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12 January 2020
I’d like to bring attention to a formal complaint I submitted to the ABC about RN’s The Minefield program broadcast on 16 October 2019.
In the program, presenters Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens discussed the war in Syria with Minefield guest Nader Hashemi.
The complaint was not upheld by ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs, so I have submitted an appeal to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
Please see links to the 4 documents I have submitted to ACMA.
My complaint is not a personal attack on The Minefield presenters, who simply express views on Syria that have dominated our media for nearly 9 years.
I welcome your feedback.
English as a Second Language Teacher
Dear Mr Barry,
I am writing in response to your Media Watch report Monday 6/2/17 – FakeNews and Alternative Facts. In it, you quoted Charlie Beckett.
Fake news is a real problem. Not just because it gives people rubbish information but, you know, because it undermines the idea that anything is true and I think it’s a real challenge in the sense that mainstream media has been too complacent. You know, you’re looking for stuff that you could call fake news, that’s been in some so called reputable media, so there is a real challenge there for journalists to get their act together basically because I think that in a world of lies, truth is actually quite a good selling point for journalists.
— Charlie Beckett, Professor of Media, London School of Economics,26 January, 2017
Media Watch’s report on ‘fake news’ avoids a bigger issue, which is that impartiality, fearless investigative journalism and rigorous analysis are increasingly absent from mainstream media reporting and commentary.
In regard to Syria, bias towards a US-led war against multi-faith Syria seems to dominate the ABC, and that bias often makes no moral or rational sense.
For example, ABC’s foreign correspondent Sophie McNeill presents a pro-‘revolution’ bias in her reporting on Syria, yet the ideology of the Islamist ‘revolution’ she favors is not examined, nor are the foreign clerics who recruit insurgents and suicide bombers.
The impact this ‘revolution’ has on the lives of members of the general public in Syria, people from every faith background, is generally ignored by her and her fellow ABC ME correspondent Matt Brown.
The claims of ‘rebels’ and supporters are favoured, thus indirectly encouraging the ‘opposition’ to manufacture ‘fake news’, and this fake news will inevitably rely on the presentation of victims.
A further reason the bias makes no moral or logical sense is that Islamist fighters Ms McNeill favours in Syria would be barred from entering Australia, while Australians who travel to Syria to join the ‘revolution’ are likely to be deemed terrorists by Australian authorities.
In December 2012, British journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote in an article titled ‘Syria: The descent into holy war‘,
This misperception of the reality on the ground in Syria is fuelled in part by propaganda, but more especially by inaccurate and misleading reporting by the media where bias towards the rebels and against the government is unsurpassed since the height of the Cold War. Exaggerated notions are given of rebel strength and popularity. The Syrian government is partially responsible for this. By excluding all but a few foreign journalists, the regime has created a vacuum of information that is naturally filled by its enemies. In the event, a basically false and propagandistic account of events in Syria has been created by a foreign media credulous in using pro-opposition sources as if they were objective reporting.
Trust is lost not just in individual mainstream reporters, but also in media outlets and national institutions such as the ABC and, by extension, the government.
There is reason for concern that in this climate, fair-minded and well-informed Australians become disengaged and/or disempowered while the power of those who can alienate and divide communities increases.
Someone who has expressed despair about mainstream media reporting on Syria is Dr Ted Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr Postol has referred to the ‘scandalous failure of due diligence by the mainstream Western press’. He and Richard Lloyd, a former UN weapons inspector, wrote a report titled, ‘Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21, 2013‘. The conclusions of the report include the following:
The Syrian Improvised Chemical Munitions that Were Used in the August 21,
Nerve Agent Attack in Damascus Have a Range of About 2 Kilometers
The UN Independent Assessment of the Range of the Chemical Munition Is in Exact Agreement with Our Findings
This Indicates That These Munitions Could Not Possibly Have Been Fired at East Ghouta from the “Heart”, or from the Eastern Edge, of the Syrian
Government Controlled Area Shown in the Intelligence Map Published by the White House on August 30, 2013.
This mistaken Intelligence Could Have Led to an Unjustified US Military Action Based on False Intelligence.
Michael Flynn who was director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency at the time of the chemical weapons attack in August 2013 and who is now President Trump’s National Security Advisor has admitted that he is not confident that the Syrian army committed the chemical attack, that it could have been a false flag. See 21 Nov 2016 CNN report.
