What’s happening in Syria?

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(Image via socialistaction.org)

On the anniversary of Australia's first engagement in Syria a year ago this week, Dr Martin Hirst discusses the military bungle that could potentially escalate the deadly four-way battle into unchartered territory. 

THE SYRIAN/RUSSIAN response to the fatal weekend mistaken bombing raid on Assad Government troops was swift and brutal.

Airstrikes on a UN-Red Cresent aid convoy attempting to break the Government’s siege on rebel-held parts of Aleppo, signalled an end to an ill-defined and destined to fail fragile ceasefire.

The ceasefire, between Assad’s butchers and barrel bombs and the anti-ISIL Western-backed Syrian rebels, was to allow more coordination in the assaults on Islamic State in Syria.

That is now in tatters. The real losers are the Syrian rebels whose brave resistance to both Islamic State barbarism and the regime's killers is the only “good" side in this bloody and messy conflict.

What went wrong?

It seems the weekend’s accidental bombing of a Syrian army unit in an operation involving Australian combat aircraft may have been a result of “deconfliction” gone wrong.

Yep, in the jargon of war – designed to obfuscate rather than explain and make clear – “deconfliction” is a word. A very buzzy buzzword.

To “deconflict” means to try and prevent incidents in which our side bombs their side by mistake, or our fighters don’t shoot their fighters out of the sky. In the Syrian conflict this means trying not to shoot down Russian or Syrian planes on missions against ISIL (DAESH) while coalition aircraft (mainly U.S. and Australian, but involving Turkey as well) are supposedly on missions against the same targets.

Confused yet?

Well, I wouldn’t be surprised and if you only followed the mainstream media’s accounts of the Syrian conflict, you may know a bit more but still be none the wiser. The reason for this is simple enough; the media’s reports are full of jargon like “deconfliction”, talk of rebels, insurgents, Islamic groups, the Syrian regime and Russian intrigues.

Take this statement from Defence Minister Marissa Payne from Monday:

“We will continue in an appropriate, measured way with the international coalition to do what is required, but there has been no hold as such put on Australian activity.”

What exactly does that mean?

Why is Syria so important?

It seems to me today that as goes Syria, so goes the world.

This might seem like a big call but the situation in Syria contains all the elements that currently motivate much of global politics. But the similarities don’t end there.

Syria is a total disaster of a situation. There is a five-year-old civil war that began during the Arab Spring; parts of the country have been overrun by Islamic State; the Kurdish population is restive and looking to unite with its relatives in Turkey, Iran and Iraq; and two of the world’s superpowers are directly involved in a messy four-way race to turn every city, town and village in Syria into a pile of smouldering, radio-active rubble.

At the heart of it all is, of course, who will control the future of the region’s vast oil and gas reserves. Various permutations of productive oil fields supply lines via pipes and shipping routes and competing global interests determine who makes money from current and future markets.

One of the central arguments for Australian involvement in airstrikes against DAESH is to disrupt its own “pirate” oil from reaching global markets. Ostensibly, this is to prevent the profits from the “illegal” sale of this stockpile funding global terrorism.

Control of price and market is also important to global oil.

But you may have actually forgotten what’s happened in Syria and why the place is still such a mess.

In 2011, an uprising against the Assad regime began in Syria, linked to the explosion of popular anger against a number of undemocratic regimes in the region.

The Syrian revolution became a civil war very quickly. After decades of vicious autocracy, the Assad regime was not willing to cede power to the opposition. Bashar al-Assad is the son of the founder of modern Syria, Hafez al-Assad. Like his father, Bashir has ruled with violence and, until 2011, with open support from the West.

After the uprising, in which the rebels were initially successful, brutal Syrian special forces began attacking rebel-held positions, particularly in the north of the country where the revolution had a strong-hold in the second-largest city, Aleppo. Assad has used chemical weapons, including the now notorious barrel bombs and chlorine gas attacks against civilians.

The situation became more difficult to unravel when ISIS (DAESH) took advantage of the destabilisation to establish a strong military presence in parts of Syria not under government or rebel control.

It is this deterioration that provides the pretext for Western involvement including Australia's. Tony Abbott committed Australian air assets in September 2015. Turnbull has continued the missions and now wants to upgrade the Australian rules of engagement to allow for more attacks, including on targets not directly involved in the fighting. (I’ll have more on this to say in future editions of 'Watch this Space'.)

