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The Bulletin for Australians for War Powers Reform.
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Welcome to the War Powers Reform Bulletin #37


With the approach of Christmas and 2015 drawing to a close, those of us who live in countries that are merely slinging high explosive around the Middle East without having boots on the ground or anyone close to us enduring the appalling conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, can enjoy the luxury of being able to turn our minds away from such horrors, and the attendant refugee flows, and towards the Christmas festivities, when many of us will be singing carols about peace on earth and goodwill towards all mankind.
 
We would all do well in the forthcoming Christmas “stand down” period to reflect upon how a decision to resort to armed force can lead to unintended consequences which are catastrophic in nature, extend far beyond the nation directly under attack, and have a very long tail.
 
As author Chris Clark has so clearly documented in his masterful The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, the unprovoked Italian invasion of Libya in 1911, which led to the end of Ottoman rule there, set up a chain of events which were important contributors to the outbreak of World War I.  It led almost immediately to Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece collaborating to evict Turkey from the Balkan Peninsula, and Serbia in particular entertaining thoughts of pushing Austria-Hungary back as well. Turkish eviction from all but the Thracian hinterland of Constantinople led to two Balkan Wars, with appalling loss of life, as the victors fought to establish who got what from the remnants of Ottoman rule in Europe. The Great Powers intervened in various ways to protect what they saw as their vital interests, the language of diplomacy became much more militarised and larded with threats, and by July 1914 the situation was such that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand could lead step by step to all out war.
 
Meanwhile, the Italians, having evicted the Ottomans from Libya’s coastal towns, spent the next twenty years trying to subdue the Arab tribes of the hinterland, a process which was an important catalyst in the emergence of Arab nationalism – nationalism whose aspirations were suppressed (temporarily) at the end of World War I with the division of the Ottoman Provinces between Britain and France under the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
 
About ninety years on, in 2003, the US and the self-styled Coalition of the Willing again basked in the delusion that they could invade a single one of the Ottoman successor states (Iraq) and this would have no consequences outside that country (except of course for the exemplary effect of the “shining beacon of democracy” that was going to be created there).
 
We all know how that ended, and we are still living with the consequences. The most powerful military force the world has ever seen, with some important allies, has been engaging the Islamic State for eighteen months, and while IS has had some setbacks, the fact remains that it controls large swathes of Iraq and Syria, and a number of cities, including Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Major global and regional powers are involved, pursuing their own mutually exclusive agenda, with the ever-present danger of events spiralling out of control, however much the various parties would want to contain that risk.
 
Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott enthusiastically injected the Australian Defence Force into the Iraqi and then the Syrian conflict, but it remains to be spelled out to the Australian public what we are doing there, why we are there, what success would look like, and how it is to be achieved.
 
World War I and the 2003 invasion of Iraq were both preceded by extended periods of secret deal-making behind closed doors, informed by an attitude that the poor simple members of the various nations’ publics should not worry their little heads about the arcane world of national security (they would never understand anyway) and should leave it all to the military experts and the political elites. If persuading them to go along with what is planned requires a little disinformation, then so be it.
 
It is to be hoped that the Turnbull Government’s New Year Resolution for 2016 will be, “Never again”: never again will Australia commit its military forces to armed international conflict without an open, mature and fully informed debate in the Commonwealth Parliament about the legal basis for the conflict, the aims and objectives, and the end-state we are trying to achieve.

- Paul Barratt


Where might the Middle East conflict be leading?
 
What are we to make of the conflict at the heart of the Middle East at this stage and Australia’s continued participation in it? Is it the ‘Great Game’ being played out yet again, this time on a different level essentially with proxies? Or will the proxies give way to more direct action by what even by today’s standards we consider Great Powers, even if relative?
 
What is clear from an aerial view is that there are a host of minor conflicts on a new battle ground with the larger regional countries moving in to fill vacuums where they see them. From the West’s viewpoint is it essential to restore the artificial state system created in the earlier colonial era or are ineluctable forces intent upon redefining boundaries and influence? This might seem a lot of questions but as yet we do not have answers.
 