Yet there were clearly victims seen in videos produced by rebels and their supporters. Some activists who have investigated this contend that the victims included children kidnapped by rebel groups in Latakia in early August 2013. Perhaps the most thorough analysis of the videos was carried out by retired US pharmacologist Dr Denis O’Brien. His conclusions also contradict the claims of rebels and their supporters. Unfortunately, because so many of us are time-poor, few will access Dr O’Brien’s rather lengthy report ‘Murder in the Sun Morgue‘. It may be some time before mainstream journalists investigate what is most likely one of the biggest fake news stories of the last 5 years.
I am confident you and your colleagues at the ABC will agree, a discussion on fake news is not helpful if it is not matched by a commitment to the best journalistic practice. Fake news and war are a potent mix.
100 years ago, an organisation guilty of producing fake news was the Committee on Public Information in the US set up by President Wilson to persuade a reluctant US public to support American participation in the First World War. Its propaganda depended on the recruitment of journalists, academics, actors, artists and business people.
Early in 1918, the CPI made a premature announcement that “the first American built battle planes are today en route to the front in France,” but newspapers learned that the accompanying pictures were fake, there was only one plane, and it was still being tested. At other times, though the CPI could control in large measure what newspapers printed, its exaggerations were challenged and mocked in Congressional hearings.The Committee’s overall tone also changed with time, shifting from its original belief in the power of facts to mobilization based on hate, like the slogan “Stop the Hun!” on posters showing a U.S. soldier taking hold of a German soldier in the act of terrorizing a mother and child, all in support of war bond sales.
Recently, a complaint letter was sent to ABC Managing Director Ms Michelle Guthrie in response to Australian Story’s ‘The Road From Damascus’. Among the signatories were Syrians who are in Australia on humanitarian visas. I urge you and your colleagues to give it attention.
The media is a powerful force in times of war. Those working in media outlets can best determine its impact.
In the US and the UK, some politicians are taking strong stands against their governments’ hawkish policies on Syria. (Refer to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Baroness Cox.) May our politicians in Australia be capable of in-depth, responsible discussions on the conflict in Syria. They may need assistance from you and your colleagues to reach that point.
The email was cc-ed to colleagues of Paul Barry at the ABC, including Ms Sophie McNeill based in Jerusalem, as well as several Australian politicians.
Above: Screenshots showing Syrians whose perspectives were ignored by Australian Story‘s ‘The Road From Damascus’. (Screenshots were taken of videos posted online or of Syrian TV.)
Email to Managing Director of the ABC, Ms Michelle Guthrie
17 January 2017
Dear Ms Guthrie,
We are writing to you about serious breaches of the ABC Code of Practice that potentially relate to Australia’s security and social harmony. Please see the attached complaint letter, whose signatories include Syrians in Australia on humanitarian visas.
The complaint concerns ‘The Road From Damascus’, Australian Story‘s last program for 2016.
‘The Road From Damascus’ features a Syrian nurse, Mr Khaled Naanaa, who is in Australia on a humanitarian visa. ABC Middle East correspondent Ms Sophie McNeill connected with Mr Naanaa when he was living in rebel-held Madaya. She describes him as a close personal friend. ABC viewers learn that in July 2012, he left his wife and baby daughter in Damascus for rebel-held Madaya.
Mr Naanaa made that journey when the terror and violence of the militarised opposition was becoming part of the Syrian landscape. In 2011, Egyptian-born Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi, then considered the unofficial spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, had said, “if it is necessary to kill a third of the Syrian people to get rid of the heretical regime, that’s okay”. The Grand Mufti of Syria refers to Sheik Qaradawi’s words after his son was assassinated in early October 2011.
Just over 6 months before Mr Naanaa travelled to Madaya, another Syrian made a similar journey. On 27 December 2011, Ammar Baloush, a medical engineering student at Damascus University, shot 5 of his classmates during an exam. Two died. The 5 students were from minorities – Christian, Druze, Shi’a, and Alawi. Mr Baloush fled and joined a rebel group.
