ABC RN Breakfast, interview with Fran Kelly

  • Transcript, E&OE

JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joins us now. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

JULIE BISHOP: Good morning Fran.

JOURNALIST: So you heard Donald Trump there says this chemical attack crosses many, many lines. In the language of international diplomacy, the notion of a red line has a meaning, a point of no return. Are we about to see direct action by Washington against the al-Assad regime? Is that how you read it?

JULIE BISHOP: I certainly agree with President Trump that the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent, inhuman. The use of chemical weapons is illegal and it's in direct violation of international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions, and so these reports of a chemical weapon attack against civilians including children are horrific. We were appalled by the loss of life and the United Nations Security Council has been meeting to verify the details. The Turnbull Government supports an independent international investigation into these attacks and I understand that the United Nations Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has already begun preparing to gather and analyse information concerning this attack. We certainly call for a full investigation and if the Assad regime is found to be responsible, as many have claimed, then those responsible must be brought to account.

JOURNALIST: And what does that mean? I mean we heard Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, say when the UN consistently fails in this duty to act collectively there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our action. Again, are you reading this as threats from Washington of some kind of intervention?

JULIE BISHOP: The situation in Syria is increasingly complex. We have a fight against the terrorist organisation ISIS, which is headquartered in Raqqa, and there is a civil war between the Assad regime and the Syrian Opposition Forces. The Assad regime has been backed by Russia and Iran, the Syrian Opposition Forces backed by the United States and its allies. So I believe the first step is to put more pressure on Russia and Iran to use their influence to influence the Assad regime. They must stop the Assad regime from taking this kind of action, if indeed the Assad regime is responsible…

JOURNALIST: [Interrupts] Minister, I understand that's your position. What do you think the Americans are saying? I mean you're listening to this very closely; you're talking always to people and your counterpart in the US. Are they making, is America making a threat here of some kind of direct intervention?

JULIE BISHOP: The United States has made it quite clear that the appalling use of chemical weapons should not be allowed to continue. If indeed it is the Assad regime as many have claimed, that is responsible for these attacks, then the first step would be to pressure those who are supporting the regime – that is Russia and Iran – to prevent the Assad regime from continuing. Then the question of holding those responsible for deploying these chemical weapons to account comes into play.

JOURNALIST: America has already raised the cap on amount of boots on the ground they're committing to or allowing into Syria, they've already sent in more forces there into around Raqqa, you mentioned there. Do you see that as the first step of more direct intervention by the US and would Australia follow?

JULIE BISHOP: The United States is sending in more troops in its efforts to counter ISIS, the terrorist organisation that has taken hold of Raqqa, the province in Syria. So I attended the Counter ISIS Meeting in Washington recently and the United States is stepping up its military efforts in relation to countering the terrorist organisation. The complexity arises because simultaneously there's a civil war going on between the Assad regime, who is also opposed to the presence of ISIS in Syria, and the Syrian Opposition Forces. So the complexity of this is such that while the US is sending military in to counter ISIS, the Russians and the Iranians are backing the Assad regime to take on both the Syrian Opposition Forces and the terrorist organisation ISIS.

JOURNALIST: And meanwhile where does Australia stand in terms of the Assad regime because in February you said the world had basically moved on from the decision that Assad had to go? Given what's happened now, given that Donald Trump has said and we heard him say there that he has very much changed his attitude to Syria and Bashar al-Assad, is Australia now reconsidering its position?

JULIE BISHOP: The conflict in Syria has been going on for at least six years now. At one point there was no discussion about a political solution unless Assad was removed, so the "Assad must go" was a position taken by a number of allies of the United States, before a political solution could even be discussed. Australia was not of that view. We saw the situation on the ground, that Assad had the backing of Russia and Iran and that we had to transition him out of the leadership as part of an overall political solution, because it is our view that a military solution to the ISIS campaign must be won, ISIS must be defeated, but there is no military solution to the civil war. So our view has always been that Assad must be part of the solution, he must be transitioned out rather than it being a precondition that he must go before there can be any discussion about a political solution. The United States came to that view quite recently. You will recall that there have been statements made recently where the United States recognised that with Russia and Iran's backing, Assad has to be part of the transition to a political solution.

JOURNALIST: But now Donald Trump is saying he's changed is view on Syria and on Bashar al-Assad?

