Tony Walker, La Trobe UniversityWhat’s next in the latest Middle East convulsion? Will a ceasefire between the Hamas militant group in Gaza and Israel be brokered by Arab mediators in coordination with western powers, or will the situation continue to deteriorate?
Are we witnessing the beginning of an intensifying conflict in which Israelis find themselves enveloped in a bloody confrontation with Palestinians across the occupied territories and, more threateningly, inside Israel itself?
Will Israel become enmeshed in widespread communal unrest on its own territory in Arab towns and villages?
In short, are we witnessing the early stages of a third intifada, in which casualties mount on both sides until the participants exhaust themselves?
We’ve seen all this before – in 1987 and 2000. Then, as now, violence spread from territories occupied in the 1967 war into Israel itself.
There are no simple answers to these questions as the crisis enters its second week, with casualties mounting.
In part, the next stage depends on the level of violence Israel is prepared to inflict on Hamas. It is also conditional on Hamas’s tolerance of Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire.
It will also rely on the extent to which Israel feels its interests continue to be served by courting widespread international opprobrium for its offensive against Hamas, as the militant group’s leadership is embedded in a densely packed civilian population in Gaza.
This is far from a cost-free exercise for Israel, despite the bravado from its leadership, embroiled in a lingering internal crisis over the country’s inability to elect majority government.
Political paralysis is not the least of Israel’s problems.
As always, the issue is not whether Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket attacks on its own territory. The question is whether its response is disproportionate, and whether its chronic failure to propagate a genuine peace process is fuelling Palestinian resentment.
Israel’s continued provocative construction of settlements in the West Bank, and the daily humiliations it inflicts on a disenfranchised Palestinian population in Arab East Jerusalem, contribute to enormous frustration and anger among people living under occupation.
If nothing else, the latest upsurge of violence between Israelis and Palestinians should persuade the international community that occupation and subjugation of one population by another is a dead-end street.
Further complicating things for the Israeli leadership are the circumstances that led to the latest conflagration. This has lessened international sympathy for the extreme measures Israel is using, aiming to bomb the Hamas leadership into submission.
Israeli authorities’ attempts to evict Palestinian families in East Jerusalem from homes they had occupied for 70 years, accompanied by highly provocative demonstrations by extremist Jewish settlers chanting “death to Arabs”, has contributed to a sharp deterioration in relations.
This was followed by a heavy-handed Israeli police response to Palestinian demonstrations in and around Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine. In turn, this prompted Hamas rocket strikes into Israel itself from Gaza.
The International Crisis Group has identified the issue that should be most concerning to Israel and its supporters:
This occasion is the first since the September 2000 intifada where Palestinians have responded simultaneously and on such a massive scale throughout much of the combined territory of Israel-Palestine to the cumulative impact of military occupation, repression, dispossession and systemic discrimination.
In a global propaganda war over Israel’s continued occupation of five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the issue of who started this latest convulsion is relevant.
Collateral damage to Israel’s reputation is an unavoidable consequence of the use of a heavy bombardment against Hamas targets in one of the world’s most densely populated areas.
There are two million Palestinians in Gaza, a narrow strip of land between Israeli territory and the Mediterranean Sea. Many are living in refugee camps their families have occupied since they fled Israel in 1948, in what Palestinians refer to as the nakba, or catastrophe.
The deaths of an extended Palestinian family at the weekend whose three-storey home was demolished by an Israeli airstrike is a grating reminder of fallout from the use of weapons of war in civilian areas.
This is the reality of a population held hostage to an unresolved – and possibly unresolvable – conflict involving Palestinians living under occupation.
US President Joe Biden, in a phone call with Netanyahu, seemed to endorse Israel’s heavy hand. Biden’s conciliatory tone has drawn widespread criticism in view of the shocking images emanating from Gaza. These include live footage of a building housing foreign media being destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.
Belatedy, the US has sent an envoy to the region.
In Australia, politicians from both sides have called for a de-escalation.
Regionally, Arab states have expressed their support for the Palestinian cause, but remarks by their leaders have been restrained.
