Manila and Paris | The United States and Australia have rejected calls for sending in large numbers of ground troops to defeat Islamic State as the global military and political response to the Paris terror attacks dominated discussions between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and United States President Barack.
Both Mr Obama and the Australian government, which is the second largest western contributor of personnel to the conflict, dismissed sending in ground troops ahead of their meeting in Manila on Tuesday evening, where they are attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Mr Obama said sending in troops would be a “mistake” because it had been shown before a large invasion does not combat underlying extremism.
Backed by Australia, he said the current approach of pursuing a political solution to Syria in tandem with a military strategy of airstrikes, targeting the IS leadership and training and assisting local forces to fight IS was the “right strategy” although it would be stepped up in the wake of Paris.
“There will be an intensification of the strategy we have put forward, but the strategy we have put forward is the strategy that will ultimately work,” he said. Late yesterday, France launched a second night of attacks against IS positions in Syria.
Mr Turnbull told Mr Obama Australia would continue to stand “shoulder to shoulder with the US and our allies”
“We have a common purpose and a common strategy,” he said.
Just before leaving the G20 summit in Turkey, Mr Turnbull met Russian President Vladimir Putin for a 15-minute informal discussion.
Western leaders have been urging Mr Putin to focus Russia’s military efforts in Syria and Iraq against IS, not the Syrian opposition forces that oppose President Bashar al Assad.
Russia has agreed to be part of a political process which aims to install a new democratically-elected government in Syria in about two years. The sticking point will be the United States’ refusal to countenance Assad being any part of such a government and Russia’s insistence he be included.
Mr Turnbull reinforced the message delivered to the Russian leader in recent days by Mr Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Europeans to focus on Islamic State and not thwart a political solution in Syria.
Mr Turnbull also raised Australia’s ongoing frustrations with Russia over the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over the Ukraine last year.
Mr Turnbull and Mr Obama flew to the Philippines capital in the shadow of a dramatic speech by French President Francois Hollande in which he declared war on Islamic State.
“France is at war,” the President told a joint sitting of Parliament in Versailles.
“Syria has become the largest factory of terrorists the world has ever known. We should be merciless.”
As well as intensifying French air strikes against IS in Syria, Mr Hollande has called for the return of border controls in Europe, declared a three-month state of emergency in France and listed a raft of law changes he wanted to introduce enabling him to strip locals of their citizenship and give greater powers to law enforcement.
“If Europe doesn’t control its external borders it is the return of national borders or walls and barbed wire as we’ve seen today,” he said before calling for “co-ordinated and systematic controls” of the EU’s borders.
He warned the abandonment of passport-free travel within the EU – one of the founding principles of the European Project – would represent the dismantling of the European Union.
Mr Hollande said he would be meeting Mr Obama and Mr Putin in the next few days to discuss pooling resources in an attempt to destroy IS.
Mr Putin has chosen to not attend APEC.
Before Mr Turnbull met Mr Obama, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott pressured him in a newspaper column by arguing Australia should be prepared to do more in a stepped up military campaign in Iraq and Syria.
“This could involve less restrictive targeting rules for airstrikes as well as the deployment of special forces to help local troops,” he said.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who is also in Manila for APEC, slapped down Mr Abbott.
“As Tony Abbott well knows Australia does not act unilaterally, we have to have a legal basis under international law to send our forces into other countries for their own protection as well,” she said.
“We play by the rules and we are not going to expose our soldiers to international consequences.
“President Obama says they are not putting boots on the ground in Syria. I can understand that, if we are able to achieve a massive disruption of [IS] through airstrikes and targeting the leadership then that should be the priority.
“The military option is not the only option on the table, we also have to pursue a political solution in Syria and that will also be the subject of discussions with President Obama.”
With 780 personnel in the region, Australia has been the second largest western military contributor to the war against IS in Syria and Iraq and ahead of the meeting with Mr Obama, Mr Turnbull was not anticipating being asked to do more.
Mr Obama said troops would not solve the problem of underlying extremism.
“It is not just my view but the view of my closest military and civilian advisers that that would be a mistake,” he said.
“We would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before, which is if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, that they resurface, unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.”
“Let’s assume we send 50,000 troops into Syria. What happens when there is a terrorist attack generated from Yemen?
“Do we send more troops into there?”
Mr Turnbull and Mr Obama were also discussed the tensions with China in the South China Sea and Australia’s support for the US in keeping the international sea lanes free from Chinese incursion.
Also on the agenda was the recently-agreed Trans-Pacific Partnership.