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Aussies write on Syria

Reconciliation is the only way forward for Syria

THE CONVERSATION   4 December 2012  Dr Fiona Hill

Syria continues to be gutted, physically and psychologically, every day. Her people are terrorised and killed, infrastructure is decimated, and historical monuments are razed with astonishing levels of brutality.

Syrian armed forces attack the opposition forces with aircraft, tanks, mortars, artillery, and air bombing. The armed opposition defends its ground with stolen Syrian army tanks, surface to air missiles, and heavy artillery funded by foreign governments and individuals.

A new National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was established in Doha on 11 November 2012. The Secretariat General of the 57-state member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation urged it to “respond to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people … preserving the unity, security and stability of Syria.”

But the pressing questions are: will the new opposition coalition be a legitimate representative of the Syrian people? And, are the aspirations of the Syrian National Coalition and the Syrian people at present mutually exclusive?

The Free Syria Army, the revolutionary militant arm of the Syrian National Coalition, has safe haven and supply lines in Turkey, is funded by Qatar and Sunni Arab oil-rich States. It is supported with surveillance, reconnaissance, training, protective equipment, and sustenance by the USA, Britain, France, and Germany, and according to the Council on Foreign Relations, by al Qaeda.

The Free Syria Army forms the core of the armed opposition. But the majority of armed militants in Syria who call themselves “Free Army” in fact comprise Islamist brigades, mercenaries, criminal opportunists, and al Qaeda. Syrians’ appetite for revolution is tempered by their ascendance.

Medecins Sans Frontieres co-founder, Jacques Beres, reports at least half of Free Syria Army fighters he treated in Aleppo in August were not Syrian, and were driven by the establishment of an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law.

The Muslim Brotherhood is central to the establishment and durability of both the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syria Army. A Sunni political movement historically antagonist towards secular nationalist government, the Muslim Brotherhood is now amenable to secular forms of government and instead staunchly opposes Shiism. The Brotherhood characterise Shias as apostates, a crime under Islam, who are thereby unworthy to govern a majority Muslim country.

The Free Syria Army has destroyed and harassed state media, and the Arab League has blocked state-run Syrian channels from satellites for inflammatory broadcasts. Meanwhile, the opposition broadcasts 24-hour propaganda glorifying martyrdom towards the downfall of the government. Europe has followed suit in blocking Syrian state media.

Ownership of the Syria “story” is critical when the stakes are so high. Syria is the game board on which players contest ideologies, but also whose oil and gas pipelines will traverse the country to the Mediterranean ports……

For democracy to thrive, Bashar al-Assad needs a chance

IN his zeal to remove President Bashar al-Assad from office, and bring the doubtful benefits of the Arab Spring to Syria, The Independent’s Robert Fisk criticised NATO on August 23 for not being prepared to “devastate the regime’s 8000 tanks and armoured vehicles” as they “besiege the country’s cities”.

Perhaps the tanks are there. I saw no sign of them when I was there last week.

Fisk is not alone in wanting to bring Assad down. On August 18, US President Barack Obama was quoted as declaring that calls for dialogue and reform by Assad rang hollow and that, for the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for him to step aside.

When the patriarch of the Maronite Catholics went to the Elysee Palace in Paris on September 5 to express his reservations about the anti-Syrian and anti-Assad rhetoric flooding the world media, French President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly banged his fist on the table and declared “Assad is finished.”

Former president Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, was a hard-nosed dictator of the old school. However, as the patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church reminded me a few days ago, Bashar “is not his father”.

While it is true that promised reforms were initially slow in coming, it seems clear that it was the old guard that was opposed to change. The President, who took over in 2000 after his father’s death, has had to move slowly, but – Obama’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding – he appears to be making progress with reform.

Nobody with whom I spoke contradicted this judgment, and the mufti of Syria, Muhammad Badr Din Hassoun, confirmed it.

I encountered none of the problems listed in the fairly detailed US advice to its citizens to leave Syria.

Travelling with a friend and moving all around Damascus and Hama, I saw no soldiers except outside some government offices. I saw no roadblocks except for one outside Hama and one on the Hama road as we re-entered Damascus. The only police in evidence were directing traffic. No attempt was made to obstruct our movement, and no one stopped us or asked us for identification or questioned our being where we were.

