War and democracy: who decides?

Sydney University 21 September 2017

I’d like to thank the, Australians for War Powers Reform, the Sydney Democracy Network and Dr Sue Wareham for the invitation to be a part of tonight’s discussion.

The late American historian and social activist, Howard Zinn, warned us that “When governments kill in large numbers they always do so for a good reason. We must be on guard against that.”

I’m particularly on guard when it comes to Australia’s military incursions. Like you, I care about what’s going on in the world and at some point in your life you have to decide what responsibility you have to others.

When I started writing opinion pieces on various issues many years ago it quickly became clear to me that vigorous debate in Australia is encouraged only within the limits imposed by ‘unstated doctrinal orthodoxy’, particularly in relation to foreign policy.

People who control what we know today are determining our future. The historical record is vital to understanding our time but difficult to access if it even exists, so I decided to focus on government documents to tease out the omissions and back stories.

When information comes from the inside there are fewer gaps; and the government can’t deny it: it has to deal with it. When information doesn’t come from the inside you rely on inference and supposition from the outside to fill in the gaps, and then it’s easy for the power holder to deny and to ridicule your conclusions.

Tonight please allow me to concentrate on Syria, with a bit of a potted history, and my FOI work relating to it. It seems to me to be a contemporary illustration of Australian historian Chris Clark’s stated conclusions in his book ‘Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914’ that great powers had more than one enemy, that there was a chaotic quality of decision making by executive structures, and that the war was a consequence of decisions made in many places with their effect being cumulative and interactive, decisions made by a gallery of actors who shared a fundamentally similar political culture.  It was, and in Syria now is, genuinely complex and multipolar.

On 9 September 2015, the Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations, Gillian Bird, wrote to the President of the United Nations Security Council claiming that Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations recognises the inherent right of the states to act in individual or collective self-defence where an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations. States must be able to act in self-defence when the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent attacks originating from its territory. She alleged that the Government of Syria had, by its failure to constrain attacks upon Iraqi territory originating from ISIL bases within Syria, demonstrated that it was unwilling or unable to prevent those attacks.

The government was not questioned about how Syria was unwilling or unable to prevent those attacks. It was not asked how any airstrikes would affect the Syrian population and infrastructure. There was no link between ISIS, a non-State actor, and Syria as it was not acting under instructions from, or the direction or control of the Syrian government. There was no attempt by Western governments to work with the morally disgraceful Assad regime to actually enable it to prevent the attacks emanating from its territory (and indeed Australia didn’t recognise the legitimacy of the Assad regime). There was no invitation from the Syrian government for us to carry out airstrikes in Syria: there was no UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force. There was no proper explanation provided by the government or the Opposition about why in August 2015 there was no clear legal basis for Australian involvement in Syria but by September 2015 there was. There was no rational discussion about the strategic ends and there was certainly no mention of the fact that in 2014 we already had ADF embedded personnel in Florida contributing to the execution of operations against IS in Syria.

There was, however, a letter dated 17 September 2015 from the Government of Syria to the UN Security Council which was not reported in the mainstream media but was referred to in documents I received. It disputed Australia’s unwilling and unable claims and pointed out that the Syrian Arab Army had, over a period of 4 years, been fighting IS, the al-Nusrah Front and others who were being supported by Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and western states and called on others to coordinate with them. It went on to say that the international coalition led by America had yet to achieve anything tangible in its war on terrorist organisations.

And the Syrian government had a point, particularly when the former President of the United States Barack Obama had already told VICE news (on camera) in March 2015 that “ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion in 2003, which is an example of unintended consequences.”

But what were the conditions of the choices to join airstrikes in Syria? What did the government know or at least what should it have known? These are the omissions about what was really going on, the back story.

The public, via the government and the media were made aware before September 2015 that 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring, that pro-democracy demonstrations had erupted in Syria demanding Assad’s resignation, that the Assad government was accused of using chemical weapons in August 2013, that we rejected the Presidential election in 2014, that a terrorist state could emerge if IS consolidated its gains in Iraq from its base in Syria, that Syria was the worst humanitarian crisis facing the world at that time, that there were multiple conflicts involving different players-including the Assad regime and numerous rebel groups-with different objectives and different regional and international backers, and that a political solution was needed.

In the second half of 2014 the Australian government was rightly swept up in the global concern for Yezidi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar to escape ISIS, remembering that we helped to create ISIS courtesy of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The public were told that the RAAF would be dropping aid to the Yezidi, that we would be delivering rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and various calibres of ammunition from eastern European countries to the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq to combat the spread of ISIS on the back of an assurance provided to the Americans that the weapons would be used by the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish regional government. The ADF chief, Mark Binskin, said “the greater risk here is actually doing nothing”. We began airstrikes in Iraq in October 2014.

One wonders what the Yezidis would now make of our politicians’ public displays of outrage and concern about their plight when so many Yezidis remain on Mount Sinjar where they fled, women and children are still being held captive for brutal sexual slavery and to date there have been no known, large-scale rescue missions to free them. Sinjar town remains in ruins and a new wave of fighting for Sinjar district is under way between the Peshmerga and other Kurdish armed groups. In keeping with the doctrine of ‘cold violence’ Defence Air Task Group statistics confirm that no humanitarian aid deliveries have been dropped since 2014, and only 3,532 people of the promised 12,000 persecuted minorities have been resettled in Australia with an aid budget that has been cut to its lowest level in the nation’s history.

