• Australian Army trainer Captain Fin Bourke moves with an Iraqi Army soldier as he enters a building during training at the Taji Military Complex, Iraq. Credit: Defence
    Australian Army trainer Captain Fin Bourke moves with an Iraqi Army soldier as he enters a building during training at the Taji Military Complex, Iraq. Credit: Defence

Tony Abbott has a point. Bombing the heck out of Islamic State forces would be a whole lot more effective if there were some Australian special forces dispatched into Syria.

A Special Correspondent | Canberra

The government has explicitly ruled out any unilateral troop deployment but that doesn’t mean it may never happen as the war evolves.

Abbott’s suggestion would address the fundamental shortcoming of the air campaign against ISIL in Syria, the absence of eyes on the ground to direct precision air strikes. That’s shown every day in media statements from the US-led Kuwait-based Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) which lists strikes in Syria and Iraq for the previous day.

Numbers rise and fall but on most days, strikes in Iraq significantly outnumber those in Syria. On some days there are none at all in Syria, against a couple of dozen in Iraq.

That’s not for want of bombed-up coalition aircraft aloft and ready. CJTF lists nine nations, including Australia, whose aircraft have conducted strikes on Syria and 10 for Iraq.

What they lack in Syria are targets ISIL facilities which can be hit with sufficient assurance of minimal risk of civilian casualties to satisfy national rules of engagement. No longer do ISIL forces promenade in daylight in long convoys of thin-skinned vehicles, their black flags waving.

In Syria, targeting is by various intelligence means, including drone and satellite surveillance and signals intercepts.

In Iraq, all of that is used - with the valuable addition of Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces in direct contact with ISIL fighters and able to convey target coordinates through channels to the Coalition Air and Space Operations Centre (CAOC) in Qatar, from where targeting orders are passed to coalition aircraft.

This can occur in near real time and played a crucial role in the Iraqi army’s success against ISIL in the city of Ramadi. Australian forces did their bit, specifically special forces in the role of remote joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs), conveying targeting requests to CAOC from a lead unit in the fight, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service.

This obviously worked. Similarly, around two dozen US special forces worked with Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, some advising Kurdish soldiers in the JTAC role.

The Kurds have been more agreeable to some overt western assistance, unlike Iraq which insists on going it alone on the battlefield. Some of the more feral Shia factions say they would resume fighting the Americans were they ever to return.

In his article calling for an escalation of the campaign against Isil, Tony Abbott specifically cited the example of Afghanistan.

US special forces deployed into northern Afghanistan just over a week after 9/11 and never numbered more than a few dozen. When the air campaign started on October 7, US JTACs directed airstrikes on Taliban forces so effectively that Northern Alliance forces were able to sweep south, capturing Kabul on November 12 and Kandahar a fortnight later.

This could certainly work in Syria but a precondition for deployment of special forces, whether Australian, US or British would appear to be a suitable host military force, not the current mishmash of warring factions.

Abbott also suggested a relaxation of Australia’s ROE to allow more targets to be attacked, albeit with higher risk of dead civilians. On a few occasions, Australians in CAOC and aircrew have halted strikes because of a risk of civilian casualties but Australian ROE really aren’t markedly different from ROE of other coalition partners.

Even with the best will in the world, bombs will kill civilians and the UK-based Airwars group, which monitors international airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, estimates 795-1,121 non-combatant fatalities from coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq to the end of 2015.

How about the Russians who only started airstrikes in support of Syria’s Assad regime on September 30? No-one knows for sure but the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates 570 civilian dead from indiscriminate bombing up to December 1.

So we won’t be easing ROE and there’s another reason for that, which your correspondent didn’t appreciate until it was raised by former defence minister David Johnston.

If we were at all responsible for indiscriminate civilian deaths, our use of bases in the UAE could be at risk. The ADF uses the Al Minhad Air Base (AMAB) as its main staging post while RAAF combat fly from a nearby base.

The UAE has become especially sensitive about their hosting of coalition forces in the fight against ISIL.

Because of what are termed “host nation sensitivities” the Australian government or defence will only acknowledge using unspecified UAE bases, though they are scarcely a secret. Same goes for other coalition nations using UAE facilities.

So what could happen if the Emiratis became really annoyed? In 2010, Canada found out the hard way when it was booted off AMAB in a row over increased airline flights to Canadian airports.

This article first appeared in ADM's February issue. 

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