On the 6th April, President Trump launched a missile attack against the Assad regime in Syria. This strike is the US Government’s first direct military involvement in the region, which has been caught in the throes of a vicious civil war for six years. It could be interpreted by the Syrian Government as an act of war and has killed six civilians.
This strike was ordered by President Trump in response to a chemical attack in the region that has killed approximately 100 civilians. News of the strike rippled through worldwide media, provoking spirited debate on the ethics of Trump’s decision, and nervous thoughts about Russia’s potential response. However, thousands of kilometres away, the predominant question on many New Zealanders’ minds is “What now?”
In an interview with Duncan Garner on the 10th April 2017, Prime Minister Bill English called the response “specific” and “proportionate” and supported the US missile strike. He also potentially supported future action, stating that the NZ Government would “consider” becoming involved in Syria if requested to do so by the US. Officially, the New Government has endorsed this missile strike.
“We’d be pretty cautious. There’s been no request, we’re not expecting a request. But if there was one, we’d consider it – but we’d be cautious.” – Prime Minister Bill English, 10th April 2017
So, is NZ now involved in the Syrian conflict? The short answer is no, or at least, not yet. There are several policy considerations that the NZ Government will weigh up before becoming involved. The most important, as cited by English in the same interview, is United Nations support for military involvement. This is an important consideration because New Zealand is a member of the UN and has ratified the United Nations Charter, which bans unsupported uses of force by states under Article 2(4). Although international law is not legally binding on the New Zealand Government, we have a strong obligation to adhere to it. However, if the UN is slow to act, or refuses to condemn the chemical attacks committed against civilians, it is possible that this policy consideration will be negated on a moral or strategic basis.
“We much prefer to be inside the UN framework. The problem here has been that the Security Council hasn’t been able to condemn the atrocities. We expect them to do that.” – Prime Minister Bill English, 10th April 2017
Other policy considerations that the New Zealand Government may consider are whether military involvement is supported by the New Zealand public, our alliances with other countries such as the US, the potential economic and human costs of military involvement, and how effective involvement is estimated to be. The consideration of public opinion may be particularly significant this year, because New Zealand has an upcoming election in September. There is strong outrage against the attacks, particularly when emotive pictures of the toll the war has taken on children are published. However, there is also a strong ‘not our problem’ or ‘let’s fix our domestic issues first’ pushback against public calls for military involvement. In the past, the role of alliances in policy making has been downplayed.
Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee was quoted in 2015 saying “The decision to go should not be made simply to be a member of the club.” Because New Zealand lacks the ability to launch missiles, direct military involvement by NZ is likely to be special troops on the ground. This would be incredibly dangerous for NZ soldiers, and the risks to their lives will be a significant part of any decision making. In terms of economic costs, in May 2015 the cost of sending 143 training personnel to the Middle East for two years was estimated at $65 million – war is incredibly expensive.
Provided that these policy considerations have been weighed by the Government, the process to deploying troops is as follows. The first step to considering military involvement is a review conducted by the Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee. If the Minister supports the view that New Zealand should send forces to Syria, the next step is Parliamentary approval. This approval is a formality, and is not legally required. It is merely an opportunity for Parliament to debate the merits of deploying troops. Regardless of the outcome of parliamentary debate, the actual decision to deploy troops lies with the Cabinet. The Cabinet would then recommend to the Governor-General that the royal prerogative to declare war should be exercised. At this point, New Zealand would officially be deploying troops to Syria.