JULIE BISHOP: He hasn't given any details as to what that means in terms of the change of strategy, so of course we're working very closely with the United States but at this point we're still backing the investigation, a full investigation, to determine whether the Assad regime is responsible, as many have claimed, for these appalling attacks on civilians including children.

JOURNALIST: You're right to say Donald Trump has given no details on this changed position but his comments reflect changing views and positions held by the US President on a number of issues, in this case it's Syria. Does it make it difficult dealing with our key ally on strategic and defence issues, this changing sands?

JULIE BISHOP: The situation on the ground is volatile and ever-changing. The reports of chemical weapons attacks against civilians and children of course change one's view of what's happening in Syria. This is not the first time that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, in fact the…

JOURNALIST: [Interrupts] Not at all.

JULIE BISHOP…UN Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found that ISIS used chemical weapons, mustard gas, on at least one occasion, and we believe that Syria has previously used chemical weapons in the conflict near Damascus in 2013. So the conflict is seeing an increase in incidents of the use of chemical weapons and no one must be desensitised to their use nor sideline their frightful and indiscriminate effects. The use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable, it is inhumane, it completely contravenes international law. So of course the strategy to deal with Syria will change as the situation changes.

JOURNALIST: Well the situation does seem to be changing but relying on Russia to change its view and put pressure on Syria doesn't seem to be bearing any fruit if the atmospherics of this latest Security Council meeting are anything to go by.

JULIE BISHOP: Well indeed, Russia has in fact claimed that insurgents might have been responsible for the attack, or the attack may have been fabricated to embarrass Syria's President. This is a position Russia consistently takes, and Russia and China have consistently voted against attempts by the UN Security Council to increase action against Syria.

JOURNALIST: So what hope of relying on Russia to pressure any kind of movement here or an improvement here?

JULIE BISHOP: The international condemnation of the global community must have an impact and the Security Council meeting was adjourned I understand. Ambassadors from the five permanent members are still conferring privately. We've not seen a draft resolution voted on yet, and so if Russia has the influence it maintains it does then it must step up and take responsibility for the actions of the Assad regime.

JOURNALIST: Minister I want to get to North Korea but what do you make of the calls from some Labor and others that our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull really should finalise a face-to-face meeting with President Donald Trump as soon as possible? When is this happening? Do you know is this planned meeting?

JULIE BISHOP: The Prime Minister and the President will be meeting but I'm not privy to the details of it but of course the planning is underway. The Prime Minister is in the process of visiting PNG shortly so he's travelling overseas, he's meeting with our partners. He's spoken to the President on the phone and many of us – well I've been to the United States three times since the inauguration, so as Foreign Minister I've been engaging at the highest levels with the Secretary of State, National Security Adviser and Vice President Pence, and Vice President Pence is visiting Australia shortly.

JOURNALIST: You're listening to RN Breakfast, our guest is Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Perhaps the need for a meeting sometime soon is getting more and more urgent given the flashpoints around the world – we've got this one in the Korean Peninsula, yesterday in North Korea of course fired a missile into the Sea of Japan. Donald Trump says that if warnings, well it sounds like the US will take unilateral action to eliminate the nuclear threat if China refuses to act, he said, "if China's not going to solve North Korea, we will". What sort of action do you want to see America take?

JULIE BISHOP: Well there could be a range of options available to the United States and the position that the United States has taken, quote: "all options are on the table", has been the position of previous administrations. If the North Koreans are close to developing an intercontinental nuclear armed ballistic missile that is capable of reaching the United States then of course the United States would respond. Now I'm not going to pre-empt the US policy in relation to this but we certainly have a deep interest in ensuring that North Korea doesn't acquire that capacity. Its nuclear missile program heightens tensions in the region, they threaten regional stability and hence global stability, and our well-founded fear is that if North Korea continues to develop its longer range ballistic missile capability then Australia would be within range. So of course that would pose a direct threat to Australia. There are numerous steps that the United States can take including attempting to destroy the infrastructure around the missile program but of course at this point the Security Council is focusing on sanctions, and Australia has co-sponsored UN Security Council resolutions placing additional sanctions on North Korea. I visited South Korea on 18 February and spoke about the threat posed by North Korea with senior leaders and experts in that country so we continue to work with the international community in response to North Korea's actions which are, again, in total disregard for international law.

JOURNALIST: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure.

JOURNALIST: Julie Bishop is the Foreign Minister.

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