Abbott's Syria war will create more refugees

September 11, 2015

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on September 9 a novel approach to stemming the flow of refugees from Syria: bombing the country.

He also announced plans to accept a further 12,000 Syrian refugees on top of his government's miserly quota, but was quick to dispel any hopes that Australia might be abandoning its status as the Western world's leading abuser of refugees. Abbott told ABC Radio National on September 10 that Syrian refugees being held in the Australian-run concentration camps in Nauru and Manus Island would not be released.

To put the agreement to take extra refugees into context, when Abbott came to power in 2013, his government cut Australia's refugee intake by 30%. At best, the extra intake of Syrians will restore the pre-Abbott government refugee intake numbers — tiny by global standards — for one year.

It also pushes a discriminatory approach that plays off refugees against each other. By focussing only on Syrians, the government has ignored the range of countries that refugees desperately seeking to enter Europe come from.

In Australia, more refugees trying to reach Australia come from countries in the Asian region, such as Tamils from Sri Lanka and Rohingya from Burma. Both will continue to suffer extreme persecution from Australia, which hands Tamil refugees directly back to the genocidal Sri Lankan military.

Worse still, prompted by Liberal parliamentarians on the party's religious right, Abbott said the extra intake of Syrians would favour “persecuted minorities” — hinting that this would mean Christians.

Ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, have been singled out by many of the participants in Syria's multi-sided conflict. However, the dictatorship of Bashar Assad — which has killed more civilians in Syria than any other actor — has directed most of its violence against the Sunni Arab majority. Most Syrian refugees are Muslims.

The UNHCR has condemned Australia's discriminatory approach. Spokesperson Melissa Fleming told ABC News Radio on September 10 that the normal process was to “choose people based on vulnerability”.

“We've never had a case where countries were systemically only choosing people based on their religious or ethnic backgrounds,” she said.

In Europe, Australia's “Christians first” approach is shared by Hungary and Slovakia, both countries with influential neo-Nazi parties.

But the clearest signal of the depths politics has sunk to in Australia was indicated by Abbott's insane announcement that he was authorising the bombing of Syria to stop people fleeing from it.

It is self-evident that bombing a country is not likely to encourage people to stay there. The large numbers of refugees from countries bombed by the West — such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — confirms this.

Syria is also being bombed — by the US-led coalition and the Assad regime. The US-led bombing of Syria began in September last year and the number of Syrian refugees has risen in the intervening year.

The target of the US-led bombing is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group.

The US-led air war, which Australia has been involved in since August last year, is mostly being waged in Iraq. Defending the US-created Iraqi government, and its autonomous component, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is its key aim.

Until now, the Australian air force has only bombed on the Iraqi side of the border. Abbott foreshadowed extending Australia's involvement in the air war to Syria last month with his usual rhetoric of “national security” — maintaining, contrary to evidence, that ISIS posed an existential threat to Australia.

Abbott changed the justification to addressing the Syrian refugee crisis in response to the epic and heroic progress of tens of thousands of refugees across Eastern Europe. Refugees battled riot police and barbed wire fences at several borders and bids by Hungarian authorities to detain them in Australian-style camps.

Tens of thousands of Australians attended pro-refugee vigils, perhaps shamed by the sight of refugees arriving in Germany greeted by crowds chanting, “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!”

But the air war remains directed solely against ISIS. While ISIS's ultra-violence is a factor in causing people to flee Syria, it is hardly the only ultra-violent participant in the Syrian conflict.

The biggest cause of death and displacement of civilians is bombing by the Assad government. The Western powers, including Australia, withdrew diplomatic recognition from the Assad regime when the conflict began in 2011, instead recognising the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), some of whose affiliates also violate human rights and create refugees.

But following the US lead, Abbott has ruled out direct military engagement against Assad.

War creates terrorism much like it creates refugees. ISIS originated from the chaos caused by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims the invaders stoked to derail resistance to their occupation.

