Australian military operations in Iraq commenced in August 2014 as part of the International Global Coalition to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A year later, on 9 September 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced Australia would expand its military commitment from Iraq into Syria to conduct operations against ISIS militants located there. At the time, he said this would ‘help protect Iraq and its people from [ISIS] attacks inside Iraq and from across the border’.
Military action in Syria was not explicitly authorised by any UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution. However, on 10 September 2014, Attorney-General George Brandis explained the Coalition Government’s legal basis for these operations. He noted Australian actions were He de ‘firmly grounded in international law’ and based on the principle of collective self-defence of Iraq under Article 51 of the UN charter.
At the time, the Government was careful to highlight that Australia’s military objectives and involvement were limited to targeting ISIS through air strikes, rather than pursuing any broader political objectives aimed at unseating the Syrian regime. Under Prime Minister Turnbull the Coalition Government has continued to emphasise that the objective in Syria is to ‘degrade, destroy and defeat’ ISIS. But beyond this there has been no substantial public discussion or parliamentary debate about any long-term plan or strategy in Syria or Iraq, despite the conflict’s evolution and the impending conclusion of major urban military operations against the group.
Operation Okra is the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) contribution to the international, US-led operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As of June 2017, about 780 Australian personnel are deployed to the Middle East as part of this mission. They are split across the Air Task Group (the only element to operate in Syria and Iraq), Task Group Taji in Iraq and the Iraq-based Special Forces contingent. The ADF contribution is part of a 9,000-strong troop commitment from 23 countries, although 72 nations are part of the broader Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) Coalition to counter ISIS and provide non-military assistance such as finance, equipment, humanitarian and logistics support.
Throughout the conflict, the overall number of Australian sorties (or air missions) in Syria has remained relatively constant, although that effort has been a small proportion of the overall Australian effort in Iraq and Syria, and an even smaller proportion of the overall—US-dominated—OIR Coalition effort. To date, the ADF has not been involved in any incidents where significant civilian casualties have been proven, though the question of responsibility for civilian casualties is a persistent issue for OIR Coalition operations as a whole.
The conflict is at a significant turning point as the Iraqi Government claims victory over ISIS within its territory and the Syrian Government strengthens its control over areas previously held by the group. This raises a number of questions around strategy, future intent and the durability of any current solution, as arguably, while ISIS’s defeat was a necessary operational goal, it leaves wider strategic issues unresolved. However, while the Australian Government constantly reiterates the importance of dealing with ISIS, its intentions remain unclear beyond the destruction of the group, including in relation to key inter-linked issues such as aid and reconstruction efforts and the future role of Assad.