An Australian in Syria – Luke Waters reports for SBS World News

I’m chuffed to see what my mate, Luke Waters, has produced here for SBS World News.  I was with Luke in Beirut back in April 2013. We were all prepared for the bus ride to Damascus when his employers pulled him out – apparently considering entry into Syria just too dangerous at the time. It was a great shame to leave him behind on what turned out to be a fabulous and fascinating journey. Almost three years later Luke finally made it into Syria. I think you’ll agree though that his reports were worth waiting for!

Luke’s reports were broadcast over six nights on SBS World News. All six reports are combined in this video. If you’d like to watch any of the segments individually, they can be broken up as follows:

  1. Reporting from the front-line in Jobar
  2. Exploring Damascus (4:02)
  3. Meeting the families of the martyrs (8:08)
  4. Refuges of the internally displaced (11:39)
  5. Aid workers in Madaya (16:02)
  6. Syrian children rediscover music (19:00)

Luke also did an interview about his trip to Syria with Steve Price on 2GB. You can hear that interview here.

love Syria

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Syria has won the war! (almost)

Boxers for Peace in Lattakia (Syria) 2015

Boxers for Peace in Lattakia (Syria) 2015

Traditional wisdom tells us that we shouldn’t count our chickens before they hatch. Even so, it is hard to resist celebrating the most recent developments in the war on Syria. Thanks to a bit of help from mother Russia, it seems that we are on the verge of victory, and the winner is … Syria!

I appreciate that this statement may seem nonsensical to those who see the death and destruction in Syria as being the result of a civil war but I just can’t take such commentary seriously any more! I think of the young Syrian soldiers I’ve spoken to, many of whom have never seen a Syrian on the other side of the firing line! No, while there certainly have been Syrians involved, this has been a foreign-led and foreign-funded insurgency from the very beginning. To quote the late, great Father Franz Van der Lugt – the aging Catholic priest of Homs who was shot in the head by rebels in April 2014 (only a week before I arrived in Homs myself): “I have seen from the beginning armed protesters in those demonstrations … they were the first to fire on the police. Very often the violence of the security forces comes in response to the brutal violence of the armed insurgents”

Of course this is not the story we in the West have swallowed. In truth, our capacity for gullibility never ceases to astonish me. The most recent example of our astounding levels of credulity has been the way we all bought into the current Syrian refugee crisis. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a crisis, of course, but I am astonished at how few people have asked why the Western world has all of a sudden been swamped with a wave of refugees when the war has been raging for five long years. Why did all these poor people wait until now to seek our shores?

I think it is impossible for a thinking person not to realise that there is more going on in this war than is contained in the narrative we have been fed, most especially the lie that all of the violence can be traced back to one man – Syria’s evil dictator who is personally responsible for every death and every displaced person! The truth is far more complex – an intricate web of political power plays with the US and Israel and their Gulf-state affiliates vying with Iran and its allies for economic control of the region.

I have given a more detailed analysis of that elsewhere. Let it suffice here to say that America’s recent move – to start bombing Syria on the pretext of destroying ISIS – was a final attempt to initiate a change of government in Syria that they could then have justified on the basis of dealing with the worldwide refugee crisis at its supposed source.

But Putin called Obama’s bluff – ‘Do you guys want to get rid of ISIS? Good, we’ll help you!’ – and all of a sudden Russian troops and armaments started to appear in Syria! Moreover, early indications are that the Russians are deadly serious about getting rid of ISIS, unlike the US who, after a year of bombing campaigns, only seems to have succeeded in pushing the jihadists further into Syria!

And so a predictable (and predictably ludicrous) shriek of horror and surprise arises from the Western alliance “what is Russia doing in Syria. We don’t trust Russia!”. We’ve had a joint statement from the governments of France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Kingdom and USA expressing “ deep concern with regard to the Russian military build-up in Syria”.  Even the Australian Federal Justice Minister, Michael Keenan, has got in on the act, saying that “The problem is their motives are just not trustworthy”!

