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Syria and The Responsibility to Protect and Defend

Articles by AMRIS members

9 September 2013

Who to Punish, Who to Defend?


Onine Opinion   9 September 2013

by Dr Fiona Hill

In the wake of new poisonous gas attacks around Damascus last week – another monstrous low in the depths of Syria’s conflict – the ensuing palaver is nonsense worthy of Lewis Carroll.

Leaders of the ‘free world’ bellow “Off with their heads!” caution each other against intervention, assure citizens this is “someone else’s war”, then gravely consult over when to start bombing.

Allies and foes taunt each other with “will you, won’t you join the dance?”, jurists argue punishment versus self-defence [http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139886/david-kaye/the-legal-consequences-of-illegal-wars], the convicted mumbles innocence, the victims blame foreigners, the death toll is stretched and pummeled like dough, and forensic investigators are shut outside court.

Horrified observers question how military attacks will save Syrian lives, their voices drowned out by the mob. [https://newmatilda.com/2013/08/28/hard-questions-must-be-asked-syria]

President Barack Obama insists that the US and its allies have tried diplomacy to bring a halt to the conflict in Syria and now have no other option but to intervene.

Yet the key revolutionary force that they openly and generously support in Syria consistently has refused diplomacy. Offers by the Syrian Government since 2011 for full amnesty and open negotiation with all parties have been rejected again and again.

And after two and a half years of fighting with foreign-supplied weaponry, sophisticated surveillance equipment, training, and generous funding, along with refuge and medical attention in Turkey, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has failed to dislodge President Bashar Al Assad from his post.

Worse than this, foreign funding of combatants has swollen FSA ranks to such a degree that an estimated 75% now are a law unto themselves – killing without apparent cause, extorting money through kidnap, stealing property, looting and burning factories and shops, hijacking diesel and heating fuel, and destroying infrastructure.

Defected FSA Colonel Riad Al Asa’ad describes the much promoted National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary & Opposition Forces (NCSROF) as ‘the worst opposition in history’ as he laments the chaotic rule of weapons and money that gives ‘war princes’ power at the expense of revolutionaries. [http://www.shamtimes.net/news_de.php?PartsID=1&NewsID=10118 ]

So he calls on ‘men of religion’ from around the world to join the Syrian fight. The formidable fighters of Al Nusra Front, who openly align with Al Qaida, are amongst the thousands of foreign nationals to answer the call.

Al Nusra make common cause with the FSA petitioning and terrorizing civilians in the name of Islam. [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2339367/Syrian-boy-Mohammad-14-shot-dead-parents-Islamic-extremists-claimed-insulted-Prophet.html]

But with doctrine to guide them, their fighters care little for FSA’s revolution. They fight to restore an Islamic Caliphate in Damascus.

All Muslims promote conscious emulation of the ‘golden’ epoch of Islam’s noble ancestors ‘Al Salaf Al Saleh’ (hence ‘Salafi’), but Al Nusra and other fighters want it returned as a political reality.

Saudi Arabia is their closest model, where the Al Saud clan’s alliance with 18th century reformer Mohammed Ibn Abd Al Wahhab’s call to purge all ‘foreign’ elements from Arabia enlivened the ‘Salafi’ ideal.

Clearly not all Muslims find Syria’s melting pot of religions and sects problematic. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) represents 57 member States and declares that ‘Syria is a place where all sects and races have coexisted for ages.’ (OIC Newsletter 51, 26 December 2012)

But Al Nusra Front’s fighters in Syria appear to place no value on Christian and Shia lives [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Latakia_offensive] and investigation of a chemical attack in Syria in April 2013 found ‘rebels’ more likely responsible than the Syrian government. [http://www.france24.com/en/20130506-syria-un-del-ponte-chemical-weapons-gas-rebels-assad]

Al Nusra Front is designated a terrorist organization by the USA and Australia.

An allied attack on Syria while it’s regular armed forces fight, amongst others, a US designated terrorist organization, should trouble all countries in the region.


All our lives are diminished by the use of chemicals on anyone anywhere at any time. But an attack on Syria for a crime it’s government may not have committed, on a date so near the anniversary of Al Qaida’s game-changing attack on the USA, should trouble us all.

Calls for negotiation by the Syrian, Iranian and Russian governments have been treated with public contempt by the UN, Obama and his allies, and by fighters on the ground who refuse to sit down with ‘the enemy’.

Yet when we consider the PLO, the IRA, and Mandela and the ANC, we recall that sitting down with ‘the enemy’ is the fastest route to halting violent ‘terrorist’ acts.

And when we consider the experience in Iraq, we are reminded that military attacks escalate guerilla fighting and that violence breeds more of the same. [http://www.theage.com.au/comment/us-risks-making-syria-another-iraq-20130902-2t0ya.html]

As world leaders and luminaries like Pope Francis call for calm and diplomacy [http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-writes-letter-to-president-putin-of-r] Australian leaders vow to follow the US decision.

But until we can be sure who will be punished and who defended, an attack on Syria does not deserve our support.

In an ideal world Australia’s new Prime Minister will consider the welfare of all Syrian people before politics. Because like Alice, Australia needs to wake up to reality.

Dr Fiona Hill is Cultural Anthropologist, small business owner, & member of Australian ‘Mussalaha’ Reconciliation in Syria (AMRIS)


syrian tv announcerSyrian newsreader with photo of Salafi jihadist leader in Beirut, 2012 (collage of two images)


A basic responsibility of citizens is to defend their country should the need arise.  Presumably Syrian citizens have the same responsibility to defend their country.