However, circumstances leading to the outbreak of violence, notably Israeli policing of demonstrations in places sacred to Muslims, have left Arab leaderships no choice but to condemn Israel’s actions.
A hitherto limp US response reflects the Biden administration’s hope that the Israel-Palestine issue would not be allowed to intrude on Washington’s wider Middle East foreign policy efforts. Biden is trying to entice Iran back to the negotiating table to re-energise the nuclear peace deal ripped up by former President Donald Trump.
Part of this strategy has been to calm Israel’s concerns about renewed US efforts to re-engage Iran. Those efforts have been complicated by the violence of recent days.
Washington has been reminded, if that was necessary, that the toxic Palestinian issue could not simply be shoved aside, however much the US and its moderate Arab allies would like it to go away. This was always an unrealistic expectation.
Israeli violence against Palestinians in retaliation for rocket attacks on its territory is an embarrassment for Arab states that had established diplomatic relations with Israel under pressure from the Trump administration.
The so-called Abraham Accords, involving an exchange of ambassadors between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, is at risk of being discredited in the eyes of the Arab world by the latest conflagration.
Other Arab states that established diplomatic relations with Israel, brokered by Trump officials, include Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Sporadic demonstrations in support of the Palestinians have occurred in the latter two countries.
Finally, this latest conflict between Israelis and Palestinians exposes the failure of various parties to advance a peace agreement based on a two-state solution.
That prospect appears further away than ever, and may even be dead given Israel’s declared intention to annex territory in the West Bank. Such action would end any possibility of compromise based on land swaps to accommodate Israeli settlements in areas contiguous with Israel itself.
These are bleak moments for those who might have believed at the time of the Oslo Declaration in 1993, and subsequent establishment of relations between Israel and the leadership of the Palestinian national movement, that peace might be possible at last.
We are now a very long way indeed from Oslo.
Anthony Billingsley, UNSWThe latest violence between Israeli and Palestinian forces should come as no surprise. The issue of Palestinian statehood has been off the international agenda since US President Barack Obama effectively washed his hands of the issue. The Trump administration then focused on Israel’s relations with other Arab states at the expense of the Palestinians.
However, the tensions underlying the current violence have been building for some time and have the potential to become particularly serious.
In East Jerusalem, Israeli settlers have been trying to seize control of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a historic part of the city. They have resorted to the Israeli Supreme Court, which usually supports the government and settler line in matters relating to the occupied Palestinian territories. The court’s judgement was expected this week, but was deferred.
Palestinians have also been complaining about draconian restrictions imposed on worshippers during Ramadan at the Haram al-Sharif, the area including the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock (which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount).
Moreover, the end of Ramadan coincided with Jerusalem Day, a celebration of Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and with al-Nakba on May 15, the Palestinian day of mourning to mark the Arabs’ loss in the 1948 war.
These factors have given the unrest added ferocity.
Possible war with Gaza, or civil war
Following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, which were won by Hamas, violence between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza has been a regular occurrence.
There were major outbreaks in 2008 and 2014 when Israeli forces entered the area, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians.
There are worrying signs now that another Israeli incursion is being prepared — and another war will follow.
As the fighting has intensified, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has expressed concern war crimes are being committed. Israel has been accused of resorting to disproportionate force in Gaza, and both sides have been criticised for causing civilian deaths.
A particularly worrying aspect of these clashes is that intense fighting has also broken out between Israeli Palestinians and Jews in a number of Israeli cities and towns.
While Israeli Palestinians (who are citizens of Israel) have always been concerned about the fate of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, they have tended to be left alone, and inter-communal violence has been largely avoided.
But harmony between the two groups is fragile, and this outbreak could have serious implications. Israel’s president is warning of a civil war.
Why diplomacy has failed
A major problem is there is no means of bringing about a negotiated solution to the decades-long, seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obama attempted to initiate negotiations by appointing former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. The administration’s focus was on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, but it was unable to make any progress with either the Israelis or the Palestinians.
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, developed a plan that effectively bypassed the Palestinians and focused on Israel’s relations with Arab Gulf states. This was rejected by the Palestinians.