What is there that is difficult to understand about Russia’s involvement? Russia has a naval base at Tartous in Syria. It’s Russia’s only military foothold in the region and in the entire Mediterranean. Russia also has economic ties with Syria. It’s in Russia’s own self-interest to have Syria on its feet just as it’s in the self-interest of the US and its Gulf State allies to have Syria on its knees. The big picture is not hard to understand.

I guess we get confused because we somehow believe that the only reason the West is involved in Syria is because we care so much about the Syrian people and want to free them from tyranny and spread democracy, etc., just as we did so successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya – three countries that continue to burn uncontrollably thanks to our ‘humanitarian intervention’. And I guess we really believed that all the Western efforts at establishing a ‘no fly zone’ in Syria were with a view to damaging ISIS, even though ISIS has no air force (meaning that it would only affect the Syrian air force).

You don’t need to be a genius to see what’s going on here! The average high-school student should have no trouble putting the pieces together. Russia has just as much self-interest at stake in this war as all the other players. I’m just thankful that Russia’s self-interest aligns with the preservation of the Syrian people. There is though one significant difference between the Russian and US military involvement – namely, Russia’s actions are entirely in compliance with International Law whereas the US and its allies are flouting the law!

The legal position is perfectly clear. Syria has a recognised government, that of President Assad, represented at the United Nations. That government is legally entitled to call on Russian military assistance. Russian military action against ISIS is therefore entirely legal. By contrast, US, French and Australian military action has neither the sanction of the Syrian government nor the sanction of the United Nations. It is therefore plainly illegal!

And if there had been any lack of transparency to the Emperor’s latest set of new clothes, that surely must have evaporated completely with the publication of Julian Assange’s latest book, ‘The Wikileaks Files’. In the chapter on Syria, Assange publishes a 2006 cable from US Ambassador to Syria, William Roebuck, that discusses a plan for the overthrow of the Assad government.

The plan was to use a number of different factors to create paranoia within the Syrian government and so push it to overreact, while simultaneously fostering tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. This blueprint for the so-called ‘civil war’ had been developed five years before it was actually put it into play, and the whole drama might gone according to plan had not Putin intruded – a man who obviously hadn’t read the script!

And so for the first time ISIS is on the run! Jihadists are pouring back into Iraq and Jordan and looking for exits from the battlefield wherever they can find them, while the Syrian Arab Army liberates long-lost villages from the rule of Sharia law. Meanwhile the Western alliance bumbles in protest, claiming that Russia is targeting not ISIS but ‘moderate rebels’ – members of the elusive ‘Free Syrian Army’ who, as one commentator put it, are really now nothing but a brandname without a product.

So what happens next? There is a real possibility that the war will be over by Christmas!  As I’ve said repeatedly, the foreign insurgency will only last as long as its financiers from Qatar and Saudi Arabia consider the war to be a good investment! If Russia continues to do real damage to the ISIS infrastructure there will come a point (and it may come very soon) when those pouring in money will decide to cut their losses and turn off the flow of cash. If this happens, ISIS, like a B52 suddenly running out of fuel, will crash to the ground like a lead weight!

Of course there is also a fear that Russia’s entry into Syria could mark the beginning of World War III, and there are eerie similarities between the current scenario and the lead-up periods to both the first and second world wars.  Alliances are forming, sabres are rattling, and both Obama and Netanyahu seem to be itching for a fight! But I don’t think the US is going to go to war over Syria. I don’t think it can afford to, and I don’t think Israel will go to war without US support.

What I’m expecting (and hoping) to see is both the US and Israel slink away from any direct show-down with Russia. They will bluster and carry on with plenty of aggressive rhetoric but it will all be for domestic audiences who still need to believe that their leaders are mighty men of valour and not simple fools! Meanwhile the Syrian people will get back on their feet and start to rebuild their country! What a wonderful Christmas present that would be! It would be God’s gift to the world with Vladimir Putin’s signature unmistakably on the card!

Father Dave Smith

Parish priest, social agitator, boxer, father of four.…

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Archbishop calls on Sydney’s Anglicans to do whatever it takes to support Syrian refugees

It is encouraging indeed to see the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies, put out a strong call to his flock to respond not only with prayers but with practical assistance and with hospitality to the anticipated influx of Syrian refugees. Equally encouraging is Dr Davies’ clear rejection of the proposal to favour the applications of Christian over Muslim asylum seekers.

