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The Intervention Conundrum: Australia and the Conflict with the Islamic State

Acts of terror from San Bernadino to Paris to Sydney are causing Western governments, including Australia, to question whether they should escalate the fight against the Islamic State. The memories of the invasion and occupation of Iraq are still fresh in the minds of both policymakers and the electorate, meaning that a geopolitical issue has also become a question at the polling booth.

Any Australian policy shift should be viewed through the idea of the threat which Islamic State poses. The Islamic State has claimed 21 attacks outside their major Middle Eastern combat zone to mid November 2015. By comparison, al Qaeda claimed 12 attacks through 2002, as the case was argued for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Australia has been touched by both al Qaeda and IS: the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2014 Sydney siege were claimed by the respective groups. These events are often inspired by the groups that claim them; however, governments must be seen to act against the ‘source’ of the attacks regardless of this localised inspiration.

However, the policy problem faced by the Turnbull Government is tempered by the political experience of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. While Charles Miller found that the Australian electorate could understand military casualties, the level of acceptance was based on the confidence that the electorate invested in the mission that military personnel undertook. As such, the government must consider the chances for success in any mission against Islamic State.

Such a mission would be arduous. While a coalition of Western militaries would likely crush the fighting force of Islamic State in the Syria-Iraq region, the occupation of Iraq shows that it would likely not be the end of the conflict. In particular, the survival of the former power structure of al Qaeda in Iraq and their reformation into what is now Islamic State shows the difficulties in finding a true resolution through military means.

Whether another resolution can be found remains to be seen. Prime Minister Turnbull has rejected the notion of negotiation with IS, noting that "[IS] has no interest in a political settlement and I’m not aware of anyone having any interest in raising it with them." Although others, most notably British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, have suggested that a negotiated solution is the best chance of a resolution, there has been no attempt by either side to find a political answer to the conflict. Furthermore, such a proposition was slammed by the media, with multiple articles ridiculing Corbyn’s notion of negotiating with terrorists.

As such, Australian policymakers find themselves in a difficult position. A negotiated solution would be politically unfeasible, but a coalition to eliminate IS would likely result in quagmire similar to the Iraq invasion. However the current policy, with RAAF air strikes and Australian special forces assisting Iraqi troops against IS, is not having an impact against IS or diminishing the threat of further attacks. As such, any policy shift against IS is going to be complex in order for it to have an impact. The question remains; can Australia even have an impact?

Zac Smith is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) graduate from Monash University, majoring in politics. He is interested in the impact of bureaucrats in Australian foreign policy outcomes.

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

Image Credit: quapan (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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