Students at a vigil speak to Syrian TV reporter following missile attack on Damascus Uni that killed 15 students, March 2013 (Syrian TV, 29/3/13)
Sheikh Ramadan al-Buti, the highly-regarded Islamic scholar and Imam of Omayyad Mosque, Damascus, who was killed along with 50 or so of his students in a suicide bombing during a prayer session and lesson in a Damascus mosque.
The following is a talk prepared by Nina Haidar and Susan Dirgham. It was presented to the Unitarian Church in Melbourne on 14 April and also to a Rotary group in Melbourne on 15 April. It was written with great respect for the people of Syria and with a focus on the need for a search for the truth in war in order for there to be peace.
THE HUMAN STORY – SYRIA
The first thing to say about the story of Syria is that it is a human story, so it involves all the human qualities and motivations evident since the beginning of history, such as greed, revenge, hate, envy, treachery, fear…. but also loyalty, heroism, nobility, compassion, faith and love. The Syrian people are displaying heaps of those last qualities. But there is nothing black and white about people, about politics, especially not about war, though William Hague, John McCain, some in our government and the media want us to think otherwise.
Syria has experienced invasions and war for millennia and so the people of Syria have perhaps inherited a better understanding of invasion and treachery than most people, as well as found the strength to overcome them. Their heroes are noble figures such as Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders, and who displayed courage and chivalry on the battlefield, according to even the accounts of Christians of the time. In the 21st century Saladin is still revered in Syria, where he is buried.
And another hero for many, who is remembered and honoured in Syria still, is St Paul who according to early accounts had his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, and who walked down streets that still exist in Damascus. The very roots of Christianity are in Syria. Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, is still used in some church services in Syria, and is retained by the people in some villages near Damascus.
There is also a story that Prophet Mohammad viewed Damascus from the mountain road; it appeared as an enchanting oasis on the horizon. The prophet decided not to enter the city and is supposed to have said, “Man should only enter Paradise once”.
Syrians share a love and reverence for their homeland and together they can embrace a fortitude that enables them to survive and recover even stronger than before.
I speak about Syrians, but if you have been paying attention to the mainstream news on Syria, you might be thinking in terms of Sunnis, Shias, Alawis, Christians, terrorists, Shabiha, Assad loyalists, jihadists etc etc. That fragmented Syria is not the Syria I know; it is not the Syria, which is fighting so tenaciously to survive. It fights to stop a war that is aimed at bringing Syria to its knees.
Syria is fighting to resist imperial power and the dictates of its super-rich Gulf neighbours. It is also fighting to maintain its place in the Middle East, as a strong, independent voice.
It is a war funded by states that do not respect the soul or history of Syria, as all they seem to understand is the power of obscene wealth, extremist ideology and the power of the gun.
The Syria as it is often described and presented in the western media is a manufactured Syria, one that is being created so the real Syria can be torn apart.
That tearing apart of Syria would be stopped, if we knew, and respected Syrians, as we respect ourselves. We must listen to Syrians, imagine their fears, know their courage, and understand their story. The war in Syria has been sponsored from the beginning by outside powers. Fatwas against the Syrian government had been issued from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, since the beginning of the crisis there. The war could not have begun if there had not been so many lies, so much rhetoric, if extremism had been condemned, if fighters and weapons had not been able to cross borders and if diplomacy and investigations had been insisted on by strong voices in the West.
Syria has about the same population as Australia, and, like Australia, it is a secular society. Because it has a very diverse population it must be secular to guarantee social cohesion and equality among the different religious and ethnic groups.
The most holy days for Muslims and Christians are national holidays, so Christmas and Easter are holidays for all Syrians as is Eid. The call to prayer in Syria can be heard as church bells toll.
That diversity is cherished in Syria. And Syrians have good reason to have a sense of pride in their country. Uniting 23 million people with different creeds and ethnic backgrounds around one flag is a huge achievement.
