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Oh, what a lovely war Tony Abbott has so lightly taken us into. The spectacle of Iraqi soldiers hightailing it out of Ramadi, a provincial capital they were ordered to hold at all costs against the Islamic State, has dashed widespread judgements that Western air power and retraining of the Iraqi military would turn the tide against the Sunni extremists.
It certainly took the gloss off the earlier raid by United States special forces into Syria to take out the IS bagman running the movement’s oil trade. Our 530 soldiers in Iraq, along with American and other groups, will continue training government forces, but the immediate response to the IS advance will be to pour the Iranian-backed Shia militias known as the Hashd al-Shaabi into the fight.
The US had hoped to avoid this, urging the Shia-dominated Baghdad government to withhold the Hashd al-Shaabi from the battle to save Ramadi, in order to present a less sectarian face to the mostly Sunni population of the city and surrounding Anbar province. In the government’s recapture of Tikrit, the US halted air support until the Iran-backed militia was pulled out. But if not Hashd al-Shaabi, who is going to hold the line against IS?
Certainly not the US and its allies such as Australia, who hope for a low-casualty mix of training and air strikes. And not the Arab states, which have been scouting for Pakistani and West African forces to do the ground fighting for them against the Shia in Yemen. Some analysts wonder if IS is not the lesser of two evils for the Saudis and Gulf states.
No doubt IS will continue to attract 17-year-olds desperate for glory, but Abbott and his ministers are hardly helping the war for hearts and minds by talking of revoking citizenship of IS recruits where they can, and taking a hard line towards those disillusioned ones trying to negotiate a return with the Australian Federal Police. Surely they could prove a valuable asset.
As if this is not bad enough, one of our best Middle East analysts, Bob Bowker, warns that the Assad regime in Syria is losing ground to a rebel coalition that could never be described as “moderate” and could implode.
Foremost among them, he says, are the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and another jihadist outfit called Ahrar al-Sham, backed by Turkey.
US friends Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have put this coalition together, and helped it capture important towns, including Idlib, and moved in striking distance of others. The Assad government’s forces and supporting Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have had to devote efforts to opposing this offensive from the fight against IS, which is moving in on the towns of Palmyra and Homs.
Bowker, a former ambassador to Syria, sees a strong possibility of Bashar al-Assad being forced back to the “heartland” of his fellow Alawites (a Shia sect) around the capital Damascus, with a corridor out to the Mediterranean through the city of Homs. But for Alawites left exposed in mixed-population villages elsewhere, the result could be horrendous.
“A substantial number of Syrians, unable to vent their anger on Assad personally for the hardships they suffered under his father, and since 2011, will want Alawites to share the fate of the regime,” Bowker writes in an essay posted on the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter website. “Whether or not a bloodbath ensues, the widespread anticipation of such a situation is virtually certain. Fear of genocide, amplified by actual incidents and possibly used by some actors as a means of putting additional pressure on the regime or minorities thinking of remaining, could produce a population movement on a scale not witnessed in the region since Palestine in 1948 or the flight of Iraqi Kurds in 1991.”
Most of the Alawites, numbering about three million or 12 per cent of the Syrian population, would head for Lebanon, while secular regime supporters and Christians would head for more congenial havens.
Bowker sees little prospect of this bringing Assad to the bargaining table. “There is no way the regime can entertain the notion of a power-sharing deal with its opponents … even in the unlikely event a credible deal were to be offered,” he said. The tide may yet turn back in Assad’s favour. “But it is becoming a brittle regime, more likely to implode suddenly than to sustain itself should a rush to the exits begin.”
Not quite four weeks ago the leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations met for a summit in Kuala Lumpur and issued a grand declaration about continuing to work for a “people-oriented, people-centred and rules-based ASEAN community”.
Among them were the leaders of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, who have been put to the test and found wanting. Myanmar still insists its 1.3 million Rohingyas are not people it has to take any care of. The three other governments have been pushing boatloads of starving and ill Rohingya refugees back and forth in the Andaman Sea.
It’s hardly an advertisement for either Buddhism or Islam. In Myanmar, the military-installed government has let chauvinist monk Ashin Wirathu and his followers incite violence and discrimination against the Rohingyas, Muslims who have been officially classed as illegal “Bengali” migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh since 1982, despite being settled for generations. President Thein Sein has used security forces to put down recent pro-democracy protests by students, but in February caved in to demonstrations against a recent law giving Rohingya identity cards and voting rights in elections due this November. The opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been wedged into silence on the issue. She left it to her party spokesman to make a mild statement of concern this week.
It was local fishermen and villagers in staunchly Muslim Aceh who showed compassion to the Rohingya who did manage to land. Then it was the Philippines, a Christian majority country, that offered temporary asylum for up to 3000 Rohingya. After days of misery and their hard-heartedness flashing on the world’s TV screens, the Indonesian and Malaysian leaders relented and said the Rohingya could land – but only if the international community moves them along within a year.
Australia has offered $6 million to refugee agencies in Rakhine, but Abbott insisted the way to stop people-smuggling was by “turning boats around”, and Australia would not be part of any resettlement. What a pathetic moral trap we are in. Certainly there are some economic migrants from Bangladesh who’ve jumped on the boats, and money has changed hands. But the push factor can’t be denied for most of these miserable people.
We will be represented at the regional summit Thailand has called for Friday, but Myanmar says it won’t attend if the word “Rohingya” is used. “If we recognise the name, then they will think they are citizens of Myanmar,” a presidential spokesman said. “Myanmar cannot take all the blame for these people who are now at sea.” If ASEAN can’t get Myanmar to get real and ease off on the Rohingya, its Kuala Lumpur declaration is a bad joke.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2015 as "Western force looks lacking against IS".
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