The international community has been equally ineffective in trying to reduce tensions in recent weeks. Russia has called for a reconvening of the Quartet, a body formed under former US President George W. Bush’s administration that brought together the US, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
China, meanwhile, has urged the UN Security Council to take action to de-escalate tensions — a move that was blocked by Israel’s ally, the US.
The one party that might have the capacity to bring about a ceasefire and promote negotiations is the US. However, beyond issuing the usual platitudes of concern, President Joe Biden has defended Israel’s response to Palestinian rocket attacks.
Biden is focused largely on domestic issues and does not need the distraction of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a highly divisive issue in American politics. Moreover, Hamas is listed as a terrorist organisation in the US, making it difficult for Biden to apply greater pressure on Israel.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has done nothing to moderate tensions in recent weeks and his language on Gaza has become increasingly defiant. The conflict could be politically expedient for the beleaguered leader — it may help him regain the prime ministership after he was unable to form a government following recent elections.
Yair Lapid, the opposition leader who was asked by the president to try to form a government last week, has had to suspend coalition negotiations while the fighting continues. His main hope is frustration with Netanyahu will encourage his negotiating partners to continue their talks to try to oust him from power.
The Palestinian side is no better placed to enter negotiations. President Mahmoud Abbas ceased engagement with Israel as a result of what he described as Israel’s refusal to negotiate and the Trump peace plan, which was widely seen as anti-Palestinian.
Abbas had called for Palestinian legislative elections in late May and presidential elections in July, but both have been postponed indefinitely. Though he hasn’t said it outright, his concern (as well as those of Israel and the US) is his party’s rival, Hamas, would easily win.
Abbas’s decision has infuriated Palestinians and added to the tensions in the East Jerusalem and Gaza over recent weeks.
Abbas’s hand is further weakened by the lack of support from other Arab governments, such as the UAE and Egypt. The result is Abbas is an isolated, impotent figure with few friends and waning support among the people he is supposed to represent.
Where to from here?
The relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is filled with suspicion and hate built up over decades. Both sides believe their cause is just.
While Israel’s survival is not at issue here, its future could be seriously influenced by the way its leaders handle crises like this. The departure of Netanyahu could be a positive step, but will not be decisive. The two sides need the international community to help them end the fighting and find a way out of the impasse they find themselves in.
This crisis represents an early major challenge for the Biden administration, but one the new US president will likely be reluctant to take on.
Tristan Dunning, The University of Queensland and Martin Kear, University of SydneyWeeks of tensions between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem have boiled over in recent days, unleashing some of the worst violence between Israel and the Palestinians in years.
Israeli airstrikes in Gaza have left 30 Palestinians dead, including ten children, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising not to ease up anytime soon. Palestinians militants, meanwhile, have launched hundreds of missiles into Israel, killing three people.
Ostensibly, the rocket launches by Hamas were a response to Israeli police storming the al-Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem on Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, one of the holiest nights of the year for Muslims. The incident injured hundreds over the weekend.
Hamas then issued an ultimatum demanding Israeli forces withdraw from the compound — the third holiest site in Islam, part of which comprises the Wailing Wall — by a specific deadline. When Israel refused, Hamas’s military wing followed through on its threat by firing rockets toward Jerusalem, forcing Israeli lawmakers to flee parliament.
Beyond the mosque confrontation, though, there are broader historical and political factors at work.
Monday’s airstrikes fell on Jerusalem Day, when Israeli Jews celebrate the “reunification” of Jerusalem following the Six Day War of 1967. As the ongoing unrest demonstrates, the city is far from unified.
Adding to the tensions, thousands of Jewish ultra-nationalists had planned to march through Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day as a demonstration of Jewish sovereignty over the entire city.
Israeli police changed the route at the last moment, partly due to the increasingly violent clashes between security forces and Palestinian demonstrators during Ramadan.
There were also concerns of unrest if the Israeli Supreme Court handed down its decision on whether four Palestinian families should be evicted from their homes in the Shiekh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, to be replaced by Jewish settlers. This is the culmination of a decades-long legal battle dismissed as “a real estate dispute” by Israeli officials.
This case is emblematic of the systematic appropriation of Palestinian homes and land in East Jerusalem since 1967. The seizure of Palestinian property is so common here, an Israeli settler was captured on video recently telling a Palestinian,
If I don’t steal your home, someone else will steal it.