In the following article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald the Archbishop is careful to avoid criticising the Australian government for the decision to participate in US-led bombing missions within Syria, even though this is likely to increase the flow of refugees from the country. With the government’s decision though now open to review since the change in leadership, we may yet hope that Dr Davies will extend his influence here too and address the causes of this immense human tragedy as well as the symptoms.

Father Dave

Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies

Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies


Open the door widely to Syrian refugees

A little boy, drowned at sea and washed up on a Turkish beach has shaken and galvanised a response from the nations of the Western world to the plight of Syria’s refugees. That it has taken so long for the sort of action that is being considered now is shameful. Nevertheless, the fact that our public discourse has turned so emphatically towards the need to make a real and lasting impact in the lives of those displaced by the Syrian conflict is very welcome and I applaud the government’s decision to expand the refugee program.

At times like this, we must all act within our spheres of influence to raise awareness, build understanding, and work to ensure that our own good intentions have real and practical expression.

Australian Christians feel a particular heartache at the fact that those we consider as family, our brothers and sisters in Christ, have been singled out for persecution in Syria and Northern Iraq. Nevertheless, we would be very reluctant to see an expanded refugee program that uses religion as a discriminating factor. This is antithetical to the love of God for all people and the unmerited and non-discriminatory grace and mercy that is at the heart of the Christian gospel.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is an incendiary critique of discrimination based on race, ethnicity and religion. Listening to the story for the first time, many would have been incensed that Jesus had used the word “good” to describe a despised Samaritan. Yet it never crosses the Samaritan’s mind in the story to ask about the religion or background of the man he finds beaten and dying on the side of the road. His response is immediate, generous and unquestioning.

As for who should or should not be included in an increased number of refugees from Syria, it makes no sense to be discriminatory. Some minority groups have been specifically and systematically targeted by Islamic State. These include, but are certainly not limited to Christians. There are also Yazidis, Druze and Mandeans targeted, along with Shiite Muslims. IS show little fear or favour and even Sunni Muslims who do not share their view of the world are just as likely to bear the brunt of their displeasure.

Our ability to show love and mercy and provide a warm welcome to anyone in distress, regardless of their faith, must serve as a counterpoint to the brutality of IS. Our response needs to be immediate, generous and unquestioning regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.

To this end, I have called upon Sydney Anglicans in parishes all across our diocese, not only to pray for these victims of persecution, but to step up and be prepared to do whatever is within their power to provide a warm and generous welcome, coupled with practical assistance, to ensure that those who come to find safety in Australia are afforded the best possible chance to make a new start and benefit as fully as possible from the peace, freedom and opportunity that far too often we take for granted.

I have asked our diocesan organisations – our schools, our retirement villages, our youth division and its college – to assist in any way they can with funds, goods in kind, educational support, personal support, language classes, and accommodation.

Anglicare has disaster recovery volunteers already trained to assist with the reception of those needing immediate assistance upon arrival. Anglicare’s hamper-packing and second-hand clothing warehouse is available to provide food and clothing. Our Youthworks ministry through its college and campsites is looking to offer medium-term accommodation for up to 150 refugees and short-term accommodation for up to another 250 refugees as well. I have already received offers of accommodation from across our parishes as well.

We are also looking to working as effectively as possible in a co-ordinated manner alongside other non-government organisations and government agencies.

You can read the full article here

You can donate to the Archbishop’s Syrian Refugee Crisis Appeal here

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Mairead Maguire appeals to UK government to talk to Syrian Government

Another prophetic all from dear Mairead:

meeting up with Mairead Maguire in Tehran

with Maired in Tehran in 2014


Nobel Peace Laureate, Mairead Maguire, today called upon the UK Government to move from military proposals, such as bombing in Syria, to humanitarian solutions in tackling one of the greatest tragedies of human suffering, to face Europe since the Second World War, i.e. the refugee crisis.  The arrival of thousands of refugees and migrants from middle east and African countries into Europe, many of whom have died on the journey, forces us to ask ‘how can they be helped immediately’,? Why are they fleeing their countries,? and how can the root cause of the problem be solved.?  Bombing of Syria, as proposed by the UK Prime Minister will only force more refugees to flee Syria taking extraordinary risks with their lives in order to find some security and safety from their war-torn lands.

