Images: Taken in Damascus by Susan Dirgham before the “Arab Spring”
Program: ABC, Radio National, Earshot
Title: The drawers of memory: Ahmad’s story
Presenter and Producer: Jess Davis
Supervising Producer: Lorena Allam
23 January 2016
Dear Audience and Consumer Affairs,
This complaint letter asserts that the above-mentioned Earshot program on Radio National significantly breaches the ABC Codes of Practice in regard to Accuracy, Impartiality, Diversity of Perspectives and Public Accountability, and so undermines the integrity of the ABC and the trust listeners have in it. The program’s ‘hero’ is a Syrian refugee now living in Sweden who supports insurgents in Syria – he was a money-runner for them – and the producer/presenter of the program echoes his point of view.
In outlining the reasons for the complaint, this letter will call into question the ABC’s implicit editorial stance on Syria as it enables the lowering of professional journalistic standards as displayed in this Earshot program. However, on a more general level, the ABC’s editorial stance on Syria has the potential to adversely impact our society, including our security.
Apologies for the length of this letter; however, it is contended that the national broadcaster’s partisan and poorly researched stand on the conflict in Syria can imperil not only peace and security in Australia, but also the moral fabric of Australian society. This is a grave assertion, and so there must be strong grounds for making it.
It is requested that the outcomes of this official complaint include the following:
- a meeting is arranged between ABC News managers and Syrians who are committed to supporting a secular state, equal rights for women, freedom of religion, peaceful political change, the rule of law, and respect for every person, as all Australian citizens are required to be
- ABC management dedicates the resources necessary for impartial and robust research into the conflict in Syria to guarantee the ABC Codes of Practice are not breached in future programs on Syria
- ABC Four Corners presents the research of highly qualified scientists and the views of respected investigative journalists and intelligence experts regarding the alleged chemical attack in Damascus on 21 August 2013
- ABC journalists who have not displayed bias towards insurgents are sent to Damascus to seek the views of Syrians who endorse the same basic beliefs that Australian citizens are required to uphold.
(Please see Appendix for the transcript of The drawers of memory: Ahmad’s story.)
A SUMMARY OF THE EARSHOT PROGRAM WITH COMMENTS ON ITS BIAS
The drawers of memory: Ahmad’s story is a 28-minute radio documentary program. Jess Davis, the producer, interviews “Ahmad”, a young Syrian man she befriended in early 2011, just before the beginning of the crisis in Syria. Ahmad approached Jess on a street in Damascus, where Jess was studying Arabic. We are not told what Ahmad’s occupation was when he met Jess; we are not told his family name or shown a picture of him, but we know he is now a 31-year-old Syrian refugee in Sweden.
(Note: Although it is made clear Ahmad and Jess met on a street in the old city of Damascus, the caption under an image on the RN Earshot webpage reads, ‘Where Jess met Ahmad at the University of Damascus’. It may be meant to indicate it was just a meeting place for them, but it is misleading as it gives the impression that it was where they first met and that Ahmad was a university student.)
Jess and Ahmad reminisce about their meeting and the good times they had in Damascus before the ‘Arab Spring’. Jess tells us how enchanted she was by the city and its people, and Ahmad speaks of how much he enjoyed the company of foreign students, even sometimes gate-crashing their parties.
They then talk about what happened to Ahmad after the start of the so-called Arab Spring in Syria and after Jess had left. Ahmad got a job as a truck driver and went to the “besieged city of Homs” because “he wanted to find out what was happening there”. At some point, Ahmad joined the militarized opposition and became a money runner, delivering 50,000 – 100,000 USD to fighters in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. Jess believes the money came from Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Ahmad claims he was a witness to a chemical attack on rebels and civilians in Damascus, asserting that 1,500 people died in the attack. Eventually, he tells us he fled Syria, taking 9 to 10 days to cross from the town of al-Zabadani into Lebanon.
Interwoven with the conversation between Jess and Ahmad are snippets from ABC news reports that date from the start of the crisis in Syria to more recent times. There are also verses read from a poem about Damascus written by a much-loved Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani (1923 – 1998), who was a Syrian nationalist.
The extracts from ABC news reports serve to give credence to Ahmad’s view of events in Syria, and the poem softens the documentary nature of the program and aids in presenting Ahmad as a sympathetic figure; the poet’s yearning and love for Damascus could be understood to reflect that of Ahmad’s.
Jess Davis explains that she and Ahmad became ‘instant friends’ because of ‘his openness and friendly laugh’. Since virtually nothing is known about “Ahmad” except that he lived in Damascus when Jess met him, it is not possible for listeners to determine what motivates him to back insurgents funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Jess doesn’t examine what Ahmad is prepared to do for his version of “freedom”; the political platform of his insurgent friends certainly wouldn’t attract the majority of Syrian women.
What underlines the production of The drawers of memory: Ahmad’s story is the faith the ABC producer has in the credibility of one man whom she met on the street and who, she admits, was a money runner for insurgents. The program neither acknowledges nor gives a right of reply to Syrian civilians targeted by those insurgents, ‘ordinary Syrians’ who don’t support a foreign-backed militarized opposition that is fuelled by hatred and inspired by a particular school of Islam foreign to the majority of Muslims in Syria.
After Ahmad joined the insurgents, Jess tells us he went to Jobar, in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. According to the Wikipedia page Damascus Offensive (2013), Jobar was the base from which armed groups launched a sustained offensive in early 2013, firing mortars into the suburbs of Damascus. Many Syrians were killed while going about their everyday business.
In March 2013, a signatory of this letter received the following message from the son of a close Syrian friend.
just to tell you that mum returned to her maker yesterday in Damascus few meters from our place…. a mortar bomb fell on her …..
It is rare to hear the voices of these victims outside of Syria, but on 11 November 2013, an insurgent mortar attack on a suburb in Damascus killed four children from the St John of Damascus School and their bus driver, and BBC’s Lyse Doucet attended the funeral for two of the children and interviewed Rima Haddad, whose son had been a friend of one of the victims. The BBC reporter explains that Rima is ‘devastated, like so many here’. Clearly very distraught, Rima says on camera,
What did they do to die like this, by some bombs from dirty people? Please tell America, please tell Britain, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia that they are bad people. (Ref: Damascus mortar attack Children and bus driver buried)
A day before the children’s and bus driver’s death, another mortar fired by insurgents killed Girgis Elias and his four children Eli, Tala, Peter and Nirvana when they were in their car in the district of Kashkool, Damascus. (Ref: Just another Family) Another signatory of this letter, a Syrian refugee now living in Australia, was a friend of this family. An ABC audience might expect substantial weight to be given the accounts of such Syrians in Australia. However, this Earshot program provides no reference to their stories or perspective, thus breaching the ABC Codes of Practice that relate to impartiality.
Jess doesn’t ask Ahmad why he believes the random targeting and killing of these citizens will take the country forward to ‘freedom’. An ABC audience might rightly expect she would.
Image: screenshot taken from article by Erika Solomon, 3 March 2015
WHAT TO CALL AHMAD’S ‘FREEDOM’ FIGHTERS?
A hallmark of ABC reporting on the war in Syria has been the use of labels to designate the different players. If not used with discretion, labels can present the conflict as a football game. This Earshot program lines up two ‘teams’: “the brutal regime”; “the Assad regime”; and “pro-government militiamen” versus Ahmad, “a fighter for the Free Syrian Army” and “an opposition activist”. Ahmad’s side certainly sounds more benign. However, there is no reference in the program to the Syrian national army; Syrian women; or the vast majority of Syrians who oppose a militarized opposition.
Screenshot: some of the scores of women and children abducted during the Latakia massacres, August 2013; video link given on ‘A Closer Look on Syria’ page. It has been claimed some of the abductees were ‘victims’ in the alleged chemical attack in Damascus, about two weeks later.
Jess Davis doesn’t align Ahmad with ‘jihadist groups’, who, she explains, took “advantage of the chaos engulfing Syria”. However, armed groups that use the banner of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ have certainly worked with ‘jihadist groups’, including Jabhat al-Nusra (a group affiliated with al-Qaeda and one of the strongest anti-government forces in Syria) and ISIS. (Ref: US Key Man in Syria Worked Closely with ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra)
This is confirmed by a Human Rights Watch report (“You can still see their blood”) on the massacre of 200 or more villagers in Latakia in August 2013. Three of the main groups involved in the massacre of villagers were Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), and Jabhat al-Nusra. However, the report also implicates the Free Syrian Army.
Jess avoids using the term ‘jihadist’ to describe Ahmad and his insurgent friends. Yet, Ahmad must have met many foreign fighters who described themselves as ‘jihadists’. In Islam, the term ‘jihad’ is principally used to refer to one’s internal ‘struggle’ to strive to be ‘righteous’ while the external ‘jihad’ is for defence against attack, for the survival of Muslim communities. Yet, most of those civilians in Damascus being targeted by the mortars of Ahmad’s friends are Sunni Muslims. What is more, the majority of government ministers and Syrian soldiers are Sunni Muslims and it is they who stand with other Syrians against the foreign countries intent on destroying their country. It, therefore, seems nonsensical to label foreign fighters as ‘jihadists’.
Soon after 9/11, a Pentagon insider told retired US General Wesley Clark that Syria was on a Pentagon hit list. Also, not long before the ‘Arab Spring’ reached Syria, former French Foreign Affairs Minister Roland Dumas learnt that Britain was “organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria”. He was invited to join in the plan, but declined.
In the same 2013 interview, Roland Dumas says that the Israeli Prime Minister ‘told me a little while ago: “We will try to get along with the neighbouring states, and those who don’t get along, we will take them down.”’
Ami Ayalon, a former ex-head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, explained in an interview in August 2012 that Israel was “organizing the Shia-Sunni polarization in Iraq, Syria, Yemen.”
Perhaps only the people of Syria could determine who is ‘defending’ Islam – at its heart a most compassionate religion – and who is attacking it.
A term preferred by Australian academic Dr. Jeremy Salt (author of The Unmaking of the Middle East) to describe insurgents in Syria is Takfiris, since it is generally evident they are prepared to kill anyone who doesn’t accept their doctrine, and this includes Sunni soldiers and civilians.
‘Salafis’ is another word used to describe anti-government armed groups in Syria. Lebanese Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir has been as a controversial ‘Salafist’, who has called for ‘jihad’ against the Syrian government. (See image below)
In April 2011, it was reported that ‘Salafists’ in Gaza had murdered Italian peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni. In June 2015, one of those Salafists escaped prison and allegedly travelled to Syria to join IS.
The term ‘moderate rebel’ has been used in ABC reports to designate insurgents presumably on the side of the ‘west’. But a more accurate description of these ‘rebels’ would be ‘less extreme’ as in reality there is little that distinguishes them from groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda or even ISIS. For example, the western journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff beheaded by ISIS were critical of ‘moderate rebels’ in their articles. The last major article by Stephen Sotloff before ISIS executed him was titled “In Aleppo Bread Lines and Disenchantment with the FSA”. He describes the FSA as thieving, harassing, incompetent and brutal. Sotloff quotes one person in Aleppo as saying, “They have already destroyed our country.”
In October 2012, James Foley wrote about a Free Syrian Army commander,
The junior commander, an illiterate 24-year-old, joked that while the war raged all around it, the people of Aleppo were only concerned about their barbecues. He swore the rebels scrabbling through the countryside would soon make their way to Aleppo. He promised Aleppo would burn.
BREACHING CODES RELATED TO IMPARTIALITY AND ACCURACY
As a supporter of insurgents, Ahmad is clearly a partisan player in the Syrian war, so by uncritically presenting his story and by not even acknowledging that there are alternative viewpoints, Jess breaches ABC Codes of Practice related to accuracy and impartiality. Under Principles and Standards section 2 in the Codes, it is stated,
The ABC has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate according to the recognised standards of objective journalism. Credibility depends heavily on factual accuracy.
It is noted that ‘The Standards are to be applied in ways that maintain independence and integrity, preserve trust and do not unduly constrain journalistic enquiry or artistic expression’. Artistic expression is a key component of this Earshot program, but the standards of objective journalism should, nevertheless, still be adhered to. Both Jess and Ahmad express strong political views regarding the war in Syria and they make matching contentious claims. The program makes it clear that Ahmad still supports the violent overthrow of the Syrian government despite Jess acknowledging that “jihadist groups” “have taken advantage of the chaos engulfing Syria”. At no point does Jess query Ahmad about his vision for a future Syria and what and who inspires him to support violence as a political tool.
The Codes of Practice note that ‘Eyewitness testimony usually carries more weight than second-hand accounts’, and that the ‘passage of time or the inaccessibility of locations or sources can affect the standard of verification reasonably required’.
Despite this, according to the Codes, the ABC ‘should make reasonable efforts, appropriate in the context, to signal to audiences graduations in accuracy, for example by querying interviewees, qualifying bald assertions, supplementing the partly right and correcting the plainly wrong’. The program fails, in its entirety, to do this.
CLAIMS PRESENTED AS FACTS IN The drawers of memory: Ahmad’s story
Claim: Witnessing a chemical attack that killed 1,500 people
Lies and war
On ABC Insiders (4 October 2015) Foreign Minister Julie Bishop declared that the Syrian government is “one of the most heinous regimes, I mean President Assad unleashed chemical weapons on his own people. This is how the whole conflict began.” The Foreign Minister was presumably referring to the alleged chemical attack in Damascus on August 21 2013. Insider’s presenter, Barrie Cassidy, did not challenge Ms Bishop’s claim about the chemical weapons attack, so it was presented as fact to the audience.
For many Australians, the belief that President Assad used chemical weapons in August 2013, killing up to 1,500 people (according to the US Administration) including hundreds of children, places him in the same camp as Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, or Hitler. (Ref: To Derryn Hinch [in Australia]: Yes, Stand Up Against the Killing Fields in Syria – But Research Syria First, Transcend Media Service)
The chemical weapons attack nearly triggered direct US-led military strikes against Syria. If it had, Australia would almost certainly have been drawn into another catastrophic war in the Middle East.
