Caution needed in considering intervention in Syria
TranscriptEMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: To discuss the situation in Syria, we were joined in the studio by the Foreign Minister Bob Carr just a short time ago.
Senator Carr, welcome
BOB CARR, FOREIGN MINISTER: Pleasure to be here.
EMMA ALBERICI: Given the seriousness of last week's chemical attack in Syria and the growing certainty that the Assad regime was responsible, what do you think is the likelihood that Western countries will intervene militarily?
BOB CARR: Well the difficulties of intervening in Syria have been set out in a very thoughtful letter to Congress from General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 19 this year. There are big costs and considerable risks attached to each of the available options. No-fly zone - I'm looking at his letter - buffer zones, control of chemical weapons. So a lot of thought has got to go into this and again I think - as I've said before, I think the caution of the Obama administration is very well placed, very well placed. A rush to arm the opposition when that was a popular option late last year or earlier this year, I don't think in retrospect would've served anyone at all. Especially given the growth we've witnessed in the presence of al Nasra and al-Qaeda in that loose coalition of militias that makes up the Syrian opposition. I think the caution of the Obama administration is to be applauded and in that spirit I'd be happier if they took as long about this as they need to. And the letter was addressed to the chairman of the Committee on Armed Services, the Honourable Carl Levin - are still relevant.
EMMA ALBERICI: You say that was from July 19. That's some four or five weeks ago now and we're hearing reports that there was a 40-minute telephone conversation between David Cameron and Barack Obama about the possibility of a military strike within two weeks.
BOB CARR: Indeed, but the point the chairman of the Joint Chiefs made about limited stand-off strikes, which is a rubric that I imagine would capture the missile strikes that have been discussed, would still be relevant. He says, for example, (reading from documents) "The force requirements would include hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarine and other enablers. Depending on duration, the cost would be in the billions. Over time the impact would be the significant degradation of regime capabilities. There's a risk however that the regime would withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets." He goes on to talk about "retaliatory strikes are also possible" and "a possibility for collateral damage".
Now, one briefing I've had in recent days suggests that when the US has deployed precisely what you were suggesting in the past, the commanders have had to make - have had to make a calculation of the civilian deaths that would occur with each and every strike. From our perspective, the well-established caution of the Obama administration is altogether understandable.
EMMA ALBERICI: But it would appear that the UK is not sounding as cautious. Indeed, your British counterpart, William Hague, has said just in the last 24 hours, "We cannot in the 21st Century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity and there are no consequences. We intend to show that an attack of this nature will pass without a serious response." What do you expect he means by a serious response?
BOB CARR: Yeah, there's nothing in that spirit that I or Kevin Rudd would disagree with. One only had to see the footage. Chemical weapons lend themselves to what are known as mass atrocity crimes. The fact that Doctors Without Frontiers in the last 24 hours have suggested - I think confirmed, would be the stronger verb, that three hospitals in Damascus in the space of less than half a day treated 3,600 people with these toxic symptoms, that would suggest that this doesn't belong in the catalogue of mass atrocity crime.
EMMA ALBERICI: It's reported that the Elysee Palace said the French President had spoken to Kevin Rudd over the weekend. Can you share with us exactly what the nature of those talks were?
BOB CARR: It was a long conversation. I spoke to my French counterpart on Saturday night after the meeting of the National Security Committee in Canberra. The French feel very strongly about this. They have a historic attachment to the welfare of this part of the world. They've been very focused on the humanitarian catastrophe. I heard the French President say at a Friends of Syria meeting that what we're witnessing in Syria is an escalation of a catastrophe, an escalation of catastrophe, which is a vivid way of putting it ...
EMMA ALBERICI: It all seems the semantics, the semantics are changing, but they're all gathering toward a similar conclusion that something must be done. I guess the question is: what will that something be? Especially given Barack Obama was the one to say that a chemical strike would signal some kind of red line?
