The government appears to be edging towards expanding the role of the RAAF’s air task group in the Middle East to include bombing terror group Islamic State inside Syria.
Currently Australian F/A-18 Hornet aircraft conduct air strikes inside Iraq right up to the border with Syria but don’t intrude into Syrian air space.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said IS was just as evil and dangerous on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
“That’s why I can understand why there is some interest on the part of our partners in Australian airstrikes,” he told reporters in Canberra.
Mr Abbott said the government had so far received no formal request from the US to extend air combat missions and had made no decision.
Defence Minister Kevin Andrews said Australia’s aim was to destroy Daesh and that was why Australian troops were in Iraq training Iraqi forces and Australian aircraft were hitting Daesh inside Iraq.
“(Islamic State) operate across the border between Iraq and Syria so we won’t rule anything out at the moment,” he told ABC radio in Melbourne.
Six RAAF Hornets, plus a Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft and a KC-30A airborne refuelling aircraft, have operated from the UAE conducting missions over Iraq since last October.
The Wedgetail and the refuelling aircraft also support coalition aircraft conducting missions over Syria, although they don’t go outside Iraqi airspace.
Mr Andrews said some RAAF personnel would soon embed with the US Air Force unit operating unmanned aircraft over Iraq and Syria.
Liberal MP Dan Tehan, head of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, flagged the prospect of extending Australian air operations to include Syria.
He called for Australia to join the coalition seeking to destroy Daesh in Syria, allowing RAAF aircraft to conduct combat missions against targets there.
Shadow defence minister Stephen Conroy said Labor had offered the government bipartisan support for the defence mission in Iraq.
But it was frustrating that the first Labor knew of proposals to extend the mission to Syria came from media reports of Mr Tehan’s comments.
“The prime minister has regularly briefed us on the situation in Iraq. At this stage we have received no briefing whatsoever about any circumstances which might have changed in Syria,” he told Sky News.