The Syrian Civil War has become a war of attrition between the Assad Regime and ISIS. For over a year, the frontlines that crisscross Syria and Iraq have been relatively stable. Towns are now changing hands infrequently and only after very long, bitter, and costly struggles.
This month, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, called the fight against ISIS a "tactical stalemate" and he saw no "dramatic gains on either side." This is despite the year-old US-led air campaign that is meant to break the deadlock.
Tony Abbott announced last week that the RAAF would expand its bombing campaign against ISIS to include targets inside Syria. It is important to understand the nature of the conflict that Australia is increasingly becoming involved in.
All civil wars are fiercely zero-sum contests. But, this is particularly true for civil wars being fought by attrition strategies, where both sides are relying on depleting the other side's manpower and logistics faster than their own.
When intervening in civil wars that are being fought through attrition, there is no practical difference between providing assistance and destroying capability. So, for example, providing 100 rifles to one side has the exact same effect on the relative balance of forces on the battlefield as bombing a truck with 100 rifles on the other side of the ledger. My PhD was, in part, on this dynamic.
As a consequence, any intervention in a civil war will be partisan. Abbott is wrong to believe that the decision to expand the RAAF's bombing campaign into Syria can possibly be aimed at crippling ISIS while remaining neutral or indifferent to the Assad Regime's strategic fortunes. By taking the decision to bomb ISIS targets in Syria, Australia has picked a side in the Syrian civil war. It is nonsense to think that Australia is not now tacitly helping the Assad Regime's war effort.
By bombing ISIS, Australia has sided not only the Assad Regime, but also with its allies: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. These actors are actively providing the Assad Regime with weapons, expert advice and logistics.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, Russian advisors have been inside Syria helping the government's forces. This support is on top of substantial political, military and logistical support. It appears, however, that Russia is on the verge of becoming even more involved in Syria. There have been reports of the Russians delivering prefabricated housing for about 1,000 people. This has led analysts to speculate that the Russians might be about to commit their own air defence units or modern combat aircraft.
If true, the skies over Syria might soon become a very dangerous place for the RAAF pilots. In light of these developments, last week's warning by the Russian Ambassador to Australia begins to sound more menacing.
There is speculation that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, will use his upcoming address to the UN General Assembly to push for a major new diplomatic initiative to end the Syrian conflict that includes Assad. It is likely that the United States and Australia will dismiss this proposal out of hand.
This is a mistake. It is now clear that the Assad Regime is not a hollow regime. It has survived since 2011 because it has a support base inside Syria. The regime has a represents the interests of its constituency, which is primarily the Alawites, but also includes elements of the broader Shia society and other minorities, such as some Christian groups.
Abbott famously observed that the Syrian Civil War is a contest between "baddies versus baddies." By announcing that the RAAF will bomb ISIS but not the Assad Regime, he has signalled that the Regime is the lesser of the two evils. Abbott hinted at this point in his interview with his old sparing partner, Leigh Sales, on the 7.30 Report. In replying to Sales' question of why Australia isn't supporting moderates, Abbott pointed out that the two main sides are the Assad Regime and the "even more diabolical Daesh death cult."
It is time to follow Abbott's thinking through to its only logical conclusion. The constituency that Assad represents needs to have a voice in any future Syrian government. As a military approach, Abbott has chosen a side in attacking ISIS and, therefore, tacitly supporting the Assad Regime. Yet in terms of diplomacy, Abbott has a poor relationship with Putin who he has threatened to "shirt front".
Abbott's military approach is at odds with his diplomatic efforts. Once he acknowledges that he has chosen a side, then he, together with the international community, can move forward by working with Assad and Russsia.
Dr. Adam Lockyer is a Senior Lecturer of Security Studies at Macquarie University. He is the 2015 Fulbright Scholar on the US-Australian Alliance Studies at Georgetown University.