It has probably been noted by most of you that Syrian women have been virtually ignored by our media. This is because the situation of women in Syria cannot be used to justify a NATO war against Syria as it was in Afghanistan.
Syrian women enjoy basically the same opportunities in regard to education and career as western women. At universities, there would be as many women as men, and the classes are mixed. There is none of the segregation you have in the Gulf countries. It should also be noted that there are no religious police in Syria. Syrian women have the freedom to dress as they choose. It is a woman’s choice to cover if she is Muslim. So a mother may choose to wear a hijab and her daughter chooses not to. Pre-war, it was never unusual to see young women walking alone in the street without fear, and to see young unmarried couples holding hands. These basic rights and social freedoms which help determine a good life are threatened by this war.
IMAGES AND DISTORTIONS OF WAR
Instead of seeing images of Syrian women in the streets of Damascus; what dominates our media are images of armed men, whom some western journalists call ‘revolutionaries’. The fact that the strongest fighting force in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, is affiliated with Al-Qaeda was hardly mentioned. The fact that because of this so called revolution, Syrians have experienced horrific suicide bombings like those experienced by Australians in Bali was hardly mentioned. Some Western journalists choose to enter Syria illegally to embed with Islamist militias, while others such as Alex Thomson for Channel 4, who report from Damascus, have another story to tell. Thomson’s latest report concerns the deliberate targeting of foreign and local journalists by so-called freedom fighters, and the irony of this.
So some western reporters present the point of view of the militias, but not the views of women in the streets of Aleppo or Damascus after a terror attack. Is this because we are not meant to hear women in hijabs curse Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or America?
The standard narrative presented by the media is that it is a civil war between the Alawi minority and the oppressed Sunni majority. So it doesn’t help the selling of this war if we see Sunni, Christian, Alawi and Shia women yelling out their opposition to NATO and Gulf states. Furthermore, it doesn’t help the selling of this war if we are told that the Minister for Defence, and other key ministers such as the Foreign minister, the information minister and the minister for interior affairs are Sunni, and the majority of officers and soldiers are Sunni. For people in Syria, they are Syrian, so there is no conversation about their background, just a conversation about their performance.
RELIGION AND POLITICS
Religion of any sort when combined with politics can create a deadly mix, which explains the determination of most Syrians to keep their country secular. This was critical to Syria’s successful emergence as a modern state. Because it is such a diverse society, religion could be used to tear the society apart, which is what the enemies of Syria aim to do. Religion can be used to justify the most shocking crimes. For example, in December 2011 Ammar Baloush a Damascus university medical student killed two classmates and wounded three others during an exam. All his victims belonged to minorities. Baloush now fights with a rebel group.
Other states in the Middle East such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar rely on religion to maintain power. As always, religion (or tribal loyalties) can be used to divide and conquer. Here we are not talking about the religion at the heart of Judaism or Islam, which are religions essentially of love and peace. But we are talking about interpretations of these religions. Forces with money and power distort their original, pure messages.
But we mustn’t pretend that the West doesn’t have a dominant religion. American exceptionalism: the belief that the US – and by extension for many, the West – is best and has an almost God-given right to police the world almost equates to a religion. Other imperial powers, such as the Roman Empire would have had a similar ‘religion’. This is Hillary Clinton’s and John McCain’s faith. It is still not clear if it is President Obama’s.
As I have mentioned, the countries which are funding and supporting the armed groups in Syria depend on religion for their survival. The Saudi family depend on the Wahhabi school of Islam and Salafism, while the family in power in Qatar depends on the Muslim Brotherhood. These were not schools of Islam introduced by the Prophet Mohammad. Just as US exceptionalism didn’t exist 300 years ago, neither did these interpretations of Islam.
The war in Syria is not a Sunni versus Shia war. It’s a proxy war being waged on the ground between representatives of extremist branches of Islam (sponsored by countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia) and ‘moderate’ Muslims, in other words mainstream Muslims together with Christians and other faiths.
