Australia's military engagement in Iraq increased dramatically over the weekend
with an RAAF C-130 engaged in a joint aid mission with French and British
forces. RAAF transport aircraft are also due to land in Kurdish occupied areas
of Iraq to deliver weapons to Kurdish fighters currently battling Islamic State
forces. It's the most substantial Australian military involvement in Iraq since
the ADF withdrew in 2008 and the Prime Minister hasn't ruled out an even greater
military role. While the Opposition supports the increased military engagement,
the Greens and some of the independents want a parliamentary debate. Julie
Bishop is the Foreign Minister and I spoke to her earlier.
JULIE BISHOP: the Prime Minister says more involvement is possible in Iraq if
strict conditions are met. Our involvement does seem to be increasing
incrementally but significantly shouldn't this be put to the Parliament for
debate and approval?
JULIE BISHOP: We will adopt the
usual convention of past governments, and that is that the government of the day
has the ultimate responsibility for making decisions involving our military.
There is an opportunity to debate the issue in the Parliament, but governments
of both sides have always adopted a convention of making the decisions in
relation to military activity. I'm thinking of the Hawke Government in the
original Gulf War. So, we will do what has always been done.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: There's every chance of course that a request will
come for us to be more involved for a more direct military engagement. How will
that be greeted?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, the situation in
Iraq does represent a humanitarian catastrophe – a potential genocide – and we
are currently helping protect innocent civilians against a wave of atrocity and
we can't stand by while people are being slaughtered by this terrorist group
ISIS that does have amongst its members a number of Australian citizens.
Currently we're being asked to be involved in a humanitarian relief effort.
We're being cautious about our involvement. There has to be a clear and
proportionate role for Australia and I believe that there is and the overall
purpose is humanitarian.
So, we have made a full assessment of the risks, we certainly take advice
from our defence and intelligence experts. Of course there are risks and these
are being carefully weighed, not only by Australia, but by all of the nations
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But a broader military engagement is possible?
JULIE BISHOP: We are responding to a
specific request by the United States on behalf of the Iraqi Government. We've
been requested to help transport stores of military equipment, including arms
and munitions as part of a multi-nation effort and this operation is being
carried out with the approval of the Iraqi Government. We will continue to
coordinate our efforts with the government of Iraq, United States, and regional
countries. But our response is to a specific request and there has been no
request beyond this.
Each time we are asked to do something we will of course weigh the risks,
consider the role that Australia can play, and determine whether or not it's
clear, proportionate, and in pursuit of a humanitarian outcome.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Ok. Have we left all this a little late? Shouldn't
the US and its allies like Australia have moved against IS sooner?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, we have been
providing humanitarian support for quite some time now. We have been seeking to
stop Australians becoming involved in this conflict by travelling to Syria and
Iraq to take part in the conflict on the part of this brutal, barbaric terrorist
organisation ISIS. United States Secretary John Kerry is now calling for a
global coalition to use all of the resources and tools available – political,
military, diplomatic, intelligence, and moral arguments – to challenge ISIS and
its genocidal vision at every turn.
I believe that Australia has a responsibility, particularly given that there
are Australians involved in fighting with ISIS. Indeed, I understand that there
are Australians who figure prominently in the leadership of this barbaric
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Now, part of our mission is to deliver weapons to
Kurdish fighters who are fighting IS. What guarantees can you give that the PKK
for instance – another proscribed terrorist group in Australia that operates in
Kurdish areas – won't get their hands on those weapons?
JULIE BISHOP: Our aim is to make the
Peshmergas strong enough so that they can defend themselves. That currently
isn't the situation and we have been asked to help transport stores of military
equipment so that the Peshmerga are strong enough to defend themselves. The
initial international relief effort of airdropping supplies to thousands of
people stranded on Mount Sinjar, in Northern Iraq, has been a success so the
RAAF will now conduct further humanitarian missions to ensure that the Peshmerga
can defend themselves.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: I guess the point is once you put more weapons into
the system there's no guarantee is there necessarily where they're going to end
JULIE BISHOP: Michael, there are
always risks, but as I said we've been weighing these carefully, not only
Australia, but all of the nations involved and we want to ensure that the people
can defend themselves in the face of the most brutal and barbaric attacks – the
beheadings, the crucifixions. The bigger risk is to do nothing. The Peshmerga
currently can't defend themself against ISIS. If the world stands by and does
not help them we could see mass killings on a terrible, horrific scale.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The United Kingdom over the weekend raised its
threat level – terror threat level – because of its increased involvement in the
conflict in Iraq. Is the same likely to happen here?
JULIE BISHOP: We are in close
contact with the United Kingdom about the threat from terrorist groups active in
Syria and Iraq and the risk from returning foreign fighters.
Our national terrorism public alert system remains at medium. That means a
terrorist attack could occur in Australia. The level is under constant review by
the Government based on advice that we receive from our security and
intelligence services and agencies. Our overriding concern is to take all
necessary steps to keep Australia and Australia's interests safe.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Is it your view though that our increased
involvement does increase the risk here?
JULIE BISHOP: I don't see it that
way. That's certainly not the advice that we've received from the heads of our
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Just quickly on the other big matter of conflict in
the world at the moment which is obviously the Russia/Ukraine crisis. NATO is
meeting later this week and I understand you're going to be at that meeting.
What do you make of President Putin's warning that it's best not to mess with us
and him pointing out that fact that Russia is a significant nuclear power?
JULIE BISHOP: President Putin should
be condemned for threatening anyone with the fact that Russia is a nuclear
power. We're already deeply concerned about the dangerous escalation of Russian
activity inside Ukraine's borders and for him to refer to Russia as a nuclear
power is provocative. There are credible reports showing Russian combat soldiers
equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry operating inside Ukraine. This is
without the agreement or the consent of the sovereign government of Ukraine and
the activity appears to be moving to a wider area of Ukraine than previously
So, all of this points to the use of force by Russia. This is a flagrant
breach of Ukraine's sovereignty, a blatant violation of the UN charter, and so I
will be discussing Russia's behaviour at the NATO meeting with the other allies,
partners, and countries who are represented there.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: President Putin also says that potential statehood
for Eastern Ukraine must be part of any negotiations about any peaceful
settlement. Does anyone else agree with that?
JULIE BISHOP: Not that I've heard.
It seems that President Putin is on his own in this regard. Ukraine is a
sovereign nation and Russia has breached territorial integrity.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And have you been speaking to any other world
leaders or foreign ministers about President Putin coming to the G20 and do you
think that's going to come up at all at the NATO meeting?
JULIE BISHOP: I am sure this will
come up at the NATO meeting. A number of G20 countries will be represented there
and a whole range of options concerning Russia's behaviour and President Putin's
behaviour in particular will not doubt be canvassed. But I think the focus in
the first instance will be on further sanctions that have been contemplated by
the EU, the US, and others. And most certainly Australia is closely monitoring
the situation with regard to sanctions and we will take action if we believe
that our stance can help make a difference and send a very strong international
message of condemnation to Russia.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Julie Bishop, thanks very much for joining us.
JULIE BISHOP: It's been my pleasure.
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