BOB CARR: Yeah, something must be done indeed, but we look forward - we haven't received it yet - we look forward to a briefing from the Americans on which of these options the White House is attracted to, after considering what the military has bowled up to it. As General Dempsey said in one of the two letters he sent to the Congress, "We're presenting what is possible. It's up to the political masters to determine what is desirable."
EMMA ALBERICI: When do you expect that briefing?
BOB CARR: I can't speak for the White House or for the US administration. But I am comfortable, the Prime Minister is comfortable with a US administration that gives due weight to all these considerations. Here is an administration, Emma, let me just underline this, that has sought to extricate America from two wars in the region, led by a President who was a noted opponent of the Iraq intervention and who's spoken on several occasions about the dangers attached to various of these options: arming the opposition, no-fly zone, buffer zones. I think Australians, I think Australians are 1.) filled with revulsion about the prospect of a government in this day and age using chemical weapons to achieve a mass atrocity, but 2.) I think this is the Australian mood: after Iraq, comfortable with an American administration that is carefully weighing consequences here, fully aware of the dangers of unintended outcomes.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now next Sunday, Australia assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council. How much influence do you expect Australia to have over any decision about an appropriate response to Syria, or do you expect such a response, if it is to be in the form of a military strike, to take place beyond the auspices of the UN?
BOB CARR: Well that's an acute question. It all hinges on the response of the Russians. That's why the accumulation of evidentiary data at this point is very significant. The question to ask is: will the data - will the material, will the evidence, will the information gathered by the UN team confirm to Russia's satisfaction that chemical weapons were deployed; and second, will other evidence - because the UN team's not going about this - will other evidence, will other evidence persuade the Russians - very hard-headed, very realist on this question especially - that the use of weapons was that of the Assad administration.
EMMA ALBERICI: On both counts, extremely difficult to prove. Especially at this late stage, some five or six days after the attack.
BOB CARR: Yeah. So the Russians have been very, very hard-headed on this and prepared to cut slack for their ally, their friend, their supporter in the region, the Assad Government. However, if the evidence is compelling enough, that is the evidence not only of chemical weapons use. but of use by the Assad forces, I would like to think that President Putin's administration would say, "That is enough. We now assume responsibility for achieving," what really should be consensus of the world on this - 1.) a ceasefire, so that not only chemical weapons stop being used, but all weapons by all militias; and second, a commitment to what was resolved on at Geneva in the middle of last year: a peaceful political transition towards a democratic, pluralist, multi-faith Syria, with the people of Syria, the people of Syria, not militia, not military, choosing the composition of the coalition that governs the country through a fair and transparent election.
EMMA ALBERICI: Next week, Thursday and Friday, you'll be off to the G20 meeting in Russia. Are you going to offer to take Julie Bishop with you, given the polls suggest she'll likely be the new Foreign minister just days after this meeting in Russia?
BOB CARR: Yeah, I'm punctilious about adhering to the caretaker conventions. I - so is the Prime Minister. We've actually got a book on our desks which spells out what the obligations are. And there's nothing to be gained by not doing that. The convention doesn't require the attendance at a conference of the Opposition spokesperson, but full briefings. And that means briefings without any inhibitions, and I'm offering, as I have on other occasions, briefings to the Opposition on this. But it comes ...
EMMA ALBERICI: But it would be within your remit to invite her along.
BOB CARR: No, that's - no-one's suggested that to me and the caretaker convention doesn't suggest it, let alone require it. We make no commitment during this caretaker period that would bind an incoming administration. I think that is the key test.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now there are 12 days to go for to you reverse the trend in the polls. You're particularly aware of what's happening in Sydney. What do you put the poor showing down to, especially in Western Sydney?
