Centre for Arab & Islamic Studies, The Australian National University
Australia is a middle power with both regional and global interests: the maintenance of our national security, the enhancement of our national economic prosperity, as well as the protection of the global commons on which we all rely.
Our foreign policy is also animated by universal values of freedom, fairness and international law.
We seek to give expression to these interests and values through the medium of what I have long-described as creative middle power diplomacy – a means of building, consolidating and enhancing the regional and global rules-based order.
Such an order not only benefits the world.
It also benefits Australia because we rely on the stability and predictability of the order to advance our own interests as well.
Australia has a credible voice in the councils of the region and the world.
Australia brings considerable assets to the table.
We are one of the oldest continuing democracies in the world.
We are a significant economy – the fourth largest in Asia and the twelfth largest in the world and now a member of the G20.
We have a stable and cohesive society based on the rule of law, the independence of the courts and a vibrant, multicultural society anchored in our national ethos of tolerance, diversity and a fair go for all.
We have a sophisticated global diplomatic network and one of the most active diplomacies in Asia.
We also have a modern, sophisticated defence force by both regional and global standards.
We are founding members of the United Nations and have been active members of its subsidiary institutions from the outset, as well as the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the ILO.
Our aid budget, in dollar terms, is now among the top ten OECD donors in the world.
We are active in practically all of the regional institutions of the Asia-Pacific and Asia-Indian Ocean regions including the East Asia Summit, APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the nascent Indian Ocean Regional Association.
We are founding members of the Commonwealth which brings together 54 nation states, both developed and developing.
We are one of the oldest continuing allies of the United States.
We also have long-standing security relationships with the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia.
Over the last five years, we also have developed strategic partnerships, strategic dialogues or enhanced diplomatic engagements with ASEAN, the European Union, NATO, the African Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Mercosur and SICA in Latin America, ASEAN, the Pacific Island Forum and Caricom.
We have also enhanced our strategic partnerships and relationships with major countries in the region, including China, Japan, Korea, India and Indonesia.
Therefore we do not come to the international table with empty hands.
Nor do we believe we are uniquely capable of solving the problems of the world.
Nonetheless we are committed to the principles of good international citizenship above and beyond our own narrowly defined national interests.
In fact we believe that it is important for middle powers around the world, in addition to pursuing their own national interests, to also lend their collective hand to making the international order work as effectively as possible, given that so many parts of the order at present are not working at all.
UN Security Council
These are the broad principles, I believe, which will guide our upcoming two-year tenure on the UN Security Council where Australia received a near-record vote in the first round of voting in the UN General Assembly last month.
This is no mean feat for a country such as Australia, given we were competing against two European states and given that they had the solidarity of the 27‑member European Union behind them.
In the field of diplomacy, this was a gold medal performance for Australia, of which the government, the nation and our diplomatic service are justifiably proud.
The next two years will be an important period for the Security Council.
And much of the agenda will be taken up by a range of crises and continuing challenges occurring across the wider Middle East.
Transition in Afghanistan.
Civil war in Syria and the associated humanitarian crisis flowing to Turkey and Jordan in particular.
The Iranian nuclear program and the continuation of Iranian-sponsored terrorism across the region.
Together with the continuing problem of the last two-thirds of a century – the challenge of bringing about a conclusion to a two-state solution for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.
For the two years ahead, this will therefore be a most challenging time for Australian diplomacy, particularly in these theatres.
Therefore, the national expertise represented at this conference looms as an important asset for us all.
I therefore encourage you to bear in mind in your research programs the foreign policy needs of the nation as well.
Last week I attended the Sir Bani Yas Forum in the United Arab Emirates which brought together current and former Foreign Ministers and policy specialists from across the wider region.
And next week I will be attending The Manama Dialogue in Bahrain organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
There is formidable international expertise available on the critical challenges facing this region.
We in Australia will need to continue to lift our national expertise on the Middle East both in the academy and beyond given the region’s intrinsic volatility, its capacity to generate millions of refugees in the face of insecurity, as well as its central place on the UN Security Council agenda.
Fault lines across the wider region
The wider Middle East is in a greater state of political flux today than at any time since the arbitrary determination of national boundaries by the former colonial powers after the First World War.
The fault lines now running across the region are deep, inter-connected and widening.
There are fault lines between authoritarian states (secular or theocratic) and the rising tide of popular democracy through what we now call the Arab Spring.
Fault lines between secular states on the one hand and various forms of political Islamism on the other.
Within political Islam, there is the widening gulf between the Sunni and Shia worlds: the former grounded in Egypt, Saudi and the Gulf; the latter in Iran.
New fault lines are also emerging between the forces of globalising modernity on the one hand, against long-entrenched forces of socially conservative traditionalism on the other.
