In Syria, is it time for Australia and the US to back Assad against Islamic State?

by Geoff Winestock

A Turkey-based Middle East expert says that changing the Australian and US stance of opposing both sides in the Syrian conflict is the only way to end the war in Syria.

Jeremy Salt says the Abbott government push for bombing IS might be a nice token of commitment to the US alliance but is practically useless and could make Australians more of a terrorist target.

Australia is once again poised to launch a war against a country that most of us could not find on a map.

With the flood of refugees into Europe and the image of the refugee child washed up on a Turkish beach driving public opinion to do something about Syria, the Abbott government could this week join the US bombing effort against Islamic State in Syria.

Yet few people are aware of even the most basic facts about the conflict, such as, for instance, who exactly is fighting whom. Tony Abbott probably summed up the national knowledge bank early on when he said that the Syrian war was a case of "baddies versus baddies".

It is ominously reminiscent of the ignorance in the lead-up to invading Iraq.

Jeremy Salt, an Australian who is professor of politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, says the Assad regime is still the best option for peace because it broadly tolerates Syria's myriad of minorities. AP

Jeremy Salt – an Australian who is professor of politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, in neighbouring Turkey, and has studied the region for over 40 years – is rare among Australian pundits since his views are based on long experience.

A prolific writer on the region, his book The Unmaking of the Middle East was short-listed by the US Council on Foreign Relations as best book for 2009. He came to Australia last week as a guest of the Australian Turkish Advocacy Alliance to give an address at the NSW Parliament and spoke to The Australian Financial Review.

His basic take on Syria is that the push by the Abbott government for bombing Islamic State might be a nice token of our commitment to the US alliance but it is practically useless and at worst could make Australians more of a target for terrorists.


A Facebook page affiliated with the Islamic State group released this photo, shown on the Rased News Network, of an Islamic State militant in Damascus, Syria. AP

"They have been bombing Islamic State for the past year. They haven't done any real damage to it. Most military people would say that you can't deal with Islamic State just from the air. You have to have troops on the ground, but there is no appetite for that."

Instead, he says the key is to "end the war" and the only way that can happen is for Australia and the US to make an 180-degree turn in our policies towards the fundamental issue in Syria. "Who do you want to have power in Syria? This is the question to be asked in Washington and Canberra," Salt says.

Hesays Australia and the US must resolve a fundamental contradiction in our policy on the Syrian War: On the one hand, we oppose Islamic State but on the other, we are equally determined to overthrow Islamic State's arch enemy, the government of Bashar al-Assad, which still rules more than half the country including the capital Damascus.

Salt thinks this refusal to work with our enemy's enemy is crazy. "I don't see where America's national interest lies in destroying the government of Syria."

The US and Australia turned against the Assad government in 2011 during the Arab Spring when Western public opinion recoiled at the tactics the authoritarian regime used to suppress opposition, especially "barrel bombing" by Soviet-supplied jets of densely populated cities. Before Islamic State came on the scene, Abbott was complaining that the Syrian government – which, like Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is ruled by the Baathist Party – had acted in "monstrous ways towards its own people".

Salt agrees Assad has killed tens of thousands, although he says these crimes have been exaggerated and they were committed in the context of a brutal war where there was violence on all sides.

He argues that despite all that, the Assad regime is still the best option for peace because it broadly tolerates Syria's myriad of minorities: Kurdish, Shiite, Alawite, Christian and less extreme Sunni Muslims. He says more than half the Syrian government's army is Sunni. "The contradiction in all of this is that the Syrian government is the only secular government in the Middle East. The Syrian government's position is very different from Islamic State," he says.


At the start of the war, the West backed opposition groups with names such as the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council, which promised a democratic alternative to Assad. But Salt says behind these nice-sounding names, the opposition has been taken over by "salafists" or jihadists, who share Islamic State's methods and ideology. "There are no goodies," Salt says. Indeed, Australia has placed the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate that fights with the Free Syrian Army, on its list of terrorist organisations. "If you look at who is doing the fighting for the Free Syrian army, it's Salafists who want to return to the way of life that they imagine happened in early Islam," Salt says.

The other thing the West holds against Assad is the backing he has received from regimes such as Vladimir Putin's Russia, and Iran and its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. Over the weekend, US Secretary of State John Kerry even complained that Russia had sent jets and special forces to bolster Assad's depleted forces. Salt says the West should be more terrified that if the Syrian government collapses, Islamic State taking power will spark a whole new flood of refugees.

Salt is reluctant to say exactly how the West should support Assad and his government since it would be such a dramatic shift in policy. He points out that Patrick Cockburn, the veteran Middle East writer for The Independent newspaper in Britain, has suggested using US air strikes to support the Syrian Army ."Participation in the US-led air campaign against IS in Syria will make little difference unless it is directed against IS when it is attacking the Syrian Army and is co-ordinated with its ground forces," Cockburn wrote.

What Salt says Australia should be concerned about, is that our bombing missions will instead target the Syrian border with Turkey in support of a Turkish proposal for a "safe-zone" on its border with Syria, sucking us into Turkey's long-running battle with its Kurdish minority who live in the area.

Turkey is a NATO member and a crucial power in the region, but Salt warns that under Islamist leader Recip Tayyip Erdogan, it has shown almost zero interest in fighting Islamic State. It has until very recently overlooked the flow of weapons and fighters, including from Australia, south across its borders throughout the war. Turkey's main goal has been the overthrow of the secular Assad. Last year, concerned about separatism in its own large Kurdish minority, Turkey refused to help protect Syria's Kurds fight Islamic State during the epic siege of Kobane and the Kurds were only saved by US air power.

Salt says his views about doing a deal with the Assad government are out of step with the government in Turkey where he lives but Turkey's people are deeply split about who they should support in the Syrian disaster: whether it is Islamists, the Syrian government, the Free Syrian Army or the Kurds. He says Australia should have the same debate.

"It seems like maybe the time has come for Australia to think these things through a bit more clearly from its own perspective. Do the Americans know what they are doing?"