Australia First to Offer Troops as Anti-ISIS Coalition is Slow to Take Shape

By Patrick Goodenough | September 15, 2014 | 4:28am EDT

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott tours the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York with Joe Daniels, the museum’s president and CEO, on June 10, 2014. (AP Photo/National September 11 Memorial & Museum, Amy Dreher)

( – Arab and European countries have yet to state publicly what military contributions they may make to the coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), which Secretary of State John Kerry is cobbling together, but Australia showed no such reluctance Sunday, announcing that troops and aircraft will be deployed to the Middle East within days.

Kerry said earlier more than 40 countries had “offered assistance of one kind or another” to the anti-ISIS coalition but declined several times over the weekend to give details.

In response to what he said was a specific request from the U.S., Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said 600 personnel, including a Special Forces contingent, as well as eight fighter planes, an early warning and control aircraft and an air-to-air refueling aircraft were being prepared.

In one of several interviews early Monday, Abbott described the mission as essentially a humanitarian operation, “designed to protect people in Iraq from the murderous rage of this ISIL movement which we saw yet again on display yesterday” – a reference to the beheading of British aid worker David Haines.

“As a peaceful pluralist democracy, we are reluctant to reach out to conflicts overseas,” he told the Nine Network, a commercial station. “But this conflict is reaching out to us, whether we like it or not, this conflict is reaching out to us.”

“We’ve seen the beheadings, we’ve seen the crucifixions, we’ve seen the mass executions, we’ve seen the blood curdling threats, and indeed the murders directed towards Westerners. And we know that there are at least 60 Australians fighting mostly with this particular group. These are people who have murderous intent towards everyone who doesn’t share their particular ideology and that includes us.”

Abbott said the operation against the jihadists could last “many months.”

The mission could be considered to success, he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, if the Iraqi government and Kurdish regional authorities “are able to maintain reasonable control over their substantial towns, reasonable protection for their own people.”

The aim was not to create “a liberal, pluralist democracy,” but to help the Iraqis help themselves, “so that people who are based in their country will no longer threaten us.”

The first Australian troops will head to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in days, and Abbott said the Special Forces role would include acting as military advisors to the Iraqi or Kurdish forces.

Over the weekend Kerry steered clear of naming countries that have agreed to take part in military action against ISIS.

“It is entirely premature and frankly inappropriate at this point in time to start laying out one country by one country what individual nations are going to do,” he said in Ankara on Friday, fending off questions about Turkey’s reported reluctance to participate.

He said he expects to have “a better sense of where we stand” on countries’ participation by the time he testifies on Capitol Hill. After Kerry wraps up a coalition-building trip with a conference convened by the French government in Paris on Monday, he is scheduled to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday and House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday.

On Sunday, he told CBS’s “Face The Nation” that there are countries both in and outside the region “prepared to engage in military assistance, in actual strikes if that is what it requires.”

Again, he said, “it’s not appropriate to start announcing, ‘well, this country will do this and this country will do that.’”

Kerry also said that some countries – again unnamed – had offered ground troops, “but we are not looking for that, at this moment anyway.”

The administration has said repeatedly that U.S. forces will not carry out anti-ISIS operations on the ground, saying that that role must be played by Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq, and by “moderate” opposition forces in Syria which the U.S. aims to bolster through equipping, training and advising.

Bringing the threat home?

Australia was a close ally to the U.S. in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

After 9/11, in its largest combat deployment since the Vietnam War, Australia contributed troops, including Special Forces, as well as aircraft and ships, to the mission to topple the Taliban.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Australia again supported the effort, and was second only to Britain as the largest military contributor to the U.S.-led effort to topple Saddam Hussein.

Back in the region, Australians were targeted in four major bombings in Indonesia between Oct. 2002 and Oct. 2005, at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the Marriott Hotel in the capital, and twice on the resort island of Bali. Ninety-two Australians were among the dead in the attacks, carried out by the al-Qaeda-linked group, Jemaah Islamiah.

Against that background, the left-wing Australian Greens warned that renewed military involvement in the Middle East could put the country at increased risk of terrorism. (The official opposition Labor Party says it supports Abbott’s decision.)

“We cannot ignore the fact that arming sectarian militia and dropping bombs in the Middle East will do absolutely nothing to combat extremism and violence at home in Australia and may make it much worse,” said Greens leader Christine Milne.

Abbott challenged the notion that military involvement would increase the risk.

“We have long been targets,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp., pointing out that terrorists targeted Australians in Bali – in the 2002 bombing, which killed 88 Australians – “long before Australian forces ever went to Iraq.”

“And the September 11 [2001] atrocity took place long before U.S. forces ever went to Iraq,” he added.

“There’s no doubt that those who wish us harm will cite things like this as an excuse, but it’s not the reason,” Abbott said. “The reason why we are targeted is not because of anything we’ve done, but because of who we are and how we live.”

Last Thursday the Australian government raised its terror threat stance to “high” – the second-highest level – for the first time since 2002, citing the potential risk posed by citizens returning after fighting for extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.

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