ABC 774 with Raf Epstein – 9 September 2015

QUESTION

Tell me, why are we bombing ISIS targets in Syria if it’s the Syrian regime doing most of the killing?

MINISTER ANDREWS

What we announced today is a logical extension of our existing commitment in the Middle East. It’s in our national interest because we are there to try and restore order and to reclaim sovereignty as part of a coalition assisting Iraq and the Iraqi Government. Our direction is not in relation to Syria, it’s in relation to Iraq.

QUESTION

What difference will it make though because surely if – I ‘spose it could have an impact on Islamic State in Iraq but every bomb you drop on Islamic State in Syria’s East, that’s one less bomb the regime needs to use on soldiers and another bomb they can use on civilians?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well, Daesh as you know doesn’t respect the border between Syria and Iraq and it threatens the security of Iraq from both within Iraq and across the border into Syria. If we are serious about wanting to degrade and destroy ISIL, we can’t simply restrict ourselves to the activities in Iraq. We have to recognise that they have training camps; they have command structures which are over the border in eastern Syria.

QUESTION

Would you agree – I’m just not sure you’ve addressed my question – am I correct in saying that an unintended consequence it may be, but a consequence of bombing – sending a missile down on Islamic State – that’s one less fight the Assad regime needs to have and they’ve been explicitly targeting civilians. Could that be an unintended consequence of strengthening the Assad regime?

MINISTER ANDREWS

The Assad regime is involved in conflicts not just with ISIL, it’s involved in conflicts with others, the so-called opposition forces ….but we’re staying right out of that. We’re not getting involved in the conflict between the Assad regime and its opponents in western Syria. We are simply trying, as a matter of this collective self-defence of Iraq, to try and stop the activities coming into Iraq from ISIL or Daesh across the border from eastern Syria.

QUESTION

Are there any targets? I know Canada they had a massive debate in March about extending their air strikes, I think they also have six fighter jets in the region. I’ve read they only hit 12 targets in six months, so they’ve only had a couple of opportunities each month. Are there actually that many things for our planes to hit?

MINISTER ANDREWS

We work on a targeting strategy and there are quite strict rules of engagement in relation to what we can target. The major focus for our aircraft will remain in Iraq, but if there are opportunities across the border into Syria then obviously we want them to have the flexibility to take those opportunities. Because of the strict targeting regime, that means that we just don’t go in and bomb willy nilly, particularly where it could have an impact on civilian populations.

QUESTION

The criticism of course from some is that this is simply flag-waving. This is simply doing what America wants. I just wonder whether if there is actually an extensive range of targets for our planes to hit. If Canada hasn’t found much to hit over the border, why would we be able to if we’re all on the safe side?

MINISTER ANDREWS

We do believe that there are targets. There is a joint targeting approach by the various coalition forces, there is 120 Australian foreign fighters in Iran, in Iraq and in Syria. We’ve seen the threat reach out to Australia so we think it’s artificial to simply respect the border – if I can put it that way – which Daesh doesn’t. Daesh is a real threat and that’s what we’re taking very seriously, Raf.

QUESTION

The Prime Minister today said there’s been no really major advance by ISIS in the 12 months since the US and other airstrikes have begun. Do you think that’s right?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Look that is overall true. If you look at a map of the territory in Iraq which ISIL or Daesh were in control of 12 months ago and compare it to now then they’ve got much less territory than they had. But is there still a fight ahead? Of course there is. There’s major cities such as Mosul, which they still are in control of. There are areas along the Euphrates and the Tigris, which they are still in control of. This is far from over, it’s an ongoing fight and that’s why we’ve expanded our operation.

QUESTION

The Prime Minister’s wrong in a significant sense though isn’t he – when he says there’s been no advance in the last 12 months? They took Ramadi; that’s the most significant town in the west. It’s got symbolic and strategic significance. You could easily argue that they’ve taken Ramadi, in Tikrit which has been taken back from ISIS. They are all of the locals – they don’t actually want to move back in there because they’re scared of the militias run by the Government. It’s very easy to mount an argument isn’t it that the airstrikes have done nothing to set ISIS back?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well a couple of things Raf. It’s not a clear cut fight. Yes, there’s still ongoing fighting around Ramadi where ISIL did have some breakthrough but the contrary to that is Tikrit. If you look at the map there is less area of Iraq which is now occupied and controlled by ISIL or Daesh than there was 12 months ago. The other thing the airstrikes are having an impact on is it’s forcing ISIL into more underground positions. They’re less able to move around freely as they were in the past and that’s having the effect on their ability to actually carry on their warfare.

QUESTION

Can I just ask you a little about the 12,000 extra refugees who will come in above and beyond the regulation intake that we have at the moment. Which minorities are we prioritising?

MINISTER ANDREWS

There is a whole lot of minorities. In Muslims you have Kurds, for example, who have been victims. There’s the Yazidi…

QUESTION

I’m not sure they’re Muslim are they?

MINISTER ANDREWS

No, but you’ve got a whole range of both Muslim and Christian minorities. The point here is that there are persecuted minorities and if you ask yourself the question: which groups are least likely to be able to ultimately return to their ancestral homes then it’s these minorities, so we think this is the decision of the Cabinet that we ought to be putting emphasis on those minorities rather than the groups that are likely to return when this all finishes.

