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Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Page: 1446

Ms JULIE BISHOP (CurtinDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (17:26): I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for facilitating, via this ministerial statement, this opportunity to speak again to the House on the issue of Syria and also Iran. Since speaking on this issue previously I have had the opportunity to meet with the Syrian charge in my office and to express to him directly the views of the coalition, as articulated in my response to the ministerial statement last week.

The world is rightly aghast at the ongoing violence in Syria. Ongoing reports of indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians, including women and children, are abhorrent. There is a solution to this crisis. President Assad can order his troops to stop shooting and shelling the Syrian people. He does not need a United Nations Security Council resolution or, indeed, a General Assembly resolution to end the violence. He can step aside and allow a civilian government to form.

However, the situation may have approached or gone beyond the point where a negotiated settlement is possible, due to the ongoing brutality of the Assad regime as it seeks to cling to power. There has been a serious escalation of the conflict in recent days, with the bombing of security compounds in the city of Aleppo and reports of 28 people killed. In the fog of this war the Assad regime has claimed the blasts were the work of so-called opposition terrorists, while opposition groups blame the regime itself. There have been further reports suggesting that al-Qaeda played a role in the attacks, although the truth may never be known. In addition, a senior military officer within the regime were shot dead outside his Damascus residence over the weekend, in a major breakdown of security within the regime's stronghold. This must have sent shock waves through an already volatile regime.

Given the dire situation facing Syria, it is deeply troubling that Syria's al-Assad regime has 'categorically rejected' a resolution of the Arab League which would have allowed for the deployment of a peacekeeping mission to end the cycle of violence in the country. After voting with China to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria, Russia has once again undermined international efforts to put pressure on the regime. The European Union nations supported the Arab League plan, while Russia is reportedly of the view that peacekeepers should only be deployed after the violence has stopped. The Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, has reportedly made the claim that the main stumbling blocks to a ceasefire are the opposition groups in Syria, which he claims are out of control. While peacekeepers would generally only be deployed after a ceasefire has been brokered, this would arguably be much easier to achieve if there were a united effort to isolate the regime. This would require Russia and, in particular, Iran to halt all forms of support and supplies of arms.

The Arab League has continued to show commendable leadership on this issue with its decision to suspend economic links with the Syrian regime. The fact that the regime fears a ceasefire appears to be indicative of its weakness, in that it fears any lessening of pressure on the Syrian people. This could confirm the assessment of Syrian military defector General Mustafa Ahmad al-Sheikh, who has claimed that the regime is close to collapse and has said:

The situation is now very dangerous and threatens to explode across the whole region, like a nuclear reaction.

China has continued to take a conciliatory line, with foreign ministry representative Liu Weimin reportedly saying:

China hopes all relevant parties can keep dialogue and communication to play a positive and constructive role in politically resolving the Syrian issue and easing the country's tension.

United Kingdom Foreign Secretary William Hague has also expressed concern about the deployment of Western forces to Syria, but did not rule out supporting a peacekeeping mission involving Arab League nations. He said:

I don't see the way forward in Syria as being Western boots on the ground, in any form, including in peacekeeping form, but of course if such a concept could be made viable we will be supporting it in all the usual ways.

While Russia has played the highly questionable role of spoiler in many efforts to achieve peace, the actions of Iran are more disturbing, with reports that hundreds of elite troops are on the ground in Syria.

There is no way to know precisely whether these forces are directly involved in the crackdown on civilians, however it is safe to assume that they are providing logistical support at the very least. One thing is certain and that is that these forces are not working to bring peace to the nation and are acting in support of a regime that has lost all legitimacy to rule. These Iranian forces must be immediately withdrawn from Syria. Similarly, Russia must halt all arms sales and any other forms of economic cooperation with the regime.

One complicating factor in recent days has been the attempted intervention of al-Qaeda, whose leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has released a video message in support of the uprising. The motivation of al-Qaeda is not clear, but we can safely assume it is not in support of the eventual formation of a democratic civilian government. It may be that al-Qaeda merely sees the opportunity to sow the seeds of chaos in the hope that it spreads beyond the borders of Syria and leads to an environment of greater lawlessness within which al-Qaeda can flourish.

