As you know, on the 4th of April, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad committed a shocking war crime against the people of Syria with a chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province.
More than 70 people were killed in horrific circumstances. Civilians, women, children, babies.
It was a crime that called out for a swift response.
Today, the United States has responded, launching 59 cruise missiles from two US Navy Destroyers against the Al-Shayrat airfield south-west of Homs from which the chemical attack was conducted.
The effect of the American response has been to reduce the ability of the Syrian Government to deliver chemical weapons in the shocking manner in which they did a few days ago.
The United States advised us as a Coalition partner shortly prior to the attack.
As the Minister will describe, the United States Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, phoned her earlier this morning.
We have discussed the matter, naturally, with the CDF and with our National Security Committee colleagues and we can say that the Australian Government strongly supports the swift and just response of the United States.
This was a calibrated, proportionate and targeted response.
It sends a strong message to the Assad regime, and as I said, has been struck at the very airfield from which the chemical attack was delivered.
Australia was not involved in the strike but we remain fully committed as a Coalition partner to our ongoing military operations in Iraq and Syria.
We have been consistent in our condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria and elsewhere.
The use of these weapons under any circumstance is illegal and abhorrent. It is a violation of international law. It is a war crime and it is a blatant contravention of basic principles of humanity.
These crimes against humanity, shocking and horrific even in the context of the Syrian conflict zone, cannot be committed with impunity and the perpetrators must be held to account. We have called on the Security Council to address this matter as soon as possible.
Regrettably, as we have seen, the Security Council is once again at an impasse due to the position of the Assad regime supporter, Russia.
We remain fully committed, as I said, to our ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria against Daesh. We are in close discussions with our allies on the next steps.
This is a vitally important signal, a vitally important message, that we will not tolerate, the world will not tolerate the use of these chemical weapons.
The retribution has been proportionate and it has been swift.
We support the United States in that swift action. We hope and pray we will see the end of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. I will now ask the Minister to add to my remarks.
MINISTER FOR DEFENCE:
Thank you very much, Prime Minister.
Ladies and gentlemen, as the Prime Minister said, I spoke with Secretary of Defense James Mattis this morning before I left New Zealand, where with the CDF I was attending the South Pacific Defence Ministers’ meeting, and he advised me of the United States' intention to carry out this operation. Australia, as the Prime Minister has said, absolutely condemns and deplores the horrific attack on citizens in Idlib earlier this week.
The United States' targeted strike today, which the Australian Government supports, was designed to limit the regime's ability to conduct further chemical weapon attacks against its own people. The highly targeted strike was intended to prevent and deter a recurrence of this event. It is important that the regime understand there are consequences for their actions, and that has been demonstrated today.
I can confirm, as the Prime Minister indicated, that Australian assets were not involved in this morning's operation. As you know, Australia's Air Task Group is confined to operations in eastern Syria, including in the vicinity of Raqqa, where we continue to target Daesh. Australia has also taken appropriate measures in light of this operation to review our force protection arrangements in the Middle East.
Thanks, Prime Minister.
Thank you. All of us, as the President of the United States said a little while ago, all of us are joined in prayer for those who are the victims of that shocking attack and to their families and to those who have been injured, for their swift recovery.
Now I want to touch on another matter more closer to home.
Shockingly you will have seen reports that two juvenile males, a 15-year-old and 16-year-old male are in custody following the alleged murder of a 29-year-old man in Queanbeyan overnight.
Our condolences go to the family of the victim. We send our prayers and best wishes to the two other victims of that evening, two other people who were assaulted by the two youths in the course of these events last night.
The police will be making a statement about it earlier but I can say that the circumstances have raised sufficient concern, as I have discussed with the Commissioner of the AFP, Andrew Colvin, raised sufficient concern to warrant the involvement of the joint counter-terrorism team. The police as I say will have more to say about it but the involvement in this crime of two males, two youths, teenagers is a shocking matter and one that underlines many of the concerns we have raised in this field.
Is the Coalition at war with the Assad regime or is this a one off response to a one off event?
This is a proportionate response by the United States and as the United States have said it is not designed to overthrow the Assad regime, it is a proportionate and calibrated response designed to of course to prevent that airfield being used to deliver chemical weapons again. As you can imagine 59 missiles is a very substantial attack on that airfield but we are not at war with the Assad regime and the United States have made it clear that they are not seeking to overthrow the Assad regime.
The Foreign Minister said yesterday that Assad must be part of the solution, do you support that given that he could go on trial for crimes against humanity?
The political solution in Syria is a complex one. The events of the last few days I think raise very real questions as to whether there can be any role for Mr Assad in any solution or settlement. This chemical attack was as I said a horrific crime, shocking even in the context of that brutal war.
President Trump has asked for all civilised nations to join him. Would the Australian government be willing to be a part of strikes against the Assad regime or any of their allies?
Well President Trump has asked for all civilised nations to join him in seeking to bring peace to Syria and end the conflict and we have been engaged in dialogue and obviously in operations although as Marise said in the eastern part of the country for some time.
There is no question that this shocking conflict in Syria is crying out itself for a resolution and we certainly will continue to work with our allies and our partners to see a resolution to this shocking war.
Has the US asked for more, any more military support due to this action today? Outside of what we’re already doing?
No, they have not.
Prime Minister, the Syrian Government has high quality surface to air missiles. Does this US strike put Australian pilots at risk?
Again, as Marise noted, we have taken all of that into account in terms of our own force protection.
Is there any theories on whether the United States is planning further similar strikes on other military targets over the next week?
This was a single strike designed to reduce the ability of the Syrian regime to deliver more chemical weapons attacks from that airfield and of course to send the strongest possible signal that this conduct will not be tolerated.
Are you saying that it doesn't represent mission creep?
I am saying what I just said.
Is there any fear of retaliation from Russia at this point that could increase tensions?
It is a very complex area with many actors. I can say that the role, the Russian Government has a real responsibility here to ensure that its client, the Assad regime, complies with international law, complies with the rules of war and does not use chemical weapons.
The fact is that there is a solemn obligation on Russia too to play its part in bringing this conflict to an end.
You spoke of the impasse in the security council. Yesterday Nikki Haley said it's time for states to act alone. Are you concerned about states taking unilateral action and what the consequences of that would be?
The United States action was, as they have said, as the Pentagon spokesperson has said already, it was designed as an intervention, a humanitarian intervention in order to prevent that airfield being used again as it was to deliver chemical weapons in what was, as I said, a horrific crime against international law, against the rules of war, against humanity itself. Shocking and horrific, even by the standards of this brutal war.
President Trump is right, we need to bring all nations together, all civilised nations together to bring this conflict to an end but that requires all of the players, all of the players, including Russia, to bring this conflict to an end.
We have a role to play, and Marise has described it in the eastern part of the country in our effort to defend Iraq against Daesh or ISIL. That is the role we have been playing.
The whole world is crying out for a settlement in Syria and this is a time now when the United States have shown that they will not tolerate these crimes, when the United States has shown its full force in response to this shocking chemical attack, surely now is the time when the nations of the world and the great powers engaged in the Syrian conflict zone can come together and bring this war to an end.
Thank you very much.