Sunday, October 19, 2014


The MEAO - Middle East Area of Operations. 

RAAF Super Hornets in the MEAO courtesy News Ltd

Sorry I didn't get this posted up earlier. I'd temporarily 'lost connectivity'. 

This is my Saturday Canberra Times column, dealing with Iraq . . .  


Dateline: Al Minhad Air Base, Middle East

So far, only two reporters have been “embedded” with our troops in the Middle East since Tony Abbott announced we’d commit forces against Da’esh (or ISIL). The ABC has just pulled out. You can understand why. Yes, what the rebels are doing is utterly horrific and yes, everyone believes we should do what we can to halt the killing. But it’s at this point the story suddenly becomes very complex because, despite what we’re told by our politicians, there are no easy solutions. Which is why most of the media has switched off . . .

Explaining things takes time, although that’s not the real problem. The difficulty is there are no simple answers. Take Iran. This country is one of the few providing support to the embattled Yazidi’s and beleaguered Kurds, the very groups desperately fighting Da’esh. A flow of arms, money and fighters is being co-ordinated by Qassem Suleimani, a Revolutionary Guard commander with close-cropped, silver hair. Pictures of him smiling and embracing the marginalised tribesmen shows he’s bringing hope and succour to the persecuted.

Yet this is the same man US General David Patraeus described as a “truly evil figure” while a former CIA boss called for him to be assassinated. Then there’s Suleimani’s coordinated support for Hezbollah against Israel. Our own former Brigadier (now Tasmanian Liberal MP) Andrew Nikolic warned this week that the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb would lead to a worse crisis than the “severed heads” of Da’esh. So it seems the West doesn’t perceive Suleimani as a white knight riding to the rescue.

Nor Turkey, despite its membership of NATO. In fact Ankara already has its troops deployed 40 kilometers behind Da’esh lines – where elite commandos guard the tomb of Suleyman Shah. This Ottoman site remains Turkish territory, marking part of its former empire. The Kurds want their own state: Ankara won’t consider it. Which explains why Turkish jets were bombing Kurdish rebels this week while the muzzles of the tanks facing Da’esh remained silent. Perhaps Ankara’s decided the enemy of my enemy is, if not exactly my friend, certainly not my enemy either.

And Iraq itself? A Da’esh offensive has now seized much of Anbar province to the west of Baghdad. Firing has reportedly been heard just 20 kilometres from the international airport. But this doesn’t mean the capital is about to fall, so the new government’s been able to spend the week fiddling and bickering. It refused to provide legal indemnities that would have allowed the rapid deployment of allied troops.

There’s a strange sense of limbo on the battlefield. Only a few Islamic militants are still searching for death – most of those who desired the short-cut to paradise have already had their wish granted. The killing continues, of course, and the horrific intimacy of fierce, house-to-house fighting in Kobane drags towards its seemingly inevitable conclusion as a ring of Da’esh forces slowly strangle the town, but the fall or survival of this one city won’t be of more than symbolic value in the conflict. The problem of what to do with Syria and Iraq has now fractured into a puzzle of pieces that don’t form a picture even when they can be brought to interlock. It’s this lack of an end-game that guarantees the fighting will continue, even if our forces do finally deploy on the ground.

The agenda for a seminar by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute hints at the complexity of the problems that bedevil the region. There’s the most ancient front in this conflict: the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims (not to mention the Kurds, Jews and all the other apostate splinter groups); secondly, the drive to replace old monarchies and impose sharia on secular states like Turkey; and finally the anti-Western sentiment that now stretches across the region in the wake of the self-destructive international intervention since 2001.

President Obama’s desire to “disrupt, degrade and destroy” Da’esh is noble in its restraint and objectivity. There’s no moral judgement embodied in that mission statement. But translating that word formula into an action plan hasn’t suddenly become easier, simply because you know what you want to do. A concrete way of achieving that objective is still required. What does success look like?

Western intervention in the region has been blighted by failure since the borders were drawn in 1919. Every subsequent intervention has slipped slightly, yet noticeably, further towards the abyss. The need is for stability, but that’s impossible to create when the framework is falling apart. The statesmen have again resorted to force to resolve problems of their own creation. That doesn’t mean that our forces shouldn’t be in the Middle East – they should. It’s imperative to do whatever we can to help stop the killing and create a space for civilisation to flourish. But this doesn’t mean the answer to the crisis will be found through military means. Only a political agreement will finally be able to resolve this war. Unfortunately that doesn’t appear to be anywhere close to within reach.

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