There are fault lines between those states in the Middle East with oil and gas reserves, and those without, as well as the strategic impact of the rapidly emerging shale gas industry worldwide on the future economic stability of the region.
Then there are fault lines between competing Egyptian, Turkish, Saudi and Iranian spheres of strategic influence.
And last, but not least, the continuing fault line over Israel and Palestine, and the quest for a future Palestinian state.
For the non-Arabists among us, this is a complex melee of cross currents which makes clear analysis for policy makers a difficult task.
And for those of us who are professional Sinologists, suddenly China seems almost straightforward by comparison.
But in analysing any of the individual crises and conflict points which currently are so liberally scattered across the region, it is critical that policy makers are mindful of these overarching historical, political and sectarian drivers and where they may take the region over the decade ahead.
None of these crises exist in isolation.
Understanding context will therefore be critical in framing coherent and effective policy responses.
It is not my purpose today to attempt an amateur “grand theory” as to what is happening in the Middle East, and why, and what should we be doing about it.
The beginning of wisdom is to know what you don’t know.
But I am finding myself increasingly concerned by the emerging commentary that the aggregation of the various dynamics described above could, over time, lead to a fracturing of the post-1919 political order altogether, and its replacement by an even more chaotic secular/sectarian or Sunni/Shia divide across the Middle East.
That’s why I am interested in the collective reflections of this conference on the strategic trajectory of the Middle East over the next decade – around the core question of what will the region look like in a decade’s time, and what should our collective engagement policy be, in order to maximise the prospects for peace and economic development in this most troubled part of the world.
On the question of Syria, we should be clear that for Iran, Syria is a zero sum game.
It represents the crown jewels of Iran’s penetration of the wider region and Iran’s base for the operations of Hezbollah, both in Lebanon and beyond.
Syria is Iran’s only regional and global ally.
Nonetheless, the Iranian regime does not have any sentimental attachment to Bashar Al Assad.
It is entirely conceivable that Iran has already concluded that Assad’s days are numbered – although how many days that may be remains a moot point.
Iranian strategic planning is in fact likely to assume the collapse of Assad’s regime and how Iran could instead optimise its continued strategic influence through a failed Syrian state.
In other words, to use Syria in the same sort of way as the Taliban and Al Qaeda used Afghanistan prior to 2001. Others have agreed that Syria could become the next Somalia.
Of course, not all analysts would share these conclusions.
But reasonable contingency planning by the international community, including NATO, the European Union, the Arab League and the UN, is now a critical necessity in preventing a post-conflict political, security and humanitarian disaster should Assad fall.
The UN’s history of managing post conflict fragile states is at best mixed.
It is time now radically to draw on the lessons of the past (from Kosovo to Libya) on how to bring together the complex tasks of peacekeeping, post conflict stabilisation, humanitarian intervention, economic development (given the destruction of much of Syria’s infrastructure) and the sensitive task of truth and reconciliation given the fratricidal potential of Syria’s various political and sectarian constituencies.
These tasks will in turn hang on the nature of any transitional authority which takes over in Damascus in the event of the fall of the Assad regime.
And this in turn will hang on the construction of a robust UN Security Council resolution where all necessary security, humanitarian and economic powers are vested in a transitional authority until a legitimate domestic political process can be put in place.
Furthermore, for this to work, preparations for a properly constituted and trained UN force that could be rapidly deployed on the ground.
None of this is easy. But unless the work is done now, a political vacuum in Damascus is not likely to be long term, particularly given Iranian strategic interests and the internal dynamics of retributional politics.
Prospects for post conflict political and sectarian violence at this stage are high.
Again, this means that planning for an effective international intervention if and when the regime collapses is now critical.
Of course all this assumes that the regime does in fact collapse.
Everyone is familiar with the impact of Russian and Chinese vetoes (both real and threatened) at the Security Council preventing agreement on a robust Security Council resolution which would hasten political change in Damascus.
The Russian position in my view is not dissimilar to Iran’s: Syria has been a long-standing supporter of both the Russians and prior to that the Soviets.
Russia has also been a major military supplier of the regime.
But Russia, like Iran, does not necessarily have any sentimental attachment to Bashar Al Assad.
Moscow itself is also undoubtedly anticipating what happens in a post-Assad Syria.
To speed this process, a constructive contribution from the Russians would be to offer Bashar Al Assad and his family long term political asylum, just as the Qataris have done most recently.
Had this sort of option been exercised by Gaddafi, the war in Libya would have ended much earlier.
As for the Chinese, they are bound by their global foreign policy over half a century anchored in the principle of mutual non-interference.
Nonetheless, it’s important to note that China recently put forward a modest proposal of its own in Beijing for dealing with the Syrian crisis.
