26 Sep 2015

Australia hints at major Syria policy shift

9:18 pm on 26 September 2015

Australia is considering softening its opposition to Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

Its foreign minister, Julie Bishop, says a political solution needs to be found to solve the country's deadly four-year conflict.

Smoke rises after rebel fighters reportedly fired mortar shells against Syrian regime forces on the outskirts of Damascus (16 May 2015).

Smoke rises after rebel fighters reportedly fired mortars against Syrian regime forces on the outskirts of Damascus in May. Photo: AFP

Ms Bishop hinted at the major policy shift while at the United Nations in New York.

World Humanitarian Summit Pacific Consultation. Hon. Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia

Julie Bishop Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

"The fear that a number of countries have is that if the Assad regime were either removed or collapsed, it would create a vacuum, and one might find that it was filled by an even more diabolical presence than the Assad regime," she said.

She said she was not shying away from comments Australia has made in the past about the illegitimacy of the regime.

"President Assad unleashed chemical weapons on his own people, and the death and destruction in Syria is appalling and at unprecedented levels.

"The humanitarian crisis is creating an issue throughout the Middle East and Europe, the likes of which we've not seen before."

However, Ms Bishop said, realistically, a political solution was needed, because a military solution would not be the only answer.

A SANA photo shows President Bashar al-Assad speaking to Russian media on 15 September 2015

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, right, speaks to Russian media in Damascus. Photo: AFP / HO / SANA

Russia's increased military involvement in the Syrian crisis appears to be a potential catalyst for reinvigorating the search for a political solution.

Ms Bishop said she had been discussing the issue with her counterparts in the United States for some time.

"Russia's involvement [in negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program] has been said to be very positive by all of those negotiating that agreement," she said.

"If we use that as an example of Russia's preparedness to be part of a solution rather than part of the problem, then we can have some optimism that Russia's involvement is positive.

"I would not like to think that Russia's involvement was purely for its own self-interest."

Opposition: Australia should not pick winners

Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten expressed reservations about any softening of the government's stance against the regime in Syria.

"Labor has no time for the administration or the government of Assad, it has been a terrible government and it's done terrible things to its population," Mr Shorten said.

"I do not believe Australia should be picking sides in Syria, as far as I can tell, between [Islamic State] and Assad, there's not a great deal to separate them."

Mr Shorten said the conflict had multiple "dreadful" participants, including Islamic State and other terrorist groups, who he described as "genocidal, ethno-fascists".

He said the country should wait for further intelligence from its European and American allies before engaging in further discussion of this kind.

Millions of people have fled since the start of the conflict in Syria in 2011, prompting a global refugee crisis and heated debate over how best to deal with it.

The civil war between the Assad regime and rebel groups has been further complicated by the rise of jihadist militants, including Islamic State.

An estimated 11 million people have been forced from their homes during the conflict and at least 250,000 have been killed.

- ABC / BBC