Maguire said:  ‘The UK Government has a moral responsibility to the refugees fleeing in fear across Europe.  They are the victims of wars, invasions and occupations of their own countries.   Successive British Governments have spent billions on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, plus a covert intervention in Syria.   Such policies have resulted in the destruction of infrastructure across the Middle East and the growth of terrorism in the regions.   We need to oppose wars and the training by countries such as UK and USA and others,  of allegedly ‘moderate ‘rebels, who once trained are turning their guns on the civilians who oppose their brutality and violence.  They must stop the arms trade which is resulting in the arming of violent militants who are turning their arms against civilian populations.

The UK Government needs to implement an urgent and massive increase in relocation and resettlement of refugees that shares responsibility across the EU and reunite families.  Provide financial and technical support to countries on the frontline of the crisis such as Greece, Hungary, etc.

Enter into dialogue with the Syrian Government, and all Parties to the conflict, in order to find a solution to the refugee and overall Syrian Conflict.   Support citizen to citizen diplomacy within Syria, and all those working for peace and reconciliation in Syria and all Middle Eastern  countries, and lift the economic sanctions to improve the conditions within Syria and encourage citizens to stay and help re- build Syria.  Only when people feel safe and there is peace and stability in their own countries can we expect they will remain (and many return) to their homeland, as opposed to being stuck in refugee camps, for decades, such as the people of Sudan, Palestinians, etc.,

It is time to acknowledge, apologize and make reparation, for the damage done by UK USA and some Western Countries, Foreign Policies upon countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, and acknowledge there will not be a military or a paramilitary solution to these deep and increasingly dangerous conflicts.

A start in the right direction can be made by working with partners across EU and UN in applying Policies based on compassion and empathy for those whose lives have been devasted by misguided Policies of militarism, and war.

Mairead Maguire  Nobel Peace Laureate…

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Syrian crisis requires friendship, not aggression

The following article was officially co-authored by Professor Tim Anderson and myself (though it was largely Tim’s work with some tweaking from me). Tim and I were together in Syria for the latter part of July though we had come with slightly different agendas. He and his team were focused on visiting hospitals and humanitarian work. Jake Najjar and I were boxing with young people and working with the Sports Federation. Even so, together we all made a great team.

The surprising thing about this article is that none of the major papers we approached would publish it! It is hardly a radical piece and yet it seems that most mainline media are currently too scared to publish anything that departs from the government-endorsed narrative! That narrative insists that Syria is in its death throes and that we’ll be doing the Syrian people a favour if we start bombing ISIS for them and force a change of government while we’re at it! This is NOT the sort of help the Syrian people are looking for.

Father Dave

Tim Anderson and Father Dave with the Grand Mufti and friends

Tim Anderson and Father Dave and their teams meet with the Grand Mufti of Syria

Syrian crisis requires friendship, not aggression
by Father David Smith and Dr Tim Anderson

Our visit to war-torn Syria, last month, reinforced our belief that the Syrian people need our friendship and direct person-to-person contact, rather than any contribution to the further violence through participation in a ‘regime change’ operation.

We have visited Syria several times during the crisis, as guests of both government agencies and religious and higher education groups. We always pay our own way to Syria. Last month we were hosted by the Syrian Institute of Sport, allowing us to visit sports facilities and hundreds of young people in Damascus, Tartus and Latakia. We also contributed funds to hospitals and relief agencies in Damascus and Sweida and met with government and religious leaders.

We saw thousands of young people engaged in Syria’s very large sports facilities, including numerous disabled athletes who were participating in a Special Olympics. We visited art schools and saw a functioning and caring health system – despite the ‘rebel’ attacks on so many of Syria’s hospitals. We know that there are millions of Syrian children attending school and hundreds of thousands in their large (and mostly fee-free) universities. In short, despite the war, a functioning state ensures that everyday life goes on, though it can hardly be called ‘normal’. Every family is losing loved ones in this bloody conflict.

