Radio National Breakfast, Canberra - interview with Fran Kelly

  • Transcript, E&OE
26 November 2015

FRAN KELLY Tensions in the Middle East have escalated dramatically following the shooting down of the Russian war plane by Turkish fighter jets this week. It marks the first time a NATO member has downed a Russian aircraft since the Cold War with President Vladimir Putin warning of "serious consequences". This dangerous turn of events comes as France and the US agree to intensify their air strikes against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.

The Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joins us in our Parliament House studios.

Minister, good morning.

JULIE BISHOP Good morning Fran.

FRAN KELLY Well according to the Turkish Government, the Russian aircraft violated less than three kilometres of Turkish air space, was in there for only about 17 seconds. Was Turkey too quick to shoot?

JULIE BISHOP This incident comes on the back of a history of tension between Russia and Turkey over violations of Turkey's air space and there have been warnings and incidents in the past. There are claims and counter claims and until such time as there is a credible, independent investigation we won't know the facts because Turkey has released video and audio, Russia has released video, and they show two very conflicting scenarios. Turkey maintains that Russia violated its air space, and according to well established rules of engagement it was entitled to take action and two of its fighter jets shot down the Russian bomber.

Russia maintains it was in Syrian air space and one of the pilots has survived and is now back in Russia and made a statement saying that he was not warned, and that there were no warnings at all. So there are two very conflicting versions of what went on, that's why we are calling for calm, along with other international leaders, calling for restraint. There are some positive signs overnight that the rhetoric, while still very strong, will in fact give way to a pragmatic coming together of the Russians and the Turks to see how they can resolve this. Of course underlying it all is the question of who the Russians were targeting, why they were in that particular air space in the first place and that causes other questions to be asked and other tensions.

FRAN KELLY I'll come to that in a moment, but who is going to sort this out? Both sides have agreed to allow the UN Security Council to adjudicate on the right or wrong of this and those varying versions you've just outlined, which you've welcomed but it doesn't mean both sides will be satisfied with the answer, does it? I mean tensions don't dissipate simply because the UN Security Council says; oh it was your fault.

JULIE BISHOP Well, indeed and as you would be aware Fran, Russia and Turkey have been regional contestants since they both had empires so the tensions won't go away, but how this situation is managed is very important. There have been consequences already. Russia has imposed some economic sanctions. It has suspended military cooperation with Turkey. It has warned its people not to travel to Turkey as tourists so there are some consequences, but I think a very positive signs overnight, and I've spoken to the Australian Ambassadors in Moscow and in Ankara and they both see this as positive - the foreign ministers of both countries have agreed to meet and that is a positive sign. We are de-escalating, we are not likely to see a direct military retaliation.

FRAN KELLY Russia has said that it is not planning to wage war. Erdoğan has said it prefers peace to war so you are right, the right soundings. We heard earlier in the program though from a Russian military expert by the name of Pavel Felgenhauer who said that is just words it doesn't really mean anything about their intentions and you should look at their actions, some of which you've just outlined. The fact that Russia is deploying that defence missile base now to its air base on Syrian soil in Lattakia where it has a base. It has warned its citizens not to go for a holiday in Turkey at the moment. It is positioning a war ship off the coast. These are not sinister signs in your view? Or frightening signs?

JULIE BISHOP It is a very serious situation and it is very complicated and of course as we've said from the outset the entry of Russia into the conflict in Syria complicates matters enormously, but these two countries are neighbours. They have a very strong and close economic relationship and I would not underestimate the impact of the economic element to this relationship, on the overall scenario. Turkey is reliant on Russia for energy, for gas. Turkey is one of Russia's biggest customers and I think that they will see the consequences of a military escalation as being very damaging for both let alone the region. So while the rhetoric is strong, and I agree you've got to look at the action, I also do see some positive signs. It may well be that this is a warning on both sides that if either breach the understanding that they come to then it could escalate but I think that we will see some kind of solution, particularly if they can agree on a formal investigation process. That will have to be agreed by Russia and Turkey.

FRAN KELLY It goes to the bigger picture though, the bigger priority, or the primary priorities seem to be driving countries, in this case Turkey and Russia. The Turkish President says there were no ISIS extremists in the area the Russian plane was flying over and dropping bombs over and it believes the Russians were targeting Turkmen groups who Turkey has an affinity with because they are fighting the Assad regime. Is Russia prioritising the defence of the Assad regime, Turkey prioritising the defeat of Kurdish rebels and that's meanwhile completely distracting in the fight against ISIS and getting in the way of it now quite dangerously.

