Will Australia continue blindly following American foreign policy on Syria?

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Assad in or out? It’s a question that has disconcerted Western leaders since the initial rumblings of the Arab Spring in 2011. In his first piece for Independent Australia, foreign affairs correspondent Gabriel Polychronis investigates Australia’s interconnection with American policy on regime change in Syria.

DONALD TRUMP'S strike on Syria – regardless of the motive – may indicate a shift in U.S. foreign policy back to that of the early years of the conflict, when regime change was a priority. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow this week will be pivotal to the future of Western foreign policy in Syria. Tillerson already appears to be taking a harder approach on Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad, but it remains to be seen if this rhetoric signals a definitive policy shift. One thing is almost certain, however: Russia will not back down and, with relations between the two countries sinking to an "all time low", Trump has already resorted to causing distractions by dropping the "mother of all bombs"’ on Islamic State in Afghanistan on Thursday. Nevertheless, how the U.S. plays their next hand will most likely foreshadow Australia’s future stance on Syria.

Anti-war activist and co-founder of WikiLeaks Australian Citizens Alliance, Samantha Castro, spoke out against Australia’s dovetailing with American foreign policy, especially when it comes to regime change.

“We should not be engaging in U.S. wars of aggression, regime change, and nation building,” Castro said.

She said Australia would be better being constructive:

“It hasn’t worked, and it hasn’t worked for a very long time. The Australian Government would do better to address some of the root causes that caused the unrest in the first place in Syria, such as climate change."

The Tunisian revolution of 2010, catalysed by the self-immolation of Mohamed Boazizi, led to the ousting of long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Hosni Mubarak was the next Arab leader to fall; his nearly 30 yearlong rule over Egypt came to an end in January 2011 after 18 days of revolt in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. These revolutions sparked a new hope in the Arab world; it became clear that change is possible. And so, in March 2011, demonstrators took to the streets of Daraa in Syria’s south, calling for an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The result: years of violence, destruction, and a once proud country of the Levant pushed to the brink of no return.

The 2011 protests in Daraa proved to be bloody. Syrian security forces used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the crowds. The daily clashes between demonstrators and security forces resulted in approximately 1,000 civilians dying by the end of May 2011.

America responded to Syria’s violent crackdown on protests by imposing sanctions on top Syrian officials, indicating frustration with Assad for not even attempting to pursue a peaceful solution to the unrest.

But the West was not prepared for so much instability in a region they were trying to vacate. Due to the tricky geopolitical situation Barack Obama inherited from his predecessor, detachment from the Middle East became a hallmark policy of his early years of presidency. Besides, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq was nearly complete, so any American intervention in Syria was always unlikely. Even in late August 2013, when Obama sought Congressional approval for strikes against the Syrian government as retaliation for the Ghouta chemical attack, he was met with scepticism from both parties, thus displaying America’s unwillingness for involvement in the early years of the war.

Now, six years after the protests in Daraa, the use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun has plunged the civil war to a new level of volatility. Trump’s response was swift, but it has further divided the international consensus. How will Australia respond to America’s involvement in the greatly complex power struggle in Syria?

Australia’s foreign policy has very much always been at the mercy of our American counterparts, which is evident in Australia’s stance on regime change in Syria over the years. 

The then Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd called on the Syrian authorities to show "restraint" in response to the Daraa protests in 2011, which were of unprecedented scale. He also urged the Assad regime to implement "genuine political and economic reform without delay".

Despite vigorous financial sanctions on Syria, various trade restrictions, and an arms embargo imposed by the Julia Gillard government, the death toll continued to rise and the human rights violations persisted.

This led to the Australian Government calling on Assad to step down in August 2011, which coincided with Obama making the same statement more or less on the exact same day.

After the Houla massacre in May 2012, which saw 108 civilians killed – mostly executed – at the hands of Shabiha militia and the Syrian military, then Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr expelled Syrian Chargé d'Affaires Jawdat Ali. This was also in tandem with America expelling Syrian envoys.