The situation which opened up these questions had several well known causes: the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 which destroyed essential state structures; the failure of what was left of its state structure to be inclusive of the Sunni tribes and ran instead for the Shias (and their spiritual cousins in Iran); the Arab Spring that awakened deep discontent with a reviled regime in Syria; the attempt on the part of Turkey to yet again curb Kurdish territorial/national ambitions; and no doubt some ill-considered US dabbling with anti-Assad forces it deemed “moderate”.
 
Out of this, especially in Iraq and Syria, emerged ISIS and related elements whose ambition is to restore their notion of a caliphate which in effect would destroy any semblance of the interstate system in that region as it has existed.
 
Should this concern the Great Powers? Earlier conflicts over trade routes, access to resources (lately oil), and navigational routes vulnerable to disruption remain as concerns but not to the extent previously, as evidenced by US ambivalence lately. The risks arising from these conflicts are manifesting themselves more in the homelands of the Great Powers. While having tragic consequences they are not, or not yet, existential. Russia is the nation most at risk because of its need for maritime access through the Dardanelles to the Black Sea,and from there to the Syrian coast and the Mediterranean. Turkey is directly involved in that but not necessarily constructively as we have seen from the recent downing of the Russian air-force plane.
 
Every one would like to get rid of ISIS. Some US generals and some local armchair observers have asserted that with stepped up bombing and some tens of thousands of highly trained troops on the ground this could be done, if the previous mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere were avoided. But given past experience and the violent undercurrents of ethnic and religious resentments, and vicious tribal ambitions, this would be pure nonsense.
 
Certainly the national parliaments of Britain, France and Germany have all had a say in their responses to date but as with the responses to the original 2003 Iraq invasion national parliaments are not always endowed with the necessary wisdom to choose an effective path. But who is? Are we analysing the issues deeply enough? Are we allowing sufficiently for how those most directly affected in that region see their critical interests? And if those interests are ignored or overlooked what are the consequences for the rest of us?
 
There may be pressure in Western countries to do more; even to repeat the mistakes of the past. What we can observe to date is that the current Australian government appears to have moderated its thinking on these matters and would seem unlikely to be led into hammering the same old nail or similar. But if they were to do so, we should hope that the government  would at least follow constitutional processes and put whatever might be proposed to a Parliamentary debate and vote. 
 
Australia should be supporting forthcoming diplomatic efforts to create safe havens for affected civilians, both for their protection and to reduce the compulsion to flee from their homelands. Australia could have a constructive role here but its credentials remain tenuous while it continues with the bombing and maintains such a harsh approach to people fleeing persecution. Meanwhile however we appear to have been excluded from this process anyway.

- Andrew Farran

Image: devastation in Syria. Photo credit: Hosam Katan.
What say do our elected representatives have in going to war? | The Conversation

The authorisation of military force is one of the most serious and consequential powers that governments possess. This power should be exercised with appropriate caution and, where circumstances allow, considered deliberation. Governments should be publicly accountable for its exercise... Read on.
Turkey could cut off Islamic State's supply lines. So why doesn't it? | The Guardian

Western leaders could destroy Islamic State by calling on Erdoğan to end his attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria and Turkey and allow them to fight Isis on the ground. (David Graeber)... Read on.
Destroying Syria to create Sunnistan | Counterpunch

What is the connection between the US bombing of a Syrian military base in Ayyash, Syria, and the Turkish invasion of northern Iraq?

Both of these seemingly isolated events are part of a larger plan to Balkanize the Middle East, to strengthen Washington’s grip on dwindling resources, to draw Russia into a costly and protracted war, and to ensure that ME oil remains denominated in US dollars. (Mike Whitney)... Read on.
The views expressed in this Bulletin are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Australians for War Powers Reform or the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry (Inc). Readers should note that both Australians for War Powers Reform and the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry (Inc) seek a diversity of views and opinions in order to identify common ground.
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