This is some background to the terror and sectarianism faced by Syrians on a daily basis. We believe it is relevant to the complaint letter.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Phil Davies and Susan Dirgham
Managing Director of the ABC
Ms Michelle Guthrie
GPO Box 9994
Sydney NSW 2001
RE: Letter of complaint to ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs
Program: ABC TV, Australian Story
Date of broadcast: 21/11/2016; available on Australian Story website
Title: The Road From Damascus
Producers: Winsome Denyer, Sophie McNeill
Presenter: Sophie McNeill
Research: Fouad AbuGosh
Specialist Contributor: Caroline Jones
17 January 2017
Dear Ms Guthrie,
Because of the seriousness of the matter detailed below, we believe it is appropriate to bring it to your direct attention for consideration.
We, the signatories of this letter, believe that Australian Story’s ‘The Road From Damascus’ breaches the ABC Code of Practice, particularly in regard to Accuracy; Impartiality and Diversity of Perspectives; and Harm and Offence. We maintain that the program’s presenter, ABC Middle East correspondent Ms Sophie McNeill, has allowed her personal views and friendships to influence her journalism. In the program, she takes a credulous approach to the ‘opposition’ in Syria, effectively giving credibility to rebels that are affiliated with al-Qaeda.
We maintain that the breaches of the Code are significant and relate to highly contentious matters which impact on Australia’s security. Also, these matters are the subject of ongoing debate about the war in Syria and deserve the highest standards of journalistic practice.
Please note, signatories of this letter include four Syrians in Australia on humanitarian visas.
Breaches of the ABC Code of Practice that relate to Accuracy; Impartiality and Diversity of Perspectives; and Harm and Offence
- Australian Story’s ‘The Road From Damascus’ unduly favors a militarized ‘opposition’ in Syria, which is widely known to include foreign ‘jihadists’ fighting for an Islamic state or for a Caliphate. Australian Story displays this bias without making reasonable efforts to ensure that material facts presented are accurate and without giving due consideration to both the wider context of the war in Syria and the suffering of people at the hands of anti-government armed groups.
- Australian Story introduces Mr Khaled Naanaa, the main character in the program, as compassionate and credible. He is presented as a close personal friend of Ms McNeill, and this gives his claims additional weight. His assertions are not questioned or qualified despite the fact that there is reason to believe he provided material support to Ahrar al-Sham, an armed group supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey and affiliated with al-Qaeda through its membership of Jaish al-Fatah (the Army of Conquest). Australian academic Dr Jeremy Salt describes Ahrar al-Sham as ‘one of the most violent takfiri/jihadist groups in Syria’. (See the letter Dr Salt sent Australian Story below. We have his permission to include it in this complaint letter.)
- Australian Story’s tacit acceptance of Ms McNeill’s bias would indicate to viewers that there is, in effect, an implicit ABC editorial policy with regard to Syria expressed in the program. This contravenes the Code of Practice and makes it unlikely that the viewpoints of Syrians opposed to the militarized ‘opposition’ will be given equal time and respect in such high-profile ABC programs as Australian Story.
- ‘The Road From Damascus’ makes no effort to ensure the accuracy of its fact-based content through the presentation of a range of perspectives and contending views. No consideration is given to the fact that there are alternative views that an ABC audience would find even more compelling. Given the contentious and highly politicized nature of the matters dealt with in the program, ABC viewers would expect that all fact-claims had been carefully checked and no relevant material omitted. We maintain that this was not done.
- Australian Story does not consider the views and experiences of those Syrians now in Australia on humanitarian visas who oppose the rebels. It does not consider the distress that the program could cause these Syrians by giving credibility to a ‘rebel’ supporter, and thus potentially breaches their trust in the national broadcaster.
- We hold that ABC audiences would expect to be informed of the views and experiences of Syrians who support the continuation of their secular, liberal multi-faith society, which provides freedom of religion and equal opportunities for women. Presenting their views could have helped address the issues raised by Ms McNeill’s pro-‘opposition’ bias. Furthermore, as the national broadcaster, the ABC has a commitment to basic democratic principles, including the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, parliamentary democracy and equality of opportunity. In the light of this, Syrians genuinely committed to these beliefs and values should have had their views presented in Australian Story.
