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.
If you had to guess the number one spot for terrorism worldwide, what would you guess? Afghanistan?
According to a new document from the defence and security intelligence and analysis group IHS Janes, first prize for terrorist attacks belongs to Syria. Putting aside the pedantic untidiness of who the terrorists actually were, Syria certainly suffered a lot of grief over 2012, with 2670 attacks, more than 10 times the number of attacks in 2011. No aspect of the war there is going well.
There would be a reasonable expectation that, putting aside this definitional anomaly, Afghanistan would slot securely in at number two, given the war still rages there. But the number of terrorist attacks in Iraq has increased 10% to 2296 following the conclusion of the war.
As more than a few pundits have observed, if the war in Iraq was a success, you’d hate to see a failure. Coming second in motorcycle racing is referred to as being "first of the losers", which seems particularly apposite in this context.
In a recent conversation with a foreign affairs colleague who was a survivor of one of the Afghanistan attacks, I suggested that Pakistan was really the centre of the anti-Taliban war now, rather than Afghanistan. The terrorist attack figures in Pakistan bear that out, with 2206 attacks, also up around 10% on 2011. Pakistan is a seriously dangerous place, and not one to be visiting any time soon for a holiday.
Try as Afghanistan (or some people there) might, it did not make the podium, in part due to an overall decline in attacks, from 1821 to a much more modest 1313. One might assume that this reflects the success of the International Security Assistance Force strategy there and the ultimate defeat of the Taliban. Or one might be a little more realistic and assume that the Taliban is dropping the tempo of its attacks until after the ISAF withdraws next year, at which time it will return in full force.
India is a surprise inclusion at fifth place, with almost three times as many attacks as Somalia in sixth, just ahead of Israel, which also suffered an increased number of attacks, in seventh place. Israel only just outpaced Thailand, which comes close to averaging an attack a day. Almost all of these attacks are in the troubled Muslim south.
What the HIS Janes figures show is that, if there really is a "war on terrorism", it has not been particularly successful. Overwhelmingly, things got worse, globally, rather than better.
If there is a positive side to any of this, at least very few terrorist attacks occurred in developed Western countries, which is where we live. We are safe, so long as we are careful about where we travel, for the time being.
Timor-Leste is a country born of a keen awareness of its security needs and aspirations. In the period of transition from Portuguese rule, the country and its people descended into a brief but bloody civil war, then almost immediately faced incursions from across the western border. Its people underwent 24 devastating years of occupation and resistance, emerging to confront a new security threat – that of a country largely destroyed. Timor-Leste has built since then, but again faced an internal security crisis as some of our citizens and institutions of state, still unready for full self-responsibility, took Timor-Leste back to the edge. It has since come out of that process having learned and grown.
Timor-Leste now has two security focuses:
Hot on the heels of the revelation that Sri Lankan soldiers murdered the 12-year-old son of Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran in cold blood and last week’s shooting of a journalist in Colombo, the International Crisis Group has released a report deploring what it calls Sri Lanka’s "authoritarian turn". The ICG report calls for international action to halt the Sri Lankan government's erosion of democracy and its recent "constitutional coup".
The ICG report says that the Sri Lankan government has made no meaningful progress on accountability for war crimes that occurred during the conclusion of its war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009. "Instead," it said, the Sri Lankan government "has accelerated the country’s authoritarian turn, with attacks on the judiciary and political dissent that threaten long-term stability and peace".
Although it is a minor diplomatic affront to Australia, it was unsurprising that Senator Nick Xenophon was deported from Malaysia yesterday. Most regional governments rarely tolerate criticism of how they exercise political power. Being kicked out of a regional country -- or, worse, facing court -- has been, for some regional critics, a relatively common experience.
Xenophon was detained and deported as a "security risk" under the Immigration Act and this status follows the sweeping logic of Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (ISA). The ISA is a grab-all law, introduced by the colonial British to repress any form of dissent.
Xenophon’s identification as a "security risk" reflects the high degree of concern that Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN -- National Front) government has over the coming Malaysian elections. The elections are scheduled to be held by June 27.
Australia's relationship with East Timor is at risk as the deadline looms on a hotly disputed and lucrative liquid natural gas project -- with no resolution in sight.
West Australian-based Woodside Petroleum has until February 23 to reach an agreement with the government of East Timor over the site of processing LNG or else the arrangement between the two is likely to be stopped. This would then trigger the cancellation of Australia’s sea boundary agreements with East Timor.
At this late stage it's unlikely Woodside will change its long-held position and accede to East Timor's demand that the LNG be processed on East Timor’s south coast. Woodside's preferred option is a floating processing platform at the Greater Sunrise LNG field in the Timor Sea.
It probably felt satisfying, being French President Francois Hollonde, during his almost George W. Bush-like ‘mission accomplished’ moment in Timbuktu recently. French forces spear-headed a quick campaign in Mali to defeat Islamist insurgents, saving the country’s fragile, government from collapse and the preventing the establishment of a new home for Islamist global terrorism.
But the 3,500 French troops – around a third of the anti-Islamist forces in Mali - are now preparing to leave. What they are leaving is displaced and desperate Islamist forces holed up in the inhospitable Ifoghas Mountains in northern Mali’s border with Algeria.
It had elements from the outset, but the war in Syria is looking more like a war by proxy between outside interests. It may be that it can now only be resolved from outside.
Most wars are proxies to some extent, perhaps the most notorious recent war being the three-cornered contest in Cambodia between 1978 and 1992. Syria is now starting to look like such a multi-faceted contest, but perhaps with even greater potential for complication.
The air attack last week by Israel against a Syrian military target raised the spectre of a wider conflagration. Initial reports said the target was a convoy that was presumed to be carrying guided surface-to-air missiles to Syria's Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. However, reports now indicate the target was a military research centre at Jamraya, north-west of Damascus about 15 kilometres from the Lebanese border.
The government of Sri Lanka has been embarrassed over its human rights record by a call for a boycott campaign being run by respected Australian sports writer Trevor Grant. Grant has been using the Sri Lanka cricket team’s current tour of Australia to highlight what the UN believes were war crimes committed in Sri Lanka in 2009 and a subsequent campaign of human rights abuse against the country’s Tamil minority.
The campaign is the first politically driven proposed boycott of sports in Australia since the anti-apartheid boycotts of South African sporting teams in the 1970s and '80s.
While touring Australia, the Sri Lankan cricket team, self-proclaimed ambassadors for their country, have been touting a holiday resort on their country's north-east coast. Grant says the military built-and-run resort is situated at the site where some 40,000 Tamil non-combatant men, women and children died at the hands of the Sri Lanka military.