The Biden administration has also said it is “deeply concerned” about the potential evictions, while urging leaders across the spectrum to “denounce all violent acts”.
Decades of dispossession
Israeli settlement building and expansion, especially in and around East Jerusalem, is a deliberate strategy. This is not only being done to appropriate Palestinian land, but to alter the demographics of the area and prevent the establishment of a sovereign Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Israel exclusively claims Jerusalem – home of the ancient Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism – as its eternal undivided capital.
The dispossession of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank is not new. Indeed, the expulsion of Palestinians in the areas now largely recognised as the official borders of the self-defined Jewish state of Israel was required to establish a Jewish majority.
On May 14, 1948, Zionist leaders unilaterally declared the independence of the state of Israel, sparking the first Arab-Israeli War. During the war, over 400 Palestinian villages and towns were depopulated and obliterated to make way for modern Jewish towns and cities.
This Saturday marks al-Nakba, or the “Catastrophe”, for Palestinians. It is the day of mourning for the loss of historical Palestine and the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homeland.
This process has continued throughout East Jerusalem and the West Bank since their occupation in 1967. There are now more than 5 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN, nearly a third of whom live in refugee camps.
The plight of Palestinian refugees remains a particularly contentious issue for the two sides. A UN General Assembly resolution in 1948 asserted the right of refugees to return to the areas captured by Israel in 1948-49.
And in 1967, a UN Security Council resolution demanded Israeli forces withdraw from territories captured during the Six Day War.
International law and internal brawls
The Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and its ongoing settler activities in the West Bank contravene international humanitarian law. They are also not recognised by the vast majority of the international community, with the notable exception of the US under the Trump administration.
Yet, Palestinian dispossession continues today with over 600,000 Israeli settlers now living across the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The continued Israeli occupation of these territories, coupled with the appropriation of Palestinian land, are among the primary causes of conflict between the two sides.
But there are also domestic political factors at play. Hamas is a resistance organisation, which is also responsible for administering the Gaza Strip. Its legitimacy largely rests on its resistance credentials, which means the movement routinely feels obligated to demonstrate its capacity to confront perceived Israeli aggression.
This is in stark contrast to the inaction of the Hamas’ rival party, Fatah, and its leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has remained largely silent in recent weeks despite the loss of Palestinian lives.
Israel’s political system is also in crisis, with no party able to form a stable government after four inconclusive elections in the past two years (and now a fifth potentially in the offing).
With the government in flux, pro-settler parties – namely Naftali Bennett’s New Right Party – have become the kingmakers in the Knesset. Any aspiring government will likely need their backing to form a majority, which requires the support of pro-settler policies.
With all of this in mind, we can expect more violence, regardless of who eventually wins power in Israel. Unless the international community — in particular, the Biden administration — intervenes to find a meaningful solution to the conflict.
John Blaxland, Australian National UniversityPrime Minister Scott Morrison has declared Australia will withdraw its remaining 80 troops from Afghanistan by September, marking the end of its longest involvement in a war.
This follows President Joe Biden announcing the United States will leave Afghanistan by September.
The path to this point has appeared inevitable for years. Ten years ago, journalist Karen Middleton highlighted the futility of the counterinsurgency campaign in her aptly-titled book, An Unwinnable War.
High hopes dashed
Back in 2001, it all seemed so different. Only weeks after the September 11 attacks, Australian special forces deployed to southern Afghanistan alongside US, Canadian, British and other NATO troops to defeat al-Qaeda, who was hosted by the then-Afghan government, known as the Taliban.
After dusting off their boots and leaving in early 2002, Australian forces were drawn back in 2005 with a special forces task group. This was followed by an engineering reconstruction task force that over time morphed into a mentoring task force, intended to help the Afghan national security forces establish law and order.
But without a clear strategy for effective governance and widespread corruption, the Taliban returned with a vengeance. The mentoring created opportunities for so-called “green on blue” attacks, which contributed to the deaths of a number of Australians.
By 2014, 41 Australian soldiers had been killed. Many understandably wondered: was it worth it?