- We maintain that the information presented in the program cannot be considered reliable because it favors the testimony of ‘rebel’ supporters, namely Mr Naanaa, James Sadri (The Syria Campaign), Dr Ammar Ghanem (Syrian American Medical Society), and Widney Brown (Physicians for Human Rights). By giving implicit support to ‘opposition’ armed groups, the national broadcaster does not act in the public interest. It could contribute to the decision of some Australians to support jihadist extremism both here and overseas, which is in contravention of government policy and detrimental to our national security.
There is extensive documentation on file in support of our concerns and we would be pleased to forward it, upon request. Dr Salt’s letter to Australian Story presented below highlights the need for a much more sophisticated and balanced commentary on Syria than that presented by Australian Story.
Our most basic concern is that Australian Story gives weight to people who support the militarized opposition in Syria and denies a voice to the vast majority of Syrians, people who would respect Australia’s democratic beliefs and who would be potential victims of that ‘opposition’.
Another key concern is that despite the pro-opposition bias in ‘The Road From Damascus’, the ‘opposition’ is not defined. There is no description of its violence, agenda or tactics, so ABC viewers could be misled into thinking the ‘opposition’, as represented by Mr Naanaa, is a homogeneous benign force. Yet, that ‘opposition’ includes Ahrar al-Sham in control of Madaya where Mr Naanaa worked in a field hospital as well as rebels and foreign ‘jihadists’ who besieged the towns of Kafriya and Fu’ah.
FOR THE COMPLETE LETTER TO THE MANAGING DIRECTOR OF THE ABC, PLEASE GO TO THE PDF LINKED BELOW.
Screenshots below include the following (not necessarily in this order):
Sheik Yousef Qaradawi issuing a fatwa on his weekly Al-Jazeera program, published on Youtube 2 January 2013; a mainstream program on Al-Jazeera broadcast on 8 May 2015 and titled ‘Do the Alawites Deserve Genocide?’; Sheik Adnan Arour, a Syrian cleric based in Saudi Arabia, declaring what will be done to those who oppose the ‘revolution’; a sign from the ‘revolution’ in Kafranbel, Syria; article in The Australian concerning Egyptian-born Australian Mostafa Mahamed, who has been a spokesperson for a group that has been affiliated with al-Qaeda; Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth and his Australian wife Dr Annie Sparrow at a White House function; Sheikh Abdullah al-Mohaisany, the Saudi cleric who recruits young boys from refugee camps for an al-Qaeda style ‘revolution’ in Syria.
Updated on 10 March 2016
Above: Remembering International Women’s Day – images of women in Syria.
Below is a message from a local in Aleppo, Syria. It begins with a reference to a recent article in the Boston Review.
Message from Aleppo
“The best thing outside powers can do in the interest of peace is to include civil society groups in future negotiations, listen to what they have to say, and refrain from imposing top-down solutions that ignore the Syrian people”.
The above paragraph mentioned at the end of an article on Boston Review , called “Syria after the Ceasefire”, by Stephen Zunes:
However, if the Syrian people dared to say that they want Assad, the western powers will either punish the Syrian people more and more till they are all well tamed; or the western media will explain what is happening as “Syrian people are not free, they are terrified from regime repression and punishment. They are forced to vote for Assad”. Therefore, let’s go and free those people by killing their leader and destroying their army! …. Superman is coming to rescue the Syrians!
Although the article is talking about how complex the Syrian crisis became, but they are mentioning all the stereotypes and clichés, as tiding themselves with ropes and asking stupidly: “what a mess! What shall we do now?”…
Imposing democracy on countries and societies that have different ruling types, is like imposing Apple Macintosh operating system upon a Microsoft Windows one: We’ll have a failed and damaged PC. The usual next argument that comes after that mess would be: “Now that we have a damaged PC, what shall we do to clean the mess?”. The PC could be useful only for junk markets, where people can buy its dismantled contents by piece. Dismantling war-torn countries and societies have the same result and future.
After years of 24/7 brainwashing of the world with tons of lies, on all type of media, in focusing on spreading democracy by force on other nations, or changing regimes that don’t obey them, and after all these evil strategies were in vain; perhaps they could solve the problem by removing the “democracy glasses” they forced the globe to wear in the first place. Let alone that no one believe that they really wanted to spread real democracy and freedom in the world. It’s all phony and fake versions of democracy that destroy nations.
