On Syria, sanctions, terror and war – an open letter to Australian parliamentarians

Mar 22, 2024
The Australian parliament house in Canberra.

When we choose not to show empathy for the people of Syria, it leads us to ignore their country’s ancient history and the rich fabric of Syrian society today.

I’m writing to you as an anti-war activist, seeking your support for Petition EN5846 – Help ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Syria by suspending sanctions. (The petition has been sent to Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong for a response.)

I was first exposed to anti-war activism in the 1960s when one of my brothers was a draft resister and a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society.

Like my brother, Dr Martin Luther King was also a strident anti-war activist. His landmark 1967 ‘Beyond Vietnam – Time to Break the Silence’ speech presents both the difficulty of opposing war and the reasons we must. In it, Dr King expressed his fear for America’s ‘soul’.

Until Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government abolished conscription and ended our participation in the war in Vietnam, my brother and other draft resisters faced a two-year prison sentence.

In the 2003 Academy Award-winning documentary film ‘The Fog of War’, former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara outlined the lessons he had learnt from war. His priority had shifted from prosecuting a war to saving humankind.

His first – and perhaps most important – lesson was ‘empathise with your enemy’. Mr McNamara explained that during the Cuban crisis he observed America’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union stand up to a warmongering US general. By choosing to heed the diplomat’s advice, President Kennedy was able to avoid a major conflagration with the Soviet Union.

Now, I write to urge you to empathise with the people of Syria.

To capture the spirit of Syrians and their country, I have worked with Syrian refugees and Syrian Australians on the magazine ‘Beloved Syria – Considering Syrian Perspectives’. It aims to open a door to Syria for Australians.

Another door to that country is Syria’s Al Farah Choir (Choir of Joy), whose 2022 Christmas concert, much like a Carols by Candlelight concert, would be very well-received by Australian audiences.

Despite its Christian roots (or because of them) the Al Farah Choir performs for Syrians of all faiths, made clear from their participation in a 2023 concert dedicated to a renowned Syrian composer / musician, the late Nouri Iskandar. (The concert can be viewed on the Al Farah Choir’s Facebook page.)

In October last year, children in the choir sang for peace in Gaza. This should be no surprise. Since 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees have found sanctuary in Syria, and so the plight of the Palestinian people has been a major concern of Syrian people.

Sadly, instead of bringing to mind the warmth and hospitality of Syrians, when most Australians think of Syria they will immediately bring to mind President Assad. But no one person can represent a country, its people, and their aspirations.

Having said that, perhaps giving attention to Father Elias Zahlawi, the founder of Al Farah Choir, could provide insight into the strength of Syrians and their shared love for Syria. Now in his 90s, Father Zahlawi is a committed peace activist, who has admonished Pope Francis for doing little more for the cause of peace other than call on people to pray for it.

Father Zahlawi points out that prayer, by itself, cannot save Christianity in Syria. (Ref: ASIA/SYRIA – Abuse of the opposition forces, “ethnic cleansing” of Christians in Homs, where Jesuits remains, Agenzia Fides, 21/03/2012)

When we choose not to show empathy for the people of Syria, it leads us to ignore their country’s ancient history and the rich fabric of Syrian society today.

It leads us to ignore the fact, also, that patriarchy has a presence in Syria and so the ongoing immiseration of Syria through unilateral coercive sanctions will cause ever greater violence against girls and women. (Ref: ‘Syria’s Women, Many Raped in Refugee Centres, Long To Return Home‘, Huffington Post, 26/10/2013)

It leads us to ignore the ideology and terror tactics of the Islamist ‘revolution’ favoured by the West for short-sighted geopolitical reasons. (Ref: ‘Who’s in control of Idlib?’, BBC news, 19/02/2020). In doing so, even Australia’s national broadcaster has legitimised the ‘revolution’ and so inferred support for political violence. (Ref: ‘Complaint to ABC: LNL interview with Sophie McNeill’, S.Dirgham, May 2020)

It leads us to ignore the threats to global security that radical Islamist groups in northwest Syria must pose.

Recently, an American Congressman from South Carolina, Joe Wilson, introduced a bill to Congress that will tighten America’s already suffocating sanctions on Syria, keeping Syrian families destitute and desperate and the country in a state of collapse for many years to come. It is a bill which devalues diplomacy, peace, truth-telling, and the lives of millions of people.

Not surprisingly, Martin Luther King was not Congressman Wilson’s hero. Instead, Joe Wilson revered the late Strom Thurmond, a staunch opponent of civil rights in the 1950s and 60s. (Ref: Statement on Death of Strom Thurmond, Joe Wilson, 26/06/2003)

Despite the cruelty, ignorance and racism at the heart of Joe Wilson’s bill, it was passed by Congress.

Petition EN5846 provides Australian politicians with an opportunity to research the war in Syria in an open-minded, non-partisan manner. It provides an opportunity for Australia to not only help ameliorate the suffering of people in Syria but also to determine if the West’s role in the war in Syria compromises Australia’s security as well as the integrity of our national institutions and that of international institutions, such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Petition EN5846 puts the people of Syria at front and centre. At the same time, if Senator Wong approves the petition, the government will be highlighting the importance it places on diplomacy, reconciliation, truth-telling, and peace, thus, reflecting the norms of good government and of a good society.

Some might argue that we cannot have a Friends of Syria group when the US has committed to regime change in Syria. However, Australia is not America, and the purpose of a Friends of country group is not to endorse the policies of a foreign government. If it were, there could be no Parliamentary Friends of Saudi Arabia or Qatar groups, for example.

What have the threats to the security of Syria been these past thirteen years? Might Australia one day face similar threats? If so, what can we learn from Syria’s response to them? Are the global challenges of this century going to be best faced together or through ongoing conflict, immiseration, and radicalism?

This petition challenges many parliamentarians’ understanding of the war in Syria, but it does not challenge Australians’ core values and beliefs; rather, it aims to reinforce the very best of them.


Susan Dirgham
President, Australians for Reconciliation and Truth Towards Syria (ArttS)
Editor, Beloved Syria – Considering Syrian Perspectives

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