Army checkpoints are frequent and rigorous, with queues of Syrians showing remarkable patience. They know the military presence benefits everyone’s security. There is often a cordial exchange at the checkpoints; Syrians do not view the soldiers with fear; most have family members in the army or in one of the various army-linked militia. These are prominent in Sweida, Latakia, the Kurdish areas and Yarmouk, a southern suburb of Damascus which once housed 150,000 Palestinians.

The Palestinians from Yarmouk are now dispersed in various parts of Damascus, as with most other displaced people in and around the capital. We visited one group at a school on the outskirts of Yarmouk, distributing boxing equipment and soccer balls to the children, and passing on some much-needed cash to the families.  That ‘camp’, and the entire perimeter of Yarmouk, is controlled by the Syrian Army which only allows the Palestinian militia loyal to Syria to enter this zone, which still has elements of ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, and whose population has shrunk to less than 10% its former size.

In the north, the Mayor of Latakia told us that the population of that province has shot up from 1.3 million to three million. Displaced people from Aleppo, Idlib and other northern areas affected by the incursions of Takfiri groups (sectarian terrorists streaming in from Turkey) are housed throughout the province. Only one percent of those people are housed in institutions such as Latakia’s large sports centre. Most are in free or cheap government housing, with family and friends, renting or in small businesses.

Unemployment, shortages and power blackouts plague the country. The ‘rebels’ regularly attack power plants. In the south, Sweida has been hosting 130,000 displaced families from the Daraa area, doubling the population of that province. Damascus holds the greater part of the 5 or 6 million internally displaced people, and the government and army organise their care.

Syrians tend to refer to all the armed groups as just Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS) or ‘mercenaries’, making little distinction between their various brand names. All The Muslim Brotherhood backed groups (‘moderate rebels’), the Islamic Front, Jabhat al Nusra and Daesh all have the same sectarian ideology, seem to share the mostly US supplied weapons, and alternately cooperate and squabble amongst each. They all commit similar atrocities, often blaming them on the Syrian Army.

Despite the recent Islamist offensives in Idlib, Daraa and Palmyra, the security situation in most populated areas remains firmly in the hands of the Syrian Army. We were able to travel from Sweida in the south to Homs, Tartus and Latakia in the north, with only one small security-related detour. That was not possible 18 months ago.

Armed groups do have a presence in much of the country but, contrary to many western reports, probably control less than 10% of the populated areas. They are embedded in the northern parts of Aleppo and the eastern parts of Damascus, wreaking havoc by sniping, mortaring and car bombs, but generally gaining no new ground.

The fact that Syrian planes and artillery have not flattened these hold-out areas gives the lie to the claim that the Syrian Army carries out indiscriminate attacks. The war is being fought on the ground, building to building, and with many army casualties. We visited some of these soldiers in hospital, in 2013 and again last month. These are the victims the western media ignores.

Many Syrians we spoke to said they wished the government would flatten ghost towns like Jobar, Douma and North Aleppo, saying that the only civilians left there after two or three years are the families of and collaborators with the extremist groups.

After more than four years of foreign backed terrorism, often wrongly called ‘civil war’, it should be clear that overthrow of the Syrian government will not happen unless the US initiates some massive new escalation. We have to believe that a diplomatic solution is not only possible but far less costly.

Is it too much to hope that the Australian Government could take some independent steps to normalise relations, without waiting for Washington’s permission? Australia could re-establish normal diplomatic relations, abandon the war propaganda, drop the economic sanctions that only harm civilians who are already struggling, and normalise economic and social exchange.

Father David Smith is a Sydney-based Anglican Parish Priest. Dr Tim Anderson is a Senior lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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Declassified documents expose US support for ISIS and nobody cares!

The Western narrative used to justify the destruction of Syria looks increasingly brittle and self-contradictory as it evolves with time. This latest batch of declassified documents expose US hypocrisy on two important issues:

Firstly, contrary to all official US pronouncements, it is beyond dispute now that the US government knew (at least from early 2012) that ‘moderate’ secular rebels were not the major force working against the Assad government. On the contrary, the US had been knowingly siding with Islamic extremists from the very beginning!