Syrians were living peacefully for decades, happily and independent. We had corruption? And who doesn’t have? We needed some reforms on politics? Many reforms actually took place between 2000-2010, and the old corrupted figures left Syria before 2005 to live in abroad with their stolen fortunes (who later became supporters to the so-called rebels). Yes, new layer of corrupted figures started to pop up, and it’s just a continuous work, just like cleaning and vacuuming houses, there will be new dust covering the surface every week, you deal with new dust by vacuuming it again, not by burning the house and bring it down upon the heads of it’s inhabitants.
I always asked normal people over here, such as taxi drivers, how were their lives before the crisis. They always say that they were so happy. Everything was cheap. The poor and rich were working and happy. On weekends you would see the poor ones parking their mini pickup vehicles or bicycles on the highway outside Aleppo in front a green zone (we call that area al-Mohallaq), gathering with families in a picnic and BBQ activities, smoking Sheesha, and eating corn in summers. Those were the poor ones’ weekly entertainment, where they might stay from midday till midnight. It was peaceful. Today, it’s the other way around.
What I always used to say is that before the crisis, Syria had almost 80-95% of what any nation seek to have (75-80% legal and straightforward progress, 15-20% corruption in its best, where the progress is possible after paying bribes, something no one is proud of but we can’t do much about it unfortunately), we only missed 3-5% of political reforms and freedom. This whole crisis, destruction, cleansing, uprooting people from their homes, poverty, refugees problem, infrastructure systematic destruction, raping women, beheading innocents, looting, erasing priceless heritage and historical and sacred buildings and architecture, creating all zombie-like trash criminals that invaded us from all over the world….. All that and a lot more, had been made in the name of gaining those missing 3% of rights. As result, Syrians lost 80% of what they had before, and didn’t gain the 3% they were promised to have! Today we might still have 20% of our origin rights and order, however corruption is controlling more than 75% of it. In the past, bribes were somehow like taxes in the west, we pay it to one party (corrupted employee) and guarantee that our problem going to be solved, or the paperwork going to be submitted. Today, people might pay hundreds and thousands – if not million -folds, as bribes, ransoms, taxes, looting and theft; the paying is for too many parties; and there is no guarantee whatsoever that we will survive!
Still, the same lame mentality, of searching for solutions, by concentrating on their first big fat lie of toppling leaders and replacing them with puppets, in the name of freedom and democracy. Some misleaded Syrians still running after those rosy lies, like thirsty travelers in the desert running after mirage. They just don’t want or can’t wake up and smell the coffee.
The road to Aleppo is still under daily attacks, and the SAA is protecting it. Sometimes the terrorists are occupying little part of the road for couple of hours before defeated or fleeing the scene. People are traveling on it safely, yet it’s still a worrying subject for every traveler.
As for the city, and as I mentioned in my last email, the terrorists of al-Nusra in Aleppo city are targeting the Kurds sector of the city so badly. The SAA is defending them from time to time by airstrikes and artillery; but it’s coming on the mainstream media as if the SAA is violating the ceasefire, which is not. Civilians are dying in dozens in the Kurdish sector (Sheikh Maqsoud) after heavy mortar shelling, yet writers are saying that they can’t trust the ‘regime’ in holding the ceasefire! I’m attaching photos that came on the media from over there.
Syria became another Palestine, where the blames always goes on Palestinians reactions, never on Israelis provocations. That is the Israeli flavor in conflicts. Everything so far they blamed the Syrian government of doing it in the last 5 years, they did it themselves. They used chemical weapons against civilians. They besieged villages and towns and cut all food and water supply of reaching them, the hunger strategy in wars. They forced people to leave their homes and to become refugees. They forced people to vote for them and didn’t give them their freedom. They kidnapped cities and tortured masses of people because they don’t share the same religion, sect, or political opinion. They brought multinational fighters (from 80+ different nationalities) to fight with them, years before Syria asks the help of Hezbollah, Iran, Russia (3 nationalities). They did all kinds of atrocities and yet dare to blame it on the Syrian government. That is typical the Israeli flavor in wars. Who targeted hospitals, schools, and markets in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan; claiming that the enemy is launching rockets from them? Yet they dare to talk about Russian or Syrian jets attacking terrorist hospitals!
