Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced on Wednesday that Australia would commit no further troops to Iraq and Syria, standing firm in spite of US pressure.
As reported in the Guardian, spokesperson for the Defence Minister, Marise Payne stated that “the US has asked 40 or so other countries, including European countries, to consider expanded contributions to the coalition, following the attacks in Paris.” She added that the Government has informed the US Defence Minister that “our existing contributions will continue.”
While it is encouraging to see an Australian leader unflinching in the face of US pressure, there are many arguments both for and against further involvement in the Middle East war.
Following the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris in November, the Prime Minister advocated for a “calm, clinical, professional, effective approach,” as opposed to hot-headed “machismo.” “We will defeat these terrorists, and the strongest weapon we bring to this battle are ourselves, our values, our way of life,” Turnbull declared in parliament last November.
Turnbull’s calmer approach has indicated a potential increase in the humanitarian support to the region. A spokesperson also signaled that the government will increase the Australian Defence Force personnel in the coalition headquarters, from 20 to 30, reports the Guardian.
Kevin Andrews, former Defence Minister under the Abbott Government, was critical of Turnbull’s rejection of the US request. He voices a popular argument, reasoning that Australia should honour its long-standing partnership with the US.
“My general in principle view is that if the Americans have made a reasonable request of us, then we should be giving it the most favourable consideration,” he said on ABC Radio on Thursday. “We are a long term, decades-long alliance partner with the US and we should therefore be starting with a favourable consideration of what the US requests of us.”
Australia’s standing contributions in the Middle East – including six airstrike fighters, ninety special forces advisors and 400 soldiers training the Iraqi army – are among some of the highest behind the US itself, reported the West Australian. As an ally, we certainly do favour US requests – historically, we have done little else. However this does not oblige the Government to provide limitless support.
Another former foreign minister Bob Carr provides a humanitarian argument, but like Andrews he also proclaims support for the US.
“We can trust the realism and the restrain of the Obama administration, compared with the adventurism you saw from the Bush administration,” he told ABC Radio last August. “There is an obligation for us to act to prevent populations from mass atrocity crimes,” adds Carr. “It’s reflected in the Principle of Responsibility to Protect, that the nations of the world agreed on in 2005.”
Bob Carr is right. The west have an obligation to respond to humanitarian crisis and atrocity across the world, an obligation which is sadly routinely ignored. We are aware of atrocities committed all over the world, every day, and yet it takes an attack on western soil against fellow citizens to spur us to action.
It is because of this obligation that a response to the Syrian crisis should consist of humanitarian assistance first, before looking to the US for guidance. The world was appalled last week by a video of the besieged Syrian town of Madaya, where at least 28 locals are reported to have starved to death. The UN has called for Australia to increase assistance to the Middle East, not in the form of airstrikes, but through increased humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees.
And for those that would favour national security over humanitarian aid, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan points out that they are not mutually exclusive: “We will not enjoy security without development, we will not enjoy development without security, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights.”