The curious case of Australian intervention in Syria

Australia is a continental-sized land mass; rich in natural resources and with very few people. The country is twice the size of Europe but with only as many people as Netherlands and Denmark put together.

Economically, Australia has little to gain directly being involved in Syria. The conflict poses it not immediate or direct economic threat, neither are there any apparent competitive advantages to be gained by making the war swing one way or another. None of its top trading partners are in the region. In fact, despite being an oil-importing nation, Australia imports most of it from countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia and the UAE.

So why would Australia send its military hardware, personnel and equipment to get involved in a war 7000 miles away?

Australia’s special relationship with refugees

Among developed nations, Australia is unique for being geographically located near poorer, densely populated and politically volatile countries. Despite this, for a long time, the official immigration policy of the country remained ‘White Australia’. Similar, but not as well known or wide-ranging as Apartheid, this policy discriminated against its Asian neighbours and encouraged immigration from predominantly white, European countries only.

Its first major tryst with refugees started when Vietnamese citizens sought refuge after the war.

Since then and over the past several years, Australia has been receiving refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Sri Lanka. Except for a less resistant policy during 2007-2012, Australia has continued its fairly tough policy towards new arrivals. Generally, the younger, more liberal Australians are just as equally shocked as the rest of the world in the country’s perceived discrimination of asylum seekers. However, blatant and shocking levels of distrust still exist, a throwback to the ‘White Australia Policy’ of a generation ago.

A Refugee Action protest, Melbourne. 2013. Photo: Takver/Flickr

A Refugee Action protest, Melbourne. 2013. Photo: Takver/Flickr

Currently, any new asylum seeker arrivals are moved to and detained in other countries; to Papua New Guinea or Nauru, which are also among two of the poorest island nations in the world, and probably the reason why they are willing partners in a clearly discriminatory, but economically beneficial process.

Public pressure has not fazed the Australian government. A few weeks ago, Abyan, a refugee who had been raped while she was held in detention in Nauru, was brought to the country for treatment after becoming pregnant. This generated huge public empathy but the government did not relent and has now returned the refugee to Nauru.

Australia’s terrorism paranoia

The US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand are together part of the ‘Five Eyes’ group of countries who monitor the world’s electronic communications, including social networks, phones, email and web histories. While this program is clearly the brainchild of, and led by, the US National Security Agency, leaked documents show that Australia is the most paranoid member of this group – making more requests for data than even UK’s GCHQ agency.

What does this mean?

The Australian government is secretly spying on us – more actively than any other country. Most of this is illegal even according to their own constitutions, so security agencies have been circumventing that by partnering with countries as ‘foreign spying’ is more permissive, even though the foreign spies act as their partners. So, Australia’s participation in Syria more likely comes from its association with American security agencies and closely aligned geopolitical interests.

While national security agencies work under a strict cover of secrecy, occasional leaks have confirmed that their decision makers have a lack of understanding of new technology, operate in gender biased teams and suffer from the ineptitude creep that develops inadvertently in large organisations.

To stay relevant from a security perspective, the Five Eye countries have needed to grow their surveillance and analysis capabilities faster than overall data growth of the internet, which itself is growing at an exponential rate.

Internet use is roughly doubling every year, with most new growth coming from developing countries. These new users from developing countries (for instance, Pakistan) are now added to the signal collection databases at security agencies and thus may increase the numbers of anti-American or anti-Western messages. As this is the first time the world’s private messages and behaviours are being recorded and analysed in this way, the analysts at security agencies are running blind. They are unable to say for certain whether more ‘chatter’ about terrorism represents an increase in the threat or if it is merely the result of better data collection.

It is not impossible to imagine that American security agencies, being the primary collector and analytics centre of surveillance data, have emphasised to its partners that these new signals constitute heightened risk, thus increasing the urgency and significance of military participation for countries like Australia.

If this is true, the Syrian Civil War represents a dangerous precedent, one where the case for war is made by data: collected illegally and interpreted in secret by ill-informed analysts and opaque algorithms.