Moreover, while all with whom I spoke acknowledged that some of the demonstrators with weapons were locals who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qa’ida or other Salafist groups, they disagreed with the US assumption that armed foreigners were a government myth.

They said that the weapons and many of the people bearing them came across Syria’s various borders with Turkey, North Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan; and include even Mauritanians, Pakistanis, and Afghans…….


Magician’s Diversion: Bleeding Syria to Death

PALESTINE CHRONICLE  December 22, 2012

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

According to various definitions, politicide can be used to describe the destruction of a government or a specific socio-political group, such as the Palestinians, when it overlaps with genocide. It can be extended to a state, a system and a country. Saddam Hussein attempted politicide by trying to wipe Kuwait off the map. In the 1930s the fascists committed politicide by destroying the Spanish government.  Territorially, the country stayed as it was. It was simply emptied of its ideological content and turned into something else.

The destruction of governments, leaders and values who stand in the way of the interests of powerful governments is common practice. Since the Second World War the assassins have often been self-styled liberal democratic governments. There is virtually no global arena which has escaped their attention. In the past eleven years alone, in the Middle East, Iraq and Libya have been the victims of politicide. Their governments, value systems and leaders might have badly needed change but when change came it was not at the hands of the people but outside governments. Now Syria is absorbing their attention. Like Iraq and Libya, the justification for the onslaught on Syria of the past 20 months is the ‘dictator’ or the ‘regime.’ More plausibly, the real target is the country itself. Like Saddam and Qadhafi, the ‘dictator’ is the magician’s diversion, flourished with one hand so the audience does not see what is being done with the other.

The failure of the armed gangs to overthrow the government in Damascus seems to be bringing the possibility of direct military intervention closer. The US, Germany and the Netherlands are providing Turkey with six batteries of Patriot missiles, to be positioned near the Syrian border. About 2,000 foreign troops will be sent to Turkey to operate and protect the missile batteries, with an unstated number of Turkish troops assigned to protect them. The Patriots will be located in  three southeastern provinces that are strongly Sunni Muslim, Gaziantep, Adana and Kahramanmaras provinces. For security reasons they will not be placed  in Hatay, where more than half the population is Alevi (Alawi), and strongly opposed to the Turkish government’s intervention in Syria, or Diyarbakir, which, of course, is largely Kurdish and opposed to the government for other reasons.

Responding the day after NATO agreed to supply Turkey with the Patriots, Russia dispatched a batch of Iskander missiles to the Syrian military. These hypersonic weapons fly at 1.3 miles a second and weapons experts say they would be more than a match for the Patriots. Building up the specter of Turkey under threat, NATO spokesmen are claiming that the Syrian military is already using Scud missiles and is prepared to use chemical weapons but both these claims seem to be no more than part of the propaganda war. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s Secretary-General, condemns the firing of Scud missiles – without producing evidence that they actually have been fired – but not the very real planting of bombs in the middle of cities by the armed groups he and the members of his organization are supporting…….


Christians a target for Syrian rebels we back


ONE might think the recent reports of Australians recruited as jihadist fighters for the rebel cause in Syria would have been given front-page coverage and top billing on the nightly news bulletins. It is cause for alarm about fanaticism in our midst – much more alarm than the actions of an unruly mob a few weeks ago.

However, there are two angles to this story. First, on the home front it shows how opportunistic are the leaders of this particular brand of Islam. Second, it tells us something about what is actually happening in Syria.

Amid the chaos, another strand of the story is beginning to emerge, part of the wider story happening all over the Middle East. It is the fate of the Christians of the Middle East. We have already witnessed in one generation the decline of the Christians of Palestine, the original home of Christianity.

We have seen, despite the so-called Arab Spring in Egypt, the dire situation of the Coptic Christians, the original inhabitants of Egypt who speak the closest living language to pharaonic Egyptian. Now in Syria we see the threatened purge of another even older Christian group. The Syriac Christians are the Christians of Antioch, the oldest Christian church in the world, and the only speakers of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Despite the threat to these large minorities, the story of Syria is being interpreted and exploited by the fundamentalists with the unwitting connivance of SBS, which gleans most of its Middle East coverage from the al-Jazeera network. According to this interpretation, the Syrian uprising has been simplistically presented as a populist movement against the oppressive Assad regime, which is inexplicably murdering its own people.

