Home » Talk on Syria to Unitarian Church, Melbourne

Talk on Syria to Unitarian Church, Melbourne

On 7 December, 2014, the National Coordinator of “Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria”, spoke to the Unitarian Church in Melbourne on “Syria: Whom to Support? Whom to Trust?”. Susan Dirgham spoke from notes, but below is Part 1 on the text of the talk.

The talk was filmed and published by Ms Sheila Newman on CanDoBetter

Susan’s email address is susan.dirgham51@gmail.com


The reality of war is complex. Fiction is often needed to make sense of it.


Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” is the story of a somewhat ordinary Englishman in Cuba in the 1950s, Jim Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman, whose failing business and acquisitive daughter induce him to be recruited by MI6. His heart isn’t in espionage, but he has a flair for invention and his bogus reports are taken seriously by London HQ.

He had no accomplice, except the credulity of other men.

Tragedy results from Wormold’s deception, and it brings knowing.

I don’t give a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organizations… I don’t think even my country means that much. There are many countries in our blood, aren’t there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?

Graham Greene, “Our Man in Havana”

Without deception, there would be no war in Syria.

Faith in Secular Syria

I taught at the British Council in Damascus for two years and met hundreds of Syrian people. It is those Syrian people that I met and the peaceful, secular Syria that I explored that is in my heart and that motivates me to be a peace activist. I was also a peace activist during the Vietnam War and I realized then how important it was to investigate, to research, to understand what was really going on and to expose the lies and to know that there were a lot of ‘men from Havana’, a lot of people working for war, otherwise you would have no war.

The Syria I know is a secular country, a country where you could find faith; Syrian people of all faiths are very devout. The impression I got was that their faith was genuine. And in the Syria I knew there was love and hope, so supporting their country was supporting love, supporting secularism. In the Syria I knew, it was taboo to ask people about their religion. If you did speak about religion, you spoke with sensitivity and respect. I believe this gave the people of Syria one of the most precious freedoms that anyone can have.

That is the freedom to approach others in your society, no matter what their religious or ethnic background, with an open heart.

But that has been destroyed by those people who wish to destroy Syria.

I have a faith in secular Syria, the Syria I know, and there are good reasons for that faith. One is the position of women. In 1949, Syrian women were the first women in the Middle East to be granted the right to vote. They have the same basic rights as women in Australia in regards to the freedom to dress as they choose. On a visit to Syria in 2010, I heard from former students at the British Council that the talk among young educated people at that time concerned women having the same social and sexual freedoms as men.

Syrian women have the freedom to seek an education, to further their career. One of my students at the British Council, a single mother who drove a VW Beetle, worked for the Health Ministry. Her ambition was to become the Minister of Health, not a foolish dream for a highly intelligent Syrian woman as one of the most respected ministers in Syria today is a woman, Dr Kinda al-Shammat, the Minister for Social Affairs, a minister who works at the grass-roots level, with the people.

In secular Syria there was freedom of religion, which meant that Christmas, Easter and the Eid Festivals were all national holidays, so everybody stopped for each other’s holy days. I felt the magic of this on my first Christmas in Damascus. There was a huge Christmas tree in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the city, and the main street was closed for the festival – Christian and Muslim families mingled, and a man dressed up as Father Christmas played the saxophone. These days, you are more likely to see solemnity in Bab Touma.

Islam and Christianity, as they are practiced in Syria, are inclusive, so in recent years it is not uncommon to see imams in churches and priests in mosques for funeral services.

Humanity, Faith, Diversity – Who Describes it? Who Seeks the Truth?

Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It is part of everyone’s history, of everyone’s humanity. Syria is basically a bridge between the different religious faiths. You can feel this in the air in Syria. The humanity of Damascus, as well as its beauty, has been extolled by many foreigners that have lived there.

For example, in 2010, British writer, Malika Browne, who once lived in the Old City of Damascus, celebrated Syria’s history, miracles and beauty. Two years later, Browne returned to the same theme in an article in The Guardian. A car bomb in the Christian quarter of Damascus prompted Browne to reflect on the Damascus she knew and loved – the Damascus I knew. However, Browne’s one sentence conclusion is partisan and glib: this harmony is precisely what one man, Bashar al-Assad and a handful of family members, is bent on trying to destroy. Few general readers would question such an unsubstantiated claim because hatred for ‘Assad’ has become a tacit truth, it has seeped into so much of our culture – political cartoons, travel writing, and movie reviews. But as someone who looks deeper for truths, I want to know what motivates Malika Browne to include flippant, but lethal propaganda in such a beautiful piece of writing about Damascus. What motivates her to ignore the points of view of Christians in Syria, many of them victims? Syrian Christian leaders have spoken out against ‘militants’ and proposed western military action. My conclusion: as Browne is married to a former Damascus-based diplomat, she has divided loyalties. Her spouse was someone’s ‘man in Damascus’. Malika Browne’s willingness to adhere to a western war narrative on Syria overrides her allegiance to the people of Syria.