The US-led air war in Iraq and Syria is aimed at projecting power and has not been effectively directed against ISIS. Without Western ground troops — politically impossible due to war-wariness — the West is dependent on local allies.

In Iraq, these are the Iraqi government and the KRG. The Shia Muslim-based sectarian Iraqi government's abuse of human rights, in particular communal violence against the Sunni Muslim community, has only alienated the Sunni population, helping pave the way for ISIS.

The KRG is also militarily ineffective and corrupt. The September 8 Independent said Iraqi Kurdish youth were flocking to the only forces that were effective against ISIS, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and their allies.

But the US, Australia and their allies provide no assistance to the PKK — instead, they list this left-wing, feminist, democratic group as a terrorist organisation, criminalising support for it.

The West also helped create bloodbath in Syria. The Syrian conflict began with a largely spontaneous uprising against Assad in early 2011, part of the series of rebellions that swept the Arab world at the time, known in the West as the “Arab Spring”. Assad tried to crush the uprising militarily.

The West has had an ambiguous relationship with the Assad regime. It was seen as an ally against al-Qaeda, its dungeons being one of the destinations for those “renditioned” by the CIA as part of the “War on Terror”.

At the same time, Syria's alliance with Russia and Iran and its support, to whatever degree, for anti-Israel groups in Palestine and Lebanon made the West see it as hostile.

US material assistance to armed opposition groups, both directly by the CIA and indirectly through regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey contributed to turning the uprising into a civil war. The aid from the West's regional allies mostly went to sectarian Sunni Islamist groups.

This gave the conflict a religious communal nature, benefiting the Assad regime, which could gain some support from non-Sunni minorities. The apparent irony of this reflects that the West wished to neutralise Syria as a regional power but had no particular interest in the regime falling.

The US did not directly aid ISIS in Syria. But some Islamist groups receiving military aid from the CIA or the Gulf States later coalesced with ISIS. Furthermore, ISIS did receive considerable direct support from Turkey, which was concerned about the liberation of Kurdish areas of Syria right on its border by forces ideologically linked with the PKK.

Turkey's repression of its large Kurdish minority is as old as the Turkish state. Since the 1980s, the PKK has led resistance to repression.

In Syria, the US-led air war can claim some success against ISIS. This is because after the Turkish-backed bid by ISIS to invade Rojava faltered at Kobane just after the US began its air war, the US began coordinating its air strikes with Rojava's revolutionary military forces — the Peoples and Women's Protection Units (YPG/J).

The democratic and feminist revolutionary forces in Rojava — which have created structures of direct democracy in which all ethnic and religious groups are represented and have their rights protected — have proven the most effective fighters against ISIS.

However, Australia is joining the US-led coalition at the precise moment when this coalition's cooperation with anti-ISIS forces is ending.

In July, alarmed by military successes of the YPG/J against ISIS in Rojava and electoral successes of the left-wing Kurdish-based Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, the Turkish government ended the ceasefire and launched an all-out war against the Kurdish people.

This has included extreme repression, bombings and pogroms against Kurds in Turkey, repression of the HDP and bombing of PKK-held areas in Iraq.

At the same time, Turkey joined the US-led coalition in Syria. The US welcomed Turkey, hailing its air strikes in Syria as part of the war against ISIS. This despite evidence that the YPG/J — not ISIS — were Turkey's targets.

It was the image of the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach that galvanised pro-refugee opinion around the world.

On September 7, in a disgusting rant in parliament, Liberal Senator Cory Bernadi, accused Alan's father, Abdullah Kurdi, and the wife and children he lost, of not being a genuine refugees. “They were in no fear, they were in no persecution and they were in no danger in Turkey,” he said.

In reality, escalating repression against Kurds in Turkey made the situation of Syrian Kurdish refugees there untenable. The Australian government's denial of what made the Kurdi family embark on their doomed voyage is related to its denial of the nature of war it is entering in Syria, which is war against democracy, not ISIS.

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