It is obvious that minorities are often caught in the middle. But the story also reflects on the interpretation of the Syrian uprising. Forty per cent of Syria’s population is made up of minorities. There are Christians: Catholic (of various rites) and Orthodox; Muslim: Shia, Druze and Ismailis; and non-Arab Sunni: Kurds. Sixty per cent are Sunni Muslim.

The departure of the Assad regime and a new government in Syria run by extremist Salafists, al-Qa’ida or the Muslim Brotherhood is a daunting prospect for the minorities, and for a majority of the Sunni population, who have flourished under the tolerance of the Alawite regime. The US State Department and the West generally are, oddly, not impressed by Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III’s statement that “there is more religious freedom and tolerance in Syria than in any other Arab country”.

Last week I interviewed Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix. A highly educated Carmelite nun, she has fled Syria under threat of abduction from her home, the sixth-century Monastery of St James the Mutilated. Her version of the truth about Syria is very different from the version we get from European and American leaders, and from al-Jazeera.

According to Agnes-Mariam, the initial uprising was a benign protest against the monolithic and ideological Baathist regime of which, after almost 50 years, people had tired. The protest was helped by some of the very advantages that the regime had delivered, such as equality of religion and a high standard of education, particularly for women. However, the protest had hardly begun before it was hijacked by Islamist mercenaries and turned into violent jihad.

This is only beginning to emerge now as people query the number of foreign fighters among the insurgents.

According to Agnes-Mariam, only about one in 50 is actually Syrian. The rest are jihadists from elsewhere in the Middle East and abroad, even from Australia. What is worse, many of these fighters have had support in money and arms and morale from the West…..




On-Line Opinion, 21 Dec 2012   by Joseph Wakim

‘All we are saying is give peace a chance’ was the theme of the anti Vietnam war movement in 1969, thanks to the guiding star of John Lennon. And it may as well be the theme of the anti war movement in Syria today, thanks to the guiding star of a Melkite nun Mother Agnes Miriam. This star of hope is rising in the night sky and wise people of all creeds seek its solace.

This fearless woman has indiscriminately nursed and sheltered many wounded civilians and foreign mercenaries near her Homs monastery ironically named ‘St James the Mutilated’. She has even negotiated with the government to release dissidents. This optimistic soul retains her faith that the uniting spirit of reconciliation will prevail against the dividing forces of revolution.

The reconciliation or Mussalaha movement paths a third way – a way towards peace. Not the status quo of the authoritarian regime where dissonant voices were crushed. Not a bloody revolution that is fuelled and financed from foreign powers. But a third way – evolution that is driven by the will of the Syrian citizens in their own time and in their own way. Driven by their love of re-building their secular society, not ripping it apart along sectarian battle lines. It is this majority of ordinary peace loving people who have been forgotten when the conflict is crudely portrayed as ‘Assad versus rebels’.

During the latest Friends of Syria summit in Marrakesh, Morocco on 13 December, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was endorsed by 90 of the 114 countries attending as the ‘legitimate voice of the Syrian people’. Foreign Minister Bob Carr was swift in following suit: ‘Australia joins the United States, the UK, France and many others in acknowledging the Syrian opposition and further delegitimizing the Assad regime’ so that we can support ‘adherence to democratic principles [by] … a credible alternative for Syria once a political transition occurs’.

How can the forcible overthrow of a sovereign government by foreign forces (via their rebels, jihadists and mercenaries) lay the foundations for a new Syrian democracy? With a presidential election scheduled for 2014, how can outsiders pre-empt the outcome on behalf of the exiled minority when there are 23 million citizens in Syria? How can we turn a blind eye to the lethal cocktail of Coalition agendas that include fatwas to replace the secular society with a sectarian caliphate: ‘Christians to Beirut and Alawites to their graves’?.

The Syrian National Council has been allocated 22 of the 60 seats in this new ‘government in waiting’. Its newly appointed chairman George Sabra wasted no time in declaring the SNC’s new direction: ‘Quite clearly, we want weapons’.

If the current regime is heavy handed and murderous, then the second way of an armed revolution is just as violent. Titles such as revolutionary, forces and weapons do not spell less bloodshed. Cynically assuming that we suffer from collective amnesia, the US-Saudi led sponsors of this revolution are repeating similar tactics to those deployed in the overthrow of the other Baathist secular state: Iraq.