Australia’s niche approach
Australian politicians and policy makers were always risk-averse about the commitment. Eager to avoid casualties on the scale of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War (where 500 Australians were killed), successive governments opted to make niche contributions that relied on critical support and leadership from US and other allies.
But never wanting to manage everything itself left Australia vulnerable.
For example, Australia handed detainees to Afghan authorities who, soon enough released them. Some of these, it appears, ended up fighting against Australians again.
With special forces, in particular, undertaking rotation after rotation, operating without a compelling strategy and running into such characters repeatedly would have tested their resolve to operate ethically. In this context, it is not surprising their actions have generated enormous controversy addressed in the Brereton Report.
Building ADF skills and experience
Defenders of Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan reflect on how the operational experience has honed the force. It enabled the components of the Australian Defence Force to sharpen their skills, refine their procedures and improve their capabilities. This includes the acquisition of advanced American military technology seen as crucial for an (at least partly) self-reliant defence posture for Australia.
Having a capable and sharp-edged defence force is a worthy goal. The question still remains whether the price was justified.
The lack of involvement in international strategy formulation left Australia vulnerable to incoherent policy-making and planning by US political and military leaders. This may not affect Australia directly. But America’s US$2 trillion dollar expenditure on the campaign points to a spectacular failure of political and military leadership.
Back in 2001, the so-called “unipolar moment” — with the US as an unchallenged superpower — seemed enduring. Two decades later, a three-pronged series of challenges relating to great power contestation, looming environmental catastrophe and a spectrum of governance challenges (including terrorism, people and drug smuggling, and corruption) suggests the Afghan project distracted many countries — including Australia — from addressing other more pressing global issues.
There were other options
This does not mean the complete withdrawal was the only possibility. There could have been a compromise arrangement to protect the rights of women and institutions of Afghan civil society. This would have required buy-in from neighbouring states including the “stans”, India, Russia, China and Iran, let alone the invested European powers.
But Biden’s declaration of withdrawal has emboldened the Taliban and makes any such outcome now virtually impossible to secure. Indeed, with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State resurgent, we may come to deeply regret not persisting with maintaining a modest foothold there, akin to the level of support provided by NATO that has endured in the Balkans for decades since the war broke out there in the 1990s.
Most of our work now lost
As we look back, Australia did work to improve the lives and livelihoods of the people of Afghanistan, particularly in Uruzgan province, where Australian forces were stationed from 2005—2013.
However, most of that work has now been lost and many of Australia’s interlocutors there killed, intimidated into submission or chased away. Some, thankfully, have made it to Australia as refugees.
We owe it, particularly to those who worked with Australia, to offer them a better future, including by inviting them here and welcoming them, much as we, belatedly, took in refugees fleeing from Vietnam after that war ended.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the price is still being paid for an incomplete strategy, with ongoing trauma for our veterans and their families and lives being lost.
Jared Mondschein, University of SydneyUnlike most US presidents, Joe Biden did not come to the White House with many fixed ideological positions. He did, however, come with fixed values. Chief among them is understanding how US policies impact working American families.
In his nearly half century of experience in and around Washington, Biden was known to ask any staffers using academic or elitist language to
pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me […] If she understands, we can keep talking.
The debate about the nearly 20-year US presence in Afghanistan has challenged three prior US presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Yet Biden, as the first US president in 40 years to have had a child who served in combat, sees things differently.
There undoubtedly remains a strategic argument — albeit shared by increasingly fewer Americans — for maintaining a US presence in Afghanistan. Namely, that it would continue to prevent terrorists from once again making safe haven there.
But Biden’s announcement that he would withdraw the remaining US troops by September essentially meant he saw no way of making the parent of another soldier killed in Afghanistan understand such an argument. As he said,
Our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan have become increasingly unclear.
Shifting US support for the war
Today, most Americans agree with him.
Perhaps clearer than the US rationale for maintaining troops in Afghanistan is the fact Americans are dramatically less concerned about terrorism than they were 20 years ago.
One month after the September 11, 2001, attacks, 71% of Americans said they were worried about a terror attack.
