Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced that Australia will join an airlift of military equipment to the Kurds in northern Iraq.
Speaking at a joint press conference with the Chief of Defence, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, Abbott said the government had agreed to a request from the Obama Administration. The US, UK, Canada, France and Italy will also be involved in the airlift.
Abbott said “no specific request” has been received from the Obama Administration for “stepped up military activity”. He said that “just because we would prefer to stand aside from these conflicts doesn’t mean that these conflicts will stand aside from us”. Any request would be considered according to a range of criteria, including whether there is an achievable overall objective and a clear role for Australian forces.
- Watch Channel 7 News report (2m)
Transcript of joint press conference with the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin.
PRIME MINISTER: Well thanks everyone for coming. As you know over recent weeks and months we’ve seen a series of developments in Iraq and elsewhere but particularly in Iraq which constitute not only a humanitarian catastrophe but a security nightmare for the people of the region and for the wider world. We’ve seen beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions, we’ve seen minority groups, subject in President Obama’s words to potential genocide. The situation remains severe and it will remain severe as long as the ISIL movement retains control over large swathes of northern and western Iraq and parts of eastern Syria.
While we understandably shrink from reaching out to these conflicts, the truth is that these conflicts reach out to us. There are about 60 Australians that we know to be involved with terrorist groups in the Middle East. There’s another 100 or so who are actively supporting those who are involved with these terrorist groups. The problem with significant numbers of Australians being involved with these terrorist groups is that they are radicalised, they are brutalised, they are accustomed to kill in the name of God and if it’s right to kill in the name of God in Iraq, there’s no reason to think that the same people won’t do likewise, if they get the chance elsewhere, including in Australia.
So today I am here with the CDF whose presence I welcome to deal with two matters. Australia has agreed to join an airlift of military equipment to the Kurds. We’ve agreed to join this airlift at the request of the Obama Administration in the United States and with the permission of the Iraqi Government. Other countries involved in the airlift of military equipment to the Kurds include the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France and Italy. I also can announce that Australia has participated in a humanitarian airdrop to the besieged town of Amreli in northern Iraq – again we’ve done so at the request of the Obama Administration and with the permission of the Iraqi Government. I can announce that in coming days an Australian C-17 aircraft will be involved in airlifting equipment and supplies to Erbil in the Kurdish part of the Iraq. I can also say that we stand ready to participate in further humanitarian airdrops in Iraq should these be required.
Obviously there’s been some talk in recent days of potential Australian involvement in further stepped up military activity. I want to stress that no specific request has thus far been received from the Obama Administration. Should a specific request be made it will be considered according to these criteria: is there an achievable overall objective? Is there a clear role for Australian forces? Have all of the safety risks been considered, specific and general? And is there an overall humanitarian purpose in accordance with Australia’s national interests? Again I stress, peaceful democracies, peaceful pluralist democracies like Australia shrink rightly and understandably from reaching out to these conflicts but just because we would prefer to stand aside from these conflicts doesn’t mean that these conflicts will stand aside from us.
The people who are active in the terrorist groups in northern Iraq and elsewhere hate us as much as they hate the people that they are currently attacking. They hate us not for what we’ve done, they hate us for who we are and for what we are.
Finally, before asking CDF to address these matters, I do want to thank the Leader of the Opposition for a very constructive approach that he’s taken to these issues. I think it’s right and proper that both sides of Australian politics should stand together as far as is humanly possible on matters of national security. CDF.
CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE: Thank you Prime Minister. At 10.37 Australian Eastern Standard Time this morning a Royal Australian Air Force C-130 aircraft operating out of Al Minhad Base in the UAE successfully participated in a multi-national mission to drop humanitarian aid to the people of Amreli in north eastern Iraq. The drop consisted of 15 pallets of food, water and hygiene packs and that’s enough for 2,600 people for a day. The food came from the World Food Programme and the hygiene packs were from AusAID and marked aid from Australia. The aircraft since has returned safely to the base. It landed about half past one this afternoon our time and the crews are currently going through the debrief, but all indications at the moment are that it was a successful airdrop. And as the Prime Minister said, in coming days we will look to provide arms and munitions in support of the Kurdish Peshmerga and these arms will come out of eastern bloc countries that will be transported in for their support so that we can help them fight the ISIL threat and make sure that we don’t have a deepening humanitarian crisis in the north eastern area of Iraq.
Now for operational reasons I won’t go into the details of that mission but it is a very, very important mission that’s been done at the request of the Government of Iraq and the US Government. Thank you.
ABBOTT: Ok. Are there any questions?
QUESTION: Prime Minister the humanitarian airdrop in Amreli was done in conjunction with US airstrikes to support that drop. If Australia was to take part in airstrikes is that the sort of mission that Australia could be involved in?