QUESTION

Does any other country have a sectarian basis for those selected to come and settle? I’m not aware of another country but maybe I just don’t know…

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well I’m not sure what you mean by a sectarian basis, because…

QUESTION

Well if you’re assuming that there are minorities who should get priority, that’s what I meant.

MINISTER ANDREWS

Oh right, yes but it’s not sectarian in the sense of Christian versus Muslim, for example, there’ll be Muslim minorities as I tried to point out and Christian minorities as well.

QUESTION

I just wonder if any other country runs the same filter?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well most of the other countries, are not taking anywhere near the number we are, and are generally taking them on a temporary basis. If you look at the decision that was taken by the Cameron Government in the UK to take 20,000 over, I think it’s about, four years, they are all temporary basis. They’re not permanent settlements like we’re doing in Australia.

QUESTION

A few of the people inside the Coalition are saying some rather interesting commentary. Firstly George Christensen, texted out a picture saying that refugees take Aussie jobs. Do you think that’s acceptable to be part of the Government and text out allegations like that?

MINISTER ANDREWS

I don’t spend much of my time reading texts and looking at twitter and things like that Raf, I basically get on with the job that I’ve got to do and that’s this announcement in this regard. There’ll be a variety of comments that are made by colleagues about things. We had a very good Party room meeting this morning where there was quite a positive atmosphere there. I think everybody was satisfied that this was an appropriate decision that we’d taken in relation to the extra 12,000 people.

QUESTION

‘No more Muslim men’ was one anonymous quote ABC news reported on from a Liberal MP. I don’t know if that feeling is widespread in your Party room. I’d like to know if you think that feeling is widespread. Also I’d like to know if any single young men will be allowed in as part of that 12,000. Do you know?

MINISTER ANDREWS

The emphasis is on the most vulnerable which are women, children and families but it’s not excluding men.

QUESTION

So single men could be part of that?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Undoubtedly part of that 12,000 will include some single men. I can’t answer the question at this stage as to what the numbers or proportion will be, but I can say what our intention is. Persecuted minorities who are not going to be able to go back and live where they may have lived with their families for decades, if not centuries – and obviously the most vulnerable are women, children and families in those circumstances.

QUESTION

I’m sure one of the claims that gets hurled your way quite a lot as Minister for Defence is that deploying the ADF costs a lot of money. I think the Prime Minister said that we’re spending something like $230 million in aid in total in Iraq and Syria in four years. If our military effort is about $500 million a year, which is a figure that the Treasurer has used. $500 million a year – that’s kind of like an eight to one. So for every one dollar of aid, it’s eight dollars in a military effort. Is that the right balance?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Raf, I’d say the cost of inaction will be even higher. The reality is that if we do not defeat Daesh, then they will continue to spread their tentacles not just in Iraq and Syria, but beyond that – reaching out to places like Australia. As I said earlier, 120 Australian foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria that we know of. We’ve had plots that have been disrupted in Australia that have been motivated by the same ideology and some of the same people and this reflects our commitment to stand steadfast in terms of the security of the people of Australia.

QUESTION

Does the military action provoke more risk here in Australia?

MINISTER ANDREWS

I don’t believe so. There’s obviously a risk here at the present time, because as I said we’ve had plots that have been disrupted. We know there are people who are attracted to this medieval ideology that Daesh is promoting. That’s a reality at the present time, but we’ve also taken the view as many other countries around the world have now taken, that this has to be stamped out at the source and if we don’t do that then the cost over time will probably be much higher.

QUESTION

Minister, what’s the legal basis and is my texter right that the Syrian regime could try to have a go at an Australian war plane and they would be within their legal rights?

MINISTER ANDREWS

We don’t expect that to happen because our war planes will be operating over eastern Syria. The reality is that the Syrian regime of Mr Assad is basically their battle is over western Syria so we will, to use the military expression, be de-conflicted from the Syrian regime. In other words, our planes won’t be flying where the Syrian regime is operating.

QUESTION

But the regime’s in some of those North Eastern cities in Syria isn’t it? They’re quite close to the border?

MINISTER ANDREWS

The regime is largely in the line from Aleppo in the north down to Damascus in the south. Not exactly those areas, but that broad western band, if I could put it that way, through Syria whereas we’re talking a fair way away from that out on the eastern border of Syria close to Iraq.

QUESTION

And just finally Minister, I don’t think the Prime Minister ruled out boots on the ground in Syria, I think he said it’s not appropriate to speculate on that today. Is there likely to be an increase in Australia’s military effort in Syria beyond what you’ve announced today?

MINISTER ANDREWS

We don’t have any boots on the ground in Syria, we’re not planning any boots on the ground in Syria. Even in Iraq…

QUESTION

Would you rule it out?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Yes, I’m ruling it out because we’ve got no intention of doing that. We’re basically in Iraq in an advise and assist capacity and that’s not going beyond the wire, to use the cliché military expression. It’s there in Taji, where we’re training regular Iraqi forces and in Baghdad where we’re training their counter-terrorism or special forces. The boots on the ground to win this fight needs to be the Iraqi boots on the ground and our task there is to help train them.

QUESTION

Kevin Andrews thank you for your time.

MINISTER ANDREWS

My pleasure, Raf.

ENDS.