But by July 2020, terrorism ranked last in a list of ten issues that Americans deemed to be a “very big problem in the country today.” Climate change, violent crime, unemployment, government ethics, and racial injustice were all deemed more important.
And in February of this year, Americans were asked what of 20 options should be given “top priority” as a long-range foreign policy goal. The top-ranked priority, with 75% in support, was “protecting the jobs of American workers”.
The very last one? “Promoting democracy in other nations”, at just 20%.
What was it all for?
The rationale for maintaining US troops in Afghanistan was not only unclear to most Americans, it also became unclear to a growing number of US veterans. In late 2019, 44% of veterans said they supported US troop reductions from Afghanistan — compared to just 33% of the general public.
As Biden reminded the world in his announcement, the US invaded Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda and prevent future terror attacks on the US. He posited the death of Osama bin Laden and the degradation of al-Qaeda were evidence of success on that front.
But both of those were accomplished a decade ago — leading Biden to wonder what had been accomplished since then, and what could be accomplished in the future.
More than a decade ago, the Obama administration fiercely debated the merits of decreasing the US troop presence in Afghanistan. Around that time, a US Marine colonel who did multiple deployments to the region reflected to me about the many Marines he lost there and the parents he consoled. He asked a simple question:
What exactly am I supposed to tell these mothers that their sons died for?
Yet, perhaps the greatest legacy from the US war in Afghanistan should not be something the US gained, but instead what it lost — unbridled confidence in and dependence on US hard power.
Such humility and restraint may be exactly what is needed for the challenge the Biden administration wants to focus on most, and is perhaps most relevant to the American working family: rebuilding at home.
This is in line with the announcement by United States President Joe Biden of America’s withdrawal.
An emotional Prime Minister Scott Morrison read out the names of the 41 Australians who died since the conflict began after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.
Biden said this week it was time to end the “forever war”. The US currently has about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan while about 2,200 Americans have been killed in a conflict that ended inconclusively.
Over the past two years, Australia has reduced its military personnel from about 1,500.
Asked at a news conference in Perth whether going into Afghanistan was worth it, Morrison said, “freedom is always worth it”.
In a statement he, Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne said, “this decision represents a significant milestone in Australia’s military history”.
They said more than 39,000 Australian Defence Force personnel had been deployed on Operations SLIPPER and HIGHROAD.
“But safeguarding Afghanistan’s security has come at a cost,” they said, referring to the 41 deaths and the larger number who were wounded, “some physically and others mentally.”
They said a “complex task of making peace” lay ahead.
“Australia continues to support the peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. We encourage both parties to commit to the peace process and call on the Taliban to cease the violence.”
While Australia’s military contribution would reduce, “we will continue to support the stability and development of Afghanistan through our bilateral partnership, and in concert with other nations.
“This includes our diplomatic presence, development cooperation program, and continued people-to-people links, including through our training and scholarship programs.
“Australia remains committed to helping Afghanistan preserve the gains of the last 20 years, particularly for women and girls.”
The announcement of the withdrawal comes as fresh controversy engulfs Ben Roberts-Smith, who won a VC in Afghanistan but has been accused of war crimes.
Nine this week alleged he buried material in his backyard, including pictures of soldiers behaving badly in a makeshift bar at the Australian Tarin Kowt base and classified information.
Roberts-Smith has denied the allegations against him.
At his news conference, Morrison dismissed a question about the allegations of Australians committing war crimes, saying, “There will be time to talk about those things. Today is not that time”.
Hanlie Booysen, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of WellingtonTen years ago this month, Syrians took to the streets to call for political reform and social dignity.
The success with which earlier protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt had toppled dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, as well as NATO’s air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, seemed outwardly to present an opportunity for change in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.
Instead, the Syrian uprising turned into an insurgency and then a bloody civil war.
By December of 2011, 133 countries in the United Nations General Assembly (including Aotearoa New Zealand) were strongly condemning the Syrian authorities’ “grave and systematic human rights violations” in its response to the uprising.
Alas, this was to no avail. In the past decade, 7 million Syrians (from a pre-conflict population of 22 million) have been internally displaced, and 5.6 million have fled to neighbouring countries.
