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Kevin’s Syria plan: moral high ground or pure politicking?

Why is Kevin Rudd pushing a policy on Syria he well knows won’t get up? Because he’s outraged that 60,000 people have died, no doubt. But he also seems to be playing politics.

When Kevin Rudd started his run in foreign affairs, while Labor was still in opposition and Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman was Laurie Brereton, he did so by being a backbencher all over the media on international issues. Rudd’s new statement on Syria, war crimes and support of the anti-Assad forces recalls his pre-power prognostications, as well as raising a big question about how the international community should engage on Syria.

Rudd’s plan is to support Syria’s rebels to speed up the overthrow of the Assad regime. His grounds for wanting to do so are that the Assad regime has been committing crimes against humanity. This, Rudd says, invokes the morally imperative doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P).

Foreign Minister Bob Carr agrees with Rudd’s view that the Assad regime is committing crimes against humanity and has welcomed his contribution to public discussion on the subject. Carr was both generous and diplomatic in diffusing what could have potentially been for Rudd a popular platform perched on the moral high ground.

Carr has, however, pointed out the West — Australia’s allies — have “no appetite” for direct intervention in Syria and has serious reservations about the arming of unspecified groups in Syria. In this, Carr — and others — have recognised the anti-Assad forces are divided between both secular and Islamist organisations.

On this, Rudd has failed to specify who international support should be for, on ABC News 24 even getting wrong the names of the anti-Assad political and military forces.

In particular, key anti-Assad Islamist organisations, including those linked with al-Qaeda, are now classified as terrorist organisations and have a very different agenda from the rest of the Free Syrian Army for the future of the country. In short, when Assad eventually goes, as it seems he will if after considerably more bloodshed, there will almost certainly be some form of further civil conflict between anti-Assad factions.

No one, apart from Iran and Saudi Arabia/Qatar, wants to see Syria become an Islamist state. So, there are real reservations about arming groups that might well turn those weapons against more moderate groups within a post-Assad Syria as well as, potentially, the West.

What Rudd has failed to consider, and which Carr has noted, is that the provision of weapons to anti-Assad forces could well make the situation in Syria worse rather than better. Support for anti-Assad forces may well hasten the demise of the regime, but it may also increase the extent of killing, either in bringing to an end the Assad regime or, more particularly, after it.

This then goes to the heart of the Responsibility to Protect paradigm that Rudd has invoked. The moral argument for R2P is clear enough: the world has a responsibility to stop crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. There is international agreement on this, even if there is profound disagreement about when and how to apply R2P.

R2P has some clear principles, one of which is that it must be reasonably assured of making a bad situation better rather than worse. This is not the case in Syria, especially in the longer term.

A further critical criterion for applying R2P is that it must have a strong prospect of success, of halting the carnage that attracted it in the first place. Again, this is far from guaranteed in Syria.

And then there is the real politik that has stymied so many other R2P applications. To be internationally legal, R2P must be endorsed by the UN Security Council or a similar body. This is not going to happen, with deep opposition from both Russia and China to the use of R2P in the case of Syria. That the US and the UK also have serious reservations about intervention means an R2P proposal is a noble idea with very little prospect of implementation.

So why is Rudd pushing a policy he well knows won’t get up? Like almost everyone else concerned over events in Syria, he is appalled by the deaths of over 60,000 people, overwhelmingly civilians, and a government that is attacking its own people.

But 2013 is also an election year and Rudd has one eye firmly on returning to Labor’s leadership. The plan is for Rudd, the moral populist, to assume leadership and then either save Labor in the face of a strong Coalition opposition but an unpopular leader in Tony Abbott, or letting Julia Gillard lead Labor into defeat, take the leadership back and then, in the face of an unpopular Abbott-led government, return to government after one term in opposition.

Taking the high moral ground on an issue he knows the government won’t be able to rise to is an easy path to populism, without the need to carry through on any promise should his plans prevail.

Given his disfavour within Labor caucus ranks, there’s little chance Rudd will return to Labor’s leadership before the election and not much more that he will get there after the next election. But, as this morally persuasive but implausible appeal to the moral high ground shows, that won’t stop him from trying.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University. He is author of Sri Lanka and the Responsibility to Protect: Politics, Ethnicity and Genocide, Routledge, 2011.