ABBOTT: Look, I don’t want to get ahead of myself and I don’t any of us should get ahead of ourselves here. There’s been no specific request from the United States or the Government of Iraq for Australian involvement in airstrikes. I don’t say no request might be forthcoming. I don’t say that. But I do want to say that if there are any requests for more active military measures, they will be considered in the light of the criteria that I’ve just outlined. Is there a clear and achievable overall purpose? Is there a clear role for Australian forces? Have all of the safety risks, general and specific been considered? And is there an overall humanitarian purpose which accords with Australia’s national interests? But I also want to stress the airstrikes that the United States has directed against ISIL forces have been quite effective it seems in relieving the siege of Mount Sinjar in helping to ensure that a humanitarian airdrop could be successfully made to the besieged town of Amreli and in halting the ISIL advance into the Kurdish areas of Iraq. So airstrikes certainly have their purpose here and I want to thank President Obama for being prepared to act decisively to avoid potential genocide in northern Iraq.
QUESTION: Mr Abbott you said earlier that, some time ago, that there would be no Australian combat troops sent. Can you just give a guarantee as Senator Johnston seemed to indicate the other day, that that does cover no special forces in any circumstances?
ABBOTT: Again I don’t want to get into the business of making operational commitments or giving operational guarantees. I just want to repeat what has been said time and time again by President Obama himself that there is no role envisaged for combat troops on the ground and none of us want to get involved in another middle eastern war but it is important to do what reasonably can be done to avert potential genocide and any activity, any military activity by Australia, over and above the humanitarian airdrops and the military airlift that we’ve talked about now, will be along with allies and it would be at the request of the Government of Iraq but no specific request has been made, no specific decision has been made and were we to get a specific request obviously there’s a process that we would go through, it’s the standard process which has always been gone through by any Australian Government in a situation like this: consideration by the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, consideration by the full Cabinet and consultation with the Opposition.
QUESTION: Prime Minister do you have a timeframe on when a decision like this could be made? Are we waiting until the new Iraqi Government has been sworn in? And also the Greens Leader has called for Parliament to debate this issue this week, for other matters to be suspended and for the Parliament to be involved in making a final decision on whether our deployment is made for our soldiers. Andrew Wilkie has called it insane that you have that power on your own.
ABBOTT: Well this idea that Australian forces cannot be deployed until the Parliament has met and approved the mission I think is novel to say the least when it comes to the deployment of military forces by Australia. There are all sorts of circumstances in which Australian forces could be deployed, must be deployed where you couldn’t have a parliamentary debate prior to their deployment. This Government’s intention is to abide by the standard conventions which have always been applied to the deployment of Australian military forces: consideration by the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, consideration by the Cabinet and consultation with the Opposition, that’s the way it’s always happened in the past and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the way it will always happen in the future.
QUESTION: If I could just on the munitions and arms deliveries, are you able to tell us whether those will be airdrops or whether the RAAF planes will actually be landing to deliver those?
BINSKIN: No, we want to make sure that we know where the arms go and the munitions go when we deliver. So at this stage they won’t be airdropped, we’ll be landing and handing them over to officials from the Peshmerga.
QUESTION: Will there be defence guards and will you need people on the ground…..
BINSKIN: No, I’m not going to go into the tactical details of the mission for obvious reasons but we will be doing the missions in a controlled manner and making sure that we know who we are handing the arms and munitions too.
QUESTION: The mission that was carried out already with the help of the Americans, they carried out airstrikes in the area but how hazardous are those missions?
BINSKIN: I mean it’s complex Brendan, very complex situation over there. We know that the town was surrounded by ISIL forces and we know that the strikes that were conducted in support of the airdrop were to suppress the ISIL forces so that we could ensure the safety of the airdrop from the UK, France and Australian aircraft. So it was an integrated package and it was very, very important to coordinate that and bring it together.
QUESTION: [Inaudible] … aircraft weapons that you are aware of?
BINSKIN: Yes, they do, they do have anti-aircraft weapons with anti-aircraft artillery and MANPAD weapons. So we’re very conscious of that when we’re planning and conducting these missions to make sure that we minimise the risk to our aircrew when we go in and drop.
QUESTION: Mr Abbott, does this increase the terrorist threat inside Australia?
ABBOTT: Well Brendan this matter was dealt with by David Irvine at the National Press Club during the week and he said there was, in his professional judgement, no specific correlation between what the Australian Government might do in the Middle East and domestic terrorist threats. I want to reiterate what I said earlier; there is a certain type of terrorist organisation which hates us, not because of what we do but because of who we are and how we live and who we are and how we live I hope will never change. We are a free, democratic and pluralist society and that will never change.