The solution to this violence is in the bloodied hands of President Assad, who must call a halt to the attacks and allow for the formation of a civilian government. In recent days, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has described the situation in Syria as 'deplorable' and said the government had failed in one of its primary obligations, which is to protect its own people. The commissioner said:

I am very distressed that the continued ruthless repression and deliberate stirring of sectarian tensions might soon plunge Syria into civil war. The longer the international community fails to take action, the more the civilian population will suffer from countless atrocities.

While the situation in Syria adds to regional instability, Iran has been accused overnight of being behind attempted killings of Israeli diplomats in the Indian city of New Delhi and the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. If true, this represents a serious escalation of the tensions between Iran and Israel. Israel has publicly accused Iran of orchestrating the attacks either through its proxy Hezbollah or directly through its own agents. Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is reportedly of the view:

Iran is behind these attacks. It is the biggest exporter of terror in the world.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Lieberman said overnight that Israel will not tolerate such attacks on its diplomats.

While US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned the attacks, the United States has not yet, at the time of speaking, identified Iran as the suspected culprit. Iran has denied any involvement. The attack in New Delhi has left a 42-year-old female diplomat in a critical condition and reportedly involved the attachment of a magnetic bomb to the outside of her vehicle. The attack in Georgia failed when the bomb was detected on the car before it detonated and was defused.

The use of a magnetic bomb appears to be direct payback for the reported use of similar devices to assassinate Iranian scientists working on Iran's nuclear program. Tensions are rising rapidly in response to Iran's nuclear program as well as suspicions that it will lead to the development of a nuclear weapon. United States Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta recently said that he believed Israel would attack Iran, possibly within a couple of months. For Israelis, this is a question of their very survival, with the Iranian leadership regularly talking about wiping Israel off the map and worse.

Iran's defence strategy has been to try and convince the United States and Israel that an attack would cost more than either nation is prepared to pay. The key issue at present is the threat that Iran will close the Strait of Hormuz to traffic for oil tankers, which would have serious implications for the global economy, with about one-third of seaborne traded oil passing through the strait. There are questions about Iran's ability to close the strait for any significant length of time, particularly with the United States Fifth Fleet based in the Persian Gulf at Bahrain. However, Iran claims to have large stockpiles of shipping mines and has developed a range of missiles that could be used against shipping traffic. Iran has conducted extensive naval exercises in the Persian Gulf to showcase its fleet of smaller fast boats equipped with torpedoes that could be used to threaten the larger US warships.

While Iran would lack the ability to sustain open conflict against the United States for any length of time, there are fears that it has the capability to severely disrupt global oil supplies at a time when the world economy is particularly fragile. During recent discussions I have had with a number of international experts on strategic issues, concern was raised with me about the potential for an Israeli air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. The concern was described as 'stepping onto the ladder of escalation' that could yield unpredictable results.

The solution to these growing tensions lies with the government of Iran. It must comply with all requests of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which last November called for a progress report on compliance by next month. The IAEA board of governors also agreed to a resolution titled 'Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of the UN Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran'. This resolution called on Iran to comply with all its obligations to the IAEA and to the conditions imposed by United Nations Security Council resolutions. While the IAEA board of governors continues to support a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iran's noncompliance, it is clear from the statements of Secretary Panetta that the United States believes the time is fast approaching when Israel may decide to launch a strike against Iran.

The situation has not been helped by Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who said this week that he would be announcing further nuclear developments in coming days and weeks. That makes the issue of Iran's compliance critical to not only Iran and Israel but also the rest of the world. The coalition joins with the government in urging the Iranian leadership to meet all its obligations. It is imperative that Iran prove that its nuclear activities are only for peaceful and civilian purposes. That will require it to be open and transparent with IAEA inspectors to ensure it can adequately explain all its nuclear activities.

Australia has continued to play its role with the international community to bring pressure to bear on the Iranian regime. A range of sanctions have been imposed since 2006, consistent with the requirements of the United Nations Security Council, but a range of autonomous sanctions have also been imposed. A comprehensive range of sanctions relate to arms sales, financial transactions, dealings with certain Iranian companies, travel bans and more.

Iran's typical response has been belligerence, with threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and threats against Israel. The international community is motivated by the urgent need to find a peaceful resolution to this brewing crisis. The implications of military conflict are too terrible to contemplate and it is important that the international community continues to be united in its condemnation of Iran's provocative behaviour and united in efforts to ensure that Iran complies with their international obligations.