Young men (and a few women) are being incited to commit the most heinous crimes by extremist clerics. There is torture, beheadings, mutilations, the gouging out of eyes, the cutting off of genitals, the rape of women and children, even girls as young as four, as well as many other atrocities.
The so called revolution sanctions these atrocities. Sheikh Adnan Arour, an infamous cleric who is based in Saudi Arabia is regularly on satellite TV encouraging his followers to kill people who oppose the revolution. For example in 2011, he encouraged the targeting of minorities, particularly members of the Alawi community who do not support the revolution. He said their bodies would be minced and fed to the dogs. It’s this kind of incitement to violence which leads his followers to commit such atrocities. Late last year, there was a report in The Australian of a young Christian man who was beheaded and his body fed to dogs.
Based in Qatar is Egyptian Sheikh Qaradawi, the most prominent cleric in the Middle East, and a friend, reputedly, of the Qatari royal family. In 2011 Qaradawi stated that if it was necessary to kill a third of the Syrian population to topple the ‘heretical’ regime, then so be it. More recently, he has said on Al-Jazeera that it is OK to kill civilians and religious scholars who support the regime. But civilians have been killed by Islamism extremists since the beginning of the revolution. Almost two years ago, on 17 April 2011, three children were killed in Homs by armed men. They were targeted presumably because they were in a car with an off-duty army officer. We know that in campaigns of terror the normal rules of war are ignored.
So Qatar and Saudi Arabia by funding and arming militias and supporting extremist clerics are hugely committed to the destruction of the secular Syrian State and to the killing of millions of people in the process. We in Australia must ask ourselves, do we condone or condemn calls for genocide.
The war against Syria is attracting thousands of jihadists and mercenaries from countries such as Tunisia, Libya, Britain, Belgium, Somalia, Iraq, Chechnya and even Australia. Many of them support an Islamic caliphate. That means they are dreaming of a utopia in which Islam is the state religion. The Islamic utopia planned for the world is another version of other utopias that have claimed millions of victims.
Those leaving Australia for jihad or a so called ‘revolution’ in Syria are going not only because extremist clerics urge them to go. There are credible reports that Qatar pays recruiters $3,000 for every person they recruit to travel to Syria to support the militias in their fight against the Syrian State. So that is one other tragic element of this war: there are foreigners going to Syria believing they are going there to save Syrians from a heretical secular regime, while people in Syria curse them for their part in the war against them and their country.
The foreign powers that want them to keep streaming into Syria to fight their proxy war have to create reasons for them to go. So massacres are being committed, lies are being told. Extreme shock and horror has to be created to motivate people to leave their family in Australia to fight in a country most do not have family ties with and have never visited.
War is always a terrible terrible mess built on lies, death and destruction.
Fighters may also be going to Syria because of the stories of Syrian expatriates who falsify events and distort the history of Syria. Perhaps they do this because they are stuck in an old Syria and they are reliving old fights, remembering their old wounds and bitter defeats. Or perhaps they have family loyalties to a father or an uncle that was victimised or killed in Syria many decades ago and while most people in Syria have moved on, they are stuck in a past that distorts the present.
The mainstream media as well as institutions such as Amnesty International and even the United Nations have encouraged the view that Syrians need to be saved from the president. “Assad has to go” is even a mantra on the lips of people who wouldn’t know where Syria is.
Like Chinese whispers, reports on Syria are often based on reports, on Syria, based on reports by people who have never entered Syria and who have only interviewed supporters of the armed opposition. They are not based on the reality of Syria. People assume they are getting the truth when they access Al-Jazeera, not realizing this media outlet is owned by the emir of Qatar, and is very much a player in the propaganda war. Syrian TV is censored by the Arab League and some Western governments so they can continue to distort the reality on the ground and the voices of Syrians.
It is 10 years since the beginning of the war in Iraq and we are now awake to the lies and distortions presented to us in order for that war to occur. The same thing is happening now; otherwise the war in Syria couldn’t occur.
