Questions around RAAF rules of engagement in Syria

Questions around RAAF rules of engagement in Syria

The Australian Defence Force has been operating in Syria for around two months, but the role of the air force has become increasingly complicated with Russia now flying in the same airspace.

There is no answer yet on how long Australia will be there or whether the mission will remain the same.

There are now nine coalition countries carrying out strikes in Syria -- a country the size of Victoria.

For every strike carried out by coalition forces, three more are abandoned.

That is partly because of strict rules of engagement.

The rules are designed to prevent civilian casualties or damage to infrastructure.

Former army chief Peter Leahy says they are vital.


"We must be very careful that we only hit the enemy. And the enemy needs to be seen, he needs to be observed, he needs to be targeted. The rules of engagement are very important for the protection of people on the ground but, also, for the protection of our pilots in case they make a mistake. So, no, we don't need to relax them at all."


Russian airstrikes in Syria, on what it claims are targets belonging to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or I-S, are increasingly complicating the situation.

Not only has the airspace for coalition planes become more crowded, but there are also allegations Russia has been indiscriminate at best in its targets.

Dr Alexey Muraviev, from Curtin University in Western Australia, is an expert in international relations.

He says the Russian pilots will not be confined to the same tight regulations exercised over RAAF pilots.


"Normally, they get their target package whilst they're in the air and go to the area where they will have to execute their mission, and I think Russian pilots would exercise a greater degree of will and freedom in making executive decisions on the spot."


But Dr Muraviev says they are focused on Russia's objectives concerning the war.


"The Russians obviously want to achieve results quickly. They don't want to be fighting in Syria for months and years. They don't want to receive the reputation of their Afghanistan experience."


War ethicist Dr Matthew Beard says aggressive campaigns have been trialled in the past.


"We've seen in the past there have been shock-and-awe military campaigns that have tried to demonstrate overwhelming military force at an early stage in order to cut short a conflict, and, in the past, they've shown limited success. So whether or not a more aggressive strategy is going to result in the type of proportional gains that we would require from an ethical standpoint is kind of a strategic and empirical question."


In October, the military reported there had not been a single civilian casualty as a result of RAAF strikes.

But IS employs tactics which often include putting its fighters in places surrounded by civilians.

That makes airstrikes very difficult.

Dr Beard says countries carrying out airstrikes have to judge the gains achieved versus the potential loss, including loss of life.


"We've got to measure the harm that's being done according to the things that we consider to be intrinsically valuable. The most obvious consideration there is in terms of human lives, in terms of casualties, but there are also knock-on effects that need to be considered in these types of cases."


Syrian man Dr Anas Natfaji has been in Australia for 12 years, but he still has family caught up in the conflict.

He says it is impossible to gauge whether a short, aggressive campaign with a high risk of civilian casualties would be better than a longer campaign.

He says the latter could leave more people displaced over a longer period.


"It's very hard on my conscience to accept that it's okay to sacrifice a few hundred or a couple of thousands right now because we think, if we do that, maybe we can have a change in the military balance and in forces on the ground."


Dr Natfaji is not the only one debating the need for a change in tactics.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott called for putting soldiers on the ground in Syria during an address last week.


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