It was revealed earlier this week that Australian forces haven't flown a mission in Syria since the Russians arrived. On Thursday the Chief of Joint Operations, Vice Admiral David Johnston downplayed any suggestion this signalled a change in strategy, simply saying that it was "because of the tasking in place. There is no change in our availability."
However there's some speculation this isn't the case. Last month Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told the UN that removing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad might no longer be the best course of action. "The fear that a number of countries have is that if the Assad regime were either removed or collapsed, it would create a vacuum, and one might find that it was filled by an even more diabolical presence," she told the council in New York.
So is Australia backing out of the conflict? And was Russia's intervention the deciding factor? To find out we spoke to Dr John Blaxland, who is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.
VICE: Hi John. Tell me, what are we seeing in Syria at the moment?
Dr John Blaxland: Well, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's statements are actually out of step with what the European partners and US coalition have been stating. She's also acknowledged that Russia's entry has drastically altered the game. To pursue the removal of Assad at the moment would be counter productive and confrontational to the point of leading to an armed clash with Russia. That would be catastrophic.
Would Australia's Syria operations really run the risk of antagonising Russia?
It's very possible. We've already seen Russian aircraft flying in Turkish airspace, where they haven't been invited, painting Turkish aircraft with lasers, pre-designating targets. It's classic Putin-esque intimidation. And he's mad as a cut snake and would get a kick out of going there. It's incidents like these that have motivated Australia to back off.
But we're not the US. Would Russia bother?
Russians completely see us as part of the alliance. We use American aircraft, we speak English, and we're a close ally. As far as Russia is concerned, we're quasi-Americans.
Is that the only reason we could be backing off?
No. We've been pursuing a strategy that was put in by the Abbott government. Arguably it was about coaxing the United States to do more. We're with you! Let's go. That mood has changed significantly with the Turnbull Government. The key difference, and I think this is something Julie Bishop has picked up on, is that Syria has long been a client state of the Soviet Union, going back generations. Bashar al-Assad invited that Russians in. Nobody invited us in, so there's a real legitimacy deficit for Australia's and the west's actions against Assad. This enormously complicates our efforts there.
So it's a danger factor combined with a changed political landscape here?
Exactly. They dynamics domestically have changed and the equation in Syria has changed.
So how do you think this will end?
One of the hopes out there is that Russia will get stuck in quagmire like they did in Afghanistan. The other extreme is that Russia will change the nexus and that in the next few months we'll get a breakthrough in the situation there. But I think Assad's position will probably get stronger.
And do you think Australia will make an exit?
I've been advocating we do that and the rhetoric from the new government is certainly much softer. This would suggest they recognise there's not much to be gained by pushing harder.