OIL AND GAS
Another key element of the war relates to resources. Questions not being asked include: who is going to exploit the huge gas reserves recently discovered off the coast of Syria? Who is going to dominate the European gas market? Will it be the US, Britain and France with support from Turkey and Gulf allies – Saudi Arabia and Qatar? Or will it be Russia together with Iran and Syria, and China in the background? Will this be America’s century or Russia’s and China’s? If this were a James Bond movie, we might be on the side of the West, MI6 and the CIA. But it is not a movie and millions of people’s lives are at stake. Our values are at stake here too.
Some leaders, such as William Hague, may think they are protecting the economies of their countries by pursuing a war in Syria, by playing with truth and by condoning terror. But in what ways can anyone’s interests be enhanced by the destruction of a society and by the murder of millions of people? In what ways can the interests of the world be enhanced by the encouragement of ignorance, conformity, and extremism, as well as the sponsorship of terror?
Are Western governments defending the values we cherish most as humans or the interests of huge corporations? If they are presenting the interests of corporations that lack a moral compass, where will this take humanity?
There are many Australians who are connected to the some of the tens of thousands killed in Syria.
We must not forget the families and communities behind every victim. They all deserve the truth. Peace can come to Syria but it can’t be lasting unless everyone’s grief is respected. Most importantly, what mustn’t be forgotten is the value of peace.
Susan Dirgham and Nina Haidar,
Members of AMRIS
In regard to understanding events in Syria, it is impossible to present a definitive reference list. However, it is hoped this very incomplete list below can encourage further research. Few journalists working for the mainstream media have the power, the resources, the time to investigate Syria and present a full, honest picture of events there. It is necessary, therefore, if there is to be a committed push for peace in Syria and the region that others research Syria.
Alex Thomson’s blog: http://blogs.channel4.com/alex-thomsons-view/
Video interview with Ammar Baloush, who killed 2 medical students on 27 December 2011 at Damascus University and later joined the ‘rebels’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oVA3QtdaFY
Images of Syrian women: http://vimeo.com/56420545
ABC documentary about the speaking of Aramaic in Syrian towns near Damascus: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iy38UQ9EQ6o
Images of Syrians before the crisis: http://vimeo.com/61723401
Video of Sheikh Adnan Arour declaring what can happen to people who do not support ‘us’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3lhyT3602Y
Sheikh Qaradawi justifying the killing of civilians and (religious) scholars who support the Syria government: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yexixuNzuaY&feature=endscreen
Speech by Grand Mufti of Syria in October 2011 after the assassination of his son and his son’s history professor (the Mufti refers to Qaradawi’s condoning the killing of 1/3 of the Syrian population if it leads to the toppling of the regime): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj0QmykxMQs
Article: “Moderate ‘Shami’ Islam vs Wahhabism: Shiek Mohamad Saeed Ramadan Al Bouti Finally Pays for his Anti-Salafism Stances” http://www.syria-tribune.com/e/index.php/by-syria-tribune/64-bouti
On Qatar and its wealth and what it does with it: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/arab-league-summit-showcases-qatars-swagger
A video interview with analyst Aisling Byrne about the media war being waged against Syria: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=8azATW25nj0
Alastair Crooke, “Straining Credibility” refers to the information war: http://www.conflictsforum.org/2012/syria-straining-credulity/
Documentary: Manufacturing Dissent, produced by journalists Lizzie Phelan and Mostafa Afzalzadeh http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwv7JXgPxLI
VIDEO OF INTERVIEWS, RALLIES OF SUPPORTERS OF al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in Syria
Support shown for an Islamic Caliphate, the killing of Christians and Alawis
Amnesty International’s silence in response to reports of the killing of civilians by Islamist militias in April 2011:
Reference to the murders of three young teenagers in Homs on 17 April 2011: http://pool.abc.net.au/media/syria-questions-must-be-asked-and-answered
This site presents investigations into massacres and killings in Syria: http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Main_Page
John Rosenthal’s analysis of the Houla massacre contradicts initial claims by commentators and governments in the West: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/302998/houla-massacre-redux-john-rosenthal
ASIO tracks young Australians in Syria: http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2013/s3737450.htm
It is difficult (impossible?) to find any serious analysis in the Western mainstream media in regard to the geopolitical and economic reasons for the war against Syria. However, these are links to articles on the Internet by European analysts:
William Engdahl: “The bizarre conflict over Cyprus and Greece, as well as Syria, have more than a little to do with the new gas wars geopolitical” http://rt.com/op-edge/cyprus-emerging-gas-wars-151/
Christof Lehmann: “The dynamics of the crisis in Syria”
Robert Fisk’s respectful interview with Osama Bin Laden in 1993 refers to the recruiting of foreign fighters for the war in Afghanistan:
THE ABC ON SYRIA
There are ABC radio and television interviewers who show some independence in their approach to Syria and make serious attempts to look at the war in Syria in an objective, in-depth way. However, there does seem to be an ABC editorial approach to Syria which is extremely biased and not at all in-depth. This is represented on the ABC online Syria news page, unlike virtually all other country news pages, there are thumbnail links to articles on this.
