country descended into self-imposed isolation in 1974, marks the increasing international acceptability of the once outcast state. Thein Sein's arrival in Australia on Sunday reciprocates a visit by Foreign Minister Bob Carr to Myanmar (formerly Burma) last year.
Thein Sein's visit to Australia reflects the quickening pace of deepening relations between Australia and Myanmar and Australia's support for Myanmar's reform process, including increased aid to more than $100 million over the next three years. Thein Sein met with US President Barack Obama last November, marking the beginning of a rapid thaw in Myanmar's international relations and the ending of its international status as a pariah state.
Protesters in Australia have called on the Australian government to press the Burmese leader over continuing human rights concerns in Myanmar. These include continuing abuses by the military and police and two ethnic-based wars, in the northern Kachin State and Shan State. There has also been widespread international concern over attacks against ethnic Muslim Rohingyas in the western Rakhine State starting late last year, in which up to 2000 people are believed to have been killed and more than 80,000 displaced.
Thein Sein, a former general, was hand-picked for the presidency by hard-line predecessor General Than Shwe. Than Shwe is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including directing the violent crackdown against protesters, led by Buddhist monks, in 2007. It has become increasingly apparent Than Shwe handed power to Thein Sein to slowly transition the country towards a form of democracy. The exchange for this political transition was that senior military leaders would be protected from prosecution and the often substantial business interests of their families would remain unaffected.
Since assuming the leadership in 2011, Thein Sein has released political prisoners, relaxed media censorship and allowed the pro-democratic National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to compete in byelections, ahead of an open political competition in 2015.
The NLD recently held internal elections for candidates for the 2015 elections. Assuming the elections proceed without interference, it is widely expected the NLD will win a substantial majority. Thein Sein said last year he would be willing to hand over political power if the NLD achieved a parliamentary majority and Suu Kyi were elected president.
The Burmese leader's visit to Australia coincides with the launch of the Australia Myanmar Institute in Melbourne today. The AMI, a project between Deakin and Melbourne universities, is intended to develop a greater flow of information between Australia and Myanmar and to promote Myanmar's reform process.
Participants at the inaugural "Progress, Opportunities and Concerns in Myanmar's Transition" conference include two former Australian ambassadors to Myanmar, medical, legal and educational specialists, academics and businesses.