Labels Quash Discussion

I believe there is good reason to support Syria, particularly the people of Syria. But if I try to get a gig on a radio station, I am told I am an ‘Assad supporter’. Labels are being used to quash discussion, to quash debate and peace activism, and they have been effective. Although Syria has a population of 23 million people, the crisis in Syria has been reduced to slogans; it’s ‘Assad versus the rebels’. This slogan has been very effective because it has intimidated people. People have been too afraid to stand up. To be told you are a supporter of Assad is almost like being told you are a supporter of Hitler. Few dare go there.
And those lined up against Syria are basically the whole world, except for some notable exceptions, which include Russia, China, Central America, Latin America, India, Oman, and South Africa. We rarely hear about the notable exceptions because the ‘international community’ is said to be against Assad, but actually the international community is basically just America and its allies.

Partisan Stand of NGOs

What can deter people from standing up for Syria is that you have NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International as well as the U.N., taking very partisan stands against Syria and making use of emotive language rather than objective and sober analysis. These bodies are viewed as trustworthy, dependable, and their blessed aura and global presence are being exploited in today’s modern so-called information and humanitarian wars.

This year, two Nobel Peace Laureates, a former UN Assistant Secretary General, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories and over 100 scholars wrote a letter to Human Rights Watch, critical of its close ties with the U.S. government. They questioned HRW’s independence.

In regards to Amnesty International, there are many people working for it who have integrity and good intentions, but it is not the Amnesty of 40 years ago, when it was a grass-roots organization. Today, it is a corporation, with security doors, executive salaries, gate-keepers and merchandize. It has a HQ. No doubt there is dedication, but Amnesty International also provides a career path.

At the end of 2011, I accompanied members of the Syrian community to the Amnesty office in Melbourne to report on the killings of innocent civilians by armed men early on in the crisis in Syria.

One young Syrian Australian reported to Amnesty that armed men had killed his uncle, a farmer, and two of his friends when they were on the highway to Damascus. And I reported the deaths of three young teenage boys. They were killed in Homs on 17 April 2011, Independence Day, so a public holiday in Syria. They had been in a car with army numberplates because the father of two of them was an army officer. (There is reference to their deaths in an article titled Questioning the Syrian “Casualty List” by Sharmine Narwani, an analyst based in Beirut.)

The Amnesty officials in Melbourne and Sydney who took official note of these reports were very respectful and receptive. However, the reports were sent to Amnesty’s head office in London (or perhaps New York), and stories of these killings were never reported by Amnesty.

Amnesty International, like Human Rights Watch, has close and inappropriate ties with the US Administration. For example, its US director in 2012 was Suzanne Nossel, author of the 2004 paper ‘Smart Power’ which explores ways America can remain the number one global power without being overly militaristic and unpopular. Nossel has worked with top US State Department officials, and since leaving Amnesty, she has moved on smartly to become executive director of PEN American Centre, which belongs to “International PEN, the worldwide association of writers that defends those who are harassed, imprisoned, and killed for their views,” Wikipedia.

In recent years, America’s top man in Syria has been former Ambassador Robert Ford, someone who has been accused by an American investigative journalist of recruiting death squads for Syria, yet he was the keynote speaker at a 2012 Amnesty US annual general meeting.

But for an outsider, a non-Syrian, to comprehend the scale of the deception and intrigue needed to prosecute a war against Syria requires a great deal of scepticism and many dedicated hours of research. The mainstream narrative, together with the support it gets from NGOs, can overwhelm and bewilder us. To challenge people in authority – men and women in grey suits – and a distorted narrative that has slipped subliminally into our culture is a truly daunting task.

What requires support?
• The Syrian people and their secular society and state
• Diplomacy
• The non-violent struggle for political reforms

Lobbyists for War vs Lobbyists for Peace

There have been many lobbyists for a war in Syria and few lobbyists for peace. People who lobby for war are more often than not employed directly or indirectly to do so. Generally, you don’t get paid to lobby for peace.