BOB CARR: Well first of all I think Labor stabilising, confirmed by the Newspoll today, and then regaining the momentum is going to happen. I think apart from anything else, the public reaction I've experienced when I've been mixing with the voters to this colossal ramshackle parental leave scheme that Tony Abbott, against the opposition of everyone else in his party, has embarked on, has committed to, I think is gaining traction with the electorate. People realise how essentially unfair it is and how you cannot be talking about debt and deficit while signing the country up to a thoroughly uncosted hybrid proposition like this.
EMMA ALBERICI: Well they say it is costed. They say it has been costed by the ...
BOB CARR: Yeah, it's not. I saw Joe Hockey flailing around on Q&A. It was the least convincing performance by a shadow Treasurer I can recall. So first of all, I'm encouraged by the public response to that, to think Labor can regain ground in this week, and then fight hard in the final week of the campaign. I think a big factor in it is the extraordinary media bias we've encountered. I have never seen - and I say this as someone who hasn't complained about the media as a rule, but I've never seen the coordinated - I'd only describe it as the coordinated attacks on any government that I've seen coming from the News Limited tabloids. 70 per cent of the papers in this country are controlled by Rupert Murdoch. And there's no doubt they're being mobilised to vilify the Labor government and in particular its Prime Minister. I mean, everything - every article - I cannot nominate a front page devoted to federal politics in the Courier-Mail or the Daily Telegraph in Sydney that hasn't been there to deride, to treat in a derisory fashion, the Labor Prime Minister of Australia. Or to treat, or treat in an uncritical fashion ...
EMMA ALBERICI: What's the motivation, do you think?
BOB CARR: I don't know enough about the national broadband scheme to tell you the extent to which News Limited would be disadvantaged or whether they'd be disadvantaged at all.
EMMA ALBERICI: So what do you suspect is the motivation?
BOB CARR: I can't answer that question.
EMMA ALBERICI: Could it just be because they don't think the Government's done a good job?
BOB CARR: It might be that they do it because they can do it, but I think that leaves Australians ...
EMMA ALBERICI: But isn't it entirely possible that they believe your government hasn't been a good one?
BOB CARR: It could well be the case. But shouldn't the Australian people, Emma, make that decision, with all the facts before them, without being bullied and bustled in that direction by a coordinated campaign by 70 per cent of the newspapers in the country? On the bottom line, this is about a fair go for the Australian people. Let the Australian people make up their minds themselves. Let them look at newspapers ...
EMMA ALBERICI: Ultimately they will, though. They don't read a newspaper to be told how to vote.
BOB CARR: The corrosive effect of having derisory front-page treatment of the Government every second day and flattering treatment of the Opposition every other day is very real. Let the Australian people look at newspapers and hear TV bulletins that give both sides. It's not hard for other newspapers to do it. And News Limited papers have done it in other elections. It's a requirement for a fair go. Fair treatment, so that in that spirit the Australian people can exercise what is the greatest glory of our public life, and that is, a decision made by the public, the public are the masters in a free and fair election.
EMMA ALBERICI: Finally, Senator, the Prime Minister and his Deputy Anthony Albanese today announced plans for a high-speed rail link - I think it was between Melbourne and Brisbane - by 2035. You made a similar pledge in 1998 to deliver high-speed rail between Sydney and the Central Coast by 2010 and many people are still waiting for that.
BOB CARR: No, I didn't make that pledge. I would've been eviscerated if I'd made that pledge. We conducted a number of studies of high-speed rail, but it won't work without a Federal Government commitment. You need that investment of national resources.
EMMA ALBERICI: My questions was going to be: why has high-speed rail been so hard to achieve in Australia?
BOB CARR: I think it's because of the population numbers and the population distribution in Australia. We had it looked at between Sydney and Canberra, and between Sydney and Canberra on its own, it was very hard to justify the extent of the public subsidy. Some years have passed since that study, and valuable as it was, it's been overtaken by population growth - Australia's had the highest population growth of any industrial country - and by changing economics.
EMMA ALBERICI: Bob Carr, thanks so much for coming in for us.
BOB CARR: Thank you, Emma. Thank you.