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Giving Regard to Syrians, their Secular Society and a Search for the Truth

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Images by author: Syria and Syrians before the war 

The Targeting of a ‘Pariah State’

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was cause for Syrians to be concerned that their country would one day be targeted by the United States. Though not officially in what George Bush termed the “Axis of Evil”, Syria was attaining pariah status: it was not a member of any western club.

Covert and overt interference in Syria by western governments was nothing new. For example, the first military coup in Syria was orchestrated by the CIA. This happened just a couple of years after the country achieved independence from France, a country that had destroyed part of the old city of Damascus to quell a rebellion in the 1920s and which twenty years later bombed Damascus, killing around 500 people in a matter of days, as it sought to quash Syrian efforts for independence.

(The Syrian Crisis of 1957: A Lesson for the 21st Century)


However, despite its history and position in the world, for those living in Syria in 2003, it was difficult to conceive that this stable, peaceful country would be rocked by a catastrophic war in less than a decade.

The Targeting of a Modern, Ecumenical Syria

Damascus and Aleppo, the two oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, were tolerant, vibrant cities. They were modernizing at a great pace. There was a buzz in the air. Sometimes the signs of change were miniscule but significant. For example, by 2009, it was not unusual to see young unmarried couples holding hands in public. At the same time, solid faith traditions were maintained: one December when Christmas and Eid  al-Adha celebrations almost coincided, decorations for both festivals were sold together in the souq.


Image: Eid al-Adha and Christmas decorations in the Souq, Damascus, 6 Dec 2008


But since then, in other capitals, a new Syria has been configured. It is a notion of Syria that has at its core the conviction that “a brutal Alawite dictator is oppressing a Sunni majority”. It is a narrative that is never substantiated; like so many other claims related to Syria today, it passes unscrutinised. But this is dangerous as it can bolster beliefs that contradict basic tenets of our society in that it can confer a degree of legitimacy to hatred, intolerance and anti-state violence.

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Hatred and Lies to Inflict Terror

Clarity is needed on Syria. Before the ‘Arab Spring’, women’s rights and freedom of religion as well as the provision of free education were integral to modern Syria. There was talk of evolution, not revolution. To overthrow the Syrian government by violent means, terror had to be inflicted on local populations; fear engendered; hatred stirred up; and lies told. A doctrine that exhorted people to murder their fellow human beings had to be imported into Syria.

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Images: Host on Al-Jazeera program proposes the killing of Alawite women and children

A blue-print for the overthrow of a government is not new. Strategists and war rooms have always existed. However, playing with the human heart and mind in war and expecting a clean outcome is like rolling one hundred dices and expecting 6 to turn up on them all.


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Images: Survivors from the occupation of Adra recount their stories


In Syria today, mortars are fired at random into cities; car bombs explode in suburban streets; people are abducted; public servants are assassinated; women are paraded naked in streets; children are thrown off buildings to stop the army’s advance; mothers become demented as they watch strangers play with the heads of their children; bodies are cut up and bagged and put on a family’s doorstep. On our watch, one’s worst possible nightmares are being played out in Syria.

“Psy-Ops” and High Stakes

In June 2012, Jon Williams, a BBC editor who had reported from Damascus, wrote the following on a blog post.

Given the difficulties of reporting inside Syria, video filed by the opposition on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube may provide some insight into the story on the ground. But stories are never black and white – often shades of grey. Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as “brilliant”. But he also likened it to so-called “psy-ops”, brainwashing techniques used by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true.


A healthy scepticism is one of the essential qualities of any journalist – never more so than in reporting conflict. The stakes are high – all may not always be as it seems.


Crossing the Red Line

One example of the muddying of the Syrian story is the oft-repeated claim presented as fact that ‘Assad crossed Obama’s red line when he used chemical weapons against his own people’ in August 2013.

Yet, the United Nations has not attributed blame for that alleged sarin attack. Furthermore, a report by MIT Professor Ted Postol and former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd points the finger at ‘rebels’ being most likely responsible for firing the munitions. And that suspicion mounts. Turkish opposition MPs recently accused authorities in Turkey of providing sarin to insurgents for the attack, presumably a false flag meant to provoke U.S., U.K. and French military strikes on Damascus.


Sunnis against Sunnis


Image: Sheik Mohamed Al-Bouti, killed in a suicide bomb in Damascus


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In an interview on Al-Jazeera, Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric based in Qatar and described as the unofficial spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, condoned the targeting of civilians and religious scholars who support the Syrian regime. Just weeks after this ‘fatwa’, Sheik Mohamed Al-Bouti, the highly regarded 84 year-old Islamic scholar and imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, was killed in a suicide bomb along with more than 40 of his students, including a grandson. They were Sunni Muslims killed by a Sunni Muslim.