More than 500,000 have been killed, including 55,000 children. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, thousands of civilians have been subject to torture, sexual violence or death in detention, or have disappeared.
The dire circumstances of more than 64,000 mostly women and children being held in the Al-Hol and Al-Roj detention camps in north-eastern Syria have become the most recent statistic in the Syrian tragedy.
How did this ongoing disaster happen? While the Syrian conflict is complex, it is possible to identify three things that facilitated the militarisation of the uprising and al-Assad’s political survival.
First resort to violence
Like their counterparts in neighbouring countries, Syrians faced a pervasive mukhabarat (security establishment), poverty and the absence of basic freedoms.
Their desire for change found early expression when a group of schoolboys painted a slogan, first seen in Tunisia and then in Tahrir square in Cairo, onto a wall in the southern Syrian city of Daraa: الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام (as-shab yurid isqat an-nizam), translated as “the people want the fall of the regime”.
But the al-Assad government did not fall. It violently cracked down on the protest movement. In Daraa, the schoolboys were detained and tortured. When the mukhabarat dismissed the tribal elders who intervened on their behalf, it sparked demonstrations in the city.
The demonstrators were met with live ammunition and later tanks. Whole neighbourhoods and villages were put under siege. This excessive use of violence against demonstrators in Daraa and elsewhere militarised the Syrian uprising and undermined the protest movement.
Failure of the UN Security Council
The UN Security Council, initially slow to react, became no more than a witness to the violence in Syria.
Seven months after the protests in Daraa began, a resolution tabled by France, the UK, Germany and Portugal condemned Syria’s human rights violations, and raised the potential use of force under Article 41 (Chapter VII) of the UN Charter.
Russia and China vetoed the resolution, and non-permanent members India, Brazil, South Africa and Lebanon abstained. No punitive action occurred.
Opposition to the draft resolution was motivated by what had happened in Libya. On March 17 2011, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 had authorised “necessary measures” under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to protect Libyan civilians against Gaddafi’s military.
The UN-sanctioned, NATO-led military campaign began two days later, but did not cease after the feared attack against civilians in Benghazi was foiled. It continued for seven months until Gaddafi was captured and killed.
Russia’s veto of the first Syrian UN Security Council resolution was based on a suspicion that regime change, as had occurred in Libya, was also planned for Syria.
But Russia has gone on to veto a further 15 resolutions, rendering the security council largely impotent in the face of a war that has seen thousands of Syrian civilians killed, maimed, detained, tortured and forcibly displaced.
The pretext of terrorism
In late 2016, Syrian forces, backed by Russia and Iran, recaptured eastern Aleppo. The battle for the city had been a prolonged, bloody and strategically important standoff between government forces and anti-government armed groups that had taken a terrible toll on civilians.
For ten years, al-Assad’s permanent representative to the security council had used the threat of terrorism to justify sieges on whole cities and neighbourhoods, the use of barrel bombs on civilians, and attacks on medical personnel and facilities.
However, in the first six months of the Syrian uprising, al-Assad decreed an amnesty for “political prisoners”. At least four radical Islamists who later joined or formed militias were among those pardoned.
When Aleppo fell, Aotearoa New Zealand was serving as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Then-Prime Minister John Key told the security council that although terrorism was a major consequence of the Syrian war, “it did not cause it”.
Later, as Aotearoa New Zealand’s term came to an end in December 2016, its permanent representative stated:
I choose to believe the Secretary-General and the people working for him when they say the issue is not terrorism, but it is barbarism.
Without denying the legacy of UN-designated terrorist groups Islamic State (ISIS) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (former Jabhat al-Nusra) in the Syria conflict, Aotearoa New Zealand was right to reject the Syrian state’s justification for its actions.
One minor irony in all this is that the same Syrian permanent representative to the UN was also, in his capacity as rapporteur for the UN Decolonisation Committee, charged with monitoring Aotearoa New Zealand’s administration of Tokelau.
However, this authoritarian absurdity pales in comparison to an ongoing tragedy in Syria. What Key said to the UN in 2016 remains true: a political solution is the only way out of this conflict.
Hanlie Booysen, Research fellow, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington