On Wednesday the ninth of September 2015, Australia unofficially declared war on Syria. The announcement by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop seemed almost an afterthought, following news of the government's generous commitment to help Syrian refugees.
With the intense media focus on the refugee crisis in Europe, and sudden concern following the symbolic death of Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach, some media seemed barely to notice we were now 'at war' again, while those that did seemed to think it was a good idea, or at least a reasonable one.
We had been told repeatedly that 'Islamic State' had to be stopped because it threatened us all, and now apparently it was also causing Syrians to take flight from their country – so we simply had to act.
For those of us who have ceased believing anything our governments say, based on their track record of lies and fabrications, the new pretext for 'legitimately' invading Syrian sovereign territory was unconvincing. Although we are assured 'the collective defence of the Iraqi people' fulfils the requirements of international law under Article 51 as a pretext for military intervention – and it may do so – it is tempting to say "but I thought we had to protect Syrians from IS". Many would conclude that we are simply following the Americans, as we did in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that our 'contribution' is primarily political and strategic. The reason Australia also needs a legal umbrella for its troops is that we are signatories to the ICC convention, unlike the 'exceptional' Americans.
Endorsing the 'intervention', and demonstrating the absence of a real opposition party in Australia at the same time, the shadow foreign minister Tanya Plibersek explained the details of the government's pretexts in an interview on the ABC's weekly political commentary program 'Insiders'. The Syrian government was 'unable or unwilling to prevent IS from launching cross-border attacks' she claimed, and in order to defend 'the Iraqi people, territory and military' from IS terrorists, Australia must be able to take action against IS bases in Syria. Most importantly she said that intervention is justified because "we will be responding to calls for assistance from a democratically elected government threatened by terrorist groups coming across its borders."
So how did this happen? How is it that two years after Russia helped foil the US/NATO plans for Libya-style regime change in Damascus, based on fabricated claims of a chemical weapons attack, that such illegitimate plans are unaltered and now put into action with a clever new false pretext? And what does it tell us about the true nature of those who thought up this dastardly way to trick their publics, not just to put up no resistance to the new war but to actually cheer it on? Did they really mean to only target IS forces as they maintained, and effectively assist the Syrian government? Or would 'new circumstances' soon reveal the real meaning of "we have no plans to intervene" – in Syria, as they declared a year ago in order to get support for joining the fight against IS in Iraq?
And so it was, because only the day after our de-facto declaration of war on Syria, the Defence minister stated that the 'commitment' would be for 'two or three years'- which seemed a rather long time simply to 'stop cross-border attacks'. But government ministers didn't have to spell out the longer term plans, and admit that they still included forced 'regime change', and that in fact this was the only long-term plan they ever had. Because the public, whose opinion had been comprehensively narrowed into seeing Syria's President Assad as the chief cause of Syria's descent into hell, soon started calling for the (popularly re-elected) 'brutal dictator' to be removed. Commentators in Western media and think-tank experts observed that 'degrading' IS would also be 'upgrading' Assad, who – they claimed – had killed ten times as many people as the 'Da'esh death-cult'. Even worse, it would effectively be – God forbid – helping Russia, and everyone knows what they are like, and have been doing in Ukraine.
Australia's move against Syria became a precedent for France and the UK to join the campaign against IS and Assad, with the UK's David Cameron almost forgetting IS in his emotive call to protect Syrians from the murderous regime of Bashar al Assad. Coinciding with huge rallies in support of refugees in London and around the world it all seemed rather orchestrated … and the appearance in those rallies of the 'wrong Syrian flag' – the flag of the armed rebellion and its Western cheer squad - reinforced the feeling. With exquisite irony, the London rallies followed on from the excitement over the election of a new leader of the British Labor party – Jeremy Corbyn, who has been a leading light of the Stop the War movement since the Iraq invasion of 2003, and recently a staunch opponent of Britain's Trident Nuclear Deterrent.
It tells us a lot about the struggle we face in fighting for the rights of Syrians, and in helping the heroic Syrian army fight its many foes, that nearly all of those millions who came out to 'stop the war' in 2003 are now unwittingly conscripted into the war to stop the Syrian army from protecting its people, and the President that they have chosen to lead their fight. What's more, those protesters are also with the war to stop Russia from helping the Syrian army, oblivious to the fact that Russia can more rightly claim that it is 'helping a democratically elected government threatened by terrorist groups coming across its borders'.
Still, we shouldn't lose heart. On the same day that Australia proudly revealed its first foray into Syria in pursuit of IS targets, the Syrian army and air-force successfully defended an air-base in Deir al Zour from IS attack, killing up to 100 of their fighters. Deir al Zour is in the very area that Australia claims the Syrian government lacks any control, lying on the Euphrates between Iraq and the IS capital Raqqa. We might imagine that the Australian contingent, which 'didn't release its weapons', thought better of it when it saw the exploding bombs from the Syrian air-force…