Australia decides next week whether to join bombing Islamic State

Tony Abbott says decision on joining air strikes in Syria will be made 'next week'

The prime minister says Isis is ‘worse than the Nazis’ as retired US general David Petraeus urges Australia to join the Middle East bombing campaign

A decision on whether Australian fighter jets will strike Islamic State targets in Syria will be made next week, Tony Abbott has said.

The federal government is considering a request from US president Barack Obama to join airstrikes in Syria.

But the prime minister told Radio 2GB that he would await the return of the defence minister, Kevin Andrews, from government business in India on Friday before making a decision next week.

He said the government was “utterly committed” to fighting Isis and said the group was worse than the Nazis.

“The Nazis did terrible evil but they had sufficient sense of shame to try and hide it. These people boast about their evil. This is the extraordinary thing.”

A greater role for Australia in the fight against Isis was endorsed on Wednesday night by retired US general David Petraeus, who told the annual Lowy lecture in Sydney that Australia “should consider” the move, which would “do damage” to the militant group.

Petraeus said in Sydney that “taking such action together with other coalition members will do damage to Isis” and ensure “we have the support ultimately to defeat” the militants, and other extremist groups in the region such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Khorosan Group.

This week Turkey joined the coalition of countries striking Isis in Syria, which includes Canada, the UK, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Petraeus said Australian involvement, though relatively limited, would “augment the action of other coalition members”.

The former CIA director, who oversaw the 2007 “surge” in Iraq that helped degrade an earlier incarnation of Isis, repeated his call for the US to consider arming “reconcilable” fighters in Syria - that is, those who had joined Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups out of “opportunism or convenience”, rather than ideological zeal.

He likened the strategy to the “Sunni Awakening”, where dozens of Iraqi tribes and militia were given financial and material support to drive out al-Qaida in Iraq, which eventually regrouped and emerged last year as Islamic State.

“We needed to strip away some of these fighters, some of these sheikhs and the tribes that were supporting the insurgents,” Petraeus said

Syria was different, but it was nonetheless “an option that has some prospects for achievement”, he said.

The four-star general, currently on two years’ probation for the “unauthorised removal” of classified secrets, argued in his lecture for policymakers to forge a “grand strategy for greater Asia”, and stop seeing China and its neighbours, and the Middle East, as entirely separate theatres.

The US had “too often fallen into the trap of treating our involvement in these parts of the world as a kind of zero sum game - encouraging the impression that, in order to be successful on one side of the Asian land mass, we must by necessity downgrade or curtail our activities in the other”, he said.

He said the regions were “actually bound together in profound, if not always self-evident ways”, highlight the energy and military links between states such as China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Syria.

“We therefore cannot afford to disengage or withdraw from either,” he said.

The legal basis for Australian involvement in Syria remains unclear, unlike in Iraq, where action followed an official request by the government of prime minister Haider al-Abadi.

Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, has expressed reluctance to join the coalition without clear legal grounds or a “clear plan [of] what does victory in Syria look like”.

The foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has cited the US’ legal pretext for breaching Syrian territory - the fact the border between Syria and Iraq is “no longer governed” - but said Australia would “certainly” seek its own legal advice before joining the airstrikes.

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