JULIE BISHOP Well this is part of the deeply complicated scenario in Syria and in the skies over Syria. There are the Coalition-led planes. Australia is part of that. Other countries in the Middle East and our mission is very clear, very narrow, very defined but then there are other countries who have different agenda. Russia is seen to be supporting the Assad regime, or at least propping it up until there can be a transitional government. Clearly, Turkey is very sensitive to any attacks on the ethnic Turkish groups, the Turkmen who are fighting Assad and they believe that Russia is seeking to degrade the opposition to Assad for its own purposes. And of course all the while the terrorist organisation ISIL or Da'esh is continuing to fight back, try and take territory and violate and abuse civilians. So it is a very difficult scenario. What is reassuring though is that overnight Foreign Minister Lavrov reassured the European High Representative Federica Mogherini that Russia would continue to take part in the talks for a political solution in Syria. Those talks remain on track. Russia has not withdrawn from them, so while we need clarity over the military operations, there seems to be a common purpose in the political solution and that the Syria talks will proceed.

FRAN KELLY Well trust is central to this. On that very point a little earlier on the program, as I mentioned I was speaking with Russian military and political analysts Pavel Felgenhauer he gave this assessment when it came to the political solutions, the coordination of political solutions in Syria. He gave this assessment of Russia's intentions. Let's have a listen.

Russia apparently, it's main objective in Syria is a victory, meaning victory in the civil war, … its allies the Iranians and Hezbollah to win and on the basis of that the kind of political solution could be facilitated. I believe that the Vienna talks, talk about a year and a half before there is some kind of provisional government or something is just buying time for Assad to win the civil war.

That's Russian political analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. I wonder what you think of his analysis which is just Russia buying time to help Assad win the civil war which doesn't bode well for John Kerry's suggestion the other day that some kind of political solution could be just weeks away.

JULIE BISHOP Well the longer period to which that commentator is referring is in fact envisaged for an election. They are talking about a transitional government much earlier than that and then elections in about 2017, but of course the motives of the different players can always be questioned. What we have to focus on is what can be achieved. The military options; it's important that we get all of the Coalition countries and those who are against ISIL to be a single, united Coalition front against the terrorist organisation. Now that means there has to be an end to the civil war in Syria otherwise, as we've seen, the distraction, the diversion of resources, the misjudgements and miscalculations can continue to occur. So the political solution is important. If we are able to get a compromise then that would mean some kind of transitional government and the countries have come a long way. I attended a small group Coalition meeting in Paris in June. At that time there was a very strong view that a precondition to any discussions on a political solution had to start with the removal of Assad. Now he is still there and my position at that time was, you cannot have a precondition that Assad must be removed, otherwise we'll never get to the negotiating table and I think more countries have come around to that view, that there be a transition, but even Russia acknowledges that Assad is not part of the final settlement in this matter.

FRAN KELLY Foreign Minister, just one final question, because Russia says now fighter jets will accompany its bombers on their raids against ISIS. Already there is room for accident, error you'd think with so many planes, so many nations engaged in bombing ISIS. Are you worried this will get even more dangerous now for the Australian FA super hornets? Australian 18 super hornets that are in the skies and have they been given any revised orders following the downing of the Russian jet?

JULIE BISHOP I'm confident that the ADF maintains a constant review of our air strikes in Syria. We are part of the US-led Coalition. Our air strikes are managed through a US Centre and the US, on behalf of the Coalition, has a Memorandum of Understanding with Russia. This was one of the first matters that was negotiated and concluded between the US and Russia when Russia announced it was intervening in Syria. Under that Memorandum of Understanding there are very clear protocols on engagement, on communications, on flight paths and that is constantly under review.

Our mission is very defined. We are not in the same air space. We are very much on the Iraqi border targeting ISIL or Da'esh bases and locations from which they are launching attacks into Iraq. The air space that Russia has been occupying is in a vastly different location, but of course our ADF, our military will keep our air task groups operations very much under review.

FRAN KELLY Julie Bishop, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.

JULIE BISHOP My pleasure.

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