For some years now, my peace activism has led me to email politicians and people in the media. One prominent politician on my email list was Senator Bob Brown, the Greens leader who was highly regarded for his anti-war stand in the past. However, I had reason to be disturbed by the Greens’ position on Syria. Senator Brown was vocal in his support for sanctions against Syria, for the closure of the Syrian embassy, and for the Australian Senate to call on President Assad to resign. Such a political stand in a country very distant from Syria ignored the views and circumstances of 23 million people in Syria. They were a response to the lobbyists for war.

In March 2012, Bob Brown’s office responded to me directly, giving me an opportunity to lobby for peace. In an email reply to Senator Brown’s office, I made several points. They included the following:

A well-meaning Victorian Greens politician, Ms Collen Hartland, had been befriended by two or three Syrian Australians. Seeing them as trusted sources, Ms Hartland felt qualified to inform others on events in Syria. (The claims of two or three men in Australia helped determine Greens’ policies on a conflict impacting the lives of 23 million people in Syria.)

• One media outlet Senator Brown may have trusted for information on Syria was Al-Jazeera. But this media outlet is owned by members of the Qatari ruling royal family and in recent years has been expressing the foreign policy stand of Qatar, a country which hosts a major US base. Until recently at least, Qatar has also been a base for the Muslim Brotherhood, a force that has been at the forefront of the militarized opposition to the Syrian government. Al-Jazeera reporters, including senior staff, have resigned reportedly over the biased reporting of Al-Jazeera on Syria and the ‘Arab Spring’ in general.

• Robert Fisk’s reports on Syria may have determined many Australians’ views, but Fisk doesn’t represent the views of millions of peace-loving Syrians. He writes for western readers. If his often cryptic reports on Syria represent anyone’s views in the Middle East, they might be those of Lebanese political figure and former Druze ‘warlord’, Walid Jumblatt, a close friend of Fisk and someone who is often ridiculed for his fickle political alliances. (NB: Some truth can be found in Fisk’s reports, but he should be read with a critical eye.)

About three weeks after I sent my email to Senator Brown’s office, the senator resigned from politics. Bob Brown may have realized he had been wrong on Syria and it was all too dreadful and complicated, so he resigned. Reasons for his resignation were probably much more prosaic than that, of course. However, what would have happened if Bob Brown had stood up and declared that he had been wrong about Syria and he now supported diplomacy and would work hard to expose war propaganda? Would he have taken the Greens’ Party with him? Would the wider community and the media have reassessed their stands on Syria? I think not. At that time, before we became aware of IS and the depth of the brutality of armed groups, few Australians were in a position to see beyond the slogans for war. Few were prepared to run the risk of being labelled an “Assad apologist”. (Labour politician Anthony Albanese was one exception.)

It should be noted that there are two prominent U.S. politicians who have taken consistently strong stands against the propaganda that feeds the war in Syria, both have stood for presidential nominations. One is former Republican Congressman Ron Paul, and the other is former Democratic Congressman Denis Kucinich, who visited Syria in 2013 to interview President Assad for Fox News. A US senator who has also defied the mainstream narrative has been Republican Senator Richard Black, who famously sent a letter to President Assad to thank him for the Syrian army’s protection of Syrian Christians. This predictably led to the headline, “Assad-loving Va. Pol defends views”.

The Syrian Perspective – An Historic One

While the Australian perspective of Syria is being shaped largely by our media, that of people in Syria is shaped by local events and an understanding of Syria’s history and its place in the world.

There are over 300 graves of Australian soldiers in a well-tended cemetery in Damascus, but the Syrian view of the contributions of ANZACs to their history may differ considerably to ours. For us, the role of Australian soldiers looms large in the lands they have fought in, and the locals are almost inconsequential extras.

My grandfather was in the 3rd Light Horse Brigade that entered Damascus on 1 October 1918, some hours before Lawrence of Arabia’s more ‘epic’ entry. After the expulsion of the generally oppressive Turkish forces in Greater Syria, Britain and France divided up Syria between them. France sent troops into Damascus in 1920, and in 1925, in response to the local opposition to their rule, bombed and destroyed a section of the historic old city of Damascus.

Australian soldiers were again in Syria in World War 2, this time to join the fight against the Vichy French, who they feared were collaborating with the Nazis in the region. The win against these French forces allowed De Galle’s Free French forces to control Syria. France after the war was reluctant to give up its strategic hold in Syria. In 1945, it attacked the Syrian parliament building in Damascus to crush any fight for independence. Finally, Syria achieved independence with the exit of the last French troops on 17 April 1946.

