AM Agenda, Canberra - interview with Kieran Gilbert

  • Transcript, E&OE
26 November 2015

KIERAN GILBERT Is it reassuring that the Turks are seeking to de-escalate this crisis?

JULIE BISHOP What is reassuring is that both Foreign Ministers have spoken, the Russian Foreign Minister and the Turkish Foreign Minister, and they've agreed to meet in coming days. What is also encouraging is that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has spoken to Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union, and has confirmed that Russia will continue to take part in the discussions on a political solution for the conflict in Syria, so that is still on track.

It is also encouraging that both sides, Russia and Turkey, referred this incident to the Security Council and that they are clearly of a mind to de-escalate and there is less likelihood of a military retaliation.

KIERAN GILBERT It shows you how volatile this area is though and hence the need to make sure the US and us, as part of a coalition, are working in at least not in coalition, at least in cooperation with the Russians.

JULIE BISHOP Absolutely, and this was one of the first issues the United States addressed when Russia announced it was intervening in the Syrian conflict. They came to an agreement on the Memorandum of Understanding about air space over Syria and Iraq.

Now we are part of the US-led Coalition. All our air operations are coordinated out of a US-centre and the US, on behalf of the Coalition, has this agreement with Russia as to communications, the use of air space and the like. I'm confident that we have the arrangements in place to ensure that this would not happen between a Coalition plane and a Russian plane.

But on Turkey's side they maintain that they warned this Russian bomber not to enter their air space and despite warnings it did and therefore they were acting in self-defence, protecting their sovereignty. The Russian pilot that has now been recovered, he maintains that he was not warned and that he was in Syrian air space. Both sides have released video, there is audio, there will be satellite mapping, so this needs to be subjected to a competent and credible independent investigation.

KIERAN GILBERT Have you got early advice as to who is telling the truth here, because only one side can be telling the truth here?

JULIE BISHOP No specific indication yet but Turkey was very quick to release video, audio, showing one flight path, Russia has released information showing another flight path so it will need an independent investigation to get to the bottom of it and clarify the facts.

Of course underlying all of this is the issue of who the Russians were targeting and this is another source of tension. The Turkish Government maintains that Russia was targeting the Turkmen ethnic group within Syria who are opposed to President Assad, Russia maintains it was targeting terrorist groups.

KIERAN GILBERT Foreign Minister Lavrov cancelled a visit to Istanbul. He says it was a premeditated, provocative attack and in the context in which you are talking about, the Russian strikes against the Turkmen population, that could well be right.

JULIE BISHOP That is a cause for significant rhetoric but their actions appear to be de-escalating even though both sides are making some pretty significant claims against the other. Their actions would indicate that they realise what is at stake and that this could so easily escalate out of control therefore there is a much more measured approach and given that the two foreign ministers are meeting in the next two days I think that is a good sign.

KIERAN GILBERT On a different but related issue, do you expect the French leader Hollande to make a request of the Prime Minister and yourself in Paris when you are there over coming weeks for the climate talks for an increase in our commitment?

JULIE BISHOP I would expect that President Hollande would deal with the United States as the US is leading the Coalition. I wouldn't expect him to go piecemeal to each member of the Coalition. But I believe that Australia, as the second largest military contributor after the United States, is already doing its fair share. We have 780 personnel deployed. There may well be requests for us to do more to support the Iraqi Government. After all one of the key solutions has to be strong, sovereign governments in Iraq and Syria so that they can protect their own people, they can build capacity defeat the insurgency and terrorist organisations in their own country. So we need a strong government in Iraq, a strong government in Syria, at present we have neither. The Government of Iraq needs a lot of support, we are providing that in our training and assist mission to support their Security Forces, but there may be a request to do more to support the Iraqi Government.

KIERAN GILBERT There has been some criticism of the Prime Minister's National Security Statement saying now is not a good time for "gestures or machismo". It was seen as a slapdown of the former Prime Minister. Is it appropriate for Mr Turnbull to be responding to Mr Abbott, who is now a backbencher, in this way?

JULIE BISHOP Well I certainly didn't see it that way. He has, the Prime Minister has, a very broad audience that he must address, home here in Australia, in our region and internationally and his comments were directed far more broadly than one member of Parliament and I think that it was entirely appropriate that he call for calm and measured judgment in relation to this.

We are in this for the long haul. The terrorist organisations may be defeated militarily but their ideology also has to be defeated, otherwise you have one military success and withdraw from the field, the terrorists can come back. We've seen it time and time again. So this is a fight for the long haul and the message the Prime Minister was sending was that we've got to be cool, clear-eyed about it and ensure that whatever we do, we don't put Australian lives in danger, we protect Australians as much as we can both at home and abroad but we do our part on an international scale to support the US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq.

KIERAN GILBERT Is it fair for Mr Andrews, the former Defence Minister, and Mr Abbott to be making these interventions in the debate calling for Special Forces involvement given the events in Paris, or is it a bit rich for the former Defence Minister for example, to be making this case given two months ago he was arguing very strongly against boots on the ground.

JULIE BISHOP Well, of course as the executive of the government, as members of Cabinet, as members of the National Security Committee, we have access to a lot of information including the strategies and plans of our partners overseas and the fact is the United States has not asked us to provide more Special Forces. They've certainly not asked us to provide combat troops. The point that the Prime Minister is making is that we are in Iraq at the invitation of, and with the consent of the Iraqi Government. They do not want foreign combat troops on the ground. They have not asked for them and they've made it quite clear to us that they don't want them. It would cause a great deal of instability within Iraq if there were to be foreign combat troops that were not invited by the Iraqi Government.

KIERAN GILBERT So is it gratuitous of Mr Andrews and co?

JULIE BISHOP Well people are free to offer their opinions of course, and both a former Prime Minister and former Defence Minister have particular perspectives. But the Government is determined to do what we can to play our part in the international fight against terrorism but also to ensure that we respond in a legal way that respects the sovereignty of the nations involved.

In the case of Syria we don't recognise the legitimacy of President Assad but our mission in Syria is very limited, to attacking the ISIL bases in Syria from which they launch attacks on Iraq.

KIERAN GILBERT Foreign Minister thanks for your time.

JULIE BISHOP My pleasure.

Media enquiries