The Australian Delegation to Syria, the Political Backlash, and the Reality of the Situation Ignored by the Corporate/Western Media

 
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Over the holiday period (December 2013) an Australian delegation, comprised of six members of the organisation Hands Off Syria led by Sydney University Professor Tim Anderson; the Syrian Consul to Australia Maher Dabbagh and his wife Nahla; and three members of the Wikileaks Party including Julian Assange’s father John Shipton, visited Syria to express solidarity with the beleaguered Levantine republic, where for nearly three years, the Syrian Arab Army has been battling a ruthlessly sectarian insurgency supported by foreign states, primarily the United States and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the Zionist regime.

When the delegation returned to Sydney they were met with outrageous albeit predictable hostility from politicians and the corporate media. According to right-wing propagandist Christian Kerr, Anderson’s visit was described as that of “a senior lecturer who has just made a pilgrimage to honour a dictator who has been waging war on his own population for close to three years”. This of course ignores all evidence indicating that the majority of Syrians actually support their government. Indeed in November 2012, Time magazine highlighted the unpopularity of the rebels in Syria’s largest city Aleppo, quoting rebel commander Abu Saadek (his nom de guerre) as saying “the Aleppans here, all of them, are loyal to the criminal Bashar, they inform on us, they tell the regime where we are, where we go, what we do, even now”. In May 2013, according to data published by NATO, who also cannot be accused of pro-government bias, 70 percent of Syrians support President Assad, while only 10 percent support the rebels, the rest being undecided. To be sure, the Syrian people do have legitimate grievances against their government; however, to omit the obvious reality that President Bashar al-Assad still commands popular support, let alone imply the opposite, is entirely dishonest.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne expressed disapproval at the visit, even going so far as to suggest that the academic standing of Sydney University was harmed by Tim Anderson’s participation, “universities should avoid needless controversies that damage their reputation but also make Australia look less respectable to our potential international student market”. Liberal Party MP Andrew Nikolic went even further, implying that Sydney University management should take action against Anderson over his own personal affairs, "I believe Sydney University must consider if Dr Anderson's actions are consistent with their code of conduct, which encompasses not only professional but also personal behaviour".

Sydney University Vice-Chancellor Stephen Garton countered these concerns arguing that, “efforts to censure academics for unpopular views run the risk of undermining Australia's reputation and that of its universities as places of free and open enquiry”. Despite the VC’s principled defense of academic freedom, the backlash against Anderson and the Wikileaks party once again exposes the hypocrisy of the political establishment, whose role in international affairs has historically been to mimic the foreign policy agenda of the United States with very few exceptions, but also their worrying, albeit logical desire to subjugate Australia’s educational institutions to fit their ideological requirements.

In 2012, then Foreign Minister Bob Carr implied that assassinations targeting Syrian officials were needed to ensure peace, “perhaps an assassination combined with a major defection, taking a large part of its military, is what is required to get 1) a ceasefire and 2) political negotiations", however these outrageous comments weren’t met with the same outrage. That’s right, talking to the Syrian government apparently damages Australia’s reputation, but arguing in favour of political assassinations doesn’t.

Although current Foreign Minister Julie Bishop hasn’t suggested anything as brazenly violent, her position regarding Syria is rather instructive in that it demonstrates Australia’s lack of independent foreign policy. In 2012, when articulating the Liberal Party’s position regarding Syria, she had written that Hezbollah was fighting against the Syrian government, which is monumentally wrong, as anyone with the most basic knowledge of the conflict would know that Hezbollah is a staunch ally of Damascus.

Despite not understanding the conflict, which would presumably be the starting point for anyone keen on taking a position let alone determining foreign policy, Bishop knows which side she’s on and more importantly, which interests she serves. Her reasons for opposing the trip were expressed in this remarkable display of doublethink, “[the trip] is not in support of the sanctions regime that Australia has in place, in fact it risks undermining the sanctions regime we have in place, and it risks aligning Australia with one side of the conflict in Syria, which is something we would not do”. That’s right, apparently imposing sanctions on Syria, closing down the Syrian Embassy, and participating in an international forum called “Friends Of Syria” comprised of the very predatory states currently fuelling the bloodthirsty insurgency isn’t taking sides.