Secondly, the rise of ISIS did not come as a shock to the US and take them by surprise. On the contrary, US intelligence services had predicted exactly what was going to happen some years before the storm broke. This did not affect US policy, with arms and money pouring in to support the rebel cause, even though US intelligence knew that this would all contribute to the ISIS nightmare.

Perhaps the most shocking thing of all though is that nobody seems to care about these revelations! Certainly nobody in power is apologising, and the mainline media in the US is focusing on what is surely a side-issue in the declassified documents, related to the 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. Meanwhile the Neo-cons are busy rolling out a new spin – claiming that the entire jihadist catastrophe is due to the President’s failure to give proper support to the ‘moderate Syrian rebels’ when he could have, even though it should be obvious to everyone now that these ‘moderates’ never existed!

I don’t know what this says about our world. I suppose for most Americans and for most Australians this nightmare is on the other side of the world and so we don’t get too worked up about it. Eventually though the chickens come home to roost.

Father Dave

ISIS-US-SupportUS intelligence knew who were the major players in 2012 and it was not the so-called ‘moderates’
ISIS-US-Support02ISIS’ declaration of an Islamic State was fully anticipated two years before it happened.

an excerpt from The Jacobin

How the US Helped ISIS by David Mizner

A recently declassified US military intelligence document is further evidence of US complicity. Formerly classified as “secret,” an August 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report was among a batch of documents obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch.

The mainstream press and Republican politicians have focused on other documents in the collection: those related to the 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Largely overlooked is this document, which contradicts the official narrative not just about the rise of ISIS but also the makeup of the opposition in Syria and its relationship with foreign backers.

“The August 5, 2012 DIA report confirms much of what Assad has been saying all along about his opponents both inside and outside Syria,” says “terrorism analyst” Max Abrams.

The report concerns a period in time when the escalating violence in Iraq had ceased to be a prominent topic in the US press and when its coverage of the war in Syria — mirroring the discussion in Washington — focused on the Assad government, not the forces aligned against it. This may be hard to imagine now that ISIS has become the US government’s favorite monster, but during these months President Obama and his team gave major speeches on Syria that didn’t even mention the group.

Even after ISIS took Fallujah in January 2014, discussion of the group in establishment outlets was scarce. It wasn’t until later in 2014 — after continued battlefield victories and heavily publicized beheadings of westerners — that Islamic State became Public Enemy Number 1.

American officials claimed the ascendancy of ISIS had caught American intelligence by surprise. Yet in the 2012 report — which was circulated widely through the US government — the DIA foresaw the creation of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria. It also said that Islamic State of Iraq could “return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi” and declare an “Islamic state” in western Iraq and eastern Syria.

More than that, the report says the creation of an Islamic state was precisely the goal of the foreign governments that support the opposition:

If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor) and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).

The document previously identifies, in a slightly different context, “supporting powers” as “Western countries, the Gulf States, and Turkey.” Even if one interprets the document to exclude the United States from the “supporting powers” — indeed, why would its intelligence agency tell the US government what its policy was? — it reveals that at least as early as 2012, the United States knew that its client states sought the creation of an “Islamic state.” Two years would pass before the United States offered its peep of performance protest.

More broadly, the United States participated in a war against the Syrian government that turned Islamic State of Iraq into a regional power encompassing — and devastating — large parts of two countries. Such an outcome was predictable — and indeed predicted by the US government itself.

While American politicians and pundits have blamed the ascendance of ISIS on former Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki and Assad — or on the removal of American troops from Iraq — the DIA report reminds us that the key event in the rise of ISIS was the corresponding rise of the insurgency in Syria. Brad Hoff of the Levant Report, the first journalist to analyze the DIA report, says it shows that “A nascent Islamic State became a reality only with the rise of the Syrian insurgency . . . there is no mention of U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq as a catalyst.”

Maliki warned that the war in Syria could engulf Iraq, yet the United States and its allies kept supporting the insurgency. The American bombing of ISIS, relatively light and sporadic, has only intensified the belief of many Iraqis that the United States doesn’t want to defeat the group.