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  • 1
    Dion Giles
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    It is often forgotten that when John Howard was lying his head off about Iraqi WMDs Kevin Rudd was echoing the same lies, differing only on the appropriate timetable for aggression on their basis.

  • 2
    John Bennetts
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Rudd is certainly no team player and has become an embarassment for his side.

    Regarding spelling: Was Carr diffusing or defusing Rudd’s actions, Professor Kingsbury?

  • 3
    CML
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    How cynical of you Professor? Everyone else in foreign affairs is as pure as the driven snow, but if Kevin Rudd says anything that makes sense to the vast majority of Auistralians, he is just being “populist”. How easy it seems to be for people like you to dismiss the slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians as “political”.
    Well, as far as I’m concerned they are people just like us, and I would hope you are not making decisions about such things if they ever occur in Oz. I únderstand your reluctance on this matter because we don’t know who the Syrian “opposition” are. But isn’t that something to be sorted out AFTER we stop the carnage?
    I agree with Mr. Rudd, who has more foreign affairs “know-how” than the rest of the current government members put together. And he is a very smart cookie!!

  • 4
    Dion Giles
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Provided, that is, that sending “help” doesn’t actually increase and prolong the carnage and leave the survivors prey to a bunch of tribal mullahs or tribal warlords or both.

  • 5
    extra
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to say it, but this looks like further evidence that it’s still ‘all about Kevin’.

    Most likely explanation for this latest utterance is that, in an effort to get noticed by those in power, Kevin is making noises of support for the British position ahead of the visit of British Foreign Secretary William Hague for the annual Australia-United Kingdom Ministerial Consultations meeting in Perth next week. Perhaps Hague will quote him approvingly …

    Once again, the interests of the long-suffering Syrian people come a distant second. Mr Rudd, along with a lot of others in mainstream media and politics, promote the illusion that this is a pro-democracy rebellion, not an anti-government one.

    What started as a few protests against a sclerotic regime rapidly mutated into a sectarian civil war, with numerous outside players pursuing their own interests. The USA wants to be on the side of the victors, whoever they might be, and to weaken the influence of Iran along the way. The Gulf states also want to have a go at Iran for a range of geopolitical and religious reasons. Turkey is worried about what the Kurds might get up to. And the Syrian people are the meat in the sandwich.

    Providing more arms may hasten the departure of the Assad government, but few public figures are being honest and addressing the situation after that. More arms will extend the inevitable revenge-seeking, ethnic and religious cleansing, and warlord-ism as local groups, militias and foreign jihadists take the law into their own hands. And more arms will make it more difficult to rebuild consensus and Syria’s shattered institutions.

    The Syrian populace deserve better than Kevin’s opportunist utterances.

  • 6
    Gerry Hatrick, OAP
    Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    How much noise did Rudd make about Sri Lanka?

    Oh, I see. Carry on.

  • 7
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 16 January 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    No one, apart from Iran and Saudi Arabia/Qatar, wants to see Syria become an Islamist state. ” Perhaps a syntax error but are you seriously conflating the ‘Islamic state’ Iran & Saudi might fancy?
    I’m fascinated by the deafening silence from one regime, a neighbour which one might expect to be concerned about insurgency threatening to overthrow a secular autocracy - Israel.
    They know that the departure of Assad will install a Salafist/Wahabist sunni dictatorship, a’la Libya & Egypt (Tunisia still undecided)committed to the destruction of Israel.

  • 8
    jesse mandrigorian
    Posted Wednesday, 16 January 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    so kevin rudd wishes to arm those who would bomb a university just as exams start.

    well i don’t suppose it matters much at this stage, US/NATO have been coordinating this faux “uprising” since day one.

  • 9
    Roni
    Posted Tuesday, 5 February 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    CML: ‘..but if Kevin Rudd says anything that makes sense to the vast majority of Australians, he is just being “populist”.’
    Professor Kingsbury is being generous in assuming Rudd even knows R2P can’t yet apply in Syria.
    A more ‘populist’ argument would have said Rudd is just as clueless about it as you and ‘the vast majority of Australians’ who have no more interest in international events than Boo Hissing the one dressed up in the twirly mustache and clicking Like on the Kony2012 link.
    I would go a step further and state R2P itself is the clueless, populist (and imperialist) argument. We should be honest about the devastation such ‘moral high ground’ has unleashed in Libya and seriously consider never invoking R2P anywhere ever again.

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