Australian air strikes in Syria may help Assad but still worth doing: ex-CIA chief David Petraeus
The former CIA director and commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Petraeus, has backed the proposed plan for Australia to extend its anti-Islamic State bombing campaign into Syria, even as he admitted it would help the “despicable” regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
But he added that such action would also assist moderate Syrian rebels which the US-led coalition “have to support” to defeat Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Answering questions after giving the Lowy Lecture at Sydney Town Hall on Wednesday night, Mr Petraeus revealed he had spoken about the proposal – to go before Cabinet’s national security committee next week – with foreign minister Julie Bishop earlier that day.
“Taking such an action, together with the other coalition members, will do damage to ISIS. It will add, complement, augment the actions of the US and the other coalition partners,” he said.
“To be sure, ISIS is an enemy of Bashar al-Assad and also of the moderate opposition that we have been trying to support and have to support ultimately to defeat ISIS and, by the way, Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate and its Khorasan group that is trying to project terrorism into Europe and the United States.
“You have a situation where going after one could actually help another that is indeed a despicable, barbaric autocratic regime responsible for the deaths of somewhere around 250,000 Syrians citizens and the displacement of millions and millions more…but at the end of the day there’s a reason why the coalition countries and the US have taken that action.”
That reason is the defeat of Islamic State, an effort that Mr Petraeus believes could be assisted if the coalition wins over elements of Jabhat al Nusra, despite its links to Al Qaeda. He views the strategy as similar to the one pursued during the troop surge in Iraq from 2007 that saw militant Sunnis partner with the US to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, the extremist group that later morphed into Islamic State.
“What I am suggesting that we consider here is that there are elements of Jabhat al Nusra, certainly not the leaders, but some elements, and certainly some of the fighters, who for reasons of opportunism and convenience ended up fighting under Jabhat al Nusra as they realised the moderate opposition was not yet sufficiently well resourced and opportunities for fighting against Bashar al Assad were better [with al-Nusra],” he said.
“It’s an option that has some prospect for achievement,” he added, before conceding he didn’t know if it would result in “the kinds of tens of thousands that we were able to strip away from the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda in Iraq.”
Mr Petraeus said the strategy in Iraq had been successful and only unravelled after former Iraq president Nouri al-Maliki welched on commitments to share power with the Sunnis, leading to a revival of Sunni militancy and the creation of Islamic State from the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In his main address, Mr Petraeus lamented that the Obama Administration had “encouraged the impression” its so-called pivot to Asia meant the US was disengaging with the Middle East. He argued that the US had to be deeply engaged in both regions and was well-placed to do so for decades to come.
Mr Petraeus served as President Barack Obama’s CIA chief until his removal for leaking classified information to his biographer and lover.
THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD