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Transcript of joint press conference: Parliament House, Canberra: 9 September 2015: Syrian and Iraqi humanitarian crisis; Australia to extend air operations against Daesh into Syria



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PRIME MINISTER

9 September 2015

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MP JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH THE HON. JULIE BISHOP MP, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS, THE HON. KEVIN ANDREWS MP, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE AND AIR CHIEF MARSHAL MARK BINSKIN AC,

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

Subjects: The Syrian and Iraqi humanitarian crisis; Australia to extend air operations against Daesh into Syria.

E&OE……………………….……………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Today the Government is making two important announcements about the humanitarian and security crisis in the Middle East.

The first is that Australia will resettle an additional 12,000 refugees from the Syria/Iraq conflict. These will be permanent resettlement places over and above Australia's existing humanitarian programme of 13,750 this year rising to 18,750 in three years' time.

This is a very significant increase in Australia's humanitarian intake and it's a generous response to the current emergency. This decision has been based on discussions that the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, has held this week with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other agencies in Geneva. As well, I've worked closely with senior Ministers and officials here to develop a response that best reflects Australia's proud history as a country with a generous heart.

As I indicated yesterday, and confirmed today, our focus for these new 12,000 permanent resettlement places will be those people most in need of permanent protection - women, children and families from persecuted minorities who have sought temporary refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. I do want to stress women, children and families - the most vulnerable of all. The Government will shortly despatch officials to the region to begin working with the UNHCR to identify potential candidates for resettlement.

We will move very quickly but everyone who is resettled in Australia will be subject to the usual security, health and character checks. These checks are absolutely necessary. We must play our part in this humanitarian crisis but as Prime Minister I must always act in our national interest to promote community safety.

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I thank the state and territory leaders and community organisations for their public offers of support. These offers will be accepted as this is a burden that must be shared by all governments and by the wider community.

Today's commitment by the Australian Government to take refugees on a permanent basis will be one of the largest commitments made to date anywhere in the world but hundreds of thousands of people are in camps and they need urgent assistance.

So, in addition to these new resettlement places, the Government is also announcing that we will directly pay for the support of 240,000 displaced people in countries neighbouring Syria and Iraq through the UNHCR and other agencies. This additional direct assistance will deliver food and blankets and other emergency supplies for the coming winter and is expected to cost $44 million, bringing to $230 million our total humanitarian contribution to the Syria/Iraq conflict.

There's no doubt that an effective international humanitarian response is vital, but we also have to address the fundamental reasons why people are fleeing. We have to act with our heads as well as with our hearts. As a free and democratic country, we must stand against those who wish to destroy life and to build a terrorist state. That's why after careful consideration and in response to the request some weeks ago by President Obama, the Government has also decided to extend Australia's current air strikes against Daesh in Iraq to Daesh targets in Syria as well.

There can be no stability and no end to the persecution and suffering in the Middle East until the Daesh death cult is degraded and ultimately destroyed. That's what our armed forces are doing in Iraq and we need to do it in Syria too. As we all know, Daesh does not respect borders and its onslaught in Iraq is supported from bases in Syria. We cannot defeat Daesh in Iraq without defeating Daesh in Syria too.

I emphasise that our aircraft will be targeting Daesh, not the Assad regime, evil though it is. And we're not doing this alone. Other coalition countries including the United States, Canada, Arab countries and Turkey, are already striking Daesh in Syria. Others such as the United Kingdom are likely to join this effort soon. But I do want to stress, this is very much in Australia's national interest.

We know from our intelligence agencies and from two terrorist incidents and six disrupted attacks that Daesh continues to reach out to Australia. Destroying this death cult is essential, not just to ending the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East but also to ending the threat to Australia and the wider world.

So, as Prime Minister, I am proud of our armed forces personnel who will take up this fight in our name. I am proud of our Immigration officials and the community leaders who will work to resettle these vulnerable families in our country.

But most of all, I'm proud that today our country and our people will be true to our history as a place where those in fear of their life - women, children and families - can rebuild and start again.

It's good to be here with the Foreign Minister and with the Defence Minister and the CDF and I might now ask the Foreign Minister to add to these remarks.

FOREIGN MINISTER:

Thank you, Prime Minister.

In relation to the additional humanitarian assistance that we are providing in the countries neighbouring Syria and Iraq, we have been working closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to address immediate needs and the advice that we have received is that with the coming winter there are urgent needs to provide basic equipment and support - shelter kits, clean, safe drinking water, food, support

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for women and girls - and so we have come up with this package that we understand from the UNHCR will support 240,000 people.

I have been in both Lebanon and Jordan. I have been to the registration centres. I've met with people who have been displaced from Syria and Iraq. I have met with representatives of communities that are housing these desperate people in their communities but also in camps. And so this additional assistance will be very timely, we can do it immediately. It will provide, as I said, food, equipment, water and cash for these desperate people.

The estimates of 240,000 people come from the UNHCR and we are pleased that we can do this with an additional $44 million out of our humanitarian programme. This will bring to a total of $230 million since 2011 for Syria and 2014 for Iraq our humanitarian assistance. That puts us in one of the lead positions in terms of not only pledging but paying for assistance and in this way we can relieve some of the burden that the neighbouring countries are bearing as a result of the conflict within Syria and within Iraq.

I have spoken with a number of my counterpart foreign ministers overnight and there has been agreement that our response in a humanitarian sense to support 240,000 people and our response to permanently resettle those from the persecuted ethnic and religious minorities is an appropriate and generous response.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thanks, Julie.

Kevin?

DEFENCE MINISTER:

Thanks, Prime Minister.

The extension of the RAAF flights over eastern Syria is very much a practical and logical extension of the current operations in that area and it is quite clearly in Australia's national interest because as we know, Daesh continues to provide a security threat, not just to Iraq and those regions of Syria in the Middle East, but it reaches out here to Australia.

Some 120 foreign fighters are known to have gone from this country to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq and it should never be forgotten the unimaginable barbarity which we've seen on our television screens and in the media as a result of their activities in the region. So, the decision reflects the Government's steadfast commitment to degrade, to destroy, to defeat Daesh. I'm very proud of the work of the men and women of the ADF that have been undertaken over the 12 months or so in the region to date and I'm sure they will continue to serve our country with the usual professionalism and pride.

PRIME MINISTER:

Ok, do we have some questions?

QUESTION:

Of the extra 12,000 refugees, is there any element of a bring forward from the expansion? They're all brand new?

PRIME MINISTER:

They're all over and above the existing programme and as you know, the programme is 13,750 this year and next year 16,250 the year after that and 18,750 in the final year. So this is 12,000 in addition to that, 12,000

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people with a very strong focus on persecuted minorities - women, children, families - from the countries neighbouring this conflict - Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

QUESTION:

By singling out persecuted minorities, you're sending a message to Muslims in Australia that we're discriminating against them.

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I can certainly appreciate the importance of ensuring that that isn't the case, Paul. It certainly isn't the case. If you look at the persecuted minorities of the region there are Muslim minorities, Druze, Turkmen, Kurds, there are non-Muslim minorities, Christians, various sorts, Jews, Yazidis, Armenians, so there are persecuted minorities that are Muslim, there are persecuted minorities that are non-Muslim and our focus is on the persecuted minorities who have been displaced and are very unlikely ever to be able to go back to their original homes.

QUESTION:

You use the term, women, children and families - is that another way of saying there will be no single men and can you give us a sense of the journey you have been on over the last couple of days given over the weekend you were talking about staying within that 13,750 cap?

PRIME MINISTER:

It's important that we act with our head as well as with our heart here. I really do want to stress that and while I think we are all in the grip of grief, really, as we saw the tragedy unfolding on our television screens, the responsibility of government, the responsibility of prime ministers in particular, is to act in a measured and considered way and I didn't want to rush into something before receiving advice from our Minister in Europe talking to the UNHCR and the IOM and other agencies and before getting very considered advice from our officials here.

Now, the considered advice here and abroad is that the immediate need is for more money, because there are people who are suffering dreadfully in these camps and they need water, food, clothing, shelter, particularly with the winter coming on. But over time there are many, many, many people in this region who have been displaced because they are in fear of their lives from the mass execution of the death cult on the one hand, from the brutalities of the Assad regime on the other hand. This is a region which is riven with conflict, which is soaked in blood, so you can fully understand why so many people, despite ancient connections with this land, can never go back and it's those that can never really go back that we're focused on.

QUESTION:

Is this an open commitment to the military operations now in Syria? There's no time limit that you've offered today, is there a possibility we may increase our military presence there if necessary? And just secondly, how concerned are you about reports of the Russian military cargo jets going into Assad airport, arming the Assad regime? Is there a risk that Australia is now getting involved in a conflict that may be much broader between US-backed forces and Russian forces?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't think there is a real risk of that. I don't think there is a real risk of that although it is well known that Russia has been a supporter of the Assad regime. That's been the case for years, many, many years indeed. And given the difficulty and the pressure that the Assad regime is under, it's not really surprising that the Russians have lifted their level of support for the Assad regime. I just want to stress that we are

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targeting Daesh. We are targeting the death cult. That is where our strikes will be directed. We have no legal basis, at this point in time, for wider strikes in Syria and we don't intend to make wider strikes in Syria. It is simply the Daesh death cult which is doing so much damage in Iraq which we are pledged to help to defend and we are exercising the right to collective self-defense under article 51 of the UN charter in striking Daesh in Syria.

QUESTION:

Are there any geographic restrictions on where Australia will operate? Will that include Raqqa, for example, the headquarters of Daesh? Are we talking about any more assets and ultimately who do you want in power in Syria?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what we want throughout the Middle East are governments that do not commit genocide against their own people, nor permit terrorism against ours. That's our objective. Everywhere in the Middle East to work towards governments which do not commit genocide against their own people nor permit terrorism against ours. Obviously, the Assad regime is not the kind of government that we could ever support. Obviously, the consolidation of a terrorist State in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq would be a catastrophe for us as well as a calamity for the people of that benighted region. So, do we want Assad gone? Of course we do. Do our military operations contribute to that at this time? No, they don't.

QUESTION:

The Greens are talking about bringing 20,000 Syrian refugees and they said that it was possible within two to six months, what's your comment on the 20,000 target, whether it's achievable and is a six month timeframe achievable as well?

PRIME MINISTER:

We want the 12,000 to come in as quickly as possible. We're not putting a timetable on it because we do have to make all of these important checks; health, security, character, because it is important that we bring in people who are going to be contributors to the Australian community. It is important that we don't bring in anyone from this troubled region who might ultimately be a problem for the Australian community as far as we humanly can. So, we will do it as quickly as possible but the checks have to be made and I think the Australian people would expect no less of us.

QUESTION:

Could I ask the CDF about the difficulty of identifying the targets in Syria and will anything more need to be done to make that easier?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, obviously the CDF will have more to say on this but we will be integrated into coalition air operations, not only over Iraq but now over Syria as well. And there is a programming of participation in strikes and we will be part of that programming henceforth. But certainly there would be no reason why Australian air strikes into Syria couldn't take place within days.

CDF.

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CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

Thanks, Prime Minister. We're looking for operations to commence within the week noting that as a logical extension to our current air operations over Iraq what this provides is the operational commander - gives the operational commander the wherewithal to be able to focus air operations where and when he may need it. It depends on the tasking cycle and what targets may come up in the particular areas at the time.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible] targeting to identify precisely?

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

Again through our targeting process I believe the targets will be just as hard to find in Syria as they are in Iraq. Air operations over the last 12 months have sent Daesh underground. They are more difficult to find but that also means it's more difficult for them to manoeuvre and a part of the air operations into Syria is to ensure that we decrease their manoeuvrability and their ability to resupply their forces in Iraq.

QUESTION:

Can I ask your attitude towards Australians who are fighting with ISIS in Syria or Iraq, do you consider them enemy combatants and would you countenance Australian strikes against them or ally strikes against them?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, anyone fighting for Daesh is a target of coalition operations - is a potential target of coalition operations. Now, we have strict rules of engagement. We obviously want to ensure we are striking at our enemies, not at civilians. But nevertheless, if people are fighting for Daesh, if they are working for the death cult and they come within the rules of engagement, well, obviously, they may well feel the force of our arms. Dennis?

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, when you were considering extending the air strikes, did the Government consider beefing up our military presence in the region and is that a live option for the future?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we will continue to work as closely as we can with our Coalition partners, particularly the United States, particularly the armed forces of Iraq in the weeks and months, and, if necessary, years ahead. We already have very substantial forces in the Middle East. We have, at the moment, six strike aircraft, we have a refueler, we have a command and control aircraft. The refueler and command and control aircraft are doing particularly important work supporting all of the Coalition's air operations not simply our own strikes. I think, and the CDF might correct me, there's about 400 personnel associated with that. We've got some 300 personnel at Taji working in the build partner capacity mission and we believe the effectiveness of the Iraqi regular army has been very significantly improved thanks to the training that ourselves and the New Zealanders have been able to provide. Then, of course, there's about 100 Special Forces who are continuing to operate with the counterterrorist service of the Iraqi armed forces and they are also doing ongoing advice and assistance work.

And then there are other personnel in the Middle East involved with our anti-piracy and other patrols. So, it's quite a substantial military presence that we have in the Middle East. After the United States, we are the country which has made the second-highest number of strike missions in theatre so we are making a very

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significant contribution and obviously our ability to continue making that contribution is greater as a result of today's announcement.

Malcolm?

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, could I clarify with the CDF, will our aircraft be ready for deployment by the end of the week or will they actually be operational, dropping bombs et cetera by the end of the week?

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

I said within a week and for all intents and purposes, they just take a 10-degree left turn when they go on task and end up over Syria so there's no major change to be able to do these operations over eastern Syria.

QUESTION:

Will they be shifted to Turkey?

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

No.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible] eight strike aircraft and are you likely to increase the number from six to eight? Are they likely to be Hornets or Super Hornets that carry out these operations and is the command and control aircraft and the tanker likely to cross the border into Syrian air space?

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

It will be a combination. The rotation will be Classic Hornets or Super Hornets depending on what squadron comes online to do it. We're approved for up to eight aircraft at the moment. We don't envisage that I'll increase that number from six to eight although I have the flexibility to do that depending on the tasking and I can increase that at any time if I need to.

QUESTION:

And the other aircraft, the command and control, the wedgetail and refueler, will they cross?

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

If required by the air commander, yes, they are able to cross to support operations if they need to.

QUESTION:

Given the proximity, do you regard any discernible or significant difference in terms of the dangers involved in terms of flying over Syria compared to Iraq given that there’s obviously been incidents where a Jordanian pilot crashed and was taken hostage? Is there any real difference between flying into Syria?

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

Combat operations are dangerous by the nature of what the men and women are doing. I don't envisage a marked increase in the risks of operating where we're going to operate in Syria. We're well aware of the

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Syrian regime and where their air defence assets are, where they're doing their operations. The coalition air operation are now deconflicting with what their air operations may be. So, we will just fold into that as we have been in Iraq.

QUESTION:

[inaudible] be required on the ground and exactly what will peace look like?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the outcome that we're working towards, along with our coalition partners, is a Middle East comprised of governments which don't commit genocide against their own people nor permit terrorism against ours. That's what we're working towards, this is not an attempt to build a shining city on a hill, this is not an attempt to build a liberal pluralist market democracy overnight in the Middle East. That's been tried and it didn't magnificently succeed; thus far it has not magnificently succeeded. So, our objectives are important but they're achievable, I believe. I think they're vital but in a sense modest because surely all human beings are entitled to a government which doesn't commit genocide against them, nor permit terrorism against people who have done them no harm.

QUESTION:

Will eventually boots on the ground be required?

PRIME MINISTER:

I should point out that while there have been some disappointments and frustrations in the campaign against Daesh so far, there has also been a degree of success. For instance, there have been no major advances by Daesh since coalition air operations commenced. If anything, the Iraqi armed forces have regained significant territory from Daesh since our airstrikes, along with those of our partners, began. So, these air strikes are effective, they are making a difference. As to what might happen in the long-term future, it's just not appropriate to speculate today but we are continuing to work with our partners and allies to ensure that the response is prudent, proportionate and effective.

QUESTION:

On persecuted minorities, obviously there's lot of concern about persecuted minorities and also Muslim people who fled to camps who are suffering as well but you’re not looking at those groups, are they ineligible?

PRIME MINISTER:

Some Muslim people are very much members of persecuted minorities. As I said, there's Druze, there's Kurds, there's Turkmen, there's Yazidi, so there are certainly Muslim and non-Muslim persecuted minorities in this part of the world and we are prioritising all of them.

QUESTION:

So ones who are not members of a persecuted minority won't be eligible?

PRIME MINISTER:

Again, in some places Shia are persecuted minorities, in other places Sunni are persecuted minorities but what we want to do is to prioritise persecuted minorities who have sought refuge in the countries surrounding this particular conflict in Turkey and Lebanon, in Jordan, we want to prioritise women,

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children, families, we want to prioritise people who are unlikely ever to be able to go back to their ancestral homes because while, as we know, these minorities have been in this part of the world since time immemorial, it is an incredibly dangerous place - an incredibly dangerous place. Obviously, for Christians it's a very dangerous place now but it's a very dangerous place for anyone who doesn't submit to the atrocious demands of the death cult.

[ends]