The French departure enabled American interference in Syrian affairs.

In 1949, CIA agents coordinated the first successful military coup in Syria. The democratically elected government had not approved a Trans-Arabian Pipeline; however, the new coup leaders did. (In that 1949 election, Syrian women were the first women in the Arabic world to have the right to vote.)

A CIA agent behind the coup, Miles Copeland Jr, was someone with a respectable, even glamorous, background, being the son of a doctor, the husband of an archaeologist, and having been a trumpet player with the Glen Millar Orchestra before the war. From the perspective of many westerners, Copeland was a guy to respect. From the perspective of a Syrian, he was a man to distrust: he was employed to destabilize their country.

Because of concern over Syria’s links with Moscow, there were further US attempts in 1956 and 1957 to overthrow the Syrian government with support from Britain and Turkey. The plan was to trigger a military coup by various violent activities on the country’s borders.

From that first successful US-backed military coup in 1949, there is a succession of coups and counter-coups up until 1970. There were 14 different presidents in just over 20 years.

But US plans for the overthrow of an independent Syrian government may have got nastier in recent years than they were in the 1950s. In 2001, after 9/11, American General Wesley Clark was told by a general in the Pentagon that the Secretary of Defence’s office had plans to ‘take out’ seven countries, these included Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya. Clark explained that the United States underwent a ‘policy coup’ after 9/11.

America’s man in Syria to help implement the ‘taking out’ of Syria was Ambassador Robert Ford, whom in 2011 was accused of organizing Arab/Muslim death squads in Syria

Syria’s neighbours involved in supporting unrest and violence

The last time Syria experienced terror anything like it is experiencing now was in the late 70s and early 80s. The then president, Hafiz al-Asad, publicly accused the CIA of “encouraging ‘sabotage and subversion’ in Syria so as to bring ‘the entire Arab world under joint US-Israeli domination’” (“Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East”, by Patrick Seale, page335)

Ironically perhaps, this subversion involved support from Arab leaders as in a 1982 speech, President Assad said this about Saddam Hussien,

The hangman of Iraq was not content to kill tens of thousands of his own people. He came to Syria to carry out his favourite hobbies of killing, assassination and sabotage. That man has been sending arms to the criminals in Syria ever since he took power.

(Quoted from, “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East”, by Patrick Seale, page 336)


Books could be written about tensions and conflict between Israel and Syria. The Israeli state is situated on land that used to be part of Greater Syria under the Ottoman Empire, and it has occupied the Golan Heights, Syrian territory, since 1967.

‘Greater Israel’, or what is known as the Yinon Plan formulated in 1982, calls for the balkanization of Arab states; Israel could dominate while Muslims killed each other in endless sectarian wars.

With the wars brought about by the establishment of the State of Israel, come espionage, intrigue, tightening security, and death. Every country suffers. In 1965, Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy in Syria who ingratiated himself among top officials in Syria to become an advisor to the Syria Minister of Defence, was hanged. Two years later, in 1967, 34 American sailors on the USS Liberty, which was an intelligence gathering ship, were killed when Israeli air and naval forces attacked the Liberty.

In the conflict between the Syrian army and militants, Israel has provided practical support to militants, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has visited wounded insurgents in an Israeli army hospital.

From a Syrian perspective, Israel’s support for the insurgency is a continuation of Israel’s efforts to dominate the Middle East by weakening, even destroying, its neighbours.

From an Israeli perspective, tiny warring Sunni, Shi’a, Alawi, Kurdish, and Druze states in the region might be seen as the best option for Israel – a Jewish state in everything but name. A strong united pluralist Syrian republic which challenges Israel’s divisive and aggressive policies on the world stage would not be welcome.

Chants heard at the first violent anti-government protests in Syria in March 2011 and repeated over the coming years were “Christians to Beirut; Alawites to their graves” and “No to Hezbollah. No to Iran. Syria for Muslims.” They are chants that signal the sectarian violence that has taken place in Syria as enemies of Syria attempt to break up the nation.

Renown Middle East expert, Patrick Seale wrote in the conclusion of his book “Asad: the Struggle for the Middle East” (the book is on the father of the current president),

Asad’s Syria represents the rejection of an Israeli-dominated Middle East order, offering instead one based on the supremacy of neither Arabs nor Israelis but on a balance of power between an Arab Levant centred on Damascus and an Israel within its 1948-9 boundaries. …

Seale pointed out that Israel would have to give up its ambition to dominate and substitute it for a will to co-exist.


To be Continued

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