It is commonly accepted today that the 2003 US-led war against Iraq was based on a lie. Iraqi defector Rafid al-Janabi who allegedly persuaded the White House that Iraq had a secret biological weapons program, admitted he had lied.
Knowing that lies have often justified the prosecution and escalation of past wars should serve as a caution to all those reporting or commenting on Syria. The ABC Codes of Practice should guarantee unreserved trust is not placed in partisan players; thus, there must be scrutiny and a commitment to accuracy.
One could argue that the ABC did not serve us (or the people of Iraq) as well as it should have in the lead up to the Iraq war. In an ABC Lateline program on 21/9/2002, George W. Bush is presented scoffing at claims by the Iraqi Foreign Minister that Iraq had destroyed its weapons of mass destruction. Kevin Rudd, then Australia’s Shadow Foreign Minister, shared George Bush’s view. He said on the Lateline program, “Iraq’s Foreign Minister is a liar”. Only US Congressman Dennis Kucinich was presented as a dissenting voice. According to Lateline, he represented those who ‘questioned the legitimacy and the efficacy of a war with Iraq’. History proved Congressman Kucinich’s stand the honorable one.
Today it appears that when it comes to another US-led war, the ABC serves us even less well. For example, former Congressman Kucinich still courageously questions the groupthink that can take countries into illegal and unconscionable wars. However, despite the fact that he was an outspoken opponent of US-led military strikes against Syria when they were threatened in August/September 2013, even travelling to Damascus to interview President Assad then, there is no clear evidence the ABC has sought his views on Syria.
Examining Ahmad’s claims about a chemical weapons attack in Damascus
Jess tells the ABC audience,
In 2013, the Assad regime stepped up its offensive to regain control of eastern Damascus. In September that year, reports began to emerge of a chemical weapons attack.
In fact, ABC reports emerged of a chemical weapons attack in eastern Damascus on 22 August 2013. The attack itself allegedly took place on 21 August 2013. Jess’s lack of clarity on the timing of the attack indicates significant gaps in her knowledge of events. This could account for what appears to be her whole-hearted acceptance of Ahmad’s version of events.
A partisan player who presents as a witness but who has an agenda that can override a commitment to the truth could exploit such dependence. This does not necessarily mean Ahmad is a false witness; however, an ABC audience could justifiably expect signalling to the audience that his claims are contentious.
UN gathered evidence indicates ‘rebels’ used sarin
A few months before the attack in Damascus, Ms Carla Del Ponte, a Swiss member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, asserted ‘rebels’, not government forces, had used chemical weapons.
U.N. has testimony that Syrian rebels used sarin gas: investigator, Reuters, 5 May 2013
U.N. human rights investigators have gathered testimony from casualties of Syria’s civil war and medical staff indicating that rebel forces have used the nerve agent sarin, one of the lead investigators said on Sunday.
The United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria has not yet seen evidence of government forces having used chemical weapons, which are banned under international law, said commission member Carla Del Ponte.
“Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss-Italian television.
“This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” she added, speaking in Italian.
To provide balance to claims of a UN investigator, the ABC presents claims of a Muslim Brotherhood member
ABC’s Middle East correspondent Matt Brown reported Carla Del Ponte’s claims on ABC Radio’s AM program, 7 May 2013. However, by ostensibly presenting ‘balance’ in the report, Matt Brown undermines the significance of Del Ponte’s assertions.
CARLA DEL PONTE: I was a little bit stupefied that the first indication we got, they were about the use of nerving gas by the opponent.
MATT BROWN: While she was stupefied, others were amazed. Her interview was aired as the world was watching the fireballs from an Israeli air strike on the outskirts of Damascus. But as the smoke cleared her comments began to generate their own heat and Syrian TV gave them a thorough airing.
But the UN Commission’s chairman issued a terse statement to say it had reached no firm conclusions on the issue.
The US reiterated its view that the rebels don’t have sarin. And Syrian Opposition member Molham al -Droubi accused the Syrian government of using spies to spread such stories.
MOLHAM AL-DROUBI: The claim is unsupported. There is no objective evidence of what they said.
MATT BROWN: After the fiasco over non-existent weapons of mass destruction and the invasion of Iraq, the Obama administration is treading carefully.
Image above: Molham al-Droubi, interviewed by Matt Brown, and one of the Muslim Brotherhood representatives on SNC
Brown failed to inform the ABC audience that ‘Syrian Opposition member Molham al-Droubi’ was an official representative of the Muslim Brotherhood on the Syrian National Council, a body set up outside Syria and based in Turkey. Thus, not being fully informed, the ABC listeners were not in a strong position to judge the veracity and significance of Del Ponte’s words; her point was weakened by the response of a Muslim Brotherhood member. (Note: Although a large percentage of the members of the Syrian National Council were from the Muslim Brotherhood, in April 2012, Australia was represented at a ‘Friends of Syria Group’ meeting in Istanbul when the Group recognized the National Syrian Council as the ‘legitimate representatives of all Syrians’.)
After chemical attacks in the north of Syria in which soldiers and civilians had been killed, the Syrian government invited UN inspectors to Syria. They were in Damascus when the alleged chemical weapons attack occurred in that city on 21 August 2013, as former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr informs us in his ‘diaries’.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr is circumspect, raising important questions
Interestingly, Bob Carr’s first reference to the chemical attack is in a 24 August ‘diary entry’ three days after the attack: “…I do TV interviews on the allegations of chemical-gas use in Syria and then we drive to see Beattie … .” There is barely any further reference to it until the Sunday August 25 entry, in which he writes that he is summoned by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to a National Security Meeting to discuss Syria. Carr was asking himself pertinent questions,
What was the evidence of chemical weapons use? Is this assessment as opposed to raw intelligence? Why would the Assad regime do this when they are winning on the ground and an UN inspection team has just entered? All the surgically precise questions to put. (Diaries of a Foreign Minister, p445 Newsouth 2014)
He tells readers that the Prime Minister was trying to contact Obama and had secured a call with the French leader, Hollande, while Bob Carr was arranging to speak with the foreign ministers of the UK and France. Bob Carr writes, ‘..the momentum is carrying us along.’
The Foreign Minister is in awe of Kerry, McCain and Clinton
Bob Carr doesn’t sound immediately convinced that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical attack. However, what’s evident from his diaries is his high regard for America and particular Americans. He writes,
… sitting in the hall listening to President Obama, I was struck by how good the US leadership can be at its very best; the same impression I formed back in April meeting Kerry, McCain, Zoellick and Hillary Clinton. Their sense of responsibly for what happens in the world shines through – their liberal internationalism. Of course, in writing this I have to banish from my mind the swivel-eyed neo-cons and ultra-nationalists…(p179, Newsouth 2014)
Being enamored of certain US politicians may have contributed to Carr’s allowing himself to get carried along with the ‘momentum’ instead of looking for answers to the common sense questions he was asking himself.
American politicians who support a military strike against Syria
Hillary Clinton supported the arming of Syrian ‘rebels’. She writes that in ‘arming a nonextremist rebel force,’
…the goal was not to build up a force strong enough to defeat the regime. Rather the idea was to give us a partner on the ground we could work with that could do enough to convince Assad and his backers that a military victory was impossible. (Hard Choices, p463, Simon and Schuster, 2014)
When Obama showed concerns, Clinton writes that she and Gen. David Petraeus argued
…there was a big difference between Qatar and Saudi Arabia dumping weapons into the country and the United States responsibly training and equipping a nonextremist rebel force. (p463)
The qualities of Clinton’s ‘nonextremist rebel force’ are not clear, but, assuming she can be taken seriously, she would rule out Ahmad’s insurgent friends since they are funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Robert Parry challenges assumptions re Hillary Clinton
US investigative journalist Robert Parry, who helped uncover the Iran-Contra deal, sees Clinton as a hawk, as opposed to Obama. His articles point to disagreements at the highest levels in Washington. Support for insurgent groups such as Ahmad’s friends would have some big backers in Washington, but not necessarily that of the president himself.
In 2012, Obama resisted plans from Petraeus, Clinton and other hawks to invest significantly in a program for training and arming rebels and to impose a no-fly zone over rebel-controlled territory inside Syria, which would require destroying Syria’s air defenses and much of its air force. In other words, it would have been a major act of war with the prospect of the kind of bloody chaos that a similar “responsibility to protect” strategy — pushed by Clinton and Power — unleashed on Libya in 2011 and that continues to the present.
(Ref: Obama’s Two-Faced Foreign Policy, Consortium News, 10 Oct 2015)
Ahmad claims to be an on-the-ground witness
Ahmad tells us,
This was the most sad day in my life. We opened doors, we found lots of families die with their childrens. I will never forget this. They was sleeping, but they are dying. More than 1,500 people, I remember.
According to a BBC examination of the chemical attack, the number of people killed ranges from 355 (Ref: Médecins Sans Frontières), to 502 (Ref: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) to 1,429 (Ref: the US government).
(Ref: BBC – Syria chemical attack: What we know, 24 September 2013)
By not signaling to the audience that the number of victims Ahmad presents is so greatly disputed, Jess Davis is inferring his account can be trusted. However, in war especially, controversial claims must be examined, especially those of players in the war. The ABC Codes of Practice, if applied strictly, would ensure this was done.
Ahmad blames the Syrian president for the attack.
I had an effect on my eyes. At the end, in the middle of the day, I cannot stand on my… I cannot stand. I fall down.
And one of my friends, his sister and her children, like all of them they die by the chemical weapons of Assad.
However, if the ABC Codes of Practice were being strictly adhered to the Earshot audience could justifiably expect to be informed that well-regarded experts in their fields have challenged Ahmad’s bald claim that ‘Assad’ used chemical weapons in Damascus. They are arguably more credible than Ahmad; common sense should tell us that a ‘revolutionary’ can be called on to dissemble for the ‘cause’. Also, there couldn’t be much more at stake than a country’s survival and the lives of millions. The ABC would be expected to welcome impartial and sober voices.
- MIT Professor and former UN Weapons Inspector
In January 2014, Theodore Postol Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Mr Richard Lloyd, a former UN weapons inspector, published a report titled Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21 2013.
Their conclusions, presented on page one of their report, are as follows:
What is the main policy issue?
Despite the significance of this report and the credentials and professionalism of the writers, there is no evidence of their study being discussed on ABC pages except in comments from readers of The Drum.
Professor Postol wrote the following email to Dan Kaszeta, a former member of the US Secret Service and a supporter of insurgents in Syria:
Wednesday June 18, 2014
Dear Mr. Kaszeta:
Thank you for informing me that your most recent email is the last that will be between us.
I am troubled that you would state that the reasons for ending communications with us is “principally due to the activities of ‘SyrianSister’.” This particular action is consistent with your public tweets where you refer to people as “trolls” when they raise legitimate questions about your numerous false claims.
Our experience of SyrianSister is that she has conducted herself in a totally professional way. She has provided us with technical information that we have needed to advance our analyses, alerted us to technical issues in chemistry that we were not aware of, and has responsibly contributed very useful information to the various technical matters we were investigating. By all professional standards, and by all standards of courtesy, SisterSyria has distinguished herself as a consummate professional.
You, on the other hand, have made an unbroken string of technically false claims. By your own repeated admissions, you have made these claims without either knowledge or even cursory investigation. In addition, you keep coming up with new false claims, that further indicate you have not done any work on the matter of the chemistry of hexamine and that you do not have even an elementary understanding of chemical processes that underlie either your old or your new false claims.
In addition, you have deliberately ascribed false statements to, Professor Aka Sellstrom, the Head of the UN inspection team that investigated the atrocity of August 21, 2013.
None of this is in any way close to professional conduct – nor is it close to civil discourse. In fact, your conduct has been persistently dishonest, that the most appropriate way to describe it is fraud.
You have only gotten some notoriety because of the scandalous failure of due diligence by the mainstream Western press. In different times, before the tragic destruction of large parts of mainstream journalism, you would have properly been identified as a fake and ignored.
Your thirst for notoriety is what got you into your current predicament.
There is an old saying,
It is better to be thought a fool and to keep your mouth shut then to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Sincerely yours, Ted Postol
Theodore A. Postol
Professor of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Note: The above was copied from Professor Postol’s email, and the highlighting was added. The writer came across this email in a tweet from Sharmine Narwani, who has written articles on Syria for The Guardian, Huffington Post, Russia Today, and Al-Akhbar (English). A link to it can be found on the ‘Australians for Reconciliation in Syria’ website. See Reference List: Chemical Attack in Damascus, August 2013.
- Award-winning Investigative Journalist
Distinguished US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has written at length on the alleged sarin attack in Damascus. In December 2013, his article, Whose Sarin?, was published in the London Review of Books. It begins,
Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.
Towards the end of the article, Hersh writes,
The administration’s distortion of the facts surrounding the sarin attack raises an unavoidable question: do we have the whole story of Obama’s willingness to walk away from his ‘red line’ threat to bomb Syria? He had claimed to have an iron-clad case but suddenly agreed to take the issue to Congress, and later to accept Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical weapons. It appears possible that at some point he was directly confronted with contradictory information: evidence strong enough to persuade him to cancel his attack plan, and take the criticism sure to come from Republicans.
In April 2014, the LRB published another article by Seymour Hersh. It was titled, The Red Line and the Rat Line, with the sub-title, Seymour M. Hersh on Obama, Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels. It is another lengthy article, but the crux of it is in this paragraph,
A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response’. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’
- Turkish Opposition MPs
At a press conference in October 2015, two MPs from the main Turkish opposition party indirectly supported Seymour Hersh’s claims.
CHP deputies Eren Erdem and Ali Şeker held a press conference in İstanbul on Wednesday [October 21] in which they claimed the investigation into allegations regarding Turkey’s involvement in the procurement of sarin gas which was used in the chemical attack on a civil population and delivered to the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to enable the attack was derailed.
Note: Joe Biden, the US Vice-President, had to apologize to Turkey after telling a meeting at Harvard University that Turkey and the UAE were partly to blame for the strengthening of ISIS. The following is from the CNN report, Vice-President Joe Biden apologizes to Turkey, UAE, October 6, 2014.
the militant Islamist group had been inadvertently strengthened by actions allies took to help opposition groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
“They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world,” Biden told students.