Ten years ago, lies about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and al Qaeda connections were propagated by the US-UK alliance to justify the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Earlier this month, we again witnessed ‘leaks’ from the US Pentagon about Syrian ‘chemical weapons’. On cue, US defence Secretary Leon Panetta beat the drums of war that ‘there will be consequences…[if] the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons…on their own people’. We have heard such scaremongering as a pretext for war all before, and we know that the consequences unleashed a civil war inside Iraq with no end in sight. So alarm bells should point us to a healthy scepticism: where is the evidence to support this serious claim? Why are foreign jihadists and mercenaries deceitfully included as ‘their own people’?

Hence the second way of revolution is a vicious cycle of war and propaganda that is hell bent on assuming power and serving the sponsors, with very little reference to serving the Syrian citizens.

The third way of reconciliation has no place for weapons, as the theatre of war is replaced by a round table where citizens talk to each other, not about each other. The enemy is rehumanised rather than dehumanised. This Mussalaha movement is not romantic. It is real ‘reconciliation from below’ starting from families, clans and civil society who are ‘tired of the conflict’.

It was born within civil society in Homs in June around the monastery of Mother Agnes. Another inter denominational meeting in Deir Ezzor culminated in the participants rejecting ‘sectarian violence and sectarian denominational strife, as preconceived ideological and political opposition are urgently required.’

Even the Syrian government embraced the concept and appointed a Minister for National Reconciliation, Ali Haidar, who assembled a Mussalaha committee to ‘unite the children of Syria in love and reconciliation’. He pledged that his ministry would be ‘the dwelling of all Syrians, without exception’. He attended another Reconciliation forum in Homs on 14 October where multi-faith leaders sort to ‘restore a ‘city free of weapons and gunmen’. While it is easy to dismiss this as tokenistic and ‘too little too late’, this door has always been open to unarmed dialogue, whereas such reconciliation is invisible on the National Coalition agenda.

In October, Mother Agnes visited Australia as part of her international mission to promote this movement. Contrary to the popular narrative that exiles are fleeing from the Syrian army, she is fleeing from the rebels. The ten point plan that she presented to Australian politicians during her visit is pro negotiation, anti war and anti propaganda. She warned of the fate of the Christians in Syria if a sectarian regime was installed, especially the Christians of Antioch which is the oldest church in the world. There are branches of this grass roots multi faith Mussalaha movement globally, including Australia.

Of course such grass roots initiatives go largely unnoticed because they present a challenging counter narrative.

Although the uprising in Syria may have started in Dara’a as a popular movement in March 2011, that was quickly hijacked by militants and jihadists with a different agenda. The new popular movement is Mussalaha.

It is time for a counter revolution that puts people first.

Syria: questions must be asked and answered

ABC Pool, May 1 2011, by Susan Dirgham

To develop a concerned and responsible understanding of what is happening in Syria today, questions that generally aren’t being posed must be.

1. The prominent Egyptian Islamic scholar, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a cleric with a huge following in the Middle East and North Africa and with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, has recently called on Sunni Muslims to rebel against the “Alawite regime” in Syria, “for Arabs to support protesters in Syria”. Two chants of demonstrators in Daraa have been, “No Hezbollah. No Iran. Syria for Muslims (read “Sunnis”)”, and “Send Christians to Beirut and kill Alawis.”  Syrian friends (mostly Sunnis but some Alawis and Christians as well – if that is relevant) have told me soldiers are being killed in cold blood, government workers as well. One friend who lives on the outskirts of Damascus rang me Easter Sunday to tell me that soldiers had been killed – targeted and shot – in his area and in the nearby military hospital.  The brother-in-law of a friend was shot and killed in his car along with his two children and nephew.  He wasn’t a “human rights activist”; he was an army officer. Are such killings related to Qaradawi’s call?


2. Arms are in the hands of many Syrian civilians. (Apparently, armed non-Syrians have also been arrested.) I learnt when I was in Damascus last weekend that there is a lot of confusion as to who is killling demonstrators. One young man I met witnessed a small demonstration in an outlying Damascus suburb at which two people were killed and several injured, but he said no one he spoke to there could say who had shot them. It was a mystery.  After the initial problem in Daraa, the President ordered soldiers not to shoot unless they were shot at first. Why do the mainstream western and Arab media keep insisting that the situation is straight-forward: i.e. that the regime is killing peaceful demonstrators?  I understand there is a newspaper that is being distributed freely in Kuwait. It presents what it purports to be the side of the demonstrators and demonises the Syrian ‘regime’.  Who is behind that and why is such a black and white picture being presented?


