An opportunity for parliamentarians to work for peace

Feb 9, 2024
Syrian and Australia flag together relations textile cloth fabric texture

“If wars can be started with lies, peace can be started with truth,” Julian Assange:

Petition EN5846 to the House of Representatives calls on the Australian government to suspend Australia’s ‘autonomous sanctions’ on Syria. A considered, conscientious response to the petition could have major implications for Australia’s foreign and defence policies.

The US-led unilateral coercive sanctions on Syria are causing enormous suffering to the people of Syria. Furthermore, they prevent the country from rebuilding after more than a decade of war and its resultant destruction.

A UN Human Rights Council report indicates that unilateral sanctions on Syria violate the Syrian people’s human rights and are, thus, illegal.

When Australia was on the Human Rights Council from 2018 to 2020, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) post noted: ‘Australia’s inaugural membership reflects … the Australian Government’s commitment to speak honestly and consistently for the advancement of human rights internationally.’

Despite this avowed commitment to the advancement of human rights, Australia’s sanctions on Syria could be interpreted as an act of war on a country and a people that do not threaten us.

In justifying government sanctions on Syria, DFAT states: ‘Since 2011, Australia has imposed autonomous sanctions in relation to Syria to reflect Australia’s grave concern at the Syrian regime’s deeply disturbing and unacceptable use of violence against its people’

However, events in Syria in 2011 – the first year of the so-called Arab Spring – remain deeply contested. An objective analysis, I contend, points to DFAT’s response being, at best, credulous and ill-informed, and, at worst, ideologically motivated.

Firstly, casualty figures for 2011 point to Syrian security forces coming under deadly attack that year. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a group supportive of the militarised opposition, reported that 3,138 ‘pro-government forces’ were killed in 2011 compared with 619 ‘anti-government forces’ (Ref: Casualties of the Syrian civil war, Wikipedia).

Secondly, credible testimonies – including those of Syrian Australians; the late Dutch Jesuit priest Rev. Fr. Frans van der Lugt, then living in Syria; and US academic Joshua Landis – indicate that acts of terror and sectarian violence were being perpetrated by anti-government ‘armed gangs’ and snipers from the start of the ‘Arab Spring’.

I was in Damascus a month after violence erupted there and saw Syrian TV reports showing grieving widows and children at the funerals of police and soldiers. Locals told me about the random violence that sowed fear in people’s hearts. I heard women at the hairdressers accuse Lebanese politicians of smuggling weapons into Syria.

Back in Australia, I interviewed Samir, a Syrian Australian who told me about the murder of three farmers, one of them his uncle, on their way to a market in Damascus. This was barely a month into the ‘Arab Spring’. Similar acts of terror, mostly against people from minority religions, were recounted by other Syrian Australians I spoke to.

The Rev van der Lugt, based in the Syrian city of Homs, wrote, ’From the beginning, I have seen armed demonstrators … and they were the first to start shooting at the police. Very often, the violence of the security services is a response to the brutal violence of the armed insurgents.’

Joshua Landis reported the killing of nine Syrian soldiers on 10 April 2011, three or four weeks into the ‘Arab Spring’. A few days later, on his website Syria Comment, Landis referenced remarks by prominent opposition figures who said they had been asked ‘to facilitate the distribution of money and weapons to young demonstrators’. It was suggested that the money came from a “major Arab Gulf country”.

On the same post, Landis also reported that Syrian government security forces were ordered not to use their weapons unless fired on first.

The situation was very complicated; Syria clearly had enemies prepared to use violent, covert means to undermine its secular state institutions, and sectarian hatred was deliberately being stirred up.

In late 2011, there were huge rallies in cities across Syria which brought men and women of the different faiths together in support of reform, peace and security, and against foreign interference and a militarised opposition. Surely a position most Australians would support?

It seems as though the DFAT officers responsible for recommending the sanctions regime uncritically accepted the position of Washington and London. They chose to ignore evidence that the violence in Syria was a campaign of terrorism supported by outside forces and directed at the Syrian authorities and innocent civilians.

I have written previously about the decades-long history the US has of undermining Syrian sovereignty through covert means, at times conspiring with the UK to do this. In 1957, the CIA and Britain’s MI6 planned border incidents and assassinations to bring down a Syrian government they considered to be too close to the Soviet Union, and thus inimical to US and UK interests.

In 2012 or ’13 at a meeting with a young DFAT officer, I asked the officer where she got her information about Syria from. “Al-Jazeera,” she replied. Apparently, she was unaware of Al-Jazeera’s strong anti-Syrian bias stemming from Qatar’s commitment to the insurgency in Syria and marked by Al-Jazeera’s promotion of the late Egyptian cleric Yusef al-Qaradawi, an unequivocal supporter of the ‘revolution’ and militant Muslim Brotherhood forces in Syria.

A couple of months after the start of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria, Al-Jazeera reporter Ali Hashem witnessed ‘tens of gunmen crossing the borders’ with Syria – ‘clear evidence that the Syrian revolution was becoming militarised’. However, his seniors at Al Jazeera didn’t allow him to report this. Hashem writes, it ‘didn’t fit the narrative of a clean and peaceful uprising’.

When there is so much suffering in the world, why should we care about Syria?

It should be a great concern that the US-led sanctions on Syria are based on falsehoods that have been uncritically accepted by successive Australian governments. The lies are repeated, amplified and embellished by the mainstream media.

