Tony Abbott has developed a new strategy to solve the problems of the Middle East: put in the boot. Quite a few boots, actually; boots on the ground.
Our former great war leader wants to let loose the Special Air Service regiment to move into Syria (with some local troops, of course, if any can be persuaded) and sort out ISIS for good and all.
In other weeks this would have been dismissed as a gung-ho thought bubble, but in the wake of the Paris atrocities it has gained a certain resonance: if the Jihadists refuse to play by Queensberry rules, why should we? Bomb them back to the stone age. Tear the place apart brick by brick, raze it to the ground and sow salt in the earth.
Invade in vast numbers – Americans, Russians, Iranians, French, Australians, New Zealanders, Heard Islanders – anyone we can find. Shoot first and ask questions later – in fact, don’t ask questions at all. Degrade, destroy, demolish. Let’s finish the bastards for ever.
Of course, there will be a few unfortunate consequences, such as massive collateral damage, but hey, that’s the breaks. If ISIS doesn’t worry about civilian deaths, why should we? Fair’s fair. It’s just a kind of moral equivalence.
But the rather more concerning consequence is, what happens next? When the blood has dried and the dust has settled, just what is left? Well, presumably Malcolm Turnbull’s murderous tyrant, Bashar al-Assad. If there are any rebels left in Syria, the Russians and Iranians can do the mopping up for him, and if they have had enough, he will be quite happy to do the job himself.
Having slaughtered about a quarter of a million of his own people, Assad will have no qualms about butchering the remnants. And let’s be brutally realistic, Assad is not all bad: he protected Christian minorities – at least the ones who behaved. So, in the name of stability, he has to stay unless and until someone can persuade him to leave, which will not be any time soon.
This, of course, is roughly the course Turnbull and Barack Obama are proposing, but without the intervening carnage: cut straight to the political solution. Not only would that save countless lives, but it would avoid the festering hate and resentment a huge escalation of the western invasion of the country would leave as a sore ready to erupt for the next wave of extremist fanatics. But it’s pretty wimpy – some call it appeasement, the prototype of the despised Neville Chamberlain at Munich.
The Tony Abbott model is far more hairy-chested. The problem is, of course, that it will almost certainly not work. It would involve not a clean, surgical strike of ISIS, but a long and messy campaign fought town by town, street by street, house by house, and we all know from the bitter lessons of Vietnam how futile this can be against a well-resourced and well organised guerrilla force. Even identifying the enemy would be near impossible in the circumstances, and the outcome would likely be indecisive and unquestionably leave precisely the kind of lingering resentments that has got us into the mess in the first place.
As Turnbull pointed out in Manila, he, and more importantly Obama, are not keen to revisit the errors of the past: ‘His view – and I have to say that this is the view of all the countries’ leaders with whom I spoke in Turkey, all of them – his view is that the presence of foreign armies in that theatre at the present time would be counterproductive given the lessons of history, relatively recent history.’
And he went further: ‘The critical thing is the outcome of what you do and plainly a political settlement is the objective; it is enormously difficult , you know the enmities run very deep. But plainly when you look at Daesh or ISIL, its base is a Sunni population that has felt disenfranchised or oppressed in Syria – and with good reason – and has also felt left out of the new government in Iraq.’
The hotheads immediately interpreted the voice of reason as a suggestion that Turnbull would be willing to negotiate with ISIS – to collaborate with terrorism. Shades of the Grand Mufti Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, who had talked of ‘racism, Islamophobia, curtailing freedoms through securitisation, duplicitous foreign policies and military intervention.’ Both men were forced to reiterate that the Paris murders – any murders – could not be condoned, excused or justified in any way. But surely it can be worthwhile to try and explain just how and why such unforgiving and unforgivable acts could be planned.
The simplistic line is that it is all a matter of history – genetics, even: the Muslims have hated us for centuries, not for what we do but for what we are: they always have and they always will. But this is just not true: since the sixth century there have been many conflicts between Islam and the West, but for far longer there have been periods of peace – at the very least mutual coexistence.
And of course the ISIS leaders themselves have constantly referred to the invasion of Muslim lands as their motive for revenge. It would follow logically from Turnbull’s analysis that not only is the presence of foreign armies counterproductive: the fact that they are intervening at all is part of the problem not part of the solution.
In the wake of the Paris killings the idea of withdrawal is unthinkable, and the escalation will presumably continue. But in the end the very deep enmities in the region that Turnbull talked about will have to be confronted, and if the west cannot devise a political solution, then those who have survived within the war-ravaged countries will have to work it out for themselves.
What is clear is that Abbott’s bellicose approach has already been tried – in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq – and has failed. So rather than calling for boots on the ground, he would do better to put a sock in it. And Malcolm Turnbull, for one, would certainly agree.