Dividing the Muslim World – the two ‘evils’ 


Images: Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, explaining that the Sunnis are the ‘lesser evil’

There were many acts of terror in Syria before the invention of ISIS. However, the terrorist acts committed by ISIS have appeared more theatrical and on a much larger-scale. In June 2014, purportedly over one long weekend, Islamic State massacred 1,700 young Iraqi soldiers. Not long after, former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren referenced this bloody orgy, but he declared that the “lesser evil is the Sunnis over the Shites”. He contended that “the math” determined who the lesser evil was. “From Israel’s perspective”, he went on, “if there is going to be an evil that prevails, let the Sunni evil prevail”. But Mr Oren didn’t explain who had drawn up the math and who had independently audited it.

The discourse which insists that the violence is between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims obscures the reality. If the war in Syria can be described as a religious conflict, it is one between a relatively young school of Islam meshed with the ruling elites of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and a more ancient Islam, the Islam that embraced me, a person of no particular faith, when I lived in Syria.


Latakia Massacre, August 2013 


Image: Women and children abducted by armed groups in Latakia, August 2013. Screenshots from this video


In the first week of August 2013 (two or so weeks before the alleged sarin attack in Damascus), around 200 or more civilians, mostly women and children, were massacred in and around their homes in Latakia. About the same number were abducted. Some scholars observe with concern the close connections high profile NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have with the U.S. State Department. However, despite its generally biased stand on Syria, Human Rights Watch did present a well-documented account of the Latakia massacres (You can still see the blood). To co-ordinate and carry out the murders and kidnappings, up to 20 armed groups cooperated; the Islamic State was just one Takfirist group involved. The killings were vicious, but the level of cruelty was not new in the Syrian ‘Arab Spring’.

A retired American pharmacologist, Dr Denis O’Brien, who scrutinized the video footage of the victims of the alleged sarin attack in Damascus, contends that some victims may have been children abducted in Latakia. He noted the stage managed quality to the display of children’s bodies, and anomalies, such as the appearance of the same body in different locations and clear signs that established the victims didn’t die from a sarin attack, as alleged. But the west was expected to respond with bombs to the bodies of the children; no questions were meant to be asked.

Syria on a Hit-List; ‘Rebels’ a Tool 

It is often claimed that the crisis in Syria began after the arrest and torture of children who wrote up anti-government graffiti in Daraa, a city near the border with Jordan. I have heard different versions of this story: children had their fingernails pulled out; children were killed; children were neither tortured nor killed. Chinese whispers and hearsay are being used to determine narratives on Syria instead of clear-sighted investigations searching for the truth.

But the war in Syria began before any graffiti writing. Soon after 9/11, a Pentagon insider told General Wesley Clark that Syria was on a hit-list. And before the ‘Arab Spring’ reached Syria, former French Foreign Affairs Minister Roland Dumas learnt that Britain was “organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria”.

“Assad” – the Monster

Video: Cartoonist Bruce Petty asks Dr Jeremy Salt: Has Bashar al-Assad killed more people than ISIS? and similar questions (For transcript of interview, go to this site.)

Like the former Israeli ambassador to America, some in Australia claim ‘Assad’ has killed many more people than IS. (See Tim Costello on QandA and Waleed Aly in The Age.)  It is as if Assad is a mythological monster, and the protagonists on the battlefields in Syria are ISIS (the bad rebels), the non-ISIS rebels (the good rebels) and Assad (the monster).

Such crude attempts to present ‘Assad’ as the personification of evil omit mention of the tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers who have been killed by various armed groups waving various flags since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria. And they omit reference to the millions of Syrians who seek a safe haven in government controlled towns and cities. The truth is the Syrian people are caught in a monster of a war. Their secular state could collapse around them, and millions could be killed or forced to flee while people a long way from the theatre of war speak with certainty and power, but with little reference to them.

Checking on the ‘Arab Spring’ in Damascus, April 2011

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Image above: Screenshot from video with interviews of killers of Nidal Jannoud, a Banyas farmer killed in the street on 10 April 2011. 


One month after the start of the so-called Arab Spring in Syria, I returned to Damascus. On Saturday 23 April 2011, I met a young man who had just come from an opposition rally in an outlying suburb of the capital. Some demonstrators at the protest rally had been shot, two of them killed. There were armed police present, but no one saw them draw their weapons, he explained. Who had killed them and why they had been killed was a mystery. In the first stirrings of violence and terror, there were many mysteries and many rumours.

The birth of the Syrian ‘Arab Spring’ was not as it was depicted in Australia. That April in a hotel room in Damascus, I saw the funerals of soldiers and police on Syrian TV. Bereft widows pleaded for an end to the killings.

The High Stakes  

In presenting the story of Syria, a skewed narrative may support another U.S. led war, but it can also engender divisions, intolerance and hatreds within our own communities. We can lose what Australia holds dear: peace, harmony, and integrity. The stakes are high indeed.


Susan Dirgham

National Coordinator of “Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria”  – AMRIS


Below: Syrians – images taken from Syrian TV since start of crisis

Image below: Screenshot from a video showing interviews with former rebels and their supporters in Babbila, after they had reached a reconciliation agreement with the army

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Images below: Damascus University students hold a vigil after a mortar attack kills 15 students in a University cafe, March 2013

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