According to the official storyline, the US has sought to weaken ISIS in Syria by supporting “moderate” rebels. (President Obama has faced constant criticism for not arming opposition groups in Syria despite constantly arming opposition groups.)

The decision of the US to train its own force was an acknowledgement that it’d been unable to find moderate groups to support. Former US Ambassador Robert Ford has admitted as much, saying that “for a long time, we have looked the other way” as US-backed groups worked with al-Qaeda’s affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq spinoff al-Nusra Front. Many “moderate” rebels — “entire CIA-backed rebel units” — have joined al-Nusra Front and ISIS. Earlier this year, the main US-backed group, Harakat al-Hazm, couldn’t beat al-Nusra Front — so it joined them.

The 2012 DIA document confirms that reactionaries dominated the opposition from early on. “The Salafist, The Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,” it says. It also notes that “AQI supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning.”

This is the long-obscured truth that the DIA report underscores: that after the initial stage of the war in Syria, simply to support the war on the Syrian government was to help ISIS.

read the full article here

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Those who kill in the name of God do not know God

Traditional wisdom says that a fish rots from the head down. In other words, when a government or other organisation is dysfunctional the problem can generally be traced back to those at the top. The opposite must also be true – that when the head has integrity and wisdom, vitality and strength has to flow down to the rest of the body, and if that’s the case then the ongoing presence of Syria’s Mufti – Dr Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun – bodes well for the rest of Syria.

I realise that many people label the Mufti as a hypocrite and a man of violence. I can only assume that those who make such accusations have never met him.

I still remember back in 1986 when my friend Mordechai Vanunu first published the truth about Israel’s secret nuclear-weapons factory, hidden under the Negev desert. There was no shortage of media commentators at the time who were depicting Morde, not only as a traitor but as a sophisticated foreign spy! Obviously these people did not know the man who was a part of my church – someone I shared meals with and prayed with.

I feel the same way about the Mufti. I have met him on quite a few occasions now, I have shared a meal with him and I have spoken with him at length. I am not easily fooled as to the character of a man and believe that the Mufti is exactly as he presents himself – a man who is full of love for all people and whose great desire for his country is for healing and reconciliation.

Dr Hassoun’s behaviour after the murder of his son, Saria, should have removed any doubts people had about his character. No one fakes their feelings at the funeral of their child, and the Mufti preached forgiveness during his son’s eulogy!

Dr Hassoun offered forgiveness to those who had killed his boy and appealed to them to put down their weapons and re-join their country. And lest anyone think we was somehow deranged by grief at the time, the Mufti stayed true to his offer when, a year later, two of the killers were caught. He went to the court and offered them forgiveness in person, and asked the judge to forgive them too!

The character and integrity of the man cannot be doubted, and indeed his love and integrity shine through in the interview he did with me. Further, his words humble me as a Christian.

Consistent with the teachings of Jesus, the Mufti refuses to hate anybody, but prays for his enemies (Matthew 5:44).

Rather than dehumanise his enemies, he speaks of them as being ‘patients’ for whom he is responsible, echoing the sentiments of Jesus when he was challenged over His open attitude towards sinners – “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Luke 5:31).

And likewise the statement of the Mufti that I have taken as a title to this article – “those who kill in the name of God do not know God” – echoes the teachings of the Apostle John who wrote “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

When the disciples looked to Jesus for an example of how a good Jew should live he told them a story, but it wasn’t a story about a good Jew but about a good Samaritan – a man from a different race and religion altogether! If today’s followers of Jesus want to know what a good Christian looks like, I don’t think they need to look any further than Dr Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun – the good Mufti!

Father Dave


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Maaloula and Saydnaya – flowers of Syrian youth and beauty

We visited Maaloula and Saydnaya on the same day – two Christian villages only a short drive north of Damascus

Maaloula is one of the few places on earth where Aramaic is still spoken – the language that Jesus spoke – and it’s home to a very ancient church and monastery. Presumably that’s why it was targeted by the rebels.

