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Retired ADF General blasts 'strategically dumb' move to bomb IS in Syria -

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DAVID MARK: The former head of the Australian Defence Force, retired General Peter Gration, has signed an open letter to the Prime Minister Tony Abbott, opposing bombing raids in Syria.

Australia is considering a request by the US to join its bombing campaign against the so-called Islamic State in Syria.

The open letter suggests bombing IS targets could strengthen the organisation and divide the Australian community.

I spoke to retired General Peter Gration a short time ago.

PETER GRATION: The central issue is that I believe this would be a strategically bad decision; in fact I would call is strategically dumb and I can give you the reasons for this.

To commit us to what is complex and confused war with a century's old religious conflict between the Sunnis and the Shias, the underlying issue, I think is really inviting disaster.

The second point is that the Americans have already been doing extensive air strikes for some months, and it hasn't stopped IS, and if we add our contribution to this it would be at best, a marginal increase and I think the inevitable thing, if we are seeking some sort of victory there, is that the conflict would have to escalate to get ground operations into Syria.

And, if we're already committed to air strikes, we would be part of that escalation.

DAVID MARK: Is that why you say it would be inviting disaster, because the natural conclusion would be a ground war?

PETER GRATION: Yeah, if we want to win, whatever that means in Syria, I think it's essential that, eventually there has to be ground operations and we would be drawn into that.

DAVID MARK: The Prime Minister, as you know, refers to IS as a death cult and he says they've committed some appalling atrocities and that we have a moral obligation to stop them. So how would you respond to him?

PETER GRATION: I think there's no doubt that IS have committed atrocities and altogether a very bad lot, but conceding that fact, that in itself is not an issue requiring Australian contribution halfway around the world, and I think the balance off between a moral imperative to do something about IS and the downside for Australia, the downside is much stronger.

The humanitarian issue is a significant one. If we escalate the air war, there are undoubtedly going to more civilian casualties; there'll be more refugees generated; there'll be more infrastructure damage, and eventually getting Syria back on its feet will be quite difficult.

DAVID MARK: We heard just the other day that the former commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, David Petraeus said Australia should join the campaign. He said there would be a military advantage in bombing IS targets in Syria.

How can it be that a former general of such high standing has got it wrong?

PETER GRATION: Ah well, it's a matter of opinion. I'd just point to the fact that the Americans have been having, been carrying out air strikes now for some months and it certainly hasn't produced any decisive effect.

DAVID MARK: Your letter to the Prime Minister also cites potential legal issues. What are they?

PETER GRATION: There are two things: first of all there is no direct threat form IS to Australia and secondly there is no UN cover for that particular operation.

I believe that will give them a strong indication that it would be illegal.

DAVID MARK: The Government might take issue with you about that issue of whether the IS poses any direct threat to Australia; they might argue that it does.

PETER GRATION: Yeah, I'm aware of that. What I think they're talking about is that IS will urge Muslims in Australia to carry out more terrorist acts, but the scale and the likely outcome of that is minute compared to the effort that we are contemplating putting into Syria.

DAVID MARK: We heard on AM this morning, General Gration, that there is evidence that civilians may have been exposed to Australian bombing raids in Iraq. If the Australian Air Force did take part in bombing raids in Syria, would they be adequately able to investigate any potential civilian casualties?

PETER GRATION: Ah well, it would be very difficult unless we were on the ground in Syria. It would be more difficult than it is in Iraq but I'm sure they would do their level best to carry, to do proper investigations.

DAVID MARK: General Gration, as a former commander of the Australian Defence Forces, do you expect the Federal Government will listen to your counsel?

PETER GRATION: Well, I do hope they listen and I do hope they listen to the points that we're making, but I'm not terribly confident.

I think there are some indications that the Prime Minister's mind is already made up, but I do urge the Prime Minister and the Government to consider these issues.

DAVID MARK: General Gration, we're seeing a humanitarian crisis in Europe at the moment as asylum seekers flee Syria and other countries in the region. Would bombing raids on IS targets in Syria have any effect on that exodus?

PETER GRATION: I think the only effect it could have would be to increase it. If we step up, increase air strikes, it will not only generate more casualties inside Syria, but will increase the flow of refugees from Syria outwards, to Europe. I can't see any other way it could happen.

DAVID MARK: Retired General Peter Gration, was the Commander of the Australian Defence Force from 1987 to 1993.