“We could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them,” he said.
In regard to the strengthening of ISIS by America’s allies, on 12 January 2016, US Democratic Congressman Rep. Hank Johnson from Georgia asked some hard questions about the links between ISIS and Wahhabism, the school of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Sitting on a House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Johnson questioned two officials, namely Dr. Michael Vickers, US Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence, and Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Syria (Ford has been accused of organizing ‘death squads’ in Syria. Ref: AN ARTICLE BY WAYNE MADSEN: U.S. Ambassador to Syria in charge of recruiting Arab/Muslim death squads). The video of this hearing is informative, but it is also telling, as one can see how very uncomfortable Dr Vickers and Mr Ford are, forced to answer the questions under oath and on camera. (Ref: Youtube video – Rep. Johnson calls out Saudi Arabia for its state-sponsored funding of Islamic Extremism.)
- Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff
In a December 2015 interview, retired US Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkinson, who served as Chief of Staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, referred to the alleged chemical attack and the ‘manipulation of intelligence’.
(15.00) I will tell you how I looked at the immediate reports that Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons in Syria a year or so ago. I said ‘Bull’. I will believe it when I see evidence that it actually happened. And you know I went to every person I knew in the intelligence community and every person outside the United States I knew to include two people who were in Syria at the time and I knew knew what was going on, and I respected their vision and their knowledge. None of them could confirm for me, not a single one, that Bashar al-Assad used those chemical weapons. Instead, there were possibilities they were used by other parties in Syria, as well as by Bashar al-Assad, and frankly the evidence looked more strongly for other parties than the president. So I still think there is high potential for this kind of manipulation of intelligence, this kind of fabrication of intelligence and this kind of refusal to take dissent in the leadership in this country, right now, today.
- Doctor of Pharmacology
After scrutinizing videos and images of the victims of the alleged ‘sarin’ attack, Dr. Denis O’Brien, a retired American pharmacologist, wrote a letter to the US Congress.
… it is very clear from the videos President Obama is showing you and the rest of the country that a sarin attack did not occur in those Damascus suburbs on Aug 21, 2013. More precisely, it is virtually certain, that if sarin was present, it could not have been present in sufficiently high concentrations to cause the horrible scenes in those videos…
As our representatives, you all are being paid to be skeptical about “evidence” presented by people who want to draw America into a war. Any skeptic of this alleged sarin attack has to be asking: Where are the feces, vomit, and urine? It is not a “nice” point to raise on CSPAN or with Anderson Cooper, but if you don’t raise it and President Obama kills a bunch of Syrians or starts a regional war and gets a bunch of Americans killed, then you will be equally complicit for your lack of skepticism or courage, just as history now holds the 107 Congress complicit in the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 because they failed to ask the Bush administration the right questions.
Question: Who were the victims of the alleged chemical attack?
Image: taken from video. Link here.
The conclusions of Dr. Denis O’Brien, who spent many hours studying all the videos and images made available to members of the US Congress, are deeply disturbing. In a very lengthy report titled The Sun Morgue, Dr. O’Brien contends that the evidence supports the theory that there had been a mass-execution. The children, he argues were not the sons and daughters of ‘rebels’ or their supporters; instead, he suggests they included Alawite children abducted from their villages in Latakia a couple of weeks before the alleged attack. According to a Human Rights Watch report published in October 2013, from 160 to 200 people were massacred and around 200 people were kidnapped, including many children. Harrowing accounts of the survivors are presented in the HRW report when up to 20 different armed groups (including IS) carried out a coordinated attack on their villages. I can find no evidence online that the ABC reported the massacre and abductions.
In his report, Murder in the Sun Morgue, Dr O’Brien writes,
I know of absolutely no comparable example in all of history where evidence of a mass-execution has been recorded in detail and intentionally shown to the world by the perpetrators in order to achieve a military objective. I know of no precedent in all of human history where the world has the opportunity obligation to look at that…”
If the analysis of the above experts can be trusted, or at least be seen to warrant close attention, an ABC audience would expect Ahmad to be questioned closely. A heinous crime may have been committed to trigger direct US, UK, and French military strikes against Syria. If so, by disregarding the conclusions of experts and by endorsing the claims of those who support armed groups, is the ABC incriminated in the crime?
(For a reference list on the chemical attack, please go to this link.)
- Claim: Escaping to Lebanon from al-Zabadani
Ahmad decided to flee Syria after two of his friends who were also money-runners had been arrested. He tells Jess he was driven to al-Zabadani and from there he depended on being taken to the Lebanese border in an ‘illegal way’. He says,
I think I was really lucky to escape. It was like more than 9 or 10 days walking every night. I walked four or five hours and sometimes some people drive me a little bit on the motorcycles, like just to get on the other side, and then I get to Lebanon.
Al-Zabadani is around 26 kilometers (as the crow flies) from Syria’s border with Lebanon. Obviously, Ahmad’s route from al-Zabandi to Lebanon could not have been direct, still only a credulous listener would accept his account without asking him to explain why it took him from 36 to 50 hours walking and at times riding on the back of a motorcycle to reach Lebanon from al-Zabandi.
Ahmad’s story about his escape gives the impression he endured great hardship, that he was a hero, but the truth was probably much more prosaic.
Syrian or Lebanese Australians listeners might be both incredulous and cynical that he isn’t questioned about such a claim. An ABC presenter’s unqualified acceptance of such bald claims would compromise the integrity of the ABC in the eyes of many within sections of the community that are most impacted by the war in Syria and who are informed about the geography of the region.
- Claim: Ahmad accuses secret police and other government forces of indiscriminately shooting protesters.
Ahmad: They didn’t use to do anything else than shooting. Like, they used to come without uniform so you never know when they come, you never know who going to shoot you.
Ahmad’s claims correspond with ABC reporting at the time. However, the violence of ‘armed rebels’ was mostly ignored in ABC reports; yet, for people in Syria, it was a fact of life after the start of the ‘Arab Spring’. If Jess Davis had spoken to a wider range of people in Syria and researched events, she would have been aware of it. Also, she might have heard many Syrians assert that armed provocateurs were sometimes present at anti-government rallies.
Syrian-based Father Frans van der Lugt, the Dutch priest murdered by a gunman in Homs in 2014 wrote,
“From the start the protest movements were not purely peaceful. From the start I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first. Very often the violence of the security forces has been a reaction to the brutal violence of the armed rebels.”
“From the start there has been the problem of the armed groups, which are also part of the opposition…The opposition of the street is much stronger than any other opposition. And this opposition is armed and frequently employs brutality and violence, only in order then to blame the government.”
(Ref: Syria: The hidden massacre, by Sharmine Narwani)
In The Hidden Massacre, Sharmine Narwani writes that two soldiers were killed on 23 March 2011 in Daraa, just one week after the beginning of protests, and in April 2011, “eighty-eight soldiers were killed by unknown shooters in different areas across Syria”. She explains in her article that police were also targeted and killed, but she was unable to provide numbers on police killed.
Hala Jaber, from The Sunday Times, has reported from Syria since early into the ‘Arab Spring’. An article she wrote in June 2011 confirms the claims of Father Frans. Titled Syria caught in crossfire of extremists, it had the by-line, ‘Pro-democracy protests are being infiltrated by armed jihadists’ provoking the army into lethal gun battles’.
Jaber’s article refers to killings allegedly by mukhabarat, or secret police, and her reference to such killings would support, at least to some extent, Ahmad’s claims. However, as the title suggests, police and security forces were confronting the violence of insurgents, and the agenda of insurgents was suspect.
Jaber interviewed Mohammed Saiid Hamadah, a Syrian journalist who had been imprisoned for criticising the Assad government and whose father-in-law who had been a political dissident and spent 31 years in jail. Jaber tells how Hamadah returned to his hometown of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man; there had already been violence against police in the town. He formed a group to ensure the protests remained peaceful. One night, Hamadah was picked up by an armed group and
informed that he was in the hands of “Syria’s revolutionary interrogation section”. Hamadah said he was hit on the back with electric cables and cursed as a “dog” for spreading his message about peaceful protest. “You tell people not to fight the army when they come,” his interrogator said. “This is not Syria’s army, this is Bashar’s army, and we intend to burn and kill it with fire and iron.”
Hamadah endured further torture. Burning plastic was dripped over his back, thighs and ankles. He was electrocuted through his toes.
Among the contacts in his mobile phone, his assailants found the name George. This led to another beating for mixing with “a Christian infidel, a crusader and a pig”.
Hamadah was warned that if he turned out to be from the Alawite minority that forms Syria’s elite, his baby daughter would be cut to pieces in front of him. Finally, he was hung upside down while electrodes were applied to his back and buttocks.
“The pain was excruciating and I would scream and lose consciousness, then be woken with cold water splashed on me. They forced my eyes open and threw salt in them.”
After seven hours Hamadah was driven back to his vehicle. This weekend he vowed to continue working for peaceful protest despite the threats of his captors, who he insists were jihadists. “I reject such an alternative for my future and the future of my children,” he said.
Atrocities and War
Sydney University academic Dr Tim Anderson is writing a book called The Dirty War on Syria. In the introductory chapter he acknowledges that the Syrian Army was ‘brutal to terrorists’, but points out that it was ‘protective of civilians’, while the ‘Islamists have been brutal with all’.
Though the terrorist groups were often called ‘opposition, ‘militants’ and ‘Sunni groups’ outside Syria, inside the country the actual political opposition abandoned the Islamists back in early 2011. Protest was driven off the streets by the violence, and most of the opposition (minus the Muslim Brotherhood and some exiles) sided with the state and the Army, if not with the ruling Ba’ath Party. The Syrian Army has been brutal with terrorists but, contrary to western propaganda, protective of civilians. The Islamists have been brutal with all, and openly so. Millions of internally displaced people have sought refuge with the Government and Army, while others fled the country.
Inevitably in any war, there are abuses and atrocities committed by all sides. For example, on 10 Dec 1918, Anzacs massacred from 40 – 120 villagers in Surafend, Palestine, then a part of Greater Syria. Those responsible received a reprimand. It took 90 years for serious attention to be given the massacre.
Considering the interests of Syria
In May 2013, a signatory of this letter interviewed members of a Syrian opposition group called ‘Third Current’. Like Mohammed Hamadah, the Third Current doesn’t support the militarized opposition. The members explained that the aim of ‘Third Current’ is to work to solve the crisis in a peaceful way.
Image: Members of ‘Third Current’ in discussion with peace activists from Italy and Australia; Damascus, 2013
They recognise the Syrian army as a national army, and not ‘Assad’s army’.
They recognise that the collapse of the national army, despite its mistakes, would result in the collapse of the country and state, similar to (or worse than) Iraq.
They say they have three guiding principles:
They are against violence
They are against the Islamisation of the political system
They are against interference by outside armed forces.
Al-Jazeera – a key player
In an audio interview, Samir, a young Syria Australian, related how ‘a terrorist group’ shot his uncle and two of his uncle’s friends in April 2011. (Ref: Socrates and Syria: Amnesty International’s silence about killings by militia) Samir’s uncle and his friends were farmers on their way to a Damascus market to sell their produce. It was thought the three men were targeted because their number plate indicated they came from Tartous, a city on the Mediterranean with a large Alawite population. Samir explained that the men’s deaths were reported on Al-Jazeera, but the media outlet claimed soldiers had killed them. (Samir also told his story on an SBS Insight program.)
Image above: Ghassan bin Jeddo at a press conference in Beirut, Nov 2015 after efforts by Arabsat to suspend the satellite TV channel al-Mayadeen, which he manages.
Soon after the start of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria, there were reports of Al-Jazeera journalists resigning in protest over that media outlet’s coverage of protests in Bahrain and Syria. Ghassan bin Jeddo, a Tunisian Lebanese who headed the Beirut office, was one of the first journalists to resign. There was little to no reference to bin Jeddo’s resignation in western media reports, but when Al-Jazeera reporter Ali Hashem resigned, he didn’t go quietly. In a Guardian article titled, The Arab Spring has shaken Arab TV’s credibility, Hashem wrote,
….mainstream Arab channels gave the Syrian revolution a large portion of airtime, but things took a different path when they started interfering with the coverage. I was one of those who experienced it when al-Jazeera, the channel I used to work for, refused to air footage of gunmen fighting the Syrian regime on the borders between Lebanon and Syria. I saw tens of gunmen crossing the borders in May (2011) – clear evidence that the Syrian revolution was becoming militarised. This didn’t fit the required narrative of a clean and peaceful uprising, and so my seniors asked me to forget about gunmen.
It was clear to me, though, that these instructions were not coming from al-Jazeera itself: that the decision was a political one taken by people outside the TV centre – the same people who asked the channel to cover up the situation in Bahrain. I felt that my dream of working for a main news channel in the region was becoming a nightmare. The principles I had learned during 10 years of journalism were being disrespected by a government that – whatever the editorial guidelines might say – believed it owned a bunch of journalists who should do whatever they were asked.
Lack of balance can fuel the conflict
Remarks by another Al-Jazeera correspondent who resigned in protest should serve as a cautionary warning to those in the ABC who aim to present responsible reporting on Syria, with strict adherence to ABC Codes of Practice. Aktham Suliman was based in the German Al-Jazeera office. (Ref: Suliman: ‘Al Jazeera plays the piper, but Qatar calls the tune’, 24.12.2012) He is quoted as saying,
In Syria, too, society is divided. You have the pro-Assad people, and those who are against him. However, when you make one side out to be mass murderers and turn the others into saints you’re fueling the conflict, not presenting the situation in an appropriate and balanced way.
The Guardian gets it terribly wrong
A report in April 2011 by American academic Joshua Landis, who is often presented by mainstream media as an authority on the conflict in Syria, points to how a Guardian article had not accurately reported the words of a Syrian soldier. The Guardian article made it appear that soldiers were deliberately shooting both demonstrators and soldiers that defied orders to shoot the protesters. In fact, Landis writes that the soldier was trying to explain that they had been ordered not to fire on anyone unless fired on first.