The mainstream narrative on Syria, whether from the government or the media, has infantilised us and prevented well-informed dissent. From Wikileaks cables we know that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was advised in February 2012 that Al-Qaeda was on the side of the US in Syria, yet such an astounding revelation has yet to lead to a change of course in our foreign policy.

Eight years later, veteran ABC presenter Phillip Adams expressed admiration for a Syrian ‘rebel’, clearly knowing nothing of the ideology of insurgents or of the impact their acts of terror had on the lives of ordinary Syrians.

Sadly, we have been encouraged to be conformists and to uncritically accept a carefully crafted media narrative. This is a dangerous position for us to be in when the world around us is changing dramatically and irrevocably.

The uncritical acceptance of falsehoods regarding Syria has led Australia to give implied support to the foreign-sponsored jihadist ‘revolution’, something that utterly contradicts the government’s professed support for democracy and human rights.

A culture of rewarding conformity and suppressing dissent inevitably leads to cynicism, apathy or, worst of all, the embracing of extremist positions, as exemplified by the tragic case of Jake Bilardi, who grew up in Craigieburn, Victoria, and met his death as a suicide bomber in Iraq.

Conventional wisdom encourages us to ignore the views of Syrians who oppose the ‘revolution’; thus, we may find ourselves adopting an unconscious imperial arrogance and mercilessness reminiscent of colonial times. Meanwhile, our government follows the US in implementing policies that condemn generations of Syrians to impoverishment and perpetual conflict.

Petition EN5846 asks the House of Representatives to set up a Friends of Syria Parliamentary group to reassess the sanctions and investigate whether they violate the human rights of the Syrian people.

The role of a non-partisan Friends of Syria group would be to research, raise questions, and, ideally, reveal truths that engender honest, in-depth discussion and debate that eventually lead to an ethical, honourable and independent foreign policy.

The Australian government’s current policy on Syria implicitly supports the US illegal occupation of one-third of Syria’s territory, including its oil producing region and some of its richest agricultural land. The US looting of Syria’s resources further condemns the Syrian people to increasing poverty and severe hardship.

Petition EN5846 also requests the Friends of Syria group to support an open investigation into two alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria, one in Ghouta, Damascus, on 21/08/2013; the other in Douma, Damascus, on 7/04/2018.

In the West, these attacks have been attributed to Syrian government forces. This is despite the fact that there is solid evidence showing that these two incidents were, in fact, more likely sophisticated false flag operations aimed at providing a pretext for direct western military intervention in Syria.

The mass media’s consistent anti-Syrian bias has led to many Australians having a deep-seated antipathy to the so-called Assad regime, which prevents us from being open to the views of Syrian women, religious minorities and Sunni Muslims who oppose foreign interference, choosing instead to support the Syrian Arab Army’s defence of the secular state and the freedoms it offers.

Let’s hope our parliamentarians access a range of unbiased analyses and reliable information which enables them to put themselves in the shoes of Syrians who did not consent to the terror of insurgents and the proxy war in their country.

One influential Australian ‘expert’ on Syria is David Kilcullen, a person with an extensive military background. In Iraq, he was a senior advisor to General David Petraeus, who later came to direct the CIA. Kilcullen also spent time in Washington as an advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had called for the making of ‘a new Middle East’.

Kilcullen presents as a knowledgeable, likeable ‘expert’. But he is not paid to put himself in the shoes of women in Syria or express empathy for Syrians under attack from terrorists. If such ‘experts’ and other mainstream commentators on Syria don’t, should we make an effort to give Syrian women’s views and life struggles our attention?

In February 2016, when Kilcullen was to appear on the ABC’s Q&A panel, I was given permission (after some lobbying) to ask him a question via Skype. At the last minute, I learnt there had been an unprecedented technical problem at the ABC studio which meant I couldn’t ask my question a rather simple one:

Syrian women have the same basic freedoms and equalities as Australian women.

Like the Eid festivals, Christmas and Easter are public holidays in Syria.

Education is free there.

The Syrian government and army are dominated by Sunni Muslims which reflects the demographic make up of Syria.

But the United States supports insurgents fighting the secular Syrian Army. What is more, the US has been involved in covert action in Syria since 1949, when the CIA helped orchestrate a military coup in Damascus.

What can justify a war against Syria?

On a visit to Damascus in 2019, I sought the views of Syrian women. I am hoping the simple, heart-felt message I received from Syrian MP Madam Janset Kazan is heard in Canberra.

Petition EN5846 provides an opportunity for our parliamentarians to get involved in perhaps the most important decision-making a country can make: When and whom to go to war against?

At present, the Prime Minister can take Australia to war without any discussion in Parliament or even in Cabinet. It is hoped this petition can encourage the involvement of members of parliament in robust, public discussions on war and related matters.

The petition presents a plausible case for Australia to desist from providing support for any belligerent and ill-founded foreign policy adventures of our key strategic allies.

In regard to Syria, our allies’ war on that country continues to cause immense suffering to the people of Syria, while Australia’s compliance with the foreign and defence policies of the US and the UK and our imposition of sanctions and dissemination of falsehoods, or at best distortions, compromise our integrity on many levels.

As Julian Assange said: “If wars can be started with lies, peace can be started with truth.”

Julian Assange is in prison for exposing government wrongdoing, working for peace, and protesting against empire. May Julian be released and may peace activism and vigorous public debates about war become integral parts of mainstream Australia.


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