Australia’s consideration of military action in Syria stemmed from a phone call from US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Tony Abbott says.
Fairfax Media, quoting senior government sources, reports that the driving force for the formal request for the RAAF to join the US air campaign in Syria came from Canberra.
“The president had initiated this phone call to talk about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and … the president then raised with me the Syrian situation and said that he would be very glad if Australia would do more,” Mr Abbott told reporters in north Queensland on Wednesday.
Earlier Treasurer Joe Hockey denied the government pushed the US into asking Australia to expand air strikes against Islamic State to targets in Syria.
Mr Hockey says Mr Abbott was asked to join the US in Syria in a formal request from US President Barack Obama, insisting he wouldn’t speculate on reports Canberra sought the request.
“I’m sure they’ve had many discussions about the issue from time to time but the fundamental point is the US made the request to us and we are considering that request,” the treasurer told ABC TV on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr says Australia has a moral obligation to accept the US invitation.
“The West has really got a moral obligation to act where it can be argued there’s a chance of saving civilian populations from the mass atrocity crimes that seem to follow very quickly when ISIS takes control of territory,” he told ABC radio.
Liberal MP Dan Tehan, head of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, refused to confirm the report, insisting it was “above my pay level”.
But he repeated his belief that Australia needed to “do something” in Syria.
“What we have happening in Syria at the moment is this humanitarian crisis, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen,” Mr Tehan told ABC radio.
Islamic State was doing obscene things to the people of Syria, while 82 per cent of the lights in the Middle Eastern nation were now out, he said.
He believes bombing in Syria is in Australia’s national interest because of the security risk posed by Islamic State.
Mr Abbott says the government is considering the US request with a decision to be made in a week or so.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has received a briefing and is seeking further information, saying Labor wants to ensure there’s a legal and moral case for bombing Syria.
Speaking to media on Wednesday, Mr Shorten said Labor wanted further assurances from the Prime Minister.
“We have asked the government for further discussion about the legal basis for this request and international law and the basis upon this action,” he said.
“We will keep considering the evidence, we will keep talking to the government. Australians expect their Parliamentarians to do this sort of consideration thoughtfully and I can promise Australians that is exactly what we are doing.”
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie told the ABC Australia joining the US in bombing Syria would be “one of the most reckless things this government has ever done”.
Defence Minister Kevin Andrews insists Australia will play no part in the Syrian civil war and any air strikes would be directed solely at IS terrorists and only in Syria’s east.
The US State Department refused to shed any light on the claims Mr Abbott pushed for Australia’s involvement.
“Those are diplomatic [conversations] that we have with countries of the coalition and I wouldn’t get into characterising the details of them,” spokesman John Kirby told the ABC.
“They’re a good friend and partner in so many different ways. So we look forward to continuing co-operation with Australia, but I wouldn’t get into the specifics of the conversations between us and them.”