What was omitted from the political & public discourse in the lead up to our decision to become involved in Syria was the fact that Syria had experienced a severe drought between 2007 and 2010, spurring as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into the cities, and creating significant social and economic tensions. In 2012 the MI6 had cooperated with the CIA on a “rat line” of arms transfers from Libyan stockpiles to the Syrian rebels after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. That same year Russia proposed that Assad could step down as part of a peace deal but the US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator would fall that they ignored the proposal.

At that stage the United Nations Human Rights office had confirmed that 60,000 had been killed in Syria between March 2011 and November 2012 [current estimate is almost half-a-million].

In September 2014 the US Congress determined that the $500 million CIA program to arm Syrian rebels had failed, with arms ending up in the hands of the al Nusra Front, and Jordanian intelligence officers selling off arms on the blackmarket. The following month a CIA report concluded that ‘many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict.’ This report came a month after Australia had delivered weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and a month before our successful delivery of 40,000 lbs of crated weapons from Albania to Erbil in Iraq.

In March 2015 21 international aid agencies and human rights groups released their report ‘Failing Syria’ which found that the UN Security Council powers had failed to alleviate the suffering of civilians as the conflict intensified. Two months later the International Crisis Group released its report warning that military aid had been given without an underlying strategy, which would prolong the battle with IS as well as inflaming other local conflicts between intra-Kurdish rivals. The report also noted that the US-led coalition had remained silent about Kurdish land grabs in disputed territories. It is also worth noting that in May this year Amnesty International urged the US and other countries to stop arms transfers that could fuel atrocities after a US Department of Defence audit confirmed that the US army had failed to monitor over $1 billion worth of arms and other military equipment transfers to Kuwait and Iraq which ended up in the hands of ISIS.

In August 2015 rumours started to emerge that the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott had pushed for the US request to join airstrikes in Syria. Five days before the bi-partisan decision was made Amnesty International had reported that 220,000 people had been killed in Syria, 12.8 million were in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country and 50% of the population had been displaced.

Still, at a reported cost of $500 million a year for our air war against IS and regardless of international law we were first in with the United States, beating our British counterparts who had delayed plans for a parliamentary vote.

A number of military strategists were of the view that our involvement was a show for the domestic audience.

The irony of course is that 6 days after the decision was made to conduct airstrikes in Syria we had a new Prime Minister and shortly after that a document titled ‘ADF Operations in the Middle East’ produced in response to my Freedom of Information request confirmed that ‘the prospects for a political or military solution are poor.’

The use of the word ‘poor’ seems highly inadequate when looking at Syria under the microscope. You have Saudi Arabia (a Western ally) & Qatar providing clandestine financial and logistical support to IS, Iran & Russia supporting Assad, Turkey fighting the Kurds, US supporting opposition groups but fighting with Russia against IS, drone strikes, bombs being dropped by the United States, Belgium, Jordan, Netherlands, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, France, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Israel, Denmark and us, the Pentagon relying on an army of contractors from military giants to firms linked to organised crime to supply arms to Syrian rebels, as well as evidence of the al-Nusra Front having access to sarin gas. And to top it off a Bulgarian journalist recently uncovered Azerbaijan Silk Way Airlines offering diplomatic flights to private companies and arms manufacturers from the US, Balkans, Israel, and the militaries of Saudi Arabia, UAE and US Special Operations Command to ship weapons around the world, including to Syria, without regulation.

Australian politicians talk about ending terrorism but they make decisions that carelessly or inadvertently stir the pot and radicalise people, which reinforces the public narrative and makes military incursions superficially acceptable.

Our politicians continue to support an ally that has historically forsaken the exploration of peaceful means and diplomatic solutions in favour of force and aggression. Under the pretext of “decency and force”, humanitarian concerns and the responsibility to protect civilians we extended airstrikes into Syria.

But ‘every war is a war on children’ when armed conflicts kill and maim more children than soldiers and perversely more soldiers die from suicide and peacetime incidents than war.

War diminishes both justice and truth and our collective humanity.

And another striking omission from the official historical narrative about Syria is the Syrians’ demonstration of their capacity to deal with invaders like IS without the shoals of bombs and the murderous crossfire of billions of dollars worth of foreign arms. The most graphic example of this of which I am aware occurred in Atarib in 2014 when locals mobilised to defend themselves. They worked together to donate money, distribute weapons, they were cooking and looking after those who were at checkpoints and patrolling the city and serving food for free. Once IS was defeated a locally run reconciliation process commenced.

Could there be a clearer demonstration of how to resist an invasion without the wholesale destruction involved in modern military “strategies” and at the same time pave the way for reconciliation as the threat abates. Such a rational approach defuses rather than escalates violence and allows the participants to retain hope for the future and themselves, their families and their social groups, and even their former adversaries are re-integrated into the post-conflict society.