Going back to what the Syrian people want, I’m afraid there won’t be much of them left anymore in the next presidential elections. The refugees in Europe and other countries can’t vote. They had been replaced with multinational fighters. They are the new Syrians now, and they could change the voting results to their sake. Maybe that is one of the reasons of emptying the country of its real people and scattering them in the world as refugees.
9 March 2016
Above: Rose, a former lion tamer now Syrian soldier: “As for my motivation, what brought me here is the homeland, love of the homeland, love of the family, love of the people, love of friends, love of peace, love of the secure life we used to live.”
Above: Images of Rose’s beloved Syria.
Below is a message sent on 2 March 2016 by another local in Aleppo.
– Ceasefire agreement: Aleppo city is much more calmer since the beginning of the agreement, beside some violations took place the first hours of the agreement, and yesterday at 21:50, when 2 mortars shelled on the government held area, followed by ambulance sirens around 22:00. In general, so far, Aleppo city is so calmer than before. No shells, no jets in the sky, no clashes. 80% better than before.
– Situation in Aleppo province didn’t change much, according to news. The terrorists attacked the liberated villages of Nobbol & az-Zahraa with rockets, but there were no casualties. In other areas of the province, fighting is still on going: SAA vs. Nusra & Da’esh; Kurds vs. Turks from the borders; Kurds vs. Terrorists; terrorists vs. other terrorists… Violations of the ceasefire are from the terrorist groups and Turkey.
– Russians recorded 15 violations in Syria in the last 24 hours. Russia said as well that Nusra terrorists were shelling mortars in Latakya province from the Turkish borders (from Turkey). The Turks are targeting the Kurds in Tell Abyad border town, claiming fighting Da’esh on the media!
– Aleppo road had been finally liberated, but needs a lot of repairing. It had damaged so badly. Aleppo was isolated for almost a week of tough fighting to take it back. There were snipers and a lot of mines.
– Prices, obviously, started to jump up because nothing was coming in to the city. Goods and fuel became expensive, part because of the road battles, and part because of the dollar rising price. The crisis traders and merchants were the happiest group of the situation! Prices will take some time till it goes down, when goods and fuel start to enter the city, after repairing the road.
– There are news or gossips about treasons that happened in 3 checkpoints on the road to Aleppo that caused the setback and the loss of hundreds of lives among the Syrian soldiers. The morals are down regarding such news. While Hezbollah brave fighters and Syrian special forces paid high price to liberate the long road, others are bribed because they are corrupted rotten members in the body. The war had exposed the worst things in us, but it had motivated others to do the best they could do. From one side you see the traitors, opportunists, and corrupted ones, on the other side there are the brave heroes and martyrs who are defending millions like myself.
– The thermal station of Aleppo that had been liberated lately by the SAA, needs billions of dollars to start working again. Before leaving it, the terrorists made sure to loot everything they can, and sabotage the rest. Even its fuel, they loot as much as they could, and burn the rest. Aleppo is without power (electricity) for 5 months now, and without water for more than 1 month. Repairing that station will needs a miracle.
That’s all for now. Take care!
In October 2012, not long before he was abducted, US freelance journalist James Foley wrote about the disenchantment of people in Aleppo with the ‘revolution’,
Images by author: Syria and Syrians before the war
The Targeting of a ‘Pariah State’
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was cause for Syrians to be concerned that their country would one day be targeted by the United States. Though not officially in what George Bush termed the “Axis of Evil”, Syria was attaining pariah status: it was not a member of any western club.
Covert and overt interference in Syria by western governments was nothing new. For example, the first military coup in Syria was orchestrated by the CIA. This happened just a couple of years after the country achieved independence from France, a country that had destroyed part of the old city of Damascus to quell a rebellion in the 1920s and which twenty years later bombed Damascus, killing around 500 people in a matter of days, as it sought to quash Syrian efforts for independence.
However, despite its history and position in the world, for those living in Syria in 2003, it was difficult to conceive that this stable, peaceful country would be rocked by a catastrophic war in less than a decade.
The Targeting of a Modern, Ecumenical Syria
Damascus and Aleppo, the two oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, were tolerant, vibrant cities. They were modernizing at a great pace. There was a buzz in the air. Sometimes the signs of change were miniscule but significant. For example, by 2009, it was not unusual to see young unmarried couples holding hands in public. At the same time, solid faith traditions were maintained: one December when Christmas and Eid al-Adha celebrations almost coincided, decorations for both festivals were sold together in the souq.