QUESTION: Prime Minister just on that point you’ve repeatedly talked about the threat posed by foreign fighters returning to Australia, when will we actually see the bill that has the details of the measures so that we can have an informed debate and secondly on that, do you acknowledge that in the democratic society we have a right to legitimately question particular measures without downplaying the threat that these foreign fighters returning actually pose?
ABBOTT: I absolutely accept that robust debate is a part of a pluralist democracy such as ours and I guess I’m here at this press conference because I don’t shrink from robust debate, I expect to be subject to scrutiny, I expect that the Government will be subject to scrutiny, I accept all sorts of views will be put when it comes to how we best handle the security of our country in the face of a growing threat from organisations such as ISIL. The legislation; there are three tranches of legislation; the first is already before the Parliament, it deals with the powers of our security agencies, the second will shortly come before the Parliament, that deals with expanding the range of offences and the third, which will come before the Parliament as soon as possible, but it’s obviously currently subject to consultation, is about the retention of access to metadata.
QUESTION: Will the second tranche be this week?
ABBOTT: I don’t expect it this week. It’ll be in the Parliament as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Was the wider Cabinet involved in this decision or just the National Security Committee?
ABBOTT: This is a decision that was taken by the National Security Committee and it was supported by the Cabinet.
QUESTION: It went to the Cabinet or phone hook-up or what?
ABBOTT: Because the precise timing was subject to operational matters, permissions and so on, a decision in principle was taken by the National Security Committee, then it was taken to the Cabinet and the Cabinet supported that decision.
QUESTION: Last Monday?
ABBOTT: No, it was taken to the Cabinet earlier than that
QUESTION: Mr Abbott you must be conscious of the burden of responsibility resting on your shoulders to decide to send Australian personnel into harm’s way, have you been losing sleep?
ABBOTT: Well, that’s a very nice concern you’ve got but this is not about me, this is about what’s right for our country and what’s best for our world and the point I keep making is that the objective of this Government is a stronger Australia in a safer world. Obviously there are many countries that have more reach and more clout than Australia but Australia is not an insubstantial country economically and indeed militarily and we will do what we can to improve the wider world. We’ve never shirked bearing the burdens of the wider world. We’ve never done that in the past and certainly it’s not my intention that we’ll do it in the future.
QUESTION: The C-130 that flew the humanitarian mission over Amreli, did that experience any enemy fire?
BINSKIN: I haven’t had the full debrief from the crew but I’ve had no indications of that. I was notified about seven minutes after the drop that it had been successful and they egressing the area and there was no indication from that but that will only come from a detailed debrief. But I will take the chance to thank the crews. They’re not easy missions. They are long missions. They’re upwards of around about seven to nine hours and they’re supported by a huge support group on the ground at Al Minhad that load the stores, make sure the mission can be successful. So there’s a lot of people that go behind this and they should be thanked for the success of the mission.
QUESTION: Are there concerns around transporting these weapons to Kurdish fighters and them having a sort of a growth in their confidence and then wanting to form an independent state and then sort of further unravelling in that region?
ABBOTT: Obviously there’s a lot of work being done by the United States, there’s a lot of work happening between the Kurdish Regional Government and the Iraqi Government and what we are doing is with the full support of the Iraqi Government – at the request of the United States and with the full support of the Iraqi Government.
QUESTION: When did the United States make the request for our help with these arms deliveries?
ABBOTT: It was a request that was made in general terms some time ago and it was a request that crystallised into specificity a few days ago.
QUESTION: When you say that you told Parliament on Thursday that the Government hadn’t officially been asked for military assistance, was that just because a final decision hadn’t been made or had the final decision been made….
ABBOTT: There are three matters Lyndal; there are requests for humanitarian assistance, there are requests for military airlift and there are requests for actual military engagement and there has been no specific request for actual military engagement.
QUESTION: The PKK Prime Minister is a prescribed terrorist organisation here in Australia, they are fighting ISIL as well, along with the Peshmerga, do you have any longer term concerns about these arms falling into their hands and those being used for terrorist purposes?
ABBOTT: My understanding is that the Regional Government in Erbil has provided to the Americans, to the Iraqis and to others an assurance that the weapons that we will be helping to transport into Erbil will be used by the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish Regional Government.
BINSKIN: The greater risk here is actually doing nothing to be honest with you.
QUESTION: What sort of weapons are they that we are actually delivering, are they light infantry type weapons?
BINSKIN: They are light infantry weapons. So you’re looking at rocket propelled grenades, mortars and then various calibres of ammunition down from there.
ABBOTT: Could I just say in conclusion that I want to thank you for coming along today. I want to thank you for the constructive way you’ve dealt with this. This is very important for our country. It is very important for our world and I just want to stress that as far as the Australian Government is concerned, humanitarian objectives that accord with our overall national interest will always be forefront in our mind but when it comes to national security, when it comes to the safety of our country, this Government, all governments must always be vigilant.