The interviewer tried to get the wounded soldier to say that he had refused orders to shoot at the people when he asked: “When you did not shoot at us what happened?” But the soldier doesn’t understand the question because he has just said that he was not given orders to shoot at the people. The soldier replies, “Nothing, the shooting started from all directions.” The interviewer repeats his question in another way by asking, “Why were you shooting at us, we are Muslims?” The soldier answers him, “I am Muslim too.” The interviewer asks, “So why were you going to shoot at us?” The soldier replies, “We did not shoot at people. They shot at us at the bridge.”
In the same article, Disinformation about Syria in Western Media, Joshua Landis, writes,
A number of news reports by AFP, the Guardian, and other news agencies and outlets are suggesting that Syrian security forces were responsible for shooting nine Syrian soldiers, who were killed in Banyas on Sunday. Some versions insist that they were shot for refusing orders to shoot at demonstrators.
Landis explains that his Syrian wife spoke to one of the soldiers who survived. According to his account, the 9 soldiers had been killed in an ambush; people shot at their truck from a roof and from the highway. This happened on 10 April 2011, the same day an Alawite farmer Nidal Jannoud was brutally murdered in Banyas. A video captured Jannoud being stalked by his killers in a Banyas street; his face was already bloodied after being knifed.
Speculating on who is implicated in the killings
In April 2011, this writer was in a hairdresser in Damascus. The hairdresser and his clients were speaking about the armed groups. They were blaming the prominent Lebanese politician Saad Hariri, who has close ties with the United States and Saudi Arabia, for the smuggling of weapons into Syria from Lebanon. An American investigative journalist, Wayne Madsen had a more explosive claim. In September 2011, he wrote that reliable sources claimed,
.. the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, is the key State Department official who has been responsible for recruiting Arab “death squads” from Al Qaeda-affiliated units in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Chechnya to fight against Syrian military and police forces in embattled Syria. Ford served as the Political Officer at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006 under Ambassador John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. Negroponte was a key figure in the covert U.S. program to arm the Nicaraguan contras and his support for vicious paramilitary units in El Salvador and Honduras earned him the nickname of “Mr. Death Squad.”
(Ref: Silvia Cattori: AN ARTICLE BY WAYNE MADSEN– U.S. Ambassador to Syria in charge of recruiting Arab/Muslim death squads )
- Claim: Ahmad, “On that day, I think 100 people or maybe 110 have been killed in one Friday”.
Ahmad is apparently referring to Friday 22 April 2011. It was around the time Jess decided to leave Syria. Both blame government forces for the violence and give no indication that soldiers were being killed or that armed groups were killing civilians, as well.
Though hardly reported by the ABC, it is certain that armed groups almost from the beginning of the Arab Spring were killing soldiers and security police.
Susan Dirgham, a signatory of this letter and former teacher at the British Council in Damascus, was in Syria in the week around Easter 2011, just 5 weeks after the start of the ‘Spring’. She has reported that she saw the funerals of soldiers and police on television every night.
On Sunday 24 April, a friend told her that armed men had shot guards at a military hospital in Damascus as well as people inside the hospital. Also, on Saturday 23 April 2011, a Damascus businessman introduced her to a young man who worked in his office and who had attended an anti-government rally on the outskirts of Damascus that same morning. The young man related that two people were shot and killed at the protest rally, and others were injured. He said that there were armed police at the demonstration but nobody saw them draw their weapons, so who shot and killed the protesters was a mystery. The businessman explained that this was the story people were hearing all the time: people were getting killed, but the circumstances around their shootings were murky. By that time, the government had introduced political reforms, but the violence continued.
Mother Agnes Mariam presents testimonies of locals
An article written in April/May 2011 by Mother Agnes Mariam, who heads a monastery just out of the city of Homs, confirms Father Frans’ observations. In her article, she includes the accounts of witnesses as well as making general observations about the media’s reporting of events in Syria.
Testimony of M.S. Student of Qâra, residing in Homs
“On Wednesday, 19th of April (2011) I was in Homs. I live close to the Baath University, next to the president’s roundabout. A part from the protesters I saw well equipped jeeps having large machine guns fixed on the back. The man operating the machine gun was holding down the trigger, spraying bullets with live ammunition at all the shops in the commercial street which goes from the roundabout to the city center. The people walking in the street ducked down, some people were wounded. Youth of the “Popular Committee” with some policemen opened fire on the car which skidded off the road. We ran after the car and captured them. They were three. We were astonished to see their inexplicable behavior, they were like drugged. The one operating the machine gun had been struck by a bullet which penetrated deeply in his arm. But he was laughing really hard, insensitive to the pain. These people were arrested and transported to another place by the policemen.”
When gathering testimony’s from our friends in various neighborhoods of Damascus (Zamalka, Jobar, Abbasiyyin-Tijara, Koussour, Kassa3, Dweil3a, Zablatani, Souk El Hâl, Sa2ba-Gotta, allied to the Palestinian refugee camps which operate a large arms trafficking business) or Daraa, Suwaida, Lattaquieh and Jezzirah, we hear more or less the same scenarios. The people, adults and younger people, gather when leaving the mosques or on other occasions. They march out in a peaceful demonstration. Within the group there are a few select people who start to arouse the tension. The slogans become more violent and fanatic. At a certain moment these infiltrators begin to commit violent acts: break stores, burn cars, hassle passersby or police force. The whole of the protestors are not fully aware of the aggressions which take place at the protest. At a certain moment hidden snipers on the roof or people within the crowd start firing on the protestors and the police. Chaos erupts. The video sequences are shot at that very moment supposedly as evidence that the police force has shot on a peaceful crowd.
The media does not specify why these protests occur precisely on these places. You first have to know that the majority of these protesters are young, middle-class, unemployed people. Besides some intellectuals, it is only a very modest crowd which is protesting. People will happily accept a bribe. Thus the Homs’ mosques publically proclaimed: “Jihad! He who wants money, let him come and claim it, we’re giving it away”. The places where these protests occur are not by chance. They occur in strategic places, specifically chosen and suited for these kinds of protests, i.e.: in Izraa or Maadamiyyé the protests took place close to the army posts. Other protests are being organized in religiously mixed regions to fire up sectarian tensions. Thus the protest in Homs passed by Bab Shah, the Christian neighborhood, and the Sunni participants yelled at the Christians: …which means: “Muslims and Christians, we want to exterminate the Alawi people.” In Banyas and Jableh (Sunni villages encircled by Alawi countryside) the slogans were Salafistic, arousing the crowd to the Jihad against the Alawites living in the mountains. These realities seemed unthinkable two months ago in Syria. Not because they were forced but because the civil model of unity seemed to be well enrooted in the Syrian society.
It’s evident for impartial observers that this must be a well-thought-out scenario mounted by secret services and orchestrated by global media that have mastery of the use of key, psychologically charged concepts. This scenario repeats itself all over Syria to stir up the situation to topple the regime. Here, in our little villages of Qalamun (our province), these situations happen to a lesser extent. We want reforms, like all Syrians, but not in this manipulative way which is far from innocent.
In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend, Mother Agnes Mariam and Sister Carmel, who works with her at the monastery, refer to the situation in Homs in 2012. Sister Carmel says,
What we see is contrary to the media’s story about a civil war. It’s not a civil war – it is terrorists, extremists, who are coming into Syria and killing our people. In one day alone in Homs, Mother Agnes saw 100 people killed and mutilated. She wept, she said, “My life is changed from this moment”; she devoted her life to doing whatever is required to prevent more deaths and atrocities.
(Ref: Two of us: Mother Agnes Mariam and Sister Carmel, SMH, 1 December 2012)
2013: ABC interview with Mother Agnes cancelled at last minute
Note: Mother Agnes Mariam has been on two speaking tours of Australia. On her last visit in June/July 2013, Susan Dirgham rang Andrew West, the presenter of ABC RN’s Religion and Ethics Report, to inform him Mother Agnes would be in Sydney. Andrew was very keen to interview Mother Agnes, and a meeting with Mother Agnes was arranged for 21 June 2013. Unfortunately, Andrew emailed Susan the night before the interview to tell her he had to cancel it as ‘a family matter has come up at the last minute’. When Mother Agnes was back in the Middle East, Susan contacted Andrew again to encourage him to interview her on Skype. However he made it clear he was no longer so interested in speaking with her; he said it had been suggested to him that Mother Agnes was an “Assad apologist”.
(UK Column News interviewed Mother Agnes on Skype in January 2016. The link is here.)
Mother Agnes is a French citizen of Palestinian Lebanese ancestry. For more than 20 years, she has headed a monastery in Syria that opened its doors to people from the different religious communities, so she would have strong ties with representatives of the various religious groups there. Her concerns would be with the general population in Syria, rather than the current Syrian leader, whom she has never met. It might alarm an ABC audience if Mother Agnes has been censored by some at the ABC, while Ahmad, an insurgent supporter, is given free rein to present his claims and support for insurgents on ABC Radio National.
Mother Agnes has worked with Doctor M. Nabil Fayad, a Sunni Syria who has been a dissident in the past. They wrote to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria to protest against its biased reporting on Syria.
Image: Waleed Aly interviews Mother Agnes briefly on RN Drive, 27 June 2013; the interview was arranged by Mr Aly’s producer
- Claim: “It’s Assad or we will burn the country down”
Jess Davis tells the ABC audience,
Following decades of fear and intimidation, Syrian people found the courage to rise up against the Assad dictatorship. The violence was a warning from the regime, “It’s Assad or we will burn the country down”. But the country was already burning. The more Assad cracked down, the more people wanted an end to his brutal regime.
These words could be Ahmad’s. There is no indication that Jess has done any research or considered other perspectives.
SBS’s Mark Davis hears the views of ordinary Damascenes
Mark Davis, an SBS award-winning video journalist, did present other perspectives in his Dateline report Syria’s Uprising, aired on 23 October 2011. For example, he interviewed people in the souq in Damascus. One man exclaims,
(3.05) If 10% of the population demonstrate and 90% support the government, should we eliminate the 90% for the sake of the 10%? It is unacceptable… I said this because I am zealous about this country. … They want to destroy everything we have built and take away our security and love for one another.
Davis reports that in Damascus ‘fear and suspicion of the opposition is extremely high. The government of President Assad could bank on genuine support in Damascus, at least’. Saladin, a carpet dealer in Damascus explains to Davis that his 5 children go to school and “not pay money”; go to hospital and “not pay money”. He says, “I am with Syria; I am with the president…. I am Muslim Sunni, but I am Syrian… For Muslims and Christians there are no problems. This is the honest democracy.”
Although Damascus and its people enchanted Jess, she denies them a voice in her program, instead presenting as credible someone who supports insurgents that fire mortars at them.
SBS befriends the Muslim Brotherhood
(Note: Despite minimal support for insurgents in Damascus, SBS Dateline began presenting sympathetic reports on the ‘rebels’. On 31 July 2012, Dateline aired a report from Yaara Bou Melhem, who met Colonel Riad al-Asaad, then the leader of the ‘Free Syrian Army’. Ironically, perhaps, Bou Melhem’s report won a United Nations Australia Media Peace Award in October 2012. In How the Muslim Brotherhood hijacked the Syrian revolution, Hassan Hassan, a staunch opponent of the Syrian ‘regime’, points out that Colonel al-Assad joined the Muslim Brotherhood after he defected.)
“We will burn the country down”
In regard to the ‘warning from the regime’ that “It’s Assad or we will burn the country down”, Jess provides no evidence to substantiate it. Her statement raises questions that deserve attention.
- What are the origins of this claim?
- What is proof that this is government policy?
- If the Syrian government had such a declared policy, how could it sustain the support of its secular army and the majority of its population?
Considering the origins of the claim
There is no clear sign of Jess’s claim being presented in mainstream media outlets. However, in an October 2011 interview with Sunday Telegraph journalist Andrew Gilligan, President Assad apparently said, “Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region.” In the same interview, he said that ‘intervention against his regime could cause “another Afghanistan”’.
Raed Fares, who runs a media centre in the town of Kafranbel, which is controlled by armed groups, has presented the claim that Jess repeats in the Earshot program. Fares is a propagandist for the ‘revolution’, who has received support from ‘ Spirit of America’, an NGO which works with the American State Department and which has ‘the explicit mission to support U.S. military and diplomatic efforts’. (Ref: The New York Times, Radio-Free Syria, by Eliza Griswold, December 4 2014.)
US State Department links warrant scepticism
By themselves, the links Fares has to the State Department should alert journalists to carefully scrutinize any of his claims. Further checks on Fares and his supporters in Kafranbel should lead journalists to question the integrity of Fares and his version of ‘revolution’. Supporters of the ‘revolution’ in Kafranbel are regularly photographed with signs, mostly written in English, and these are uploaded onto social media. One such sign read,
BBC, the Muslim Brotherhood and Napalm
(The image above is a screenshot from an image- now removed- on the Facebook page of Faddy Sahloul, a founder of the UK charity ‘Hand in Hand for Syria’, a charity that worked with a BBC team that presented a report on an alleged napalm attack on a school in northern Syria. It allegedly occurred in August 2013, about 8 days after the chemical attack in Damascus and a rushed BBC report was ready for MPs to watch as they voted on the question of military strikes against Syria. UK anti-war activist Robert Stuart has studied the BBC report, frame by frame and has presented a very convincing case for the ‘napalm attack’ being fabricated. The charity Hand in Hand for Syria allegedly has links with the Muslim Brotherhood.)
Images from the BBC’s ‘Saving Syria’s Children’, August/September 2013
Kafranbel’s ‘humane slogans’
In The sound and the fury: how Syria’s rappaers, rockers and writers fought back (The Guardian, 27 Nov 2015), British journalist Robin Yassin-Kassab, a supporter of the ‘revolution’ in Syria, refers to Kafranbel. She describes it as ‘a rural town that became famous for its witty and humane slogans…’
In the same article, Yassin-Kassab claims that ‘Assad or we’ll burn the country’ was ‘a threat frequently painted by regime thugs on urban walls’. The experience American NBC correspondent Richard Engel had with a slogan painted on a wall in Syria should alert journalists to the need to check and double check the authorship of any slogans on walls. Engel and his team were kidnapped and held captive in northern Syria for five days in 2012. Although they were in a rebel-controlled area, for some time after their eventual release, Engel claimed his captors had been ‘part of the Syrian government militia called Shabiha’ allegedly inked with President Assad. Eventually, it was revealed that the kidnappers had carried out an “elaborate ruse”. The kidnappers were in fact a ‘Sunni group of criminals’. Interestingly, the New York Times reported that the gang was likely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, who had been escorting the journalists when they were kidnapped.