Image: Eid al-Adha and Christmas decorations in the Souq, Damascus, 6 Dec 2008
But since then, in other capitals, a new Syria has been configured. It is a notion of Syria that has at its core the conviction that “a brutal Alawite dictator is oppressing a Sunni majority”. It is a narrative that is never substantiated; like so many other claims related to Syria today, it passes unscrutinised. But this is dangerous as it can bolster beliefs that contradict basic tenets of our society in that it can confer a degree of legitimacy to hatred, intolerance and anti-state violence.
Hatred and Lies to Inflict Terror
Clarity is needed on Syria. Before the ‘Arab Spring’, women’s rights and freedom of religion as well as the provision of free education were integral to modern Syria. There was talk of evolution, not revolution. To overthrow the Syrian government by violent means, terror had to be inflicted on local populations; fear engendered; hatred stirred up; and lies told. A doctrine that exhorted people to murder their fellow human beings had to be imported into Syria.
Images: Host on Al-Jazeera program proposes the killing of Alawite women and children
A blue-print for the overthrow of a government is not new. Strategists and war rooms have always existed. However, playing with the human heart and mind in war and expecting a clean outcome is like rolling one hundred dices and expecting 6 to turn up on them all.
In Syria today, mortars are fired at random into cities; car bombs explode in suburban streets; people are abducted; public servants are assassinated; women are paraded naked in streets; children are thrown off buildings to stop the army’s advance; mothers become demented as they watch strangers play with the heads of their children; bodies are cut up and bagged and put on a family’s doorstep. On our watch, one’s worst possible nightmares are being played out in Syria.
“Psy-Ops” and High Stakes
In June 2012, Jon Williams, a BBC editor who had reported from Damascus, wrote the following on a blog post.
Given the difficulties of reporting inside Syria, video filed by the opposition on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube may provide some insight into the story on the ground. But stories are never black and white – often shades of grey. Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as “brilliant”. But he also likened it to so-called “psy-ops”, brainwashing techniques used by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true.
A healthy scepticism is one of the essential qualities of any journalist – never more so than in reporting conflict. The stakes are high – all may not always be as it seems.
Crossing the Red Line
One example of the muddying of the Syrian story is the oft-repeated claim presented as fact that ‘Assad crossed Obama’s red line when he used chemical weapons against his own people’ in August 2013.
Yet, the United Nations has not attributed blame for that alleged sarin attack. Furthermore, a report by MIT Professor Ted Postol and former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd points the finger at ‘rebels’ being most likely responsible for firing the munitions. And that suspicion mounts. Turkish opposition MPs recently accused authorities in Turkey of providing sarin to insurgents for the attack, presumably a false flag meant to provoke U.S., U.K. and French military strikes on Damascus.
Sunnis against Sunnis
Image: Sheik Mohamed Al-Bouti, killed in a suicide bomb in Damascus
In an interview on Al-Jazeera, Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric based in Qatar and described as the unofficial spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, condoned the targeting of civilians and religious scholars who support the Syrian regime. Just weeks after this ‘fatwa’, Sheik Mohamed Al-Bouti, the highly regarded 84 year-old Islamic scholar and imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, was killed in a suicide bomb along with more than 40 of his students, including a grandson. They were Sunni Muslims killed by a Sunni Muslim.
Dividing the Muslim World – the two ‘evils’
Images: Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, explaining that the Sunnis are the ‘lesser evil’
There were many acts of terror in Syria before the invention of ISIS. However, the terrorist acts committed by ISIS have appeared more theatrical and on a much larger-scale. In June 2014, purportedly over one long weekend, Islamic State massacred 1,700 young Iraqi soldiers. Not long after, former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren referenced this bloody orgy, but he declared that the “lesser evil is the Sunnis over the Shites”. He contended that “the math” determined who the lesser evil was. “From Israel’s perspective”, he went on, “if there is going to be an evil that prevails, let the Sunni evil prevail”. But Mr Oren didn’t explain who had drawn up the math and who had independently audited it.
The discourse which insists that the violence is between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims obscures the reality. If the war in Syria can be described as a religious conflict, it is one between a relatively young school of Islam meshed with the ruling elites of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and a more ancient Islam, the Islam that embraced me, a person of no particular faith, when I lived in Syria.
