Defence Minister Marise Payne has said Australia “will consider” co-operating with Russia in the fight against the Islamic State terror group in Syria as its ally the United States wrestles with its own internal doubts over the fraught question.
Underscoring the awkward position that US allies such as Australia find themselves in as the new administration in Washington crystallises its thinking on some of Donald Trump’s more controversial proposals, Senator Payne said the Turnbull government would weigh its options but declined to go into detail.
She was speaking as the Pentagon prepares a plan to ramp up the international effort against the terrorist group, which Senator Payne stressed she did not want to pre-empt.
Asked how comfortable she felt about co-operating with Russia, Senator Payne said in an interview with Fairfax Media:
“As matters advance in Syria, these are matters the government will consider but I’m not going to make any further comment on that at the moment.”
In response to subsequent written questions, Senator Payne added:
“Australia is willing to work with any nation that is willing to make a constructive contribution to the fight against Daesh [an alternative name for Islamic State].”
Mr Trump has cited as chief among his reasons for wanting a closer relationship with the Putin regime that it can help the US destroy IS.
His cabinet secretaries have been more cautious. US Defence Secretary James Mattis said last week that Russia had to “prove itself” before the US could work with it and that the two countries were “not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level”.
Mr Trump himself has not outlined conditions for co-operation.
Moscow is fighting IS along with every rebel group to prop up its ally, the Assad regime, which the US and Australia accuse of widespread atrocities and do not support. Russian forces have also shown scant concern for mass civilian casualties in their bombing raids.
The previous Obama administration tried last year to co-ordinate air strikes with Moscow but abandoned negotiations amid Moscow’s indiscriminate bombing of rebels and civilians, which has escalated to horrific levels in the city of Aleppo.
Leading Republican Senator John McCain has branded any shift in US policy “complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people”.
Senator Payne declined to say what kind of expansion the government is prepared to make to its role in the Middle East under a plan being drawn up by the Pentagon.
That plan – which Mr Trump has demanded by the end of this month – will include what Mr Mattis calls an “acceleration” of the fight against the terrorist group.
Senator Payne said Australia was pleased with progress in Iraq but “that said, we would always listen to and be prepared to look at propositions that were put to us”.
Asked whether a plan drawn up in 30 days can produce a solution for Syria that takes account of the broader civil war and how the defeat of IS will affect it, Senator Payne said those were issues that were routinely considered and added that “I do think treading cautiously is a very important part of that engagement”.
She said it would be “a very brave person” who professed confidence about what would follow in the Syrian territory under IS control if the group is rapidly destroyed under an accelerated plan because “this is such a dynamic and fragile environment”.
“Members of the international coalition … will be considering very seriously the implications of any action in Syria as you would expect,” she said.