During my time as ambassador to Israel, on a number of occasions I visited Syrians who were being treated in Israeli hospitals, having fled across the border after sustaining injuries from the conflict: children who were awfully young but having to cope with limb amputations or shocking internal and trauma related injuries; mothers and aunts and grandmothers—and fathers too.
Mr SHARMA (Wentworth) (19:14): I rise to raise concerns about Turkey’s unilateral military incursion into north-eastern Syria which commenced on 9 October. As the Prime Minister and the foreign minister stated in a joint media release on 10 October:
Actions of this nature will have grave consequences for regional security and could significantly undermine the gains made by the international coalition in its fight against Da’esh …
It will cause additional civilian suffering, lead to greater population displacement, and further inhibit humanitarian access.
The nation of Syria has experienced unspeakable suffering since the civil war commenced there in 2011. Roughly half a million Syrians have been killed in the conflict, most of them civilians, more than five million Syrians have fled the country since the war began and more than six million people are displaced internally. For a country of 24 million people at the outbreak of the war, this is a heavy toll of horror.
During my time as ambassador to Israel, on a number of occasions I visited Syrians who were being treated in Israeli hospitals, having fled across the border after sustaining injuries from the conflict: children who were awfully young but having to cope with limb amputations or shocking internal and trauma related injuries; mothers and aunts and grandmothers—and fathers too. Most of them were in a state of disbelief, grateful to have escaped the horrors of that war. They were incredulous that Israeli doctors and nurses—people from a country they had been educated to believe was their sworn enemy—opened their arms and their hospitals and were treating them as they would their own people and providing them with the best medical care available.
Eight years after it started, the Syrian civil war is still exacting a high toll of human tragedy. The Assad regime has employed odious tactics that are, on any measure, a gross violation of the laws of war: the use of chemical weapons, the deliberate targeting of hospitals and medical facilities, the use of barrel bombs and double-tap strikes, torture and arbitrary imprisonment. This Assad regime is, sadly, in ascendancy. One of the few coordinates of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape has been the relative stability and normalcy secured in the north-eastern part of Syria by Kurdish forces, a de facto autonomous region known as Rojava. This Kurdish controlled area of stability is now being imperilled by Turkey’s incursion. And it is the Assad regime—and its backers, Russia and Iran—that looks likely to emerge as the biggest winner from these latest developments.
There are few peoples in the Middle East more deserving of national self-determination than the Kurds: a people of 30 million who respect the rights of minorities, treat women as equals, disavow terrorism, disavow anti-Semitism, and who have been a steadfast force for stability in the Middle East and a reliable Western security partner for decades. It is only the vagaries of history that prevented them from achieving a state of their own following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. The homeland promised to the Kurdish people at the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 was overturned by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, a victim of geopolitical trade-offs at the time. The Kurds are a stabilising and positive force in the Middle East.
From at least the time of Salah ad-Din they have been a formidable fighting force. They have also been steadfastly on our side. While they may not have participated in the Normandy landings in World War II, Kurds of the Assyrian parachute company fought for the Allies in Greece and Albania, amongst other places. They also helped overthrow a pro-Nazi regime in Iraq. In the Gulf War of 1991 and the Iraq War of 2003, they supported allied and Australian efforts. Most recently, they formed the spearhead of our collective effort to defeat Islamic State, or ISIS. The Syrian Democratic Forces, made up mostly of Kurdish fighters, lost an estimated 10,000 soldiers fighting and defeating ISIS and recapturing ISIS-held territory. In doing so, they helped reduce a direct national security threat to Australia and to our allies. For that, the Kurds deserve our immeasurable gratitude, and I wish to place that on record today.
The crossing of Turkish forces into north-eastern Kurdish controlled Syria following the withdrawal of the small number of US troops from the border region now threatens a number of grave consequences. There is the certainty of further population displacement and human suffering. There is a likelihood that the roughly 10,000 Islamic State terrorist prisoners being held by Kurdish forces in this region will find their way free in the chaos and revitalise the efforts of ISIS, or find their way back to Australia or elsewhere in the West, where they will pose a threat to all of us. There is the opportunity this will create for the Assad regime and its backers, Iran and Russia, to further entrench their influence in the Middle East and destabilise the neighbourhood, and for Iran to consolidate its supply lines from Iraq through to Lebanon. Finally, there is the potentially unnerving signal being sent about the steadfastness of alliance relationships.
Since the Turkish incursion began, just a few days ago, on 9 October, we have already seen scores of people killed and more than 100,000 displaced; troubling media reports of summary executions of Kurdish political leaders by Turkish backed militias; and at least two terrorist attacks in Syria, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility. It seems the Syrian Democratic Forces have been forced to cut a deal with the Assad regime in order to survive. This is understandable given their predicament. The Kurdish commander-in-chief, Mazloum Abdi, wrote in Foreign Policy on 13 October:
… if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.
The desire on the part of the United States administration to lessen its security burden and bring its troops home is understandable, and I do not intend to criticise it. I would simply point out that the deployment of military personnel abroad is intrinsic to how a global power, such as the United States, is able to exert influence. The United States currently has some 170,000 active duty personnel stationed abroad in over 150 countries. There are some 55,000 in Japan, some 25,000 in Korea and some 35,000 in Germany. They are a stabilising presence around the world, allowing the United States to exert influence and discouraging potential aggression from neighbours. The United States has just announced the deployment of 2,800 additional troops to Saudi Arabia for precisely this reason—to help deter further aggression against Saudi oil infrastructure from its neighbours.
The same was true for the US presence on the Syrian border. Despite the US personnel being small in number and not directly involved in combat, their presence acted as a stabilising force. With the withdrawal of these US personnel, the challenge is to find other tools to exert influence, limit humanitarian suffering and contain instability in Syria. I note the United States has foreshadowed the imposition of economic sanctions against Turkey. European leaders have condemned Turkey’s military offensive. It will be equally important for Europe to take direct steps and measures in response. Australia too has a role to play.
There are no easy solutions in Syria. Optimal outcomes were rendered unfeasible a long time ago, and path dependence has constrained our options to date. But, whilst we may not readily be able to make Syria better, we surely have an obligation to attempt to prevent things from becoming worse. The Syria Study Group, a bipartisan commission charged by the US Congress with making recommendations with respect to the conflict in Syria, released its final report just a few weeks ago, on 24 September. The group concluded:
… the threats the conflict in Syria poses—of terrorism directed against the United States and its allies and partners; of an empowered Iran; of an aggrandized Russia; of large numbers of refugees, displaced persons, and other forms of humanitarian catastrophe; and of the erosion of international norms of war and the Western commitment to them—are sufficiently serious to merit a determined response …
These concerns, and the need for a determined response, are just as pertinent to Australia and Australian interests. I’m pleased that Australia has expressed to the Turkish government directly its concerns about its military operations in Syria. I expect Australia will continue, and should continue, to make our views known and we’ll support a concerted international effort to mitigate the impact of Turkey’s offensive. Our interests demand no less.