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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.

Foreign affairs: Defence spending down, more aid and spies

From the industry reaction to Australia's overseas aid budget, one might have thought Canberra's cruel bean-counters are intentionally starving Third World orphans. The budget announcement of keeping foreign aid at around 0.35% of gross national income, or almost $5.6 billion, reflects a stepping down from a forecast increase in aid to 0.38%, but still represents an overall 4% increase in available funds.

In an era of broad budgetary restraint, this not unreasonable outcome reflects commitments given by Australia in order to secure its seat on the UN Security Council last October. It also reflects a shift away from the "hard power" of Defence, with the Iraq war drifting into history, Timor-Leste no longer active, Solomons concluding and Afghanistan looking to an end. The security emphasis now is on "soft" and "secret" power, with diplomacy drifting.

In order not to further alienate Labor's Left, the government has capped aid funds allocated to housing asylum seekers at 7% of the aid budget, at $375 million. Australia's commitment to the UN's millennium development goal of 0.5% of gross national income by 2015 has now been "deferred" to 2016-17. This target will now require an extra -- and improbable -- $1 billion a year for the next four years.

Of the more aspirational commitment to the OECD's 2002 Monterey Agreement to allocate 0.7% of GDP to foreign aid by 2015, only Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have met that goal. Australia is outside the top 10 OECD aid providers by GDP. There is, however, some small comfort in still being well ahead of Japan and the United States.

Australia's aid recipients are unlikely to protest about the deferral of intended aid increases. Indonesia -- Australia's largest aid recipient -- does not care too much about Australian aid in any case. For some in Indonesia, Australian aid is viewed through a paranoid lens as a mechanism for some vague ulterior agenda. From Australia's perspective, aid simply helps secure a seat at Indonesia's diplomatic table.

Papua New Guinea is more concerned about Australian aid, mostly because it so poorly manages its domestic budget and needs all the help it can get. Some less critical Australian aid programs to Timor-Leste have been deferred, which otherwise remains high on Australia's aid priority list.

Tightening has hurt Australian diplomacy through funding of Australia's embassies. DFAT's departmental appropriations have survived this budget with a minor spending increase of $43 million to just under $1.5 billion. But this will come as cold comfort to many Australian diplomats, given the reduction in spending over recent years.

Australia's two new African embassies, in Dakar, Senegal, announced in the last budget, will be further funded by closing the embassy in Budapest. Given the critical role of exports, the Australian Trade Commission will have to do more with a little less, its budget down $13 million to $319 million.

Defence has, as was earlier known, taken a hit, losing just over $2 billion to $22 billion, reflecting Australia's shifting security focus. That less visible branch of Australian security, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, received another healthy budget increase, of more than 11.7%, from $211 million to almost $248 million. It is, it seems, a good time to be a spy.

Australia playing Sri Lanka's authoritarian game

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.

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