Since 2011, Assad has used the West’s own flawed anti-terrorism language as a cover for attacks on civilians that have killed hundreds of thousands and created as many refugees over the past five years. With Russian support for the past two years these attacks have increased and international relief agencies have been targeted.

But the bulk of the rebels are not jihadists. For the most part they are anti-clerical and secular in outlook and were not trying to create a caliphate in Syria. The rebels wanted to defeat Assad and put Syria on a path to democratic reform.

The Syrian civil war has been raging now for five years and neither the Government soldiers nor the rebels have been able to inflict a decisive victory on the other side.

Into this vacuum stepped the nucleus of what has become Islamic State and this, in turn, meant that Western governments soon became more interested. It was clear that DAESH has been able to take advantage of the chaos and the fighting to carve out a space for itself.

However, ISIL has done that not just by attacking Assad’s forces but by targeting the secular rebels as well.

Of course, once the U.S. announced it was going to become militarily active in the Syrian conflict, we jumped on board as the loyal allies we are.

Australia is involved in a shooting war in Syria but which side is it on?

Ironically enough, the first Australian airstrikes in Syria occurred a year ago, the botched raid last weekend was a grim reminder of that anniversary.

For a year now, Australia has flown combat missions and dropped bombs on Syrians and it also plays a coordination and intelligence role in airstrikes, targeting and drone missions.

It seems that the weekend killing of between 60-100 Syrian soldiers was possibly caused by a mistake in targeting by the Australian coordinators and the U.S. fighter pilots. Oops. Sorry.

Australia’s rules of engagement in Syria are that it will actively target ISIL targets and that is all — and when there is any chance of civilians or non-ISIL forces being harmed, the rules state there is to be no contact with the enemy.

However, these rules have a murky legal standing in international law which makes it illegal for one country to carry out military operations in another country uninvited. The Assad Government has not asked for Australian help; it has a formal alliance with Russia. Despite this, Assad probably welcomes the direct aid he gets when coalition forces attack DAESH positions.

The justification for Australian involvement in bombing raids over Syria is that it is going after terrorists, thereby keeping us safer at “home”. But this is a fallacy. There is no evidence to suggest that Australians are safer in Australia today than we were before the bombing of Syria began.

In fact, there is mounting evidence that the opposite is true. The more Australia engages militarily in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (we are involved in all three) the more it puts civilians on the ISIS target list.

But apart from the obvious risk that Australian involvement in a conflict with dubious legal status might cause more lone wolf attacks, not less, what does Australia hope to achieve by supporting U.S. war aims in Syria?

That is not clear and it doesn’t become much clearer if you actually try to work out questions of right and wrong.

We claim to be on the right side. Are we?

What is the mission in Syria?

a) Is the mission in Syria to clear out DAESH and ISIL so that the so-called Islamic State cannot establish there and plant the seed of its caliphate?

b) Is the mission to help the Syrian rebels overthrow the Assad regime?

c) Is the mission to stop the global spread of terrorism?

d) Is the mission to target DAESH and help the Syrian regime defeat terrorism?

The stated mission is to a) stop the spread of ISIL and b) help the rebels.

However, a) has become much more important than b) in the Government’s eyes, while the Syrian Government mission is to pretend that Islamic State and the secular rebels are the same thing — terrorism.

This is why the conflict is murky. Syria’s response to the U.S.-Australian bombing of its soldiers was to launch its own airstrikes.

But the target was not DAESH, or even the forces who bombed Assad’s troops. Syrian and Russian planes bombed an aid convoy that was delivering food and medical supplies to the rebels of Aleppo.

 Just as recently as a few weeks ago. The rebel forces broke the government’s siege and celebrated, even if only briefly.

A group of women set up the first women-owned independent radio station, Radio Naseem, which discusses human rights issues, women’s role in the revolution and the dangers posed by extremism. This is the legacy of the revolution, the embodiment of its democratic ideals and its resilience, and it’s this which is currently being bombed out of existence. ~ Leila al Shami Breaking the siege of Aleppo, August 2015

On paper the rebels of Aleppo are our allies. In fact, the Syrian opposition is fighting DAESH and Assad.

Isn’t the logic of war that you defend allies and attack enemies?

So why then is Australia apologising for bombing Assad’s forces when the very same forces are attacking our allies in Aleppo?

When you start asking questions like this the Government’s justification for engaging in Syria seems to start unravelling.

Read more by Dr Martin Hirst on his blog Ethical Martini and follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.


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