JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joins us now. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

JULIE BISHOP: Good morning Fran.

JOURNALIST: The Trump Administration appears to be openly canvassing regime change in Syria by what various definitions of that I know, but is that Australia’s position now? Can we try and clarify this?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, the American response does have the potential to be a game changer in Syria, changing the dynamics for the first time in many years, particularly since Russia entered the fray in 2015. Australia’s position has always been - since 2013 when Assad first unleashed chemical weapons against Syrian citizens - that he had lost all legitimacy as a leader, and that has continued to be our position, in fact our position has hardened since this recent chemical attack. A leader who unleashes chemical weapons on his own citizens has lost all legitimacy to continue to be the leader. However, we are very pragmatic about this, and recognise that there has to be a political solution to the Syria conflict and Russia and Iran, now having backed the Assad regime, need to use their influence to place pressure on the Assad regime, to engage seriously in negotiations to bring this brutal conflict to an end. Our position has never been that Assad has a long-term role at all. He’s lost legitimacy, but the point is if you remove Assad – first, how do you do that if Russia and Iran are backing him, and secondly what does the day after look like? Who is in control of the Syrian military, who is in control of the Syrian Government? And that is the issue that is to be determined. I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago where we discussed the work that’s being done to defeat ISIS, the terrorist organisation that is operating in this vacuum if you like, in Iraq and Syria. Secondly, a political solution to the civil war between Assad and the Syrian opposition must be found as soon as possible.

JOURNALIST: OK, Minister. So when you told us here on Breakfast last week, and this was the day after the chemical attack, but before the US military strike, when you said that Australia is not of the view that Assad must go, that Assad must be part of the solution, he must be transitioned out rather than it be a precondition that he must go. You are still certainly of the view that he must be transitioned out, are you still of the view that he must be part of the solution? How would that look?

JULIE BISHOP: No, I didn’t say he must be part of the solution, I said “Assad must go” should not be a precondition to negotiating a peace. To say “Assad must go” before we even discuss a peace proposal, I think is counterproductive, and the United States recognises that now. Assad is there, he is in control of the military, he is in control of the government. What we need is for Russia and Iran to withdraw their support for Assad and focus on finding an alternative to Assad to run the country. Now this could be a unity government made up of representatives from all the different factions and ethnic groups in Syria. That is what is needed, but there is no point in saying that we’re not even going to talk about a peace settlement until Assad leaves. We can’t all sit and wait for Assad to pack up his bags and go. That’s not how it will work. We must have a situation where Russia and Iran withdraw their support from Assad, and I do point out up until mid-2015, Assad was losing ground to the opposition. The opposition forces were winning. Then Russia came in and changed the whole dynamic by supporting Assad. We know Russia has interests, strategic interests, in Syria, but even Russia must recognise that they cannot back a leader who is unleashing chemical weapons on their own people. I mean the reflection on Russia’s international reputation will be huge.

JOURNALIST: Well, no sign of that yet, but just to be clear, and I’m sorry to keep pushing that, but this notion that Assad must be transitioned out rather than it be a precondition that he must go – America’s position and our position is clearly now that it must be a precondition that Assad must go. Is that true?

JULIE BISHOP: No, I just said we can’t have a precondition, “Assad must go” before we’ll talk peace…

JOURNALIST: [Interrupts] No, no, no. But the precondition that he can’t be a part of any future solution?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, we’ve never thought that Assad would remain the leader of Syria, we’ve never thought that after an election or after a new government was put together, that Assad would remain the leader. Our position has always been that he lost all legitimacy as a leader back in 2013 when he unleashed chemical weapons on his own people. He has continued to do that in 2014 and 2015, and now another horrific attack when there was meant to be a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Iran. Assad has shown he can’t even commit to a ceasefire that was negotiated by his main backer, that is Russia. So our point has never been that Assad remains the President for life of Syria, but that as a precondition to peace negotiations, “Assad must go” won’t work. What we have to do is hope that Russia withdraws support from Assad, takes away their support from Assad, and then militarily the opposition forces should then have a win, but a political negotiation can be found. Now, this is where the UN Security Council needs to come back into play, because there was a resolution on how this political transition would take place. There was a United Nations Security Council Resolution on a political solution. We believe that that should be implemented, and that doesn’t have as a precondition, “Assad must go”. What that requires is that there be a transition to a new unity government.

