A Legal Grey Area: Understanding Australia’s Eagerness to Support the US in Syria



The Abbott government is this week considering a formal request from the US to expand Australian involvement in airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) to include operations in Syria. The Pentagon has requested Australia’s six F/A-18 Super hornet jets join the campaign, which is currently being conducted by US and Middle Eastern forces, with cautious support from Canada.

Australia’s six hornets are currently engaged in airstrike efforts against IS in Iraq, following from a formal request for assistance by Iraq’s al-Abadi government last September.

However, the US request to expand Australian involvement into Syria will require more serious consideration. Currently, there is no clear legal mandate for combat in Syria and it does not look likely that any of the three most obvious legal avenues will be fulfilled:

  • Unlike Iraq, Syria’s al-Assad regime has not requested coalition assistance in combating IS, nor will they. President Assad has instead suggested that IS expansion has coincided with US airstrikes and that coalition presence is a hindrance rather than a help.

  • The United Nations Security Council has not provided a resolution for intervention in Syria and, given Russia and China’s veto powers, it’s unlikely they ever will.

  • Australia cannot claim legitimate need for self-defence against IS as there is no imminent threat to Australian soil.

Further, while the US currently operates in Syria amid this legal reality, they are no longer signatory to the International Criminal Court. Australia is and must therefore consider potential prosecution. Despite these roadblocks, comments from the Abbott government suggest that as long as Australia can formulate a somewhat acceptable basis for joining airstrikes in Syria, they will oblige the US request.

Offering the most comprehensive argument, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop suggested that IS’s complete lack of recognition of state sovereignty lends legal legitimacy to Syrian airstrikes. By “obliterating” a portion of the border between Iraq and Syria, and claiming the region as part of their caliphate, IS leaves the space “virtually ungoverned.” To conduct airstrikes in this region of Syria could therefore be seen as necessary to achieve the collective-defence goals of Iraq, stemming the flow of the threat into Iraq from across the porous and practically non-existent border.

Further indicating that Australia will likely take up the US request, Prime Minister Abbott told media this week that Australia “should continue to play its part to destroy unfathomable evil” stating “in the end, when they (IS) don't respect the border, the question is, why should we?" Abbott affirmed that there was “no moral difference” between attacking IS in Iraq or Syria, downplaying the legal difference as a “little” (and probably temporary) roadblock.

Australian Defence Chief of Joint Operations, Admiral David Johnston, responded to the US request by suggesting that Australian assistance would not prove a game-changer in taking the terror group out. The scope of Australia’s involvement would likely remain the same – a “zero sum game” of shifting existing Australian resources from one geographic location to another. He did acknowledge, however, that the Syrian environment would be “significantly more volatile” for Australian forces due to the protracted Syrian civil war and the greater number of groups in conflict, bolstered by Assad’s ill-will toward the coalition.

Operationally, it appears that the impending Australian contribution will remain peripheral, with the US continuing to bear the great majority of the weight in both Iraq and Syria.

Given this murky legal standing and questions about the scale of Australia’s impact, why is Australia so keen to lend its support to the US in Syria? Why is the US asking?

Dr John Blaxland of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU suggests that the US has reached out for assistance in Syria not only because of Australia’s unwavering willingness to support the protracted War on Terror but because Abbott actually solicited an invitation to extend Australia’s involvement.

Beyond massaging the enduring US-Australia security alliance, Australia’s involvement allows the US to bolster their resolve for this tiresome operation. It lends legitimacy to their legally dubious decision to enter Syria, increasing the international scope of their efforts (even if they are operationally minimal).

For the Abbott government, the biggest benefit is on the domestic front. Abbott’s decision to accept the US request sends a message to Australians that his government is tough on terror. The decision publicly challenges Labor’s efforts to remain committed to national security, highlighting Abbott’s own eagerness to degrade the “death cult.”

It is unlikely the murky legal waters will stop Australia from stepping up.

Sophie Wilson is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au with any questions or for more information.

Image Credit: U.S. Pacific Command (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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