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Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Page: 56

Ms JULIE BISHOP (CurtinDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (17:29): The violence in Syria must stop. The ongoing slaughter of innocent, largely unarmed, people is a hideous affront to people the world over. President Assad can put a halt to this bloodshed now by ordering his security forces and the Syrian military to stop shooting civilians. President Assad can make this decision without a resolution of the United Nations Security Council. He can show a shred of humanity that has not been seen to date and he must immediately put an end to this indiscriminate violence. There can be no justification for the ongoing crackdown against peaceful demonstrators. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs has said, the Assad regime lost all legitimacy to govern Syria when it turned guns on its own people. President Assad should step aside and allow for the formation of an elected civilian government.

Events in Syria are enormously important, as the conflict is a microcosm of religious and cultural rivalries and tensions that exist across the Middle East and beyond. The regime is dominated by those who follow Alawi Islam, which is related to Shiite Islam. Alawites make up about 12 per cent of Syria's almost 21 million citizens. About 75 per cent are followers of the Sunni Islam faith. The remainder of the population are Christians, Druze and a smattering of other religions. While the minority Alawites believe they were oppressed by the Sunni majority for many years, that cannot be used to justify the behaviour of the current regime.

It is an oversimplification of the situation in Syria to characterise this as a conflict driven solely by sectarian divides; however, this is a critical factor in the situation within Syria and in the actions of other nations. The Sunni dominated government of Turkey has come out strongly in support of the Syrian opposition while the Shiah dominated government of Iran has continued to provide support to the Assad regime. Similarly, there has been strong condemnation of the Syrian regime from many of the Gulf Sunni monarchies, which regard Iran as a strategic rival.

The Arab League has been criticised in the past for not taking a strong stand against atrocities within its sphere of influence. While not free from controversy, the Arab League has been more active with regard to Syria. An observer mission was launched late last year and continued until late last month when Gulf Arab observers were withdrawn in protest at the ongoing violence. Other observers remain in Syria. The Arab League turned to the United Nations for support and drafted a motion for Security Council consideration. That the Arab League nations took this step is to be encouraged and commended. That motion, however, was vetoed by Russia and China. The double veto of the UN Security Council resolution on Syria is particularly disturbing and concerning given that the resolution had the support of all other Security Council members, including temporary members.

The Arab League Secretary General said in a statement released last Sunday that the veto of the resolution 'does not negate that there is clear international support for the resolutions of the Arab League'. He said:

The Arab League will continue efforts with the Syrian government and opposition, and coordinating with all sides related to the Syrian issue, in order to realise the higher objectives which the Arab League is working towards.

Nevertheless, the double veto of Russia and China must give a level of comfort to the Assad regime, which will now feel less pressure to stop the murderous crackdown on Syrian protesters. The actions of Russia, in particular, are deeply concerning, as it continues to supply arms to Syria. What is also disturbing is that neither Russia nor China have put forward a plausible alternative plan, and so the bloodshed continues.

Individual nations can of course take action beyond that of the Security Council and can apply economic and other sanctions. The Australian government has imposed a range of sanctions, including a ban on arms sales, financial sanctions and travel sanctions. I acknowledge the foreign minister's announcement of further sanctions today. The coalition supports these actions and I urge the foreign minister to continue to monitor developments and to consider increasing or adapting sanctions as necessary. I also support the foreign minister's announcement of further assistance to the International Committee of the Red Cross working with the Red Crescent in Syria.

It is important that the international community presents a united face to the regime in condemnation of its actions. A successful United Nations Security Council resolution would have indicated the level of resolve within the international community to end the bloodshed and the violence. There have been calls for military intervention, but that should be a last resort and there are other avenues to be pursued at this stage. I certainly believe that more effort can be made. There is more work to be done with Russia and China and most certainly more to be done within the international community in relation to economic sanctions. United States President Obama has said in recent days that the situation in Syria can be resolved through non-military means and that remains the focus of the United States. The key is for international pressure to be unrelenting on the regime until the violence stops.

Of concern are the reported comments of a former senior military officer from the Syrian army. General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh is reported to have claimed in recent days that the Syrian army and the regime are close to collapse. He said:

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

Similarly, the Arab League has warned in recent days that the regime's use of heavy weapons such as artillery was a serious escalation that could see the country slide into a protracted civil war. Other analysts, including Jackson Diehl from the Washington Post, have argued that the conflict will drag on for years if support for the current regime continues from Iran and Russia in particular. The great fear is that a civil war in Syria will destabilise the other countries in the region, including neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan, for example, as well as Iraq. The worst possible outcome would be for sectarian lines of conflict to open up in other nations of the Middle East. Tensions in the small kingdom of Bahrain have been simmering since the majority Shiah rallies were crushed by the security apparatus of the Sunni minority rulers. Large numbers of Shiah live in some of the most productive oil fields of Saudi Arabia, and international concern has been expressed about the potential for conflict in the region that could disrupt global oil supplies and deliver a severe blow to the global economy.

The stakes are very high, indeed. That is why Russia and China should act in support of the efforts of the international community to end the cycle of violence and to allow the Syrian people to peacefully express their desire for greater freedoms and a better way of life than can possibly be realised under the murderous fist of Assad and his cronies.