JOURNALIST: Five minutes to 8 on Breakfast, our guest today is Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. Minister, as we’ve been speaking quite a lot of people have been texting and tweeting, asking questions about international law. Please ask the Foreign Minister whether the attack on the air base was legal under international law and if so, under which law?

JULIE BISHOP: My understanding is that the air strike was a calibrated, proportionate and targeted response to a massive breach of international law and UN Security Council resolutions, intended to send a hard message to the Assad regime about the consequences of its actions. The United States is in Syria, the United States is taking part in actions against the Assad regime and this breach of international law by the use of chemical weapons and the breach of UN Security Council resolutions has been responded to by the United States, in what I would say was a calibrated, proportionate and targeted attack.

JOURNALIST: And under that, given it is in breach of the chemical weapons… recommendations… UN sanctions, UN resolutions, does that mean there is a legal basis or legal cover for the US launching this?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, unfortunately the UN Security Council is again at an impasse on Syria. We have called on the UN Security Council to address the situation and if possible take action in responsible to the chemical weapons attack, but Russia and to a certain extent, China, have not been backing those countries on the Security Council that want to see the UN Security Council resolution in force. So the threat, or use of chemical weapons was a violation of international law, was a breach of Syria’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons convention, and I believe the US action was an appropriate and proportionate response to this illegal and utterly abhorrent act.

JOURNALIST: Minister, if Russia is where all the pressure needs to be applied, and you say it does, then there’s clearly no sign at the moment that it’s making any difference. I mean, Russia is now sending a war ship armed with cruise missiles to the area in response. Are you worried about an escalation of this conflict?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, this is clearly a deeply concerning scenario. The fact that Assad breached the ceasefire, the fact that he unleashed chemical weapons on his own people in breach of international law is of grave concern. The United States have responded and now we call on Russia to withdraw their support for the Assad regime…

JOURNALIST: [Interrupts] But calling on Russia, my point is, has made no difference, Rex Tillerson is going there…

JULIE BISHOP: Exactly, Rex Tillerson is going to Moscow. He will be talking to his counterpart Sergey Lavrov and clearly the message is that Russia will have to recognise it can no longer support the Assad regime, and that we should be working together on countering terrorism, which has had some appalling impacts, including in Russia in recent times, but also an opportunity to reset the relationship with the United States over Syria. We recognise that Russia has strategic interests in Syria, but Russia must commit to ensuring that no more chemical weapons are used against the Syrian population.

JOURNALIST: Are you worried at all that this military action by the US is driven in any part by domestic political considerations, rather than long-term strategy or a commitment to end the conflict?

JULIE BISHOP: I believe that President Trump has through his commitment to an increased military budget, to increasing the US military, has committed to a foreign policy that includes the United States taking action where the UN Security Council and where other nations are unable to act. I think it’s quite indicative of his foreign policy, that for example the United States is now sending a number of ships to North Korea, to again send a message to North Korea that it cannot continue to launch ballistic missiles in provocative acts against Japan, South Korea, the region and the globe more generally…

JOURNALIST: [Interrupts] So what, Trump’s foreign policy is unilateral action?

JULIE BISHOP: I think the Trump foreign policy is to ensure that those nations that are violating international law should recognise they can’t do it with impunity.

JOURNALIST: Minister, with a minute to the news, given what we’ve been talking about in North Korea, the aircraft carrier and war ships that are heading that way, are you concerned that this action takes our region closer to open conflict?

JULIE BISHOP: Australia has long condemned North Korea’s ballistic missile launches and I’ve said many times North Korea is acting in total disregard for regional and global security and it’s clearly breaching its international obligations. Our point is that North Korea’s long term interests would be best served by ceasing its nuclear and missile programs and engaging positively with the international community.

JOURNALIST: So you’re not concerned by this move by the US?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, we support the US sending a very clear message to North Korea that it should not continue down this path of risking regional and global security through its own ballistic missile testing

JOURNALIST: OK, Julie Bishop, thank you very much for joining us.

JULIE BISHOP: Thank you

JOURNALIST: Julie Bishop is the Foreign Minister.

- Ends -

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555