Returning to the “conventional” war, over the Christmas period in 2016 I was drawn to reports by the NGO Airwars describing the Australian Defence Force as one of the least transparent military coalition members. The ADF were not prepared to reveal “where they bombed, when they bombed or what they bombed.”

On 6 January 2017 I issued an FOI request on the Department of Defence for copies of documents confirming and/or specifying the dates and/or locations and the outcomes in terms of the number of military and civilian casualties of airstrikes carried out by Australian forces in Syria, and/or describing, recording investigations of and assessing the circumstances of Australian involvement in civilian casualty incidents related to air strikes in Syria. On 20 January 2017 I received an email simply confirming that ‘The Department does not specifically collect authoritative (and therefore accurate) data on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq or Syria and certainly does not track such statistics.’

In other words, for all the political protestations about concerns for civilian lives we were not even trying to count our victims. To date, we have only claimed responsibility for the deaths of Syrian soldiers in airstrikes in September 2016.

In recent times a Senior British Commander, Major Gen Jones, said – in response to criticisms from Amnesty International that the Iraq government and coalition carried out “disproportionate” and unlawful attacks to take back Mosul – that ‘it is naive to think a city such as Mosul, with a population of 1.75 million, could be liberated without any civilian casualties while fighting an enemy that “lacks all humanity”. But that of course is what our government would have us believe in relation to our involvement in Iraq and Syria.

In March this year, a story aired on the ABC’s 7.30 about the findings by Airwars in relation to the ADF and the results of my FOI request. On 1 May Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Minister of Defence calling for the government to improve the transparency of its operations and strike reporting and the next day the ADF announced that it would start to publish fortnightly reports on air strikes it carries out in Syria and Iraq. The reports only describe in general terms the location and targets.

I issued a further FOI request for the GPS coordinates of each target to enable people to accurately cross reference whether Australian aircraft may have been involved in civilian casualty incidents. The ADF was not prepared to release that information. It seemed to me that GPS coordinates became historical data once bombs were dropped, so one wonders whether they are embarrassed about what they’ve bombed or what ‘collateral damage’ they’ve caused.

Other Freedom of Information requests I have issued have revealed that we were bombing in the Mosul Jadida neighbourhood on the day that civilians were killed there, although it seems we weren’t involved in that particular airstrike, and that we have knowledge of the use of white phosphorous munitions in Iraq and Syria.

Against this background you have evidence of the human toll: a record number of children killed in Syria last year, and ‘toxic stress’ and mental health issues among children inside Syria. All children surveyed put the ongoing bombing and shelling as the number one cause of psychological stress in their daily lives. 50% of children say they never or rarely feel safe at school and 40% say they don’t feel safe to play outside. 71% of children increasingly suffer from frequent bedwetting, large scale displacement and collective suffering which was labelled by one doctor as human devastation syndrome: children not in schools, the streets littered with the remnants of war and the ongoing physical and sexual exploitation of children many of whom have lost parents and other loved ones.

Does war ever solve anything?

And as if Australia wasn’t already an ‘aircraft carrier for the United States’, the government decided this year to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia. Overnight, the Minister for the Defence Industry, Christopher Pyne, became a dedicated arms salesman by announcing in July that he wants to become a major arms exporter on par with Britain, France and Germany and use exports to cement relationships with countries in volatile regions such as the Middle East.

Perpetual war has decimated the Middle East. Others rightly argue that a government that decides that the bulk of its budget is going to go to arms manufacturing implicitly makes a moral decision that militarism is more important than the creation of well-being for the population.

This is a particularly apposite criticism in the case of US expenditure on armed conflict, including but not limited to the war in Syria. The US Government’s breathtaking expenditure on wars is even more alarming when you understand that it is funded by borrowed money, including US Treasury bond purchases by Japan and China. The massive war debt continues to climb with interest liabilities.

My potted history hopefully demonstrates the need for far greater historical perspective on foreign conflicts and for more informed and open decision making by governments, including ours, on the question whether to become involved.

Our difficulty is that we aren’t told the truth about the background or the decisions to become involved, and the decisions seem to be made in furtherance of unstated international coalition agendas rather than on an open and objective assessment of their merit. This state of affairs is made profoundly worse by the decision to go to war having become an executive decision rather than a decision made democratically after full and open parliamentary debate based on the best objective information available.

We are fighting a difficult battle in these disturbingly Orwellian times, but the battle can and should be waged for as long as we have the will and the means to do so. And our best weapons are accurate historical and geopolitical perspective and truth. Politicians and military personnel must be accountable for the human consequences of what they perpetrate in our name, and it is our collective responsibility to do what we can to hold them to account.

Fortunately we have inspirational leaders like Professor Triggs, whose indomitable courage in the face of baseless criticism and completely unmeritorious political savagery shone like a beacon throughout her term as President of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

But we can’t leave our future, our children’s future and the future of humanity to others. We must cast aside the spin and the propaganda, re-humanise the victims of war, and roll up our sleeves and dig for and publicise the truth. It is the only thing that has a chance of prevailing.


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