Just weeks before Abbott was elected in September 2013, he childishly described the Syrian situation as "baddies versus baddies", which greatly convoluted his foreign policy position in Syria. But once he took office, he clearly continued the Labor party’s rhetoric on regime change in Syria, maintaining that Assad must step aside for any viable peace settlement to be achieved.

In mid-2014, however, Australia shifted their focus to Islamic State after they started to gain control of large parts of northern Syria. The radical Islamic terrorist group, which Abbott labelled a “death cult”, was now "public enemy number one".

Until the September 2015 leadership spill, Tony Abbott still remained intent on seeing Assad go while bombing I.S. at the same time, but his tangible plans centred only around coordinating efforts with the U.S. to eliminate I.S., never to weaken Assad.

As Abbott said in September 2015:

“Do we want Assad gone? Of course we do. Do our military operations contribute to that at this time? No, they don’t."

By the time Malcolm Turnbull gained leadership later that month, Australia’s priority decisively shifted towards defeating I.S. and, for that, they needed Assad.

“There is an emerging view in some quarters that the only conceivable option would be a national unity government involving President Assad," said Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop in 2015.

Associate Professor of Politics and Policy at Deakin University, Benjamin Isakhan, told Independent Australia that Assad had predicted Syria would go down the path of Iraq if the West tried to topple him:

“Assad has been saying since the beginning of the conflict that if you don’t back me, it will descend into violence like in Iraq after 2003 and we’ll see the rise of terrorist groups, and that kind of came true."

It was a lack of real action – just words and gestures – that led a to a muddled global consensus on whether Assad stays or goes, and by the time IS became a real threat, it was far easier to keep Assad.

Said Associate Professor Isakhan:

“After so little concerted effort to actually do anything about [Assad], and so little consensus globally, the US began to shift and the rhetoric began to change, and so did Australia.” 

Even after the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack by the Assad regime on April 4 2017, Bishop still persists that Assad

“... must be transitioned out, rather than it be a precondition that he must go.”

Is there a clear path forward for Australian foreign policy in Syria? Or will it be much of the same — blindly following Washington?

“I think Australia will do whatever Trump says,” Associate Professor Isakhan told IA.

“If he decides it’s regime change, then it’s regime change. If he decides it’s boots on the ground, then it’s boots on the ground. If he decides to leave it alone and not worry about it until they use chemical weapons again then that’s what we’ll be doing.”

Considering Trump’s "America first" promise, he will most likely take the latter option: leave it alone, but take action when he deems it popular, like after a chemical attack. And based on Australia’s history on foreign policy in Syria, further compliance will follow.

Dr Vanessa Newby, visiting fellow at Australian National University also spoke to Independent Australia, telling us Australia should avoid becoming entangled in this conflict.

“I don’t think Australia has any real reason to become embroiled in the crisis any deeper because its interests in the region are limited." 

Dr Newby also said she did not see American foreign policy changing much under Trump:

“I don’t anticipate the inclination to follow U.S. policy will change any time soon, despite Trump’s vacillations.”

Associate research fellow at Deakin University, Dara Conduit, painted a dreary picture for the future of Syria, writing for The Australian:

'Emboldened by a compliant international community and the smell of victory, Assad will continue his campaign, whatever the cost.'

Australia has historically worked in tandem with American foreign policy. Our nation’s leaders appear to be set in their ways: blindly mimicking U.S. rhetoric on global instability, incapable of taking initiative on matters of conflict. Trump’s volatile, and largely unclear foreign policy will be the basis upon which our own international agenda is built.

Speaking to radio station 2GB last week, backbencher Tony Abbott troublingly upped his "baddies versus baddies" analysis to

"baddies versus worsies". 

It does not bode well for Australians to think this kind of immaturity can still be present in our governing party.

The future is bleak. The world is beset with the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two, the Middle East is currently a geopolitical minefield, and there’s instability in Korea as well as in the South China Sea.

Is it finally time for Australia to start acting like an independent country, or continue to be a puppet of Trump’s ad hoc foreign policy?

You can follow Gabriel Polychronis on Twitter @G_Polychronis.

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