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Monday, 24 February 2014
Page: 678


Mr NIKOLIC (Bass) (11:52): I welcome the opportunity to address the chamber on events in Syria, which continue to exasperate every country that gives active voice to humanitarian principles, the rule of law and democratic government. Syria is now in its fourth calendar year of violence, which began as a series of peaceful protests and is now a brutal civil war. Geographically, Syria is a small country about the size of Victoria, but it contains a terrified and besieged population about the size of Australia—some 23 million people. To date, as the member for Sydney said, over 100,000 people have been killed and millions displaced. Protagonists of every type—government, opposition, unaligned militia and roving mercenaries—kill, plunder and displace innocent civilians at will. Both conventional military weapons and chemical agents have been used on and against opponents and innocent civilians alike.

Confronted with the choice of reform or oppression, the al-Assad regime chose repression on a grand scale. The continuing bloodshed in Syria is a stain both on humanity in general and on this proud and ancient civilisation in particular. It is also a disaster that unfolds adjacent to some of the world's most strategically important and/or volatile nation states. I note that Syria has land borders with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. Together, these neighbours now shelter as many as two million displaced Syrians, the majority of whom are women and children. Syria also invites the involvement of outsiders in the form of foreign fighters or third-party-state players. In either case, the wise will see within this unfolding tragedy a potential and dangerous quagmire where more is never enough and the motives, agendas and alliances of protagonists are often impossible to determine.

Syria has also attracted what I call 'naive envoys' who engage in self-appointed crusades and who, in the process, inevitably prolong and complicate formal diplomatic efforts. Sydney University academic Dr Tim Anderson's meeting with Basher al-Assad is a case in point. In allowing himself to be manipulated by the al-Assad regime, Dr Anderson's efforts have been naive and unhelpful to UN and Australian officials, to the reputation of Sydney University and, most of all, to the innocent Syrian people. Ironically, perhaps only al-Assad and his henchmen benefit from such unwelcome interventions.

Another Sydney University academic, Professor Stuart Rees, met with a senior Hamas political leader who does not recognise the state of Israel and asserts the necessity of its destruction—a meeting that is also entirely at odds with Australia's diplomacy. The role of diplomacy today is rarely if ever assisted by private individuals like Anderson and Rees blundering onto the international stage and attempting to insert themselves into these situations.

But let us return to events in Syria, which tug at the heart while avoiding clear options let alone answers. If there is any clarity accompanying Syria's plight, it rests on two pressing imperatives. The first is to offer humanitarian comfort, when and where it is possible to do so. The second is to be extremely cautious whenever anyone suggests more direct, national strategic commitments. The most acute element of such caution is the illusory temptation to put military 'boots on the ground'. The coalition's approach to Syria sensibly and pragmatically accords with these realities. The Australian government has responded quickly and generously to events in Syria, with targeted and practical assistance. Since 2011, Australia has expended $112.8 million in support of the humanitarian relief effort in Syria.

The Australian government is actively working with the United Nations to bring the Syrian parties together. At the Geneva II Conference last month we heard Australian Ambassador, Peter Woolcott, calling on all dissenting parties to agree to a transitional governing body to end the violence. At the pledging conference in Kuwait last January Australia committed $10 million—exactly the same amount as the former government pledged at last year's conference. In addition, last January the government provided a $2 million contribution towards the destruction of Syria's deplorable chemical-weapons program, and the government is also pressing for better humanitarian access to relief agencies throughout Syria.

I note the foreign minister's announcement today welcoming the unanimous UN Security Council vote, over the weekend, for a breakthrough resolution—drafted by Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg—which orders the warring parties in Syria, particularly the al-Assad regime, to assist in the delivery of humanitarian aid. As someone who has lived and worked in Syria and South Lebanon, and who has delivered such aid, I can tell you that the cooperation of the government in power is absolutely vital for the effective distribution of aid in that country.

Most regrettably, however, there have been a number of impediments on the government's capacity to do more for Syria. These include the fact that funding for Syria comes from what is called the 'disaster fund', the mandated flexibility provision, which was reduced under the former government in December 2012 by almost $19 million. We saw a further reduction by Labor of allocated mandated flexibility from $120 million to $90 million in their 2013-14 budget and, of course, Australians are aware of the appalling economic legacy of $123 billion of accumulated deficits and peak debt forecast to rise to $667 billion within the decade. All of these reduce Australia's capacity to respond even more generously to disasters, humanitarian events and international tragedies, such as in Syria.

Clearly, Australian support has not included the use of military force and I will briefly elaborate on the reasons for this. In my view, the current situation in Syria is a compelling example of the limits of military intervention. Deputy Speaker, military power is most often if not always projected towards the achievement of one of two ends. The first is to forge or create peace. The second is to maintain a peace that has already been made. The former is peacemaking and the latter is peacekeeping. In Syria, the achievement of either is problematic. Peacemaking would be enormously challenging because every warring faction in Syria is, to some degree, tainted by degrees of corruption, war crimes or genocide, or political illegitimacy. Moreover, the exact number of factions at any one time is impossible to discern. Peacekeeping is clearly not possible for the obvious reason that there is no peace to keep. Equally, current conditions on the ground in Syria preclude easy use of a modern Western military force with requisite focus and precision—in other words, with the discrimination of a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. The latter, particularly in densely occupied built-up areas, would only add to the current destruction. Longstanding practical military experience, including time living and working in Syria as a UN military observer and as a participant in the first deployments to Afghanistan and Southern Iraq, has proven to me the truth of these observations. I have seen in person exactly the terrain and complexities of which I speak.

Today, very regrettably, Syria is a tragedy in freefall. Opposing factions seek to outdo one another in violence and atrocity. The otherwise innocent wider population is held captive to carnage and mayhem. Australia, of course, must continue to play its part in supporting international efforts to resolve this crisis. In Australia's case, this will continue to take the forms of renewed diplomatic lobbying and humanitarian support. Our concerted efforts to control Australia's national debt will, in due course, further increase Australia's capacity to support international emergencies and crises like the one we see in Syria.

Deputy Speaker, I finish with perhaps the saddest and starkest of realities: the nation of Syria is now ablaze and it is a fire that is fuelled on all sides by evil and avarice. Eventually, the fire will burn itself out but in the process will consume much of what is good about this nation state. Naive or reckless interventions only act as oxygen to feed and prolong the fire, and the attendant suffering. This remains and is likely to remain the Syrian dilemma. Our enduring and heartfelt sympathies continue with the innocent and besieged citizenry who remain the real victims in Syria. I thank the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mrs Griggs ): The question is that the motion be agreed to. I call the member for Fremantle.