There is a thumbnail link to an article about the First Lady of Syria which is dated March 21 2012. The writer is anonymous but he or she or they have a clear point of view: “For ordinary Syrians, Ms Assad is now a hate figure.”
Asma Al-Asad, First Lady of Syria with mothers of ‘martyrs’ (Syrian TV, March 2103)
There is another thumbnail link on the ABC homepage: “Timeline: Syria and the Assads”, which is dated 9 March 2012. (Ben Atherton is the author.) The timeline is very simplistic and biased; its main purpose seems to be to damn the “Assad regime”, not to present a fair and objective view of Syrian history, nor to update readers on events in Syria and the main players in the crisis. For example, there is no mention of suicide bombs, of the role of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the conflict, of foreign jihadists crossing into Syria from Turkey, of the chilling chant heard at demonstrations since March 2011 (“Send Christians to Beirut; Send Alawis to their grave”), of the calls of extremist clerics to target civilians who do not support the ‘revolution’, of the role of groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. There is no reference at all to what reliable observers such as Mother Agnes Mariam describe as the hijacking of the reform movement by Islamist extremists. Instead of a reference to an academic text such as Patrick Seale’s “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East”, the writer relies on Wikipedia and mainstream media, and the only recent image included is one which promotes the point of view of the armed opposition. The ABC timeline effectively promotes war against the “Assad regime”, which millions in Syria would view as war against their secular society and them. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-03-09/syria-and-the-assads-timeline/3876706
A report on the beginning of the crisis in Syria: http://pool.abc.net.au/media/syria-questions-must-be-asked-and-answered
Sari Saoud’s mother, the day Sari was shot in Homs in October 2011. For an investigative report on Sari’s killing go to: http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/The_Killing_of_Sari_Saoud His mother recounts the events surrounding his death in this interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDUF72f0w2s
The president attends end of Ramadan Eid service in mosque with Mufti of Syria, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the Minister for Religious Affairs, other Sunni government ministers. (Syrian TV, August 2012)
Newsreader on Syrian TV; image of a leader of Lebanese Salafists calling for a jihad against Syria, early 2012 (note: image of jihadist added to original image)
A Syrian woman speaks to Syrian TV reporter.
Emir of Qatar (on right) (Image taken from Syrian TV)
“Father Jamil Haddad, an Orthodox priest was kidnapped and found dead on 25 October in the Drousha area, Damascus. There were indescribable signs of torture and mutilation on his body. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch defines Fr. Haddad a “martyr of reconciliation and harmony.” http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/10/25/245933.html
Whirling Dervish, old city, Damascus 2010
Young women at a restaurant in the old city, Damascus. 2010.
Damascus University student at a vigil speaks to Syrian TV reporter following missile attack on Damascus Uni that killed 15 students, March 2013 (Syrian TV, 29/3/13)