The HOS delegation on the other hand represents a perspective that’s rarely acknowledged in the corporate media, since the latter insists on explaining the conflict via a series of gratuitously biased clichés borrowed from the tried and tested handbook of war propaganda. That’s why nations that obstruct US interests don’t have governments, they have “regimes” that are always portrayed as the personal fiefdom of the leader of the targeted state, which is indeed what references to the “Assad regime” are intended to insinuate.

More insidious is the adoption by the corporate media of what was, hitherto the onset of the conflict, considered the standard propaganda of the Muslim Brotherhood, namely to insinuate that Alawis had a controlling influence over the government, and persecuted the Sunni majority. The sectarian composition of Syria is divided into the following ethnic and religious groupings. The traditionally Arabic speaking population are 60 percent Sunni, 12 percent Alawi, 10 percent Christians of all denominations (Greek Orthodox, Melkite, Syriac Orthodox etc.), 3 percent Druze, and 1.5 percent Ismaili Shias. The ethnic minorities are 9 percent Kurdish (who are Sunni Muslims), 4 percent Armenian (who are Christians), and the rest include other minorities such as Turkmans and Circassians.

Even respected journalist and writer Robert Fisk internalised this metanarrative, referring to the Syrian government as “the Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus”; similarly, New York Times writer Robert Mackey referred to “Syria’s Ruling Alawite Sect”. This is an outrageous misrepresentation. Syria’s political system is secular, seats in parliament are not allocated on the basis of religious affiliation, and unlike, for example, South Africa, where the white minority are disproportionately wealthy, there’s no significant correlation between economic power and any particular sect. Admittedly, there is one clause in the constitution, which states that the President must be a Muslim, however the reason it remains on the books is because in 1973, when it was briefly removed by the former late President Hafez Al-Assad, the Muslim Brotherhood responded with a violent insurrection. So to appease religious conservatives, the clause remained.

What’s often missing from the corporate media’s analysis of Syria is an analysis of the political reforms that have been carried out over the past three years. Rarely is it mentioned that while fighting the sectarian insurgents, the Syrian government has also been addressing the legitimate grievances of the Syrian public. In August 2011 the government gave in to the major demand of the civil opposition by abolishing the forty-eight year old state of emergency that had given police sweeping powers to carry out pre-emptive arrests and detain suspects. Also the right to peacefully protest was added to the Syrian constitution. In February 2012 a new constitution was voted in with 89 percent of the electorate’s support, which removed the Baath party’s political monopoly, and introduced term limits for the office of President. However it contained one particularly contentious clause that explicitly banned political parties based around religion or ethnicity thereby ensuring the continued disenfranchisement of the Muslim Brotherhood.

While this restriction contravenes liberal notions of absolute political freedom, it seems the Syrian electorate believes such restrictions are necessary to ensure sectarianism stays out of the political arena, especially since the most well-funded political parties in the region, like the Muslim Brotherhood, are of an Islamist bent given the patronage afforded to them by the oil-rich gulf states, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore it must be remembered that following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, when the Levant (which refers to the region covering Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, or Bilaad ash-Sham as it’s called in Arabic) was partitioned in accordance with the Sykes-Picot agreement (which was revealed to the world after Vladimir Lenin’s decree that the Bolsheviks would expose all secret treaties of imperialist states) between Britain and France, sectarian divisions were employed to further divide these zones of influence.

In the French zone of influence, Lebanon was carved out as a confessionalist state (parliamentary seats in Lebanon, even today, are divided according to sect) that politically entrenched Maronite privilege. Even today, despite the confessional system allocating a fairer share of parliamentary seats to non-Christians, the President of Lebanon must still be a Maronite. Similarly, under the French mandate (1922-1943) the geographic entity that is modern Syria was partitioned along sectarian lines into an Alawi State, a Druze State, and the States of Damascus and Aleppo. However these divisions eventually fell apart owing to the rising tide of progressive secular Arab nationalism sweeping across the region.