Latakia Massacre, August 2013
Image: Women and children abducted by armed groups in Latakia, August 2013. Screenshots from this video.
In the first week of August 2013 (two or so weeks before the alleged sarin attack in Damascus), around 200 or more civilians, mostly women and children, were massacred in and around their homes in Latakia. About the same number were abducted. Some scholars observe with concern the close connections high profile NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have with the U.S. State Department. However, despite its generally biased stand on Syria, Human Rights Watch did present a well-documented account of the Latakia massacres (You can still see the blood). To co-ordinate and carry out the murders and kidnappings, up to 20 armed groups cooperated; the Islamic State was just one Takfirist group involved. The killings were vicious, but the level of cruelty was not new in the Syrian ‘Arab Spring’.
A retired American pharmacologist, Dr Denis O’Brien, who scrutinized the video footage of the victims of the alleged sarin attack in Damascus, contends that some victims may have been children abducted in Latakia. He noted the stage managed quality to the display of children’s bodies, and anomalies, such as the appearance of the same body in different locations and clear signs that established the victims didn’t die from a sarin attack, as alleged. But the west was expected to respond with bombs to the bodies of the children; no questions were meant to be asked.
Syria on a Hit-List; ‘Rebels’ a Tool
It is often claimed that the crisis in Syria began after the arrest and torture of children who wrote up anti-government graffiti in Daraa, a city near the border with Jordan. I have heard different versions of this story: children had their fingernails pulled out; children were killed; children were neither tortured nor killed. Chinese whispers and hearsay are being used to determine narratives on Syria instead of clear-sighted investigations searching for the truth.
But the war in Syria began before any graffiti writing. Soon after 9/11, a Pentagon insider told General Wesley Clark that Syria was on a hit-list. And before the ‘Arab Spring’ reached Syria, former French Foreign Affairs Minister Roland Dumas learnt that Britain was “organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria”.
“Assad” – the Monster
Video: Cartoonist Bruce Petty asks Dr Jeremy Salt: Has Bashar al-Assad killed more people than ISIS? and similar questions (For transcript of interview, go to this site.)
Like the former Israeli ambassador to America, some in Australia claim ‘Assad’ has killed many more people than IS. (See Tim Costello on QandA and Waleed Aly in The Age.) It is as if Assad is a mythological monster, and the protagonists on the battlefields in Syria are ISIS (the bad rebels), the non-ISIS rebels (the good rebels) and Assad (the monster).
Such crude attempts to present ‘Assad’ as the personification of evil omit mention of the tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers who have been killed by various armed groups waving various flags since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria. And they omit reference to the millions of Syrians who seek a safe haven in government controlled towns and cities. The truth is the Syrian people are caught in a monster of a war. Their secular state could collapse around them, and millions could be killed or forced to flee while people a long way from the theatre of war speak with certainty and power, but with little reference to them.
Image above: Screenshot from video with interviews of killers of Nidal Jannoud, a Banyas farmer killed in the street on 10 April 2011.
One month after the start of the so-called Arab Spring in Syria, I returned to Damascus. On Saturday 23 April 2011, I met a young man who had just come from an opposition rally in an outlying suburb of the capital. Some demonstrators at the protest rally had been shot, two of them killed. There were armed police present, but no one saw them draw their weapons, he explained. Who had killed them and why they had been killed was a mystery. In the first stirrings of violence and terror, there were many mysteries and many rumours.
The birth of the Syrian ‘Arab Spring’ was not as it was depicted in Australia. That April in a hotel room in Damascus, I saw the funerals of soldiers and police on Syrian TV. Bereft widows pleaded for an end to the killings.
The High Stakes
In presenting the story of Syria, a skewed narrative may support another U.S. led war, but it can also engender divisions, intolerance and hatreds within our own communities. We can lose what Australia holds dear: peace, harmony, and integrity. The stakes are high indeed.
National Coordinator of “Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria” – AMRIS
Below: Syrians – images taken from Syrian TV since start of crisis
Image below: Screenshot from a video showing interviews with former rebels and their supporters in Babbila, after they had reached a reconciliation agreement with the army
Images below: Damascus University students hold a vigil after a mortar attack kills 15 students in a University cafe, March 2013