The Albanese government’s undue secrecy over the recent deployment of Australian troops in the Middle East has invited criticism from several quarters, with fears the country could quickly find itself entangled in the Israel-Hamas war should it escalate into a regional conflict.
Over a week has passed since Defence Minister Richard Marles announced the additional deployment of two further aircraft and a “significant” though unspecified number of troops to an unnamed country in the Middle East for an unspecified period as part of the second phase of Operation Beech — initially a DFAT-led initiative to assist Australian citizens in Israel who were seeking to leave the region.
During a flurry of media interviews, Marles loosely indicated that the purpose of the second deployment, which he variously described as a “contingency” and “precautionary” measure, owed to a desire to ensure the government was well-placed to assist or “act on behalf of” Australians in the region should conflict dramatically escalate and spread beyond the Palestinian territories.
Though these considerations were also referenced in General Angus Campbell’s remarks before Senate estimates last week, the defence chief wouldn’t be drawn on the particulars of the military deployment, much less what moved the government to make the decision.
“I do not wish to characterise [this] additional effort,” he said. “It’s simply that we’re in a situation in which a conflict has broken out, that conflict is potentially in its early stages, and there are many Australian nationals [in the region].”
Security experts, for their part, construed the announcement as an indication the government was intent on “moving the pieces into position in anticipation of a wider war” and, in so doing, ensuring Australia’s national interests are protected in the event of a regional conflict.
Pointing to the remarkably opaque nature of the deployment, former diplomat Alison Broinowski of Australians for War Powers Reform told Crikey the Albanese government had failed its “very small commitment” to increase transparency on decisions involving military deployments “at the very first test”.
“This is the first deployment by the Albanese government of Australian troops anywhere and we know next to nothing about it,” she said. “We have no idea what it’s for, where they are, when they’re going to come back, or what they’re even supposed to be doing, so it’s very serious, very troubling and I think Australians deserve a much better explanation.”
It’s a sentiment shared by retired captain Cameron Leckie, who told Crikey the failure of government to inform the public about the size, destination and mission purpose of the deployment represented a marked departure from normal practice.
“Why the secrecy? Has there been a request from the US for military assistance? If it’s just to assist in [civilian] evacuations or a crew to do the maintenance or forward planning and flight of the actual aircraft, why not say that?” he said.
“My major concern is we could very quickly end up involved in a hugely complex, regional war, and it’s very hard to see how that could possibly be in our national interest in any way, shape or form.”
The ramifications of such a conflict, Leckie said, would far outweigh those associated with the so-called war on terror, both in terms of Australia’s geopolitical security and broader international standing.
“It’s quite amazing to see the contrast between the government’s strong rhetoric on claims of genocide by Russian forces in Ukraine and its response to Israel’s war crimes, which has been comparatively timid, if not weak,” he said, citing Australia’s refusal to call for a ceasefire and its abstention from the UN resolution calling for a humanitarian truce. “That double standard, that hypocrisy, obviously doesn’t do much for our reputation and ability to influence others and inspire stability.”
Others, however, say it’s possible to slice through the miasma of secrecy and hypocrisy surrounding the announced deployment once it’s accepted that Australia’s defence policy is coloured not by a desire to uphold international law or the so-called “international rules-based order”, as the Albanese government frequently insists, but conversely by a desire to protect the dominance of the United States.
“The singular goal of our defence policy is to show relevance to the United States in its quest to uphold its own primacy,” former army intelligence officer turned historian Professor Clinton Fernandes told Crikey. “And right now, in the Middle East, its primacy depends on Israel’s striking power.”
Understood in this way, Fernandes said one possibility for the government’s secrecy over the deployment could be to minimise “international legal ramifications” if Australian troops were found to have aided or abetted in Israel’s war crimes. Alternatively, he said, it could simply be to embed troops in the region with a view to drawing operational tactical learnings from the conflict.
Whatever the reason for the deployment, he said, it almost certainly owes entirely to the US alliance: “There’s no great love between Australian Defence Force and Israeli war planners — nothing like that. If there’s been a request for assistance, it’s come from the United States.”
Cascading concern around the lack of transparency over the role of ADF personnel in the Middle East has also raised the ire of the Greens, whose spokesperson on defence, Senator David Shoebridge, said the Albanese government’s conduct had exposed the emptiness of its rhetoric on the “rules-based international order”.
“It’s more important than ever for Albanese and his cabinet to be clear to the public and the world about exactly what they are doing,” he said, “[but] the refusal to back a ceasefire shows [it] is more concerned with loyalty to the United States than upholding international law or even the best interests of an independent Australia.”
It’s understood that an extra 15,000 US troops have been deployed to the region since Hamas’ deadly October 7 attack, bringing the number of US personnel in the region to over 50,000.
A further 2,000 US troops have been placed on a heightened state of readiness, while a fleet of US-NATO aligned warships has amassed in the eastern Mediterranean, including four US aircraft carriers. In recent days, the US has separately conducted limited airstrikes in eastern Syria following skirmishes with Iranian-backed militias.
Marles’ office did not respond to questions regarding phase two of Operation Beech, whether the government would rule out direct involvement in the burgeoning conflict and whether the recommendations of the recent war powers inquiry were yet in force.