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Syria is 'a geopolitical Chernobyl' says former US army chief -

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LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: General David Petraeus is the former head of the CIA and has been the United States' top commander in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He's in Australia as a guest of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. We spoke in Sydney earlier today.

David Petraeus, thank you for your time.


LEIGH SALES: I'd like to start with the humanitarian crisis in Europe and there are obvious short-term and long-term issues at play, so let's start with the short term first. What is the best way for the European Union to deal with this enormous influx of people?

DAVID PETRAEUS: Well I think they're starting to do it now, and that is, to make provisions to receive them into countries as Germany has so impressively done, welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees, setting up programs that will help them in the short term get through literally the survival phase of this movement and then ultimately to help them integrate into the new societies of which they're members.

LEIGH SALES: How do you actually do that? Is it a policing issue? Is it a social policy issue? Is it all of the above?

DAVID PETRAEUS: It's an all-of-the-above issue. It's a very comprehensive approach. It requires everything from helping teach the language of the country to an awareness of the rules, the laws, the social practices, to the basic services that are available to refugees and new immigrants and so on. Germany has a lot of experience with this, of course. They took in very large numbers of Turkish workers. It was the guest worker program and they were allowed to stay. So they know how this is done.

LEIGH SALES: With the sheer numbers of people coming through, is it possible to monitor things in a security sense to know who's actually getting inside your borders?

DAVID PETRAEUS: I think it's very, very difficult. When you see the sheer magnitude of the numbers, when you see just waves of people coming in, I think that is very, very challenging. And so what will have to happen overtime is very quickly, the law enforcement organisations, the investigative organisations in these countries are going to have to try to identify those who might have some kind of extremist bent, even as the effort is going on in a comprehensive manner to support all the others.

LEIGH SALES: Beyond the immediate countries where these people are arriving and then the second ones that they go to, when you look around the world more broadly, do countries that are involved in military campaigns in Iraq and Syria such as Australia and the US have an obligation to do more to help with refugees leaving those countries?

DAVID PETRAEUS: Well I think in many cases, we have worked with individuals who in some cases risked their lives to help our units, our diplomats, our other development professionals and in some cases have put themselves in harm's way. They're in danger. And I think it's very incumbent on us to take as many of those individuals into our country as want to take advantage of that opportunity.

LEIGH SALES: So that's some of the short-term challenges. Long term, obviously, some of this depends on trying to bring stability and peace to those countries from where the refugees are flowing. That is of course a lot easier said than done though.

DAVID PETRAEUS: It is. And Syria is in truth a geopolitical Chernobyl that is just spewing instability, violence and extremism. Not just in the immediate region, although that's very obvious with the effect on Iraq and a number of the other countries around Syria, but it's extending all the way of course into Europe, certainly, and of course the attraction for would-be extremists is all the way felt in places as far away as Australia and the United States.

LEIGH SALES: Australia's about to make a decision on whether to join air strikes in Syria. I think we currently have about six aircraft in the region. Is there an issue though with then splitting your missions across two countries, Syria and Iraq? Does it dilute it by doing that at all?

DAVID PETRAEUS: Well I'm sure that whatever is decided, there will continue to be a focus for the assets that Australia provides.

LEIGH SALES: Where do you think things currently in terms of resourcing? You said we need to do more to help. I mean, how much more? Are we nearly there? Is there a long way to go? How do you assess it?

DAVID PETRAEUS: Well you have to look at different tasks and different locations. In Iraq, for example, the centre of gravity of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq is really in Baghdad. Now, don't get me wrong, we've got to win on the frontlines. We have to keep pushing the Islamic State back. There can't be another Ramadi, which was a strategic as well as a tactical setback. But at the end of the day, it is in Baghdad where the decisions will be made that either are inclusive and bring the Sunni Arab population back into the fabric of Iraqi society or remain exclusive and continue to have part of that country fertile ground for the planting of the seeds of extremism.

LEIGH SALES: Can IS be defeated and what does that look like?

DAVID PETRAEUS: I think it can be defeated. This'll be the work of years and years, maybe even decades, because it has elements now in North Africa, indeed, a little element in Afghanistan. We're worried about other locations, in your region as well as elsewhere, where these seeds of extremism might actually flourish and they want to be like the Islamic State. So this is a big, big concern. It's going to take effort in a number of different areas. But I do think that the Islamic State can be rolled back in Iraq, that ultimately in Syria, that we can find the method that is necessary to defeat the Islamic State and to reduce the very, very dangerous threat that it poses to the region and to the world.

LEIGH SALES: Do you see IS as a conventional threat or is it something new and different?

DAVID PETRAEUS: It's actually, again, all of the above. It is a conventional threat, certainly, in Iraq. It was a conventional force that swept into Nineveh province in the north and took the city of Mosul, second largest Iraqi city, in fact where I spent the first year as the Commander of the 101st Airborne Division. But it's also a terrorist organisation. It is an organisation that's promoting the explosion of car bombs and improvised explosive devices and even suicide bombers in Iraqi cities. That's a threat as well and it's a potential insurgent organisation if it gets rolled back where there will still be guerrilla elements, if you will, that will have to be identified, rooted out and dealt with.

LEIGH SALES: You spend your days now immersing yourself in the biggest threats facing the world and looking at geopolitics. You've spent your career involved in frontline military campaigns. Has it left you feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the planet and about human nature?

DAVID PETRAEUS: Um, I'm I think at heart a rational optimist, to borrow the title of a wonderful book by a British author, who looked at the sweep of history of mankind and as we encountered seemingly insurmountable obstacle after insurmountable obstacle and inevitably found a way through or over or around it. If you think about all the way along, we have - you know, that we can't feed ourselves. Well, there's actually been a food revolution. Well we can't fuel ourselves. Well we now have the energy revolution in the United States. It just - all the way through the sweep of history, we have managed, sometimes on the brink of absolute disaster, and after indeed disastrous events like the 30 Years' religious wars and so forth and so on where we've done unspeakable things to our fellow human beings, but inevitably we have worked our way through those. And I have that sense also about the world today, but indeed, it is threatened by some of the realities that we confront.

LEIGH SALES: David Petraeus, thank you very much.

DAVID PETRAEUS: My pleasure, Leigh.