Khaki byelection anyone? Abbott steps it up ahead of crucial test

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s renewed focus on the war on terror will do no harm in the Canning byelection. Photo: Andrew MearesPM pushed for US request to join Syrian strikes

Was it Tony Abbott or Barack Obama who first suggested lifting Australia’s involvement in the Iraq/Syria war against Islamic State militants?

As usual, individual judgment will turn on the political allegiance of those considering the evidence, including the domestic political implications for a Prime Minister facing a crucial byelection test next month.

The reality is that in the nuanced world of diplomacy, truth can be hard to nail down. This is a world where hints are dropped, suggestions floated at officer level, positions flagged, inferences drawn.

What is certain though is that by the time the formal US request was made, Australia’s enthusiastic answer was assured.

But this is no parlour game. Remember, we are talking here about a momentous decision – whether to deploy Australian defence force personnel and assets beyond the existing legal envelope to which we have, until now, been willingly restricted.

By participating in the war in Syria for the first time, Australia is contemplating something more legally dubious, not to mention, strategically questionable than any action in this theatre to date.

Abbott’s antidote to the inevitable allegation that he is trying to drape his government in khaki as it approaches the byelection – and a difficult general election year – is that it was Mr Obama who first raised with him the possibility of Australian bombing raids on IS targets in Syria.

Fairfax Media has learned from multiple sources that Mr Abbott was keen for the request to come and had been none-too-subtle in letting it be known in Washington.

A more important question than how this escalation came about is why? This has two dimensions: the strategic, and the political.

On the strategic side, the case seems thin indeed. With no extra planes or personnel deployed and an environment in IS-controlled Syrian territory which is anything but “target-rich”, it is likely Australia’s role will be of limited military impact.

At best it will be opportunistic with Australian planes able to pursue targets across the border when necessary, and also available to be tasked by the US-led mission chiefs at short notice to hit militants within Syria when identified.

But in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution or an invitation from Damascus, these marginal strategic gains may be more trouble than they are worth.

Politically, the gain for Mr Abbott is more obvious. A renewed focus on the war on terror will do no harm in the Canning byelection, especially given the military credentials of the Liberal candidate.

And if those dubious strategic benefits cause doubts in the opposition, straining the bipartisan consensus on national security or even causing divisions between Bill Shorten and his deputy Tanya Plibersek, Mr Abbott will consider that a win also.

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