In my life time and in my mother’s, the United States hasn’t been bombed by a foreign army. But Syria has. It has been bombed by France and Israel, and it could soon be bombed by America.

(In 1925, France brutally supressed an uprising in Syria against French rule and destroyed a section of the old city in Damascus, which is still referred to as Al-Hariqa, “the fire”, so the memory of French aggression lives on.  Then in 1945, France was so vicious in its intention to punish Syria, a country demanding its freedom from French control, that Britain had to step in to restrain it.  Russian and American voices were in unison then, demanding a peaceful settlement.)

The world will get extremely complicated if the United States bombs Syria with French support and Saudi Arabian and Turkish encouragement!

I have met hundreds of Syrians from the different faiths and ethnic groups whom I would consider responsible citizens, honourable people.  What are their responsibilities as Syrian citizens in these circumstances?

What would fair-minded, progressive Syrians, men and women who want the best for their country and for Syrian children, for Syria’s future, fight for?  Who would they fight against?

Syria is a secular society made up of many ethnic and religious groups.  So I guess the Syrians I’ve met would want to defend the enlightened aspects of their country.

Although the majority of its population are Muslims, Syria’s women are free to dress as they like, so it is often impossible to know when you meet a woman who isn’t wearing a hijab if she is Muslim or Christian, unless she has a crucifix.

In the intense summer heat of Damascus, you might see a woman wearing a beautifully coloured dress, looking very chic. And she might be accompanied by a friend with a white hijab and a buttoned up navy coat.

In my mind, Syrian women, Christians and Muslims display an endearing confidence and dignity; their femininity is quietly present.

There are no religious police in secular Syria, so in Damascus you can walk without shame or caution to a grocer’s shop to buy a bottle of beer or arak. You can eat at restaurants that serve alcohol.

(I refuse to use the past tense. I refuse to qualify this. This is Syria.)

On Sundays or Fridays, too, you can hear the ring of church bells and the call to prayer. Christians visit the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus to stop with Muslims by the tomb of John the Baptist.  And they may stroll past the Jesus Minaret, one of the three minarets of the Umayyad Mosque, which is so named because it is believed Jesus will descend it on the Day of Judgement.  In May this year, I walked past this minaret after being in one of the oldest churches in the world; it is in old Damascus, and I was with Christians (all sects) and Muslims (all sects) praying for peace.

Not far from the Jesus Minaret is Saladin’s tomb.  Saladin was Kurdish, but he remains a hero for Arabic and non-Arabic people across the region – Christian and Muslim. His army fought and defeated the Crusaders, invaders and occupiers, from the west.  Perhaps the epic battles between King Richard and Saladin were what Tolkien drew on for inspiration in his Ring books.  If so, was he right to suggest it was a battle between goodies and baddies?

In 2003, when I first went to live in Damascus, couples seemed constrained to display any physical affection. However, on visits back in 2009 and 2010, I noticed young, unmarried couples holding hands, obviously delighting in the joy it gave them to express their feelings so openly. In 2010, one of my friends, a highly educated woman, rented an apartment in a conservative neighbourhood, where traditional Arabic houses had their backs to the street, and where the narrow twisting lanes enveloped you.   She felt no unease having a male friend visit.  No unease walking home alone late at night down those poorly lit alleyways, the stars and crescent moon above.  It was magic for her and me, too.

This must seem like a romantic presentation of pre-crisis Syria, and it is and it isn’t.  It is an impression which is shared by many Syrians I speak to. You can see it in the eyes of Syrians, people who aren’t shy to display their warm hearts to strangers.  But without a doubt, today, that delight and freedom women felt walking alone around Damascus has been replaced by fear and dread, death and abduction.

Have some of the responsible, warm-hearted Syrians I met been tempted to join the many Takfiri militia groups operating across Syria? Have they been persuaded that their religion justifies the killing of infidels? I very much doubt it.  It is like imagining Martin Luther King joined the Klu Klux Klan.

The Syrians I met were generally witty and warm, and politically savvy.  Could some of them be persuaded to kill for a Caliphate, a utopia, presented to them by extremist clerics? Maybe.  To kill in order to take revenge on a security apparatus that may have led to their or a relative’s great suffering? Maybe.  To kill for a ‘revolution’ which could provide better conditions for women and children? That would be a nonsense.  To kill out of a deep, deep fear or the offer of money.  Maybe.

War treats people very harshly. It can produce the basest behaviour in the best of people.  But who would most responsible citizens in Syria want to fight for in order to defend their country, their communities?  The choices are pretty stark: the Syrian army or its enemies?

There is a story that the Prophet Mohammad viewed Damascus from a distance, but chose not to enter.  The story goes that he said he only wanted to enter one Paradise and that would be when he died.  So who in Syria will welcome a Western military strike on Damascus?  It is very hard to imagine a Syrian, a responsible citizen, doing so.

My grandfather was in Damascus when it was ‘liberated’ from the Turks.  Lawrence of Arabia was in town, too. Around 300 Australian soldiers from the First and the Second World Wars are buried in a well-tended cemetery in Damascus. Would they welcome the bombing of Damascus, yet again? I doubt it.  The spirits of those Aussie soldiers in Damascus know stuff.

Susan Dirgham, National Coordinator of “Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria


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