China is mindful of its global reputation. Its foreign ministry in particular will be acutely conscious of the international political odium China will attract if it continues to support a brutal Syrian regime, particularly given its recent history in relation to the Sudanese regime’s actions in Darfur.
Neither Syria nor Sudan have been helpful in China’s efforts to acquire great power status globally – not just as a natural consequence of China’s emerging political, economic and strategic strength, but also China’s quest for international respect as a nation capable of making an ethical contribution to the international order as a whole.
Therefore, international pressure on Beijing should continue on the Syrian question.
On the more immediate challenge in the battlefields of Syria, the critical question is whether the recently formed Syrian National Coalition will be to unite all opposition elements within Syria, deal with non-FSA security forces in Syria supported by other external powers as well as build its international legitimacy.
A further question is whether and to what extent the international community will begin to arm the Syrian National Coalition in order to deal with the range of military contingencies Syrian opposition forces now face.
The truth is, humanitarian aid has become virtually useless with Syria because the security situation does not effectively permit it.
2.5 million Syrians are now in need of humanitarian assistance.
2.5 million have been internally displaced.
At least 400,000 have fled the country to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and North Africa.
2000 are leaving each day – 60% of whom are women and children.
Two thirds of Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed.
50 per cent of doctors and medical specialists have left the country.
Production of drugs and essential medical supplies has virtually ceased.
This is turning into a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions as the world looks helplessly on.
Assad’s air force is still intact and the FSA does not have the benefit of either a no-fly zone or, for that matter, effective anti-aircraft weapons.
Given the fact that there are now hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have flooded into Turkey, and given the dimensions of the political and military tensions which now exist between Ankara and Damascus, it is possible that Turkey and NATO may begin considering no-fly zones along the Turkish/Syrian border regions in order to maintain reasonable safe havens for internally displaced persons.
Consideration is also being given to what defensive weapons the FSA may need in order to protect themselves from the Syrian armed forces – in particular, the air force.
The truth is, Assad will not seek to negotiate unless and until the military circumstances on the ground begin to tip decisively in the direction of the Syrian National Coalition /FSA.
In the meantime, the work continues under Lakhdar Brahimi, Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States on the Syrian crisis, and earlier Kofi Annan, which has been reflected in the recently concluded Geneva communique on Syria which outlines an action plan to facilitate and support a Syrian-led political process and transition.
For Australia, as an incoming member of the UN Security Council, preparations for post conflict stabilisation in Syria, underpinned by the necessary UN resolution, will be a high priority.
Elsewhere in the wider region, the Iranian nuclear program looms as a continuing strategic threat.
Let us never forget that Ahmadinejad has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.
Let us also remember clearly that the Iranian regime is currently in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, resulting in six UN Security Council resolutions against Iran, four of which have imposed sanctions.
Complicating the above are the considerable internal tensions within the Iranian regime.
Iran is already involved in a continuing cold war against much of the Sunni Arab world – and of course with the United States.
Apart from its own nuclear program and its continued strategic presence in Syria, and through Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Iranian presence is also being felt in Gaza.
Quite apart from its support for Hamas against Israel, Iran is simultaneously engaged in a political war against Fatah and the Palestinian Authority to delegitimise the moderate leadership of both president Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad; and to legitimise Hamas as the alternative Palestinian leadership.
Iran however does not have it its own way.
Saudi Arabia represents Iran’s principal strategic adversary.
As do most of the other Gulf states.
And increasingly so does Turkey.
Iran for its part sees its strategic assets as lying increasingly in Iraq, of course in Syria, and through Syria, Lebanon, and through Hamas into Gaza itself.
Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood is also seen by some in Tehran as a strategic opportunity although Egyptian politics are more complex than this.
It is critical as we approach the challenges ahead from Iran that we are mindful not just of Israeli interests but also those of the wider region, including the GCC states.
Given Australia’s new strategic dialogue with the GCC, initiated in 2011, Australia will need in particular to be mindful of Gulf views in addition to other regional views on the most effective policy response to the Iranian threat.
Let none of us forget that the Iranian nuclear program continues to roll on.
Of course in the midst of all the above lies the continued quest for a Palestinian state.
My view has been clearly stated on many occasions – that is, that the Netanyahu government should seize what is left of the strategic opportunity presented by the moderate Palestinian leadership of Abbas and Fayyad to conclude a permanent peace settlement leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Everyone familiar with this debate knows the parameters for the resolution of the outstanding final status issues: 67 borders with appropriate land swaps; the right of return; the future status of Jerusalem; the protection of the holy sites; as well as appropriate international security guarantees for the Israeli state once an independent Palestine is established.
These final status issues came close to conclusion both at Camp David II in 2001 and in the Olmert Plan in 2008.
It is also a framework consistent with the Arab Peace Proposal of 2002.
Were such an agreement to be reached, the benefits that would flow to Israel and the rest of the region would be as follows:
· Automatic diplomatic recognition of Israel by the Arab world;
· The opening of the Arab world to the Israeli economy as a massive growth market; and
· A combined Sunni Arab, Israeli (and for that matter, probably Turkish) strategic front against Iran – the ultimate enemy of strategic stability in the region.
Failure to negotiate such a peace settlement is likely soon to have the reverse effect:
· The de-legitimisation of the moderate Palestinian leadership and instead the re-legitimisation of Hamas as an alternative political force both in Gaza and the West Bank;
· Hamas in turn becoming a more direct funnel for Iranian influence directly on Israel’s borders;
· The growing possibility of a third Intifada within Israel itself as longstanding Palestinian frustration ultimately yields to re-radicalisation by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah;
· The fracturing of the peace treaties with Egypt as democratic Egypt with a Muslim Brotherhood majority finds itself increasingly incapable of supporting the status quo on the question of Palestinian statehood; and
· In turn, the loss of the peace treaty with Jordan on Israel’s eastern flank, coupled with increasing internal political destabilisation within Jordan, including against the monarchy itself.
In other words, we are very much looking at a quantum degradation of Israel’s strategic circumstances of an order of magnitude not seen since 1973 unless a two-state solution is agreed now.
That is why Australia strongly supports the early conclusion of a two-state solution.
It won’t solve everything for Israel, Palestine and the region.
But it will significantly improve the future strategic environment for Israel against the alternative environment which is beginning to emerge.
That is why I also strongly support both the Prime Minister’s and the Foreign Minister’s decision concerning UN General Assembly observer status for the Palestinian Authority.
This too will loom large in Australia’s UN Security Council in-tray from January next year, in view of the upcoming Israeli and Palestinian general elections next year and continuing security tensions over Gaza which has seen hundreds of rockets rain down on Israeli communities and cities, and Palestinian women and children killed in Israeli response attacks.
As a longstanding friend of Israel and with strong relations across the Arab world, Australia stands ready to assist in whatever practical way it could.
One possibility may be that if US funding for the Palestinian Authority through the UN trust fund is withdrawn as a result of a positive vote on Palestinian observer status in the UN General Assembly today (Australian time), then Australia should consider taking a positive lead in working with other western countries, countries of the Asia Pacific, as well as the Arab states themselves on filling that funding gap.
We have no interest in the Palestinian Authority being incapable of governing its people.
There are many missing elements to the analysis that I have outlined above, including the future political trajectory and foreign policy of Egypt.
Nonetheless, the bottom line is that the volatility of the region is likely to place more demands on US foreign and strategic policy than before.
There is no such thing as a strategic vacuum either in international relations theory or in international relations practice.
If vacuums are created, the truth is they are quickly filled by others.
That’s why the world expects new US leadership on the future direction of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The Iranian nuclear challenge is fraught with difficulties but we must all candidly conclude that current multilateral diplomatic efforts through the Six-Party Talks have not resulted in any retardation of the Iranian nuclear program.
However the impact of economic sanctions on Iran has been significant and is possibly becoming a new dynamic in Iran’s internal politics, including popular unrest and tensions within the regime.
These sanctions need to be given more time to take effect and it is critical that all states comply with the sanctions regime under the UN Security Council resolutions – 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1929 (2010).
The United States must remain fully engaged with Israel on all dimensions of the Iranian threat as well – including the rolling and even public discussion within Israel itself of the desirability of some type of pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities; including full consideration of the consequences that would follow.
US strategic assurances to the Gulf states are also important given Iran’s physical proximity, its aggressive behaviour within the Gulf and its attempted incursions into the internal politics in various Gulf states.
An Iranian incursion among the Gulf states, political and military, would fundamentally undermine the geopolitics of the Middle East.
On Syria, US policy leadership will also be called upon given the absence so far of an effective UNSC resolution on a no-fly zone and/or related measures means that devolving operational policy to NATO, as occurred in the case of Libya, is not at this stage feasible.
US relations with the Arab League and with the Gulf states in particular will become increasingly critical as the Syrian crisis continues.
There will come a point, which I believe should have already been passed, when the international community’s tolerance for the mounting Syrian death toll will expire.
The international community must never forget the principle of international humanitarian intervention and the lessons post Srebrenica and post Rwanda – lessons which finally forced the international community to act in agreeing to a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Gaddafi from carrying out the butchering of Benghazi.
In the meantime, within the constraints of international law, action must be considered by various states on the question of appropriate defensive weaponry for the Syrian opposition and the Syrian people.
In all these areas, the Middle East will continue to require strong American leadership.
And in all these areas, Australia will also be reflecting its own independent views in the UN Security Council on how to deal with these and the other challenges to global security that we’ll face in the coming years.