Once Again, Australians Are Fighting in the Middle East. Why?

Over the next few weeks, the Australian Government is expected to announce an expanded air war against Islamic State in Syria, following a US request. Australia’s six strike aircraft and support planes already operate in Iraq, at the Iraqi government’s invitation, but Syria has not issued the same invitation. It’s another complication in an already complex relationship between Australia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Last June, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report entitled ‘Gen Y Jihadists: Preventing Radicalisation in Australia’. A number of sound policy recommendations were made. Here I focus on just the first recommendation: “Explain the reasons for Australia’s Middle East deployments more persuasively”.

Indeed, the Australian Government should not only explain our past, present and future military deployments to the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) region more persuasively, the Government should also effectively explain Australia’s strategic interests in the region and why they should be protected. Educating the Australian people of our strategic interests in the region requires public discussion of Australia’s political, economic, historic and social interests there. For example, ASPI’s Executive Director, Peter Jennings has suggested teaching Middle Eastern history and contemporary developments in the MENA region in schools across the nation,

“Even if that meant an hour less on Australian history and Gallipoli, for example, I think it would be a good thing if we could have [a] moderated and balanced discussion about Middle East politics in the curriculum of our schools.”

Too often, students enrolled in Middle East courses I have taught over the years have entered the lecture theatre with preconceived myths, misrepresentations and negative connotations of/about the region and its inhabitants. Teaching in this field involves debunking misrepresentations, as one informs students of the rich history of the region, its contributions to world civilisation, and its diversity in races, language, culture and religion. Many students (and policymakers?) assume that the MENA region has always been driven to conflict because of political, territorial or inter/intra-faith tensions. Yes, throughout history there has been bloodshed over these issues (which part of the world hasn’t?), however, there have been long periods when diverse ethnicities and religious adherents have lived together harmoniously.

The modern Middle East is a European colonial construction. Each newly established state in the region had a very different colonial experience: whilst some flourished (the Gulf) others floundered (Lebanon) and others continue to resist (Palestine). Some became patron states of superpowers, others emerged with hope, yet to succumb to authoritarian regimes, and others dabbled with political reform and democratic principles. External intervention and interest in the region is nothing new. Pre-WW1 European powers valued the area as a Mediterranean base: a strategic crossroads to secure, access and exploit Empire interests. In the modern era it was initially dominated by the European victors of WW1. Exploitation of oil and other resources, and the growing economic importance of oil, led to American pursuit of dominance in the MENA region, which has continued to this day. Australia followed the lead of its superpower protector, initially Britain then the USA, as power balances shifted.

Our military involvement in the region commenced in WW1 (Gallipoli, Palestine), continued in WW2 (Syria, North Africa) and remains (passively as UNTSO peacekeepers in the Middle East, active in Iraq & Syria soon). Diplomatic and political interests evolved in the post-WW2 era. For example, the leading role played by ‘Doc’ Evatt, Australia’s Foreign Minister at the time, led to the newly established UN, particularly in the creation of the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1947.

Decades later, trade links with the Arab world have grown to healthy levels and despite the anti-halal push by some segments of Australia’s society, the Arab World surpassed China as an export market destination for Australian chilled and frozen meat during the first half of 2015, according to Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Meanwhile, “Australia’s two-way merchandise trade to the Arab world was worth $14.5 billion in 2014. Of this, the value of exports to the Arab world was more than $9 billion, and the imports amounted to nearly $5 billion.” The UAE is among Australia’s top 20 export destinations.

Our links with the region over the years have also been strengthened through immigration, with some of our earliest Middle Eastern migrants settling in parts of Australia in the late 19th century. Exotic foods aside, these migrants and their descendants enriched Australia through their contributions to our political (Marie Basheer; Steve Bracks), media (Phil Khoury, Joseph Wakim), legal (John Karkar QC, Wendy Abraham QC), business (John Symond, Ahmed Fahour, Fred Shahin), sporting (Bachar Houli), medical (Dr David David), military (Captain Mona Shindy) and cultural (David Malouf) landscapes.

Beyond Australia’s historical, mercantile and demographic links with the MENA region the primary reason which calls for deployment of our troops is linked to our strong alliance with the US. In terms of their military intervention in the Middle East, they benefit diplomatically from our international endorsement and benefit marginally from our military contribution.

Justifying our military deployment by bluntly advertising that we are there to support US interests may not wash well with the Australian people, however. This is, perhaps, the crux of the issue. Politically it plays better to promote fear, to make Daesh (Islamic State) into “our” enemy which by the very fact justifies military response. Prime Minister Abbott summed up this approach to explaining our interest in MENA when he claimed recently, “Daesh is coming, if it can, for every person and every Government, with a simple message; submit or die.”

The link between conflict in the Middle East and domestic security concerns, espoused by the rhetoric of our current PM and some of his Ministers, engenders a climate of fear. This seems to work well politically but distorts debate on our foreign policy objectives regarding the MENA region. No government could concede publicly that our policy of military intervention, and concurrence with American ambitions in the region, actually increase the danger of terrorism locally. Despite the strident tone, the Abbott Government’s stated foreign policy objectives in MENA are not clear. Is the objective simply to vanish Daesh? But to what end? To bolster the Assad regime or to pacify Iraq? We hear about the need to fight, but not much about the victory objectives (or its consequences)!

The websites of DFAT and the Foreign Minister display very little on the Daesh and Syrian conflicts. Some details are given on how Australia is doing its bit on the humanitarian level – sadly it is projected that our humanitarian aid will continue to decrease in spite of the fact that “with the Syrian conflict likely to take years to resolve, and with the emergence of other related, and in all likelihood equally intractable conflicts, the need for urgent lifesaving humanitarian aid seems set to continue.”

The Syrian conflict in particular (as opposed to the Daesh campaign) is not the focus of our Ministers and media. Official Australian emphasis on Daesh seems to distract from the question of Australia’s interest in resolving an end to the Syrian conflict, which naively avoids the fact that they feed off (and on) one another. Yet as a middle power and a country which houses the architect of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, why does Australia not seek international support for that doctrine to be applied to the Syrian conflict? Our current official rhetoric and the level of foreign policy articulation clouds the answer to such a question.

In summary, it is clear that Australia does have a strategic interest in the MENA region. Apart from our substantial historical, mercantile and demographic links with the region, it seems we deploy troops there in support of our alliance with the US and its objectives. Ultimately these objectives come back to control of the rich resources of the region and its geo-strategic proximity to Asia, Africa and Europe. We can’t begin to fully justify our military intervention in MENA until our government is honest and persuasive about the national interests at stake.

Dr. Minerva Nasser-Eddine is a lecturer at the Centre for Arab & Islamic Studies (Middle East & Central Asia), Australian National University. Minerva’s research and teaching interests are related to contemporary socio-political and cultural issues and developments in the Middle East and among its Diaspora communities in Australia. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.

Published August 27, 2015