Australia should intervene in Syria to defeat Islamic State

Despite a rich civilizational inheritance stretching back millennia, the Syrian city of Palmyra is fast becoming a byword for savagery.

Islamic State (IS) has already beheaded dozens of civilians and captured Assad regime soldiers, as well as children.

It is time for Canberra to choose the ‘least bad’ policy option and join US-led airstrikes against IS in Syria and contribute to the international effort to fund, train and equip non-radical Syrian rebels.

With the Syrian Civil War becoming the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, there is already an acute humanitarian rationale for more international intervention.

Now the strategic case is also overwhelming. It will be near-impossible to hold IS back in Iraq, Libya and beyond and liberate Ramadi, Sirte and other occupied cities until the Syrian Civil War ends.

This conflict started as a hopeful popular uprising against the authoritarian Assad regime, but has since degenerated into a messy existential fight between the Shia-dominated government in Damascus, a panoply of overwhelmingly Sunni rebel factions, and powerful Sunni jihadist groups like IS and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN).

The witch’s brew of Syria’s sectarian divisions and internecine violence served as the crucible of IS’ meteoric rise, and will also offer a fertile safe haven to the terrorist group even if it is beaten back in Iraq.

The bulk of Syria’s Sunni majority might not share radical Islamist ideology and might be unwilling to fight for IS. Yet Syria’s Sunnis have little reason to rise up against groups like IS when the alternatives are indiscriminate bombardment from Assad regime helicopters and the unreliable protection of Syrian opposition forces.

With Syria the linchpin of IS’ war against the world, efforts to degrade and destroy the group will be strategically incoherent unless they target its Syrian stronghold.

Notwithstanding the effectiveness of airstrikes at killing fighters and destroying military hardware, the air campaign in Iraq makes plain that ultimately only ground forces can take back territory from IS.

Australia should therefore also join the mission to support the emergence of a viable non-radical fighting force that can represent the interests of Syria’s disempowered and disillusioned Sunni majority.

By diverting Sunni allegiances away from radical Islamists, a non-radical fighting force could win battlefield victories against IS and lay the foundations for a relatively peaceful and stable post-Assad Syria.

Having publicly refused to cooperate with JN, groups like the Southern Front are willing and able partners in this fight against IS.

Of course, airstrikes could kill civilians, while arms destined for non-radical rebels could fall into the hands of radical Islamists.

Though real, these risks are dwarfed by the dangers of inaction. Unless IS is defeated in Syria, the suffering of the Syrian people will know no end, Iraq will live under constant threat, and a genocidal strain of global jihadism will enjoy a home base for years to come.