Minister for Defence on ABC 730 with Leigh Sales

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Senator the Hon Marise Payne

Minister for Defence

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  • Henry Budd (Minister Payne’s office) 0429 531 143
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26 October 2016

Subjects: Counter-Daesh Coalition, Mosul operation, Operation OKRA

REPORTER Islamic State has now lost more than half of the territory it once held in Iraq and Defence Ministers from the US-led coalition are meeting in Paris for an update on the state of play. Currently a fierce battle is underway to wrest the city of Mosul from Islamic State. Already the Coalition forces are talking about soon extending the battle to another Islamic State stronghold, Raqqa, in Syria, an even more complex operation, given the sensitivities of Syria's civilian war and Russia's support for the Assad regime. Australia's Defence Minister is among those at the gathering in Paris. Senator Marise Payne joined me from there a short time ago. Thank you very much for joining us. What did ministers at the meeting in Paris learn about the progress against Islamic State?

MINISTER Leigh, I think the most important take-out of the meeting was that the approach to Mosul is going very much as planned. We know this is a very complex environment, it is complex politically, militarily, in terms of the humanitarian situation. So, we were focused on how that is progressing and, also, acknowledging the extraordinary work that the various forces aligned against Daesh are doing. We also acknowledged that this is not, in fact, the end of this process. This is an ongoing challenge, both in the Middle East and internationally against Daesh and its activities, both its overt military-type activities and those that it plays with underground, so to speak.

REPORTER The US Defense Minister [Secretary] Ashton Carter says that as the operation heads towards its climax in Mosul coalition forces will soon set their sights on Raqqa in Syria. How soon do you think that that is likely to happen?

MINISTER Well, as with all matters operational, it will depend on conditions on the ground. It will depend on arrangements with the Defence Forces with whom the international coalition is working. It will depend on the situation in Raqqa itself, but suffice it to say that the Secretary of Defense briefed us on what is necessary to do in relation to Raqqa, what continues to be necessary in Mosul. We know that these are very significant undertakings, there is a likelihood that the demand on forces will increase, the closer we get to a move on Raqqa. The participating members of the Coalition are very conscious of the demand that that places on the self-Defence Forces, the local forces in both Syria and Iraq. This has been a very long, very drawn-out process. The demand on those soldiers, whether they are from the Iraqi Self-Defence Force, whether they are from the Peshmerga, whether they are from various groups in Syria, is enormous. We’re very conscious of that. Those whom we have trained, have been trained to expect that. Nevertheless that doesn't always prepare you for the brutal reality of what you are engaged doing.

REPORTER You raised the point that we have been engaged with training. If Islamic State is the threat to global security that the US and its allies say, then why is Australia's commitment limited to air support and training rather than participating in the frontline operations?

MINISTER Well, as you know, we're there at the invitation of the Iraqi Government for the self defence of Iraq. That is the undertaking which we have been asked to contribute, as with many other members of the Coalition. I met yesterday with the Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti, with my French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and we are all responding to the needs on the ground, in Iraq and more broadly at the invitation of the Iraqi Government. So, rather than trying to force ourselves over the top of what the local community, local forces, are doing, I think it's important that we work in partnership, in coalition, in our Task Group in Taji with New Zealand. That's the Building Partner Capacity Task Group. That’s what it’s about. In our Special Operations Task Group in Baghdad it’s an Advise and Assist role. Again – that’s what it’s about. They are very effective contributions from Australia. I have had that message most directly from Prime Minister al-Abadi in the last few months, as has Prime Minister Turnbull. They are making a real difference. I think we ticked over more than 12,000 Iraqi soldiers trained by the Australian New Zealand Building Partner Capacity Task Group at Taji just recently. That made a significant difference in the capacity of the Iraqi Defence Force and that’s where we’re making a difference.

REPORTER Are you able to give us any estimate - was the meeting given an estimate about how many civilian lives have been lost so far in the campaign to take back Mosul?

MINISTER No. There was no estimate of that nature provided. But what was reinforced, and what Secretary Carter and I are at great pains to reinforce, is that we are meticulous, as far as it is possible in a conflict such as this, in our planning, to avoid those sorts of exigencies.

REPORTER What do you think Islamic State will morph into as it losses geographic territory? We certainly know from the lessons of history that the terrorist threat doesn't go away, it turns into something else?

MINISTER Indeed. We talked at some length about that. There are indications which have been underway for some time, whether it has been through their publication Dabiq, which has transmogrified into Rumiyah, whether it is through activity of affiliate groups, that they - this is what I said, I think, at the beginning - the advance on Mosul is a significant step but it's not the end. This is not a group of extremists that is planning to go away. We, members of the Coalition, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia and New Zealand and our partner nations in that region, will be fighting against, battling against, the manifestation of Daesh for many a long day to come. Now, whether that occurs overtly or covertly, as I said, in an underground way remains to be seen. But we are constantly vigilant and constantly working on addressing those threats and challenges.

REPORTER Thank you very much for your time.

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