3. A vast majority of Syrians support President al-Assad and the reforms he has introduced. University students are not involved in the demonstrations in Damascus; it is mainly people from the very poor, outlying suburbs that are involved in the small demonstrations. The reforms are significant and are having an obvious effect on what the Syrian media is presenting and on the talk in the street, for example. Why don’t demonstrators give the reforms a chance? How can continued chaos in the country guarantee a better outcome?


4. Syria is the only country which has taken a consistently firm stand against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, the wars in Gaza and Lebanon. Since 1967, Israel has occupied Syrian land against international law and in defiance of UN resolutions. What are the implications of this? It has been well documented for at least 7 years that powerful people in the United States, people with strong links to Israel, want to “target” Syria – to destablise the country. Most Syrians say Israel and America, with help from some friends such as Saad Hariri, are behind the current troubles. Could they have a point?  (Or do “we” in the west always know best? Do “we” display wisdom and sophistication when we scoff at such “conspiracy theories” and when we infer we are much more sophisticated and knowing than the majority of people in Syria?)


5. For most Syrians, Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya TV, and BBC Arabic news have been discredited. At least four Al-Jazeera reporters have resigned in protest at the way the station is presenting the situation in Syria. There is no effort being put into presenting more than one side of the story and there is credible evidence of the presentation of fake phone calls from “witnesses” claiming to be in Syria as well as dodgy video footage purportedly from Syria. A male nurse in Damascus was found by his colleagues to be making calls to Al-Jazeera from the hospital roof, claiming he was a witness in Daraa (news on Syrian TV – 2/5/2011).  Wikileaks has recently presented proof that the US has been funding a Syrian opposition group abroad. If the US is targeting Syria how best would it use mainstream media and social networking sites to support its game-plan? What devious strategies might have been devised in operation rooms over the past 7 years?


6. If people are intent on overthrowing what they view as an Alawi regime (it is not!), and they are successful, what might the consequences be? Many people in Syria and Lebanan believe it would inevitably lead to a civil war as bloody and messy as Lebanon’s and Iraq’s. Who would benefit from that, or rather, who would imagine they could benefit from that?


7. Syria is the most secular society in the Middle East, yet in the western media there is virtually no regard given to this and to the threat from extremists. The Christian community in Damascus supports the President and the reforms.  There was much written and spoken about the fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would take control of the demonstrations in Egypt.  Why isn’t this given the attention it is due in the news about Syria?


8. Many years ago, I was a peaceful protester against Australia’s participation in the Vietnam war and I was arrested once when I handed out leaflets urging young men not to register for national service. I remember being in the minority and we protesters were not given very much respect by the mainstream society or media.  People who marched in demonstrations then were a motley lot; there were people who wore Stalin or Mao badges; people who threw bricks through windows and got aggressive in confrontations with the police.  Now, in regard to Syria, why is so much credence given to people who speak to the western media or Al-Jazeera etc and who claim they are human rights activists or peaceful demonstrators?  Of course there are genuine human rights activists and many many genuine peaceful demonstrators, but it is not as straight forward as the presentation in the western and mainstream Arabic media.  Have the warnings of Orwell and Graham Greene been forgotten (” ref: The Quiet American”)?  Have we been lulled into a confident belief that we can’t trust the propaganda from Syria, but we can trust our own on this issue?  Can we be confident that we can damn Syrian TV as if there could be no intelligent, responsible people working on Syrian TV programs?  I watched a lot of Syrian TV over Easter and was impressed by what I saw, and Syrian friends say they are impressed by the changes; the changes are considerable and meaningful.  But of course everything has to be questioned – always.  Why is the narrative presented in our news media so simplistic and so seldom questioned?


9. I have Syrian Australian friends who migrated here and whose children are trapped to some extent in a socially conservative time-lock their parents have maintained because like people in most migrant communities their parents have hung onto the social tenets they brought with them and haven’t ‘moved on’ as people back in Syria have.   Is it possible that some people with Syrian backgrounds in Australia, the US and Europe are trapped in a political time-lock of sorts? (This may offend some readers.  But it is a question worth considering, I believe.  I don’t have an answer to it.)

My local Lebanese Australian greengrocer considers these are key questions and has responses to all of them.  Why aren’t they questions being presented in the western media?


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