Congratulations, Australia, you are now an ally of one of the most blood-thirsty regimes on Earth (and no, not Saudi Arabia, although that’s a contender). We’re now de facto allies of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and of course his backers, the Putin regime in Moscow, which has its own forces operating in Syria (at least, unlike us, they’re there legally), and the Iranian theocrats.

Too harsh?

Every airstrike against Islamic State positions in Syria is one less Assad’s air force has to carry out. Every time airstrikes force Islamic State to change tactics, abandon military or logistical operations, Assad benefits, freeing his armed forces up to attack other opposition groups, and the Sunni civilians he has relentlessly targeted since his forces first began slaughtering protesters in 2011 — Sunni civilians Australia won’t be taking as part of the 12,000 refugees from “persecuted minorities” the Abbott government has generously volunteered to take, given Sunnis form the majority religious group in Syria. Welcome to the Syrian civil war, folks.

The Abbott government — which readily admits it has no idea of what the long-term objective in Syria should be beyond the perhaps unambitious goal of a government that doesn’t commit genocide against its own people — would prefer you not to think about how we’re helping Assad by bombing the “Daesh death cult” and whatever civilians might be in the way at the time. It promotes a narrative in which Islamic State and the Assad government are equally a threat to Syrians. “The people of Syria are currently caught between the mass executions of the Daesh death cult on the one hand, and the chemical weapons of the Assad regime on the other,” Abbott insisted last week.

The truth is, IS kills a tiny fraction of Syrians compared to Assad — perhaps a tenth, perhaps far less. In his enthusiasm to hype the threat of the “Daesh death cult”, Abbott is inventing a fiction that they are the equals of Assad when it comes to slaughter, when they’re not evenly remotely comparable.

Oddly, though, Abbott also wants you to simultaneously believe IS is weaker than it actually is. In an effort to suggest the Coalition air campaign has been successful, the Prime Minister yesterday made a peculiar statement (and all the more interesting for being accidentally singled out in a different font in the transcript provided by his office — plainly someone was worried about what Abbott had said):

“I should point out that while there have been some disappointments and frustrations in the campaign against Daesh so far, there has also been a degree of success. For instance, there have been no major advances by Daesh since coalition air operations commenced. If anything, the Iraqi armed forces have regained significant territory from Daesh since our airstrikes, along with those of our partners, began. So, these air strikes are effective, they are making a difference.”

Coalition airstrikes, led by the United States, commenced in August 2014; Australian airstrikes were approved in October 2014. In mid-October, IS took the Iraqi town of Hiit, displacing 180,000 civilians; in May IS captured Ramadi, a city of over 400,000 people, as well as the town of Palmyra in Syria. Perhaps Abbott’s definition of “major advances” is bigger than the fall of Ramadi, described as a “total disaster” by some commentators and “is a very serious situation. No one is kidding themselves about that,” by the US State Department. Don’t scoff at the idea that the success of airstrikes is being oversold — a group of US military intelligence analysts has complained that their reports are being manipulated to fit the narrative of success against IS.

Or perhaps Abbott’s confusion is merely a neat symbol of Australia’s wrong-headed and strategically incoherent return to fighting in the Middle East, driven more by domestic considerations than by genuine national interest.

Peter Fray

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