Whatever criticisms the Syrian public can legitimately make of Baathist rule (this refers to the Arab Socialist Baath Party, which is the ruling political party in Syria) over the decades, such as the corruption and the repressive police powers, the government must be commended for instilling in its population a pluralistic ethos that celebrates religious co-existence as a means of counteracting the poisonous influence of imperialist divide-and-rule that continues today. One of the delegates, Jasmine Saadat, recalled a conversation with Sheikh Badreddin Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria (a Sunni Muslim), who spoke about the destruction of churches as “our churches”, which is a far cry from the viciously sectarian clerics in Saudi Arabia who openly call for Syria to be cleansed of religious minorities, especially Alawis and Christians.

Despite the irony of a constitution that requires the office of President to be held by a Muslim while at the same time banning religious parties, this constitution was approved by the Syrian electorate, and while the former clause deserves criticism, the latter should be understood as an important measure to ensure that the divisive politics of religious identity doesn’t enter the political arena. It seems President Assad has successfully framed these reforms, not as concessions symbolising a loosening of his grip on power, rather as an important part of his legacy.

The delegation also gained first-hand knowledge of the refugee crisis in Syria, which is often spoken of by the corporate media as a burden shouldered by Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, without mentioning that the majority of Syrian refugees are being cared for by the Syrian government. Anderson spoke about his conversation with Minister for Social Affairs Dr. Kinda Al-Shamaat, whose department is responsible for 5.7 million internally displaced refugees, most of whom are being found temporary accommodation in homes, not tents. The Minister told Anderson that while the refugee crisis is indeed serious, the government has managed to send four million kids back to school, and to the extent that medical resources are being strained, this is because the insurgents have attacked two-thirds of the nation’s hospitals.

It is never mentioned by the corporate media that many of these refugees are fleeing the terror of living under rebel control. The delegation became well acquainted with a soldier named Sam, a National Defense Force volunteer, who met them after taking part in a gruelling assignment that involved evacuating around five-thousand workers (according to Al-Shamaat) from the industrial town of Adra located thirty kilometres to the north-east of Damascus. According to Anderson, “on my last day in Damascus our soldier friend Sam joined us for a late lunch. However he could not eat, as his stomach was churning from what he had just seen at the industrial satellite town of Adra”.

Various sources have confirmed that the town, formerly held by the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, was subject to brutal massacres involving the public execution of civilians. According to Russia Today, eyewitness accounts revealed that the insurgents murdered around eighty civilians. They also claim the rebels “had lists of government employees on them”, and that they “went to the addresses they had on their list, forced the people out, and subjected them to the so-called Sharia trials” where they “sentenced them to death by beheading”. According to the news outlets Al-Alam News and Intifada Palestine, the insurgents displayed the bodies of executed civilians and decorated the town with the severed heads of civilians.

Admittedly, not all refugees being provided for by the government are necessarily pro-government. One of the delegates, Reme Sakr, visited a refugee camp in the southern city of Suwayda where people were housed, again, not in tents, but in a fully equipped building normally used to house children on their school camps. She notes that it was quite commonly understood among locals that if one were to ask the women of the camp where their husbands, fathers or brothers were, some would openly and even proudly declare that they had gone to wage "jihad" against the government. This isn’t to say they shouldn't get assistance, they are after all Syrian citizens with rights, but this story undermines the exaggerated image of Syria as a repressive and authoritarian regime if families of fighters can be quite open about their hostility to the Syrian government while under its care.

These stories and others are what the corporate media could have found out if they wanted to genuinely provide the Australian public with important information about the Syrian conflict, instead they chose to slander the delegation in an attempt to silence any perspectives that run counter to their propaganda war against Syria.