Another person who pushes the claim about ‘Assad’s threat to burn the country’ is Bente Scheller, who is a mainstream commentator on Syria and the author of The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game Foreign Policy Under the Assads. Bente Scheller worked at the German Embassy in Damascus from 2002 to 2004, which should give her insight into events in Syria; however, such work could also lead one to speculate that she is more likely to present German foreign policy than to offer a non-partisan, rigorously researched analysis.
(A report titled Leading German Journalist Admits CIA ‘Bribed’ Him and Other Leaders of the Western ‘Press’ should be a concern to anyone seeking unbiased reporting of events in Syria.)
Calls for expulsion and eradication
There have been reports since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria of a chant heard at anti-government protest rallies, “Christians to Beirut; Alawites to their graves”. This chant has been turned into graffiti on walls. If Jess Davis’s report were impartial it would not shy from reporting on this slogan and considering the implications of it.
Claim 6: Nobody can talk about Assad. Everybody is afraid.
When Jess and Ahmad refer to the time leading up to the so-called Arab Spring in Syria, Ahmad exclaims,
Nobody can talk about Assad, nobody can talk about his government. Like everybody is afraid. Families doesn’t talk about him in their homes. They don’t talk about him in front of their children; they don’t talk about him … like if they talk about him they talk about him in a good way, even if they hate him.
Having been told this by a local she has befriended, Jess might believe she has been given the keys to the ‘real Syria’, so her response to other Syrians who praise the president might be, “They’re afraid to the truth. They hate him.”
In October 2015, ABC 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales interviewed Ed Husain, the author of The Islamist. Leigh Sales presents Husain as a “well-respected expert on counter-radicalisation, holding the title of senior adviser in the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation”. What is avoided in the 7.30 interview are Ed Husain’s comments in his book about the views of ‘ordinary Syrians’ in regard to the president of Syria. Ed Husain taught English at Damascus University and at the British Council in Damascus.
To my surprise, in private meetings in Syrian homes, young people of all religions expressed support and admiration for their president, Dr Bashar al-Asad. Where was the passion for a new president? Regime change, an idea advocated by neo-cons in Washington and Islamists in London, was not the priority of ordinary Syrians. Most Syrians criticized government ministers and hated government bureaucracy, but supported their president.
(Ref: The Islamist, by Ed Husain, Penguin, 2007, p230.)
Though many may claim Ed Husain’s links with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation could compromise his integrity, this quote from his book is a fair representation of the views of ‘ordinary Syrians’.
A Guardian article in January 2012 by Jonathan Steele and titled Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media draws attention to a poll commissioned by The Doha Debates. Steele writes,
The key finding was that while most Arabs outside Syria feel the president should resign, attitudes in the country are different. Some 55% of Syrians want Assad to stay, motivated by fear of civil war – a spectre that is not theoretical as it is for those who live outside Syria’s borders.
Ahmad’s claims do not deserve Jess’s unquestioning trust.
AN ABC EDITORIAL STANCE VS ADHERENCE TO THE CODES OF PRACTICE
It could be argued that ABC Codes of Practice do not require Jess to query Ahmad on any of his claims as the ABC has adopted an implicit editorial stance that mirrors Ahmad’s political stand and assertions.
This ‘editorial stance’ on the war in Syria was revealed on ABC’s Media Watch, Episode 08, 24 March 2014. In this Media Watch program, presenter Paul Barry criticizes Syrian Australian journalist Reme Sakr and freelance journalist Chris Ray, who had joined a delegation that visited Damascus and met President Assad. The Media Watch program focuses on the article Cry, my father’s country, written by Chris Ray and published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend (1 – 2 March 2014). Reme had ‘risked her life to travel to war-torn Syria to convince her father to return to Australia’. Reme’s father had left Sydney to retire to ‘the village of his birth in the hills near Sweida’ when Syria was still peaceful.
As Paul Barry is a veteran award-winning investigative journalist, his censure would carry weight in mainstream media circles, particularly since he presents a program that purports to uphold journalistic integrity.
The following are some of Barry’s criticisms of the Chris Ray article:
- “The story sidestepped the brutality of President Assad’s Syrian regime.”
- Reporter Reme Sakr is a member of Hands off Syria, a group “which refuses to admit he’s (President Assad) used chemical weapons, and paints the popular uprising as a foreign invasion.”
- “It rightly damned the terrorists and fundamentalists who are trying to establish and Islamic state. But it made no mention of the moderate Syrian opposition.
- “And no mention of the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons or the fact that UN investigators have accused both sides of war crimes…
- “The story was powerful PR for a brutal regime led by a man the UN has branded a war criminal.”
At the core of Paul Barry’s criticisms is a clear political stand on the crisis in Syria. If this is indeed the editorial stance of the ABC, The drawers of memory: Ahmad’s story does not risk being criticized by Media Watch. Jess has presented the testimony of a Syrian who condemns the ‘brutality of President Assad’s Syrian regime’; she refers to “jihadist groups taking advantage of the chaos engulfing Syria”, but tells us Ahmad was a member of the Free Syrian Army, which the ABC’s Media Watch might contend is the ‘moderate Syrian opposition’; Ahmad presents himself as a witness to a chemical attack perpetrated by the Syrian government; Ahmad and Jess certainly imply Assad is a war criminal.
Jess has ticked all the boxes, and so need not query anything her friend Ahmad says. Paul Barry’s criticism of Chris Ray’s article may not necessarily represent an official ABC editorial stance, but it does indicate the basic narrative mainstream journalists should present on Syria if they wish to avoid being censured by Media Watch. It is a lesson in self-censorship for any journalist aiming to establish a solid career in the Australian mainstream media. However, this basic narrative is a shallow, biased view of Syria and its people. It is one that permits Jess Davis to unashamedly present a street-wise, money runner for armed groups supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar as a credible witness, while ignoring ordinary citizens, who are the victims of the random violence and terror of armed groups. It’s a narrative that can disengage ABC listeners; one does not naturally feel empathetic towards a person who supports the killing of their fellow citizens for some inexplicable ‘freedom’ espoused by insurgents who are funded by foreign theocratic states that offer few freedoms to their citizens, especially women.
It could be argued that the RN Earshot program, as well as Paul Barry’s criticism of the Good Weekend story, is ‘powerful PR’ for Islamist insurgents. But support for armed groups in Syria has pervaded ABC programs since 2011.
If Jess Davis was in Melbourne on 24 August 2011, she might have heard ABC presenter Jon Faine on 774 Melbourne’s The Conversation Hour declare gratuitous support for a ‘violent armed struggle’ in Syria.
(36.33)… Damascus, you’d have to say that that’s a regime that’s lost all its legitimacy and it’s only a matter of time ……(39.04) But a regime that has been as prepared to kill its own people as Syria and Iran have been, they’re not going to just suddenly change their mind and say..they’re not going to say, “oophs sorry didn’t mean it”. So if they are going to be got rid of it’s going to be through a violent armed struggle surely, no other way? …
Jon Faine couldn’t argue he wasn’t aware of other perspectives. Syrian Australians have presented them on his talkback, and Susan Dirgham met Jon Faine after a public meeting on 7 June 2011. She presented him a copy of a report she had written after her visit to Damascus in April that year. It included the following:
The fear of deep sectarian divisions leading to a bloody civil war similar to Iraq’s or Lebanon’s is real across Syria; it is not being created by the President. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a very influential Islamic scholar with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, recently called on Sunni Muslims to rebel against the “Alawite regime” in Syria, “for Arabs to support the protesters in Syria”. …. One of the first chants heard from demonstrations in Daraa was “No Hezbollah. No Iran. Syria for Muslims.” More recently they have been chanting, “Send Christians to Beirut and kill Alawis”.
In August 2011, the same month Jon Faine was pressing his support for violent armed struggle in Syria, Susan Dirgham received an email from a former student at the British Council, Damascus. He was responding to Susan’s request to explain events in Syria.
…well let me say what happens here cant be told in a hurry or in one mail…and i don’t think u can get one story from all the people..
everyone will tell his point of view to what happened…..I’ll try in a hurry to be as objective as i can……
so let’s say …what happened was not a single thing…that was a huge huge stuff…..many forces played…many reasons contributed to it……many provocations existed to every part (or party ) that had a role of these event………..
so i guess everyone will tell the story from his site…..
the problem has at least two dimensions (or components)……an internal and an external…..i tend to believe that the two cant be separated from each other!!!!!!and i tend to believe that the external component had the great effect and it might had actually used internal stuff ( different ways, reasons and motives ) to produce what happened!!…so i think it is countries and politics fighting over the area for many reasons….economical , political , martial , dominance, influence ,etc….things that does not stop at Syria’s limits.they far go beyond our limits!!…so , as for the internal stuff, which is the thing that people watched and argued about , what happened was people from different backgrounds and different thoughts , knowledge , education, history , religion ..had different view to what happened and the people split in two main parts ( with other smaller groups) , apparently with the government and against it…..
and both of which are inhomogeneous and have different reasons to their attitudes!
well Syria is not the same as it was before….there are safety problems now…..many people are being kidnapped and killed by those who call themselves peaceful!!!…..but let us not forget that there are true peaceful people in the opposition, and those are to be respected!!……i can tell you many many stories about the riot ( that many call peaceful demonstration)!!…there are armed people fighting the security and army guys…their way of killing tell the deep and immense hatred and inhumanity!!!they sometimes slaughter security and army guys…and all the bodies that they caught will be cut into pieces( mangling?mayhem?mutilation? ) !!!they cut the head and the extremities(arms and legs) then throw them to rivers , rubbish sites , streets or soil…but whatis worst is that they sometimes after killing and cutting the body the put the parts in bags and put them in front of their houses to be gathered by their families …there are a lot of horrible stories!!!!i can tlak a lot about this and other bad bad behaviours………and i could notice that many of the opposition ( i guess more than 60 %) are protesting (and many of these use weapons) due to religion stuff!!!!of course there are other people with other reasons and motives…..and of course there are good opposition with good attitudes and peaceful manners……
talking can go on for hours about this…….so maybe we talk later about this……and you can ask if u ahve something specific that you want to know………….
meanwhile life keeps going on with some fears and worries…in damascus …things are close to normal………
In his criticism of the Good Weekend article, ABC journalist Paul Barry shows no interest in what ordinary Syrians living in Sweida and the surrounding villages are facing. Reme’s father returned to a peaceful village setting, but in recent years it has been under threat of attack by insurgents.
Consistent with the stance of Media Watch, ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill displays bias towards insurgents threatening Sweida. In June 2015, on her Twitter page, she chose to retweet a message from an armed group in Sweida dubbed ‘FSA’s Southern Front’, rather than show regard for Syrians who wish to defend their cities and towns from groups that include an al-Qaeda affiliate (i.e. al-Nusra) and ISIS.
Ref: September 2015, Reuters’ report Druze leader, dozens more killed by car bombs in southern Syria: monitor
Insurgents including the Nusra Front and Islamic State have been trying to advance toward Sweida province, a Druze stronghold.
It is contended that the bias of the ABC Earshot program and Media Watch is reflected in ABC news reporting on Syria since it
- generally ignores stories about the victims of insurgents’ mortars, massacres, abductions and sieges
- presents with little to no critical examination propaganda videos created by insurgents, who are dominated by Takfiris, a large percentage of them non-Syrians, despite warnings by mainstream journalists to be wary of videos and claims of insurgents (for example, BBC’s Jon Williams and Channel 4’s Alex Thomson)
- rarely gives a platform to the vast majority of people in Syria who do not support terror attacks in their cities and towns
- rarely if ever presents the success of the reconciliation initiatives in Syria (for example, the ‘Babbila Reconciliation: a Light at the End of Syria’s Dark Tunnel’)
- displays little to no interest in the freedoms enjoyed by women (of all religious sects) in secular Syria, and rarely presents the views of women in Syria who oppose insurgents
- it rarely if ever presents the views of Christian leaders in Syria, who have been outspoken in their opposition to insurgents; these leaders include Archbishop of Hassakeh-Nisibi, Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo, Reverend Ibrahim Nseir (Evangelical Church Aleppo ),
- it rarely if ever presents the views of dissident groups and individuals in Syria who oppose the militarized opposition, for example, the dissident group ‘Third Current’, composed of mainly Sunni Muslims who are very critical of the ‘regime’ but who support the army
- presents a skewed picture of Syria, so ABC audiences are uninformed about the sophistication of its people and its predominantly Muslim society
- it rarely if ever examines the clerics who issue fatwas that call for the killing of anyone who supports the government, for example, Sheik Adnan Arour (based in Saudi Arabia) or Sheik Yousef Qaradawi (based in Qatar)
Image: Sheik Yousef Qaradawi, on Al-Jazeera TV ____________________________________________________________________
ABC’S EDITORIAL STANCE vs AUSTRALIAN CITIZENSHIP REQUIREMENTS
According to the ABC’s Codes of Practice (4.3), the ‘ABC takes no editorial stance other than its commitment to fundamental democratic principles including the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, parliamentary democracy and equality of opportunity.’
These cover some basic beliefs that Australian citizenship seekers are tested on and must pledge to respect in order to become citizens.
Also, those seeking citizenship must believe in ‘Living Peacefully’. They are required to assent to the following:
We are proud to live in a peaceful country with a stable system of government. We believe that change should come through discussion, peaceful persuasion and the democratic process. We reject violence as a way to change a person’s mind or view.
Image: Medical student waiting for bus outside Damascus University, Dec 2008
Image: Young Syrian women in a cafe to play cards, Damascus 2010
Image: Syrian students from Damascus at a castle near Homs
Furthermore, equality of opportunity is referenced in the ABC Codes of Practice, but equality of men and women isn’t. This may be because it is taken for granted in Australia, but it is not in the Middle East. The freedoms women have in Syria are remarkable for the region. For example, Syrian women obtained the right to vote in 1949, and except in areas ‘liberated’ by anti-government insurgents, women are free to dress as they like, to drive, and to travel alone without needing the permission of a male relative. They have equal access to education and employment.
Considering the above, it is ironic that the ABC displays such flagrant bias towards those seeking to destroy the secular, inclusive Syrian state, which gives rights to women comparable to those enjoyed by Australian women but denied women in the so-called liberated zones. (Note: the state-sponsored creed in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two major supporters of the insurgency, is Wahabism, a school of Islam noted for its intolerance and advocacy of violence. It is anathema to the vast majority of Syrians, especially women.)
Image: Christmas and Eid decorations in Damascus, December 2008
The protagonist in The drawers of memory: Ahmad’s story supports violence being used against his country’s national army, an army that is defending a state which guarantees freedom of religion (Christmas, Easter, as well as Eid festivals are national public holidays) and equality for women. The protagonist is a money runner for insurgents who fire mortars into residential areas; according to Jess Davis, the money he delivers to insurgents is provided by foreign states. Shouldn’t an ABC presenter question the legality of governments giving direct support to an insurgency in another country? After all, Australians who go to Syria to take up arms against the government there can be charged with an offence upon their return to Australia.
One stated responsibility of an Australian citizen is ‘to defend Australia should the need arise’. Presumably, Syrian citizens have a similar responsibility. However, some, such as Ahmad, support a foreign-backed insurgency. It has been estimated that around 100,000 Syrian soldiers, police and National Defence Force members have died fighting these insurgents. Who is the most ‘responsible’ citizen: a Syrian soldier or Ahmad? The families of those soldiers and police killed or maimed are not given a voice in this program or even acknowledged; thus, ABC listeners are discouraged from even considering their plight.
This ABC program is presenting as credible the claims of a man who still is an acknowledged supporter of insurgents, even though much evidence suggests they are overwhelmingly violent, sectarian extremists. Apart from Ahmad’s reference to the “freedom” he says insurgents will bring to Syria, their motivations and backgrounds are not investigated at all in the program.
If it is deemed unnecessary to query Ahmad (or at least to alert listeners to other perspectives) because his stand on the war in Syria reflects an implicit ABC editorial stance, then it could be claimed that there are contradictions in the ABC’s tacit editorial stance on Syria and its commitment to ‘fundamental democratic principles’ and beliefs that underlie being a responsible, law-abiding Australian citizen.
This warrants the serious attention of Audience and Consumer Affairs as well as relevant government bodies.
THE THREAT OF GENOCIDE
There is evidence that the so-called revolt against the Syrian government has been violent and sectarian virtually from the start. However, in the Earshot program, Jess Davis gives no hint of this being the case; she also doesn’t question Ahmad on this despite his support for the violent ‘revolution’ up until today.
As mentioned above, a chant reportedly heard from the early days of the ‘Arab Spring’ was “Christians to Beirut; Alawites to their graves”. What is more, just a few months into the crisis, Sheik Adnan Arour, a Syrian cleric based in Saudi Arabia, declared “We Shall Mince [The Alawites] in Meat Grinders”.
Later in 2011, the Qatari based cleric Sheik Yousef Qaradawi, who has been presented as the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood and who has a huge audience on Al-Jazeera, declared, “If it is necessary to kill 1/3 of the Syrian population to get rid of the heretical regime, that is okay.” In early 2013, he condoned the killing of Syrian civilians and religious scholars who didn’t support the anti-government insurgents.
In early 2012, at an anti-government rally in Homs, there is a call for the killing of Alawites. The French translation in this video is, “Nous voulons exterminer les Alaouites (3.40 mins: https://youtu.be/uaU1WDzDxnQ?t=220 )
In May 2015, on an Al-Jazeera program that has a massive audience, the Syrian host and a guest ask, “Should we kill all Alawites?” They answer in the affirmative, while another Syrian guest challenges this madness.
A New York Times article One Syrian’s Journey From Hometown Rebel to ISIS Bomber (15 Jan 2016) recounts the story of Abu Bilal al-Homsi, a young Syrian who, like Ahmad, was a likeable young man and who also supported the calls for ‘freedom’. The NYT’s article states that al-Homsi eventually became an extremist; he joined IS and blew himself up, killing 30 civilians in Homs in the process. However, considering the calls for the extermination of Alawites and the expulsion of Christians that date back to 2011 and 2012, it could be argued that the position al-Homsi took some years before he blew himself up was extreme.
The NYT’s article about al-Homsi doesn’t refer to what could be described as fake aspects of the so-called revolution in Homs. (This is explored on the website Socrates and Syria – Christians and Rebels in Homs; The UN; Baroness Amos; NGOs) For example, it doesn’t mention the expulsion from their homes of more than 50,000 Christians (as well as other Syrians who didn’t support the ‘revolution’). The ABC has reported on the expulsion of Iraqi Christians by extremists; however, it seems to have ignored the plight of Syrian Christians in Homs.
The 30 or so victims of al-Homsi are said to have been Alawite Syrians. They and other minorities, secular Sunni Syrians have been the target of the ‘revolution’ since the beginning of the crisis in Syria.
Early victims illustrate the sectarian nature of the conflict:
On 10 April 2011, just a few weeks after the start of the crisis in Syria, an Alawite farmer, Nidal Jannoud, was attacked and killed by a mob on a street in Banyias, a town on the coast of Syria. He was stabbed to death and his body was mutilated.
Around the same time, an armed group on the outskirts of Damascus killed three other Syrian farmers. The farmers were in a car whose registration plate indicated they were from Tartous, a predominantly Alawite area. (This story was referred to above.)
On 17 April 2011, an armed group killed three teenagers in Homs. They were Alawites. The boys were in a car with the father of two of them, who was an off-duty army officer, Abdo al Tallawi. He was killed, also, and their bodies were reportedly mutilated.
Image: Sari Saoud’s mother with Susan Dirgham, Damascus May 2013
In October 2011, Sari Saoud, a 9-year-old Christian boy who lived in Homs, was shot in the street by unidentified gunmen. Strangers rushed and picked up the boy and told his mother they would take him to hospital. The mother followed. The boy was taken to a house, not a hospital, and strangers videoed the boy’s mother screaming and grieving over the body. The footage was sent to Al-Jazeera and it was reported the boy had been shot and killed by soldiers. The mother denies that there were any soldiers in the area at the time.
On 27 December 2011, during an examination at Damascus University, medical student Ammar Baloush killed two classmates and wounded three others. The victims all belonged to religious minorities: Christian, Druze, Alawite and Shi’a. After the shootings, Baloush fled and joined a rebel group.
But it wasn’t only Syrians belonging to minority groups that were targeted.
Image: The Grand Mufti of Syria with Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire and some Syrian Christian leaders, May 2013
On 10 October 2011, Saria Hassoun, the youngest son of the Grand Mufti, and Saria’s history professor Dr. Mohammad al-Omar were assassinated in Aleppo. In the speech at his son’s funeral, the Grand Mufti refers to Qaradawi’s condoning the killing of 1/3 of the Syrian population.
In November 2012, Palestinian Syrian actor Mohammad Rafea was abducted, tortured and then killed by insurgents in November 2012. Rafea had spoken out against the armed opposition in the video documentary Manufacturing Dissent- the Truth about Syria, published online at the end of August 2012.
Image: Rayan, image taken at Umayyad Mosque, May 2013
In early 2012, Rayan then a very young boy addressed a pro-government rally in Damascus. At the time it was common for mainstream media reports in Gulf States and in the west to use the term ‘Shabiha’ to refer to militias that purportedly supported the government and committed war crimes. Reports about the Shabiha helped entrench hatred for the ‘regime’ and deflected attention from the killings by Takfiris. Shabiha had once been a dreaded term. It dated back to the 1980s or 1990s when there was a problem in coastal towns with mafia-like gangs that were indeed dubbed Shabiha. But these gangs had been either wiped out or disbanded years before. When the term resurfaced to be used in the information war against Syria, people responded mockingly, “I am Shabiha. We are Shabiha.”. At the rally, Rayan impressed the crowd with a ditty that included, “I am a Shabiha”. This was Rayan’s ‘crime’. In June 2012, the New York Times reported that his two brothers Murhaf and Yazan had been abducted and killed by ‘armed men’. (Rayan is a ‘young Syrian boy’; the writer of this letter does not know his religious background.)
If ABC journalists, presenters and News editors abided by the ABC Codes of Practice in regard to Syria, Australians would be much better informed about the terror and intimidation ordinary Syrians have faced since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’. In that situation, an ABC audience would most certainly have expected Jess Davis to query Ahmad’s claims and his vision for a ‘free’ Syria.
CALLING FOR CONTEXT AND INTELLIGENCE IN ABC REPORTING
The general bias of the ABC means Jess Davis was under no pressure to apply professional journalistic standards and so abide by the Codes of Practice when she produced the Earshot program despite its highly contentious political content. The drawers of memory: Ahmad’s story simply reflects the general editorial stance of the ABC which presents as credible the point of view of supporters of armed groups while mostly ignoring ordinary Syrians, their victims.
This ABC bias is extraordinary since the values and beliefs of Australian citizens and their security are compromised when the national broadcaster favors insurgents who have a history of using terror as a tactic of war and who are incited to hate and kill millions of ordinary people that value the freedoms and equalities which secular societies work at guaranteeing. The ideology armed groups in Syria follow is permeable and crosses borders, as was displayed in a recent terror attack in Indonesia; despite this, an adherent of some strain or other of this ideology is presented as a hero by Earshot.
Presumably Ahmad sanctions armed groups firing mortars and rockets into Damascus suburbs, as this is what his insurgent friends do; yet, Jess Davis feels no compulsion to challenge his beliefs. It seems, therefore, that the ABC condones the targeting of innocent civilians based on slogans – “Assad is a brutal dictator”; we are fighting for “freedom”. Claims, ideologies and visions of armed groups are not investigated.
Jess may believe Ahmad is a fair and honest representative of Sunni Muslims in Syria; hence, another reason (apart from her fondness for Ahmad) not to examine his claims and beliefs. But Damascus is predominantly a Sunni Muslim city, Syria is led by a predominantly Sunni government, and defended by a predominantly Sunni army, so Ahmad’s support for violence to achieve a political end and the acceptance of Saudi and Qatari money to do that actually places him in an extreme minority in Syria.
When reporting from Damascus, SBS journalist Mark Davis gave the microphone to ‘ordinary Syrians’. The vast majority of those people around him and almost certainly the men who spoke with him were Sunni Syrians. Not far from them was the Umayyad Mosque, a most beautiful and historically significant mosque. For many years, the imam of this Grand Mosque was Sheik Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti al-Bouti, a highly esteemed Islamic scholar. Addresses by Sheik al-Bouti would be on Syrian TV every Friday. He considered by many to be a man of peace and principle.
Al-Bouti authored more than sixty books on various Islamic issues, and was considered an important scholar of the approach based on the four schools of Sunni Islam and the Ash’arite creed, which is considered a heresy by the Salafis/Wahhabis of groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra Front.
(Ref: Wikipedia: Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti)
In March 2013, 82-year-old Sheik al-Bouti and nearly 50 of his students were killed in a bomb attack during a religious class. For some, Sheik al-Bouti’s compassion and scholarship could be erased with a slogan, ‘he was a regime apologist’. However, a fairer description of him would be a moral compass for the vast majority of Syrians.
Opposed to Sheik al-Bouti was Sheik Yousef al-Qaradawi, the controversial Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, who attracts a huge audience on Al-Jazeera. As mentioned above, he has links with the Muslim Brotherhood; furthermore, he is reputedly a friend of the royal family in Qatar and is supported by Turkish President Recep Erdoğan. About 3 months before Sheik al-Bouti was murdered, Sheik Qaradawi declared that civilians and religious scholars in Syria were legitimate targets if they were deemed to work with authorities.
For Syrians the choices are stark: support a foreign-led campaign against their secular government and army, a campaign that relies on extremism to incite hatred and fuel violence; or stay true to beliefs that, at their best, honor every person.
If the ABC reported fully on the conflict in Syria its audiences would be aware of the wider context in Syria and the choices facing people. They would rightly empathize with ‘ordinary Syrians’ and all innocent victims of the war.
In 1983, the then US president Ronald Reagan hosted ‘freedom fighters’ from Afghanistan at the Oval Office. It was a convivial meeting, but now we are paying the price since it is universally acknowledged that these ‘freedom fighters’, funded by the United States, spawned groups such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS. They and their foreign sponsors helped destroy Afghanistan’s civil society and the freedoms its women had enjoyed.
ABC RN’s The drawers of memory: Ahmad’s story presents a sympathetic portrait of a person who is arguably a descendent of these so-called ‘freedom fighters’. Today Syria, like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya before it, is being plunged into chaos and torn apart by sectarian violence committed by foreign-funded insurgents. A large percentage of the insurgents are foreign takfiris.
The ABC lets down the people of secular Syria. Recently on The Voice for Kids, Beirut, Lina, a 9-year-old Syrian, sang about ‘freedom’ and her ‘burning land’. Lina’s concept of freedom is very different from that of Ahmad’s.
We came to celebrate the holidays,
We came to ask why we don’t have festivals or decorations
My land is burning,
My land’s freedom has been stolen,
The sky is dreaming,
And asking the days,
Where is the beautiful sunshine?
Where are the Doves?
As argued above, the shallow, biased narrative presented in this program reflects an unofficial ABC editorial stance on Syria, a stand that doesn’t abide by the ABC Codes of Practice and the basic beliefs, equalities and values Australian citizens commit to.
The drawers of memory: Ahmad’s story in effect sanctions the use of violence to impose a sectarian agenda on an entire population. The glibness and dissembling of Ahmad go unchallenged, while experts such as Professor Ted Postol and Richard Lloyd; award-winning investigative journalists Seymour Hersh and Robert Parry; former American Congressmen Dennis Kucinich; and the vast majority of ordinary Syrians are ignored.
A shallow, biased narrative on Syria that effectively condones groupthink and violence against a secular state greatly diminishes us as a nation and makes us vulnerable to being caught up in the maelstrom of sectarian hatred.
In conclusion, the Earshot program has breached ABC Codes of Practice related to Accuracy, Impartiality, Diversity of Perspective and Accountability. However, in breaching these Codes, the producer, Jess Davis, has simply reflected the ABC’s unspoken editorial stance on Syria.
Most if not all of the signatories of this complaint letter have a deep love for Syria. They also have a memory of a Syria where Syrians were free to ‘love’ their fellow citizens, regardless of their religious or ethnic background. Propaganda has played a critical role in the war in Syria. We are deeply disturbed that the ABC contributes to this by broadcasting programs that breach its Codes of Practice.
At the Nuremberg trials, Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering testified: “Modern and total war develops, as I see it, along three lines: the war of weapons on land, at sea and in the air; economic war, which has become an integral part of every modern war; and, third, propaganda war, which is also an essential part of this warfare.”
This letter refers to the ABC ignoring ‘ordinary Syrians’; hence, Jess Davis can present “Ahmad”, a young man who believes in using violence against the army, police and ordinary civilians, as credible and heroic. Perhaps she is able to do this simply because some of Australia’s allies support the demise of the independent Syrian secular state.
These ‘ordinary Syrians’ are flawed and sometimes very frail. However, we believe one day they will be viewed by history as extra-ordinary.
THE PARTISAN STAND OF NGOs on SYRIA COMPROMISE THEIR INTEGRITY
What must also be noted is that Médecins Sans Frontières and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have both adopted a partisan stand on the crisis in Syria virtually from the beginning. Therefore, it is not simply a matter of numbers in dispute.
In the case of Médecins Sans Frontières, although it is generally a highly regarded body, its representatives in Syria work in areas controlled by armed groups; MSF does not send Australian doctors who might be objective and impartial in the conflict and it they did work in Syria their ‘minders’ would be supporters of the cause of the armed groups. Presumably MSF representatives reporting from areas controlled by insurgents would be risking their lives to present a point of view not officially sanctioned by the men with guns around them.
It should be noted that a co-founder of MFS, Dr Bernard Kouchner, was French Minister for Foreign and European Affairs Minister (2007 – 2010) under President Sarkozy, a president who was to give strong backing for foreign intervention in Syria.
The links of other prominent NGOs to the US State Department must be examined when assessing their claims about the war in Syria. For example, scholars together with Nobel Peace Laureates have written to the director of Human Rights Watch to protest HRW’s close links with the State Department. Also, in 2012 the US director of Amnesty International was Suzanne Nossel, someone who had worked with both Human Rights Watch and the State Department. Nossel wrote the paper, Smart Power, from which Hillary Clinton has referenced. Nossel is now Executive Director of Pen American Centre. A figure that may have a behind-the-scenes role in determining the bias of NGOs is controversial billionaire George Soros, someone who has funded Hillary Clinton political ambitions. In the first six months of the crisis in Syria, Soros expressed his support for the ‘revolution’. He directly or indirectly donates to NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which have taken a partisan stand on the conflict in Syria. In January 2014, he hosted a dinner in Davos, Switzerland, to focus on the situation in Syria. Guests included top executives from Amnesty International, World Vision, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam International and Save the Children International. In a Guardian article titled, The Syrian Opposition: Who’s doing the talking? (13 July 2012), Charlie Skelton refers to George Soros and his connection with European Council on Foreign Relation. Skelton writes: At this level, the worlds of banking, diplomacy, industry, intelligence and the various policy institutes and foundations all mesh together.
ABC REPORTING ON SYRIA DOMINATED BY INSURGENTS’ VIEWPOINT
As indicated above reports by ABC correspondents in the Middle East, namely Sophie McNeill and Matt Brown, confirm an ABC bias towards the armed groups. This is despite the groups being dominated by takfiris.
For example, the 14 December 2015 ABC TV news report (War in Syria: Air Strikes) presented by Ms McNeill shows video footage with the logo of an armed group that fires mortars into residential areas in Damascus. In her report, she takes the insurgents’ claims at face value and presents them as fact. Also, by referring to insurgents as ‘opposition rebels’, she infers that they are a legitimate political opposition and glosses over their sectarian agenda and their well-documented killing of civilians.
A father runs through the dust cloud, with a small child in his arms. They were the lucky ones when air strikes on Duma on the outskirts of Damascus, killed around 35 people, many others were wounded. The bombs also hit a school where two children and a high school principal died. Either Syrian regime or Russian warplanes carried out the attacks. This area is held by opposition rebels. There is no sign of the IS forces that the Syrian government and Russia claim they are targeting.
McNeill does not investigate or question the material she has received from partisan players in the war, in other words insurgents and their supporters. For example, a ‘White Helmets’ video presented in the ABC news report is featured on the Youtube site of Shaam Network, an ‘opposition media outlet’.
Shaam News Network is compromised by its implicit support for the caging of women. In November 2015, Haaretz reported,
Shaam News Network, an opposition media outlet, showed men and women in iron cages being driven on the back of pickup trucks through what it said was the area of Eastern Ghouta, northeast of the capital.
(Ref: WATCH: Syrian Rebels Lock Men and Women in Cages, Use Them as Human Shields, Haaretz, 1 Nov 2015)
It is possible that the women and men in cages were from Adra, an industrial town on the outskirts of Damascus that was attacked in December 2014 and occupied for some months by various armed groups, including IS. Franklin Lamb, an American lawyer who has reported from Syria, claimed that insurgents took around 500 people hostage, mostly government employees and members of religious minorities. He says when the army defeated the insurgents and took back Adra, some of the hostages may have been taken via tunnels to insurgent strongholds in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
The ABC’s lack of reporting on the horrific crimes committed in Adra reflects its bias. For example, people working in a government bakery were thrown alive into the industrial ovens. One young couple chose to explode grenades that killed them and their two young children when they knew insurgents were going to knock on their door. (There is no evidence that the ABC reported these atrocities and other atrocities committed in Adra.) As the army advanced to take back the town, Mother Agnes Mariam reported that insurgents threw children off roofs in an attempt to hold up the advance of the government forces.
As mentioned above, the Sophie McNeill report and Shaam News Network featured a video clip from a group called ‘White Helmets’. Videos produced by this group often feature on the ABC. However, there is no mention that this group is known to work in areas controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate. Also White Helmets is funded by the US and UK, and its members have been trained by a former British special forces officer. It is also linked to the American PR firm, Purpose. White Helmet videos prominently feature images of men carrying young children in apparently bomb-damaged areas. The camera work is of professional standard. There are few if any images of the mothers or older siblings of these young children, which seems odd. There have been many reports of children abducted in the course of the war. Rather than uncritically presenting White Helmet and insurgent videos at face value, ABC journalists should be investigating if the children shown in these videos have in fact been abducted (as hundreds of Syrian children have been) and kept in insurgent-held areas for propaganda purposes. Another possibility is that some are the children of women who have entered the rebel enclaves, willingly or otherwise, and have borne the children of insurgents there. In the article quoted above by Franklin Lamb, there is mention of the fact that foreign fighters in Syria tend to acquire a jihadi or slave wife (s) and family.
Images: On left, White Helmets video shown on ABC TV news report; a typical WH’s video, showing a man with the WH’s logo on display and a young child in his arms. It is unusual to see women in their videos.
Images above: Taken from Syrian TV after a car bomb.
What ABC reports do not reveal is that anti-government insurgents are targeting a secular society that is arguably more like Australia than any other Middle Eastern country. Syrian society before the war was diverse and inclusive. Its similarity to Australia is reflected in the freedom and equality enjoyed by women; religious freedom and the ecumenical nature of the society; the availability of satellite television and the internet (Syrians are on Facebook and Twitter); and the fact that education is free, so people across all sectors of the society can aspire towards a profession.
One can learn about these aspects of Syrian society online. For example, a set of Youtube videos feature the people of Jaramana, a suburb on the outskirts of Damascus which has been regularly targeted by insurgents’ mortars and car bombs. Australians would empathize with the general population in this suburb, much more than the armed groups that attack them. Why does the ABC so rarely tell us their stories? Normality as we know it exists in Syria, but it is not revealed in ABC reporting which prefers to focus on the ‘brutal Assad regime’ narrative, while ignoring the plight of the Syrian people who are being terrorized by externally-funded insurgents. We do not hear the views of people like us, people who eschew violence and an imported ideology as a means to force political change on a whole population. Instead, the ABC legitimizes the insurgents’ cause by uncritically presenting their claims and dubious PR videos. Except for the very occasional report that shows Syrian people at Christmas or Easter, the ABC’s efforts at ‘balance’ amount to little more than informing audiences that the Syrian government disputes the claims of insurgents. ABC audiences are rarely, if ever, given insight into the views and experiences of the Syrian people, something that is not beyond the realm of possibility for a mainstream broadcaster. In 2015, a Frontline team from America travelled to Syria and interviewed ordinary citizens. The reporter met people who supported the defence of their secular state and feared the insurgents’ indiscriminate terror, something that Australians could readily empathize with.
ABC reporting on Syria effectively keeps the secular Syrian society and the vast majority of Syrians hidden from its audiences. As a result, Australians in general are not in a position to feel the compassion they would if, say, foreign-funded armed groups were attacking Adelaide, Chicago, Rome or London. (The Martin Place siege in Sydney showed how difficult it is to disarm extremists without risking the lives of hostages or other innocent people.)
This biased presentation of the situation in Syria favors the sectarian agenda of insurgents, and, in so doing it can exacerbate tensions within the Australian community. The sectarian hatred that can be fanned by such a skewed view of the Syrian conflict will likely affect all of us to some extent or other.
TAPESCRIPT: The drawers of memory: Ahmad’s story
|David Rutledge||This is a story of human endurance and the kinds of choices that we all hope we will not have to make. It is about Jess and Ahmad. They are friends in Syria, but when war comes Jess leaves while Ahmad stays behind. And when they miraculously find each other more than a year later, Ahmad is a very different man.
|00.38||ABC report||Sounds and scenes like this are multiplying across the Arab world as ordinary citizens continue to rise up against entrenched and oppressive regimes.
|Ahmad||I have never thought about leave my country, and I have never thought about being a refugee or being like residents in other countries.
|ABC report||Last week it was Yemen, before that it was Bahrain. Now it appears to be the turn of Syria, widely seen as one of the most oppressive regimes of all.
|Ahmad||After I almost like been killed many times, I almost arrested, it was impossible to stay anymore.|
|From Nizar Qabbani’s
|My voice rings out this time from Damascus.
It rings out from the house of my mother and father
|Ahmad||But at the end we didn’t like die in the sea, we were a little bit happy and lots of sadness. You left your country, you almost killed yourself, just to find a place where you can live, where you can start a new life.
|From Nizar Qabbani’s
|After my limbs have been strewn across all the continents
And my cough has been scattered in all the hotels
After my mother’s sheets scented with laurel soap
I have found no other bed to sleep on . . .
|Ahmad||Like half of my life still in Syria. Half of my thoughts every day in Syria.
|From Nizar Qabbani’s
|2.35||Jess Davis||I met Ahmad in Damascus in 2011, just before the uprising began. Damascus is the oldest capital city in the world. The ancient Umayyad Mosque lies in the heart of the old city, a building that is over 1,400 years old. My bedroom sat on the roof of a Damascene house overlooking the mosque. A bitter orange tree grew in the courtyard below.
|3.05||From Nizar Qabbani’s
|The Damascene House
Is beyond the architectural text
The design of our homes . . .
Is based on an emotional foundation
For every house leans . . . on the hip of another
And every balcony . . .
Extends its hand to another facing it
Damascene houses are loving houses . . .
They greet one another in the morning . . .
And exchange visits . . .
Secretly-at night . . .
|3.35||Jess||Each day, I walked through the cobbled streets of the old city on my way to study Arabic at uni. The Arab Spring was erupting in Tunisia and Egypt, but the streets of Damascus remained peaceful as locals and foreigners mixed in this ancient city as they have done for thousands of years.
|3.56||From Nizar Qabbani’s
|I enter the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque
And greet everyone in it
Corner to . . . corner
Tile to . . . tile
Dove to . . . dove
I wander in the gardens of Kufi script
And pluck beautiful flowers of God’s words
And hear with my eye the voice of the mosaics
And the music of the agate prayer beads
|4.36||Jess||In Syria, poetry, story telling and public recitals are important. In Damascus, I went to a poetry night called Beit al-Qazeid, the House of Verse. Syrian poets, actors and playwrights attended, as well as many foreigners. Arabic, English, Italian and French poems were read, among other languages.
One night a poem by Nizar Qabbani was read, the most loved of Syrian poets, and the entire room broke out into verse. Everybody knew the words.
|5.08||From Nizar Qabbani’s
|A state of revelation and rapture overtakes me,
So I climb the steps of the first minaret that encounters me
“Come to the jasmine”
“Come to the jasmine”
|5.41||Jess||Ahmad and I met on the streets of the old city. We would hang out in cafes, speaking a mixture of Arabic and English. We would sit in green courtyards, sipping polo, a Syrian drink made of crushed ice, lemon and mint.
|5.54||Amad||I remember we went to a small place in the old town and then we drink polo. That was funny. That was really nice.
|Jess||Yeah, and that was the first time we met.
|Ahmad||Yeah. This is the first time we met. Yeah. We kept in touch, as other friends, (Leslie ?), Jess. And I had lots of friends at the same time. And it was really perfect for like learning, and exchange, and like knowing other people cultures. It was like if you are travelling while you are still in your town.
|6.31||Jess||Amad would approach young foreign students on the streets of the old city because he wanted to practice his English. With his openness and friendly laugh, we became instant friends.
|6.40||Ahmad||Sometimes foreigners used to be afraid when we start talk to them and stopped people in street. They don’t have it maybe in their countries, like if someone stops you in the street, do you want to exchange languages. ‘Oh, no, no, I am fine’. Because you know some people might be just like afraid while they are in the Middle East, like they have no idea of the lives there, and how people treat and how people find friends. It is just different from them, from their countries.
We used to hear like that they had parties so we just came ourselves, even if they didn’t ask us to come. We were just happy. We were just hanging around these people. They were really nice. Everyone was really nice; everybody was really outgoing. So everything was really perfect.
|7.37||Jess||But our days relaxing in the enchanting and cosmopolitan city were limited. Politics was something rarely discussed in Damascus when I arrived, but a quiet discontent with the status quo was brewing.
|7.51||Ahmad||…. Nobody can talk about Assad, nobody can talk about his government. Like everybody is afraid. Families doesn’t talk about him in their homes. They don’t talk about him in front of their children; they don’t talk about him … like if they talk about him they talk about him in a good way, even if they hate him.
|8.16||News reader||The protests in Syria began in Damascus last week. They are the first open demonstrations in decades. A State of Emergency declared in 1963 bans public gatherings.
|8.30||Jess||Only months after I arrived, the mood began to change. The Arab Spring was creating a domino effect across the Arab world. In Damascus, the whisper began, ‘Could the same happen here?’
Ahmad was seeing the uprising from the inside. He had grown up in a dictatorship, dreaming of democracy. I saw a once bustling city slowing down. As the tension grew, the streets of Damascus became quieter and more cautious. On Fridays, the day of prayer, protests would begin from the mosques, so we foreigners stayed inside, watching satellite television and waiting. The propaganda changed, too. Posters of President Bashar al-Assad multiplied around the city, but instead of the happy and grinning president, we saw a stern Assad, dressed in military uniform.
|9.25||News reader||The hours after Friday’s Muslim prayers have become a weekly bloodbath in Syria as anti-government protestors spill from the mosques onto the streets in the grim knowledge that many of them are about to die.
|9.35||Ahmad||I remember at that time, a bus full of people from the secret police came and they shoot at us and I remember they killed one of my friend and they killed someone else and some people get injured. They just start, like shooting.
|9.55||News reader||In the biggest protests yet since the unrest began in Syria five weeks ago, hundreds of thousands turned out all over the country from Banyias in the west to the capital Damascus and Arar in the far south.
|10.07||Ahmad||I remember like the guy, my friend was named Nizar Hatib. I will never forget this man. He was fantastic. We used to play football when we were in school. And I remember, this is the first man, I remember who like who have been killed in a demonstration
|News reader||Amateur vision showed gruesome scenes.|
|Ahmad||They wanted to tell us like don’t do this cos this might kill you, so stop it.
|10.37||News reader||Hospitals were inundated as scores of dead and wounded were brought in.|
|Ahmad||On that day, I think 100 people or maybe 110 have been killed in one Friday. That was a really bloody day.
|10.51||News reader||Hospitals and even ambulances came under attack by government forces trying to stop them from treating the victims.
|Ahmad||Nobody like thought that was going to happen. From every …like there was lots of demonstration around the country and everywhere like more than 3, 4 people have been killed.
|11.11||Jess||That Friday marked a turning point for me and the country. Civil war was still some way off, but the increasing violence and uncertainty forced me and many foreigners to leave. It was not an easy decision to make. In the short time I’d spent there, I’d fallen in love with this beautiful city and the people I was leaving behind.
|11.38||Ahmad||I remember all of the foreigners made a big dinner. And I remember when I came to say goodbye to you, it was like really painful. I am losing my friends, everybody is leaving, the country is going to the hell. And like I am like, I don’t know what is going to happen. Maybe I will die tomorrow; maybe I will be arrested and this is even more worse than being killed
|12.05||Jess||I flew to Morocco and the unrest in Syria continued to worsen after I left. As I watched from afar, Ahmad continued to go to demonstrations. He told me they began to meet more often, sometimes protesting every day, in the evening and early mornings. They used Facebook to arrange their meetings, using euphemisms to avoid being caught. Ahmad and his friends took photos and videos to put on the internet to show the world what was happening in Syria.
|Ahmad||I remember like after you left it started like being like worse and worse
|News Reader||Protests are spreading across Syria.|
|12.44||Ahmad||But you know we have to… Our country needs change; our country needs freedom. It was really, really bad for the long time.
|12.55||Jess||Following decades of fear and intimidation, Syrian people found the courage to rise up against the Assad dictatorship. The violence was a warning from the regime, “It’s Assad or we will burn the country down”. But the country was already burning. The more Assad cracked down, the more people wanted an end to his brutal regime.
|13.10||Ahmad||When they shoot at you, when they arrested you, we used to be really afraid because any times you might be killed, any times … They didn’t use to do anything else than shooting. Like, they used to come without uniform so you never know when they come, you never know who going to shoot you.
|13.28||News Reader||Dozens of civilians, many of them women and children, have reportedly been tortured and killed in the Syrian city of Homs.
|Jess||During the first year of the uprising, Ahmad worked as a truck driver. On one trip, Ahmad took a load to the besieged city of Homs, two hours drive north of Damascus. As soldiers defected and civilians took up arms, the army cracked down on the city turning it into a battleground. Ahmad agreed to take this load because he wanted to find out what was happening there.
|14.06||Ahmad||And then when I arrived there, it was like, oh my God, it was very very very scary.|
|14.15||News||Amateur video shows gruesome pictures of a makeshift morgue. There is a row of bodies covered by blankets. A grief-stricken man stands beside the dead, his anger evident. Many were found with their throats slit.
|Ahmad||I saw lots of tanks coming in and lots of tanks surrounded the houses.
|14.35||News Reader||Syrian state media blames armed terrorists for the bloodshed, but opposition activists say it was the security forces themselves who were responsible.
|14.44||Ahmad||There was like lots of army and they were like shooting at anybody on the street. After like one year of driving and then I lost my job because .. the street was really dangerous and the owner of the trucks they decided to stop working because they lost two of their trucks on the road, on the highway. Yeah, and when I lost my job I .. then I joined the Free Syrian Army because I cannot sit, I cannot do nothing while they are just coming and kill us.
|15.22||Jess||Back in Australia, I kept in touch with Ahmad. He told me I am doing the best to bring freedom to our country, but I had no idea that he had joined the ranks of the Free Syrian Army. Like much of our correspondence, Ahmad self-censored his messages, worried about surveillance. The Free Syrian Army began as a group of defected army officers and soldiers. Through 2011, the group gained momentum and by 2012 a number of high-ranking army officials had joined their forces. Later the group weakened and jihadist groups began to take advantage of the chaos engulfing Syria. Ahmad went to the eastern suburbs of Damascus to a place called Jobar. At the time, the Free Syrian Army had gained control of much of the eastern side of Damascus. Ahmad said civilians stopped being scared of the armed forces and began to fight back. Instead of running, they armed themselves and the eastern suburbs where Ahmad was were blockaded by the Assad regime, with no food or medicines able to enter.
|16.32||ABC News report (Matt Brown)||For its part the Syrian army promised to crack down and began sending extra forces into the suburbs. Opposition activists reported raids by pro-government militiamen, who have been responsible for some of the most brutal attacks on rebels and civilians alike. As the regime has come under increasing pressure its forces have grown more ruthless.
|16.40||Ahmad||And then it started to be…here in Jobar in general, it started to be one of the places they could not come in. They need to have tanks or they need to have like big forces to come in.
|17.04||Jess||In 2013, the Assad regime stepped up its offensive to regain control of eastern Damascus. In September that year, reports began to emerge of a chemical weapons attack.
|17.17||Ahmad||This was the most sad day in my life. We opened doors, we found lots of families die with their childrens. I will never forget this. They was sleeping, but they are dying. More than 1,500 people, I remember.
|17.32||News reader||The United States says it has proof that the Syrian regime used sarin nerve gas to kill more than 1,400 people.
|17.38||Ahmad||I had an effect on my eyes. At the end, in the middle of the day, I cannot stand on my… I cannot stand. I fall down.
|News reader||Warning: This report contains images some viewers may find distressing.|
|17.50||Ahmad||And one of my friends, his sister and her children, like all of them they die by the chemical weapons of Assad.|
|18.03||Jess||Around the same time, financial support for the Free Syrian Army was blocked off and Ahmad was asked to become a money runner. Because he was from the centre of Damascus, his ID allowed him to move relatively freely between checkpoints. He told me he would pick up the money from jewelry stores. The cash was in US dollars and Euros, and Ahmad would take it across to the rebel-held side of the city. He didn’t know where the money was coming from, but he thought it might have been from Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Ahmad says the people he took the money from would take a cut for their services.
|Ahmad||I worked with this transferring money to other . to the free places inside Damascus for almost nine months with two of my friends. And actually, I always was afraid because you know, you cannot hide the money, there is checkpoints, so wherever you go you have to be careful. Everybody is like looking in your stuff. So you need to be very smart not to be, like, arrested. And I used to have sometimes 50,000, sometimes 100,000 dollar. I used to hide it in my pants, like under my clothes. Sometimes I tied it to my belly. Sometimes under my armpits. So like every time I had the money, I almost… oh my God, it was really scary. I just wanted to finish it before I get caught. And at the end, they called me from the free side, and they said you have to escape now because the two friends you used to work with, they are arrested. They already arrested them today. And I called my parents and I said, like “now you have to leave to Lebanon”, and they left, and that was fine. But I cannot leave because I don’t know if they already have my name, my name in the checkpoints. I was really afraid. I didn’t know what to do.
|Jess||Do you know what happened to your two friends who were arrested?
|20.14||Ahmad||I don’t really know. I have like, nobody hear about them. But whatever, like whatever they found money, and I remember they had more than 50,000 Euros when they get caught. I don’t know. I wish they are fine, but I don’t think they are. I don’t think they are alive now anymore.
I remember then, there was like one man, he was from the Assad’s government actually, but he was working with us in a secret way, and I called this man and I told him like, “you can have whatever you want; I want you to drive me to a place called al-Zabadani on the other side of Damascus”. And I think from that place I know some people in the Free Syrian Army they can reach me to the Lebanon border illegal way. I think I was really lucky to escape. It was like more than 9 or 10 days walking every night. I walked four or five hours and sometimes some people drive me a little bit on the motorcycles, like just to get on the other side, and then I get to Lebanon.
|21.29||Jess||I lost contact with Ahmad during this time and didn’t hear from him for over a year. He told me later, when he made it to Lebanon, he paid a taxi driver to take his passport to the border and have it stamped, so it seemed like he had left Syria legally. He then flew to Turkey, where his family had already arrived. From when Ahmad told them to leave Syria, they didn’t hear from him for 20 days. He says everybody was crying. But in Turkey, life was hard and expensive. Two million Syrian refugees were already there and Ahmad says Turkey couldn’t help any more. He couldn’t work to support himself or his parents.
|Ahmad||Turkish people were always fine and were always like nice to us, but at the end, like 2 million people live in Turkey from Syria. There is no more. There is nothing else they can do, I think.
|22.27||Jess||Ahmad decided to make the perilous journey to Europe. As I watched the thousands of Syrian refugees getting on boats in Turkey, I had no idea Ahmad was one of them. He made two failed attempts, almost drowning, before he made it to the Greek island of Kos.
|News report||It’s the middle of the night and in rough seas the Greek coastguard is pulling migrants from an overcrowded rubber boat onto its vessel.
|22.55||Ahmad||We were nine and there was one woman with four children. And I remember like, when the water start coming into the boat and we asked him, like, “it’s not happening, we are not going to continue, we are going to get drowned like the waves is really high and you have to go back”. And then the children start crying, and I was like, I almost cry, because if, if we fall down, or if we like drown, yeah, I can swim, I can swim with one of these boy, I can hold one of these boy, and the mother can maybe hold one of these boys. Maybe she cannot swim. I don’t know. And I thought, oh my God, I cannot imagine myself like holding one and seeing others, like drown, like dying or… I don’t know how to describe this. It was really, really scary. It was really, really like a bad situation.
|News report||The moment of relief. … (Reporter asks a refugee just off a boat where he comes from. The answer: Syria. )
|24.04||Jess||Before the recent wave of refugees, it was still possible to travel by plane from Greece to the rest of Europe. Now, refugees must travel overland, walking for days, weeks, or even months. Ahmad says he was lucky to make the journey when he did.
|Ahmad||I landed in Denmark and then I took the train to Sweden.
|24.26||Jess||I finally heard from Ahmad after he arrived in Sweden. From his life as a normal guy learning English to a fighter for the Free Syrian Army, Ahmad was now a refugee.
|Ahmad||You feel a little bit happy because you made it. At the same time, it’s really sad. You lost your country, and now you lost everything in your life.
|24.50||From Nizar Qabbani’s
|I have come to you . . .
From the history of the Damascene rose
That condenses the history of perfume . . .
From the memory of al-Mutanabbi
That condenses the history of poetry . . .
I have come to you . . .
From the blossoms of bitter orange
And the dahlia . . .
And the narcissus . . .
And the “nice boy” . . .
That first taught me drawing . . .
|25.22||Ahmad||Now I am 31 years old and I have to start everything from the beginning. That’s fine, that’s okay. But you feel really sad because you know a lot of people are still under Assad’s bombs and when I think about these people I cannot stand myself, I cannot imagine that I am here and these people aren’t. And I don’t know, like the world doesn’t care. I don’t understand this.
|25.46||From Nizar Qabbani’s
|So People of Sham
He among you who finds me . . .
let him return me to Umm Mu’ataz
And God’s reward will be his
I am your green sparrow . . . People of Sham
So he among you who finds me . . .
let him feed me a grain of wheat . . .
I am your Damascene rose . . . People of Sham
So he among you who finds me . . .
let him place me in the first vase . . .
I am your mad poet . .
|26.19||Ahmad||I wish if it is going to be OK. Like everybody else, I have like some of my dreams. And I wish everything will be fine.
|Jess||Do you think you’ll be able to go back to Syria ever?
|26.33||Ahmad||I will go back to Syria. I think so. I think I will go back. I think freedom going to come to Syria. I can feel. I know these people. I know who I left there and I know they will win.
|26.49||From Nizar Qabbani’s
|I am your fugitive moon . . . People of Sham
So he among you who sees me . . .
Let him donate to me a bed . . . and a wool blanket . . .
Because I haven’t slept for centuries
Images by Susan Dirgham: People in Damascus before the crisis.