Portents All Bad for Syrian Bloodbath

By Greg Sheridan

The killings in Syria are going to get much, much worse, and they are a dreadful human tragedy, but they also have strategic consequences, which are important to understand.

First, it's worth noting the absolute lack of any Australian influence in the Middle East.

I am an uncompromising Asia-first man. Asia is our most important region, but the Middle East is also hugely important to us, for economic and strategic reasons, and because it generates a huge share of both terrorists and boatpeople.

The Gillard government used such justifications when Australia became the third-largest aid donor to the Libyan rebels who ousted Colonel Gaddafi.

But as shown by the outrageous imprisonment of the Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor in Libya as an official of the International Criminal Court, this aid has bought us zero influence in Libya.

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Soft power it wasn't. Nor do we even have an embassy there to help Australians, warn them what to expect, help the new government on a moderate path or gather general intelligence.

Nor do we have an embassy in Syria, now at the heart of the Arab struggle. Nor do we have an embassy where the Arab Spring began, Tunisia, nor in its troubled neighbour, Algeria, nor the country that has weathered the storm best, Morocco.

Jeffrey Grey, in his superb military history of Australia, argues that we have had more direct military influence in the Middle East than anywhere else.

We are willing to waste hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money on aid to the Middle East and Africa, and regularly to send our military there, but we are determined never to have serious diplomatic representation in the Middle East. Thus we have no influence.

Apart from the intelligence our allies give us as charity, our government knows about as much about the Arab Spring as any well-informed newspaper reader who also has access to CNN.

Yet in Syria, the Arab Spring may yet have its most strategically consequential outcome. The strategic dangers in Syria are greater than anywhere in the Arab world except Egypt.

On balance, it is right that Western policy seek the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime, which has killed nearly 15,000 of its own people in the past 16 months. The second consideration is strategic.

Syria is Iran's only state ally in the Middle East and the greatest regional danger is the emerging Iran-led coalition, which could eventually involve Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Shia minorities in the Persian Gulf states. Depriving Iran of its key ally is a sound objective.

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Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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