They came bursting in through a pass in the mountains and captured three men on duty. They ordered the men to convert to Islam. The men refused and were beheaded on the spot. We laid flowers at the place where they fell.

They captured the monastery and used it as a headquarters. Worship areas were desecrated and they took all the icons, defacing those that couldn’t be stolen. No one knows where the icons are now – quite likely in private collections in Europe. A priest there said to me that they were more concerned about the nuns who were kidnapped – “the real icons of Maaloula”.

The Syrian Arab Army retook Maaloula. A priest showed me a window in the top of the monastery that had been used by a rebel sniper. He added “he himself was snippered”. I wasn’t sure what he meant at first and then he showed me the splashes of blood around the window-frame.

It was all very raw and recent. The blood was still on the walls, burnt Christmas decorations were still on the floor of the chapel, many of the houses had been reduced to rubble. There was also extensive graffiti. Someone translated one offering for me – “we grow closer to God by cutting off heads!”

A friend who was with me that day said he’d visited Maaloula earlier, just after it had been liberated by the army before Christmas. He told me how he’d asked some of the kids then what they expected Santa to bring them. One boy apparently replied “I just want my friends back”.

Amidst all that pain though there was still enormous beauty. The highlight of my time in Maaloula was standing in the sanctuary of the chapel while one of the woman sang the Lord’s prayer for us in Aramaic!

What was also encouraging was the smell of fresh plaster and paint in many of the houses. And on our way out we passed a long line of teenagers walking towards the town, all dressed in blue overalls! They were the volunteer repair team, armed with an impressive array of picks and other building tools.

The striking thing about Saydnaya, where we went next, was that the town was teeming with children, and yet they weren’t simply playing causally in the streets!

There was a line of about 100 children and adults saluting us as we arrived, and there was a brass band playing, with dozens of boys and girls banging drums and playing trumpets!  We couldn’t stay and listen to the band though as we were being hurried along to church. Apparently they’d been waiting for us!

All the children that hadn’t been saluting or playing an instrument in the square must have been in one of the choirs we subsequently heard. There was a choir singing in the church and another one started in the square outside the church as the service finished! They sung hymns of faith interspersed with patriotic songs.

The church service itself was beautiful, but there was real pain being experienced there too.  The service centered around a presentation of a number of large icons that were being given out to parents whose children had recently died (mainly as soldiers in the Syrian Arab Army). There were about 40 icons given out! The congregation clapped each time an icon was handed out but the recipients weren’t smiling.

One encouraging aspect of that ritual to me was that the Islamic Sheikh of Saydnaya was one of the dignitaries handing out icons to the bereaved – standing up the front of the church mingled in with the priests and nuns. Clearly this was not about Christianity vs. Islam. It was about the people of Saydnaya vs. those who wanted to destroy their village.

As the choirs finished their anthems, a brass band (again made up entirely of children) struck up a stirring tune and led the way to the place where we were having dinner.

All the children were in a uniform of one sort or another – choristers and band members and saluters alike! I don’t know if they were Scouts or Guides uniforms or whether it was the uniform of the Saydnaya militia. Even so, those kids looked formidable, and I reckon that if the men of Saydnaya are anything like their children they will be a force to be reckoned with!

And they may very well need to employ that force very soon! With the fall of Idlib to the north, there is very little between them and the rebels now.

Indeed, there is very little between either of these magical places and the rebels now. Maaloula has already experienced occupation by Jabhat Al Nusra and they know what they are capable of. Saydnaya has the appearance of being far more ready to repel an attack, and its position in the mountains makes it a natural fortress. Even so, the numbers that come against them could be completely overwhelming.

I pray for these people every day. Each of these towns was like a little oasis of youthful beauty and life in the middle of the Syrian desert! May God protect all the beautiful children of Maaloula and Saydnaya, and their parents. God have mercy on them all!

Welcome to Maaloula!
Singing the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic
One of the many wonderful choirs of Saydnaya

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Father Dave Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four.…

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What’s really going on in Yarmouk?

I thought it might prove difficult to get to Yarmouk. My God, it’s hard enough to get into Syria at the moment!

At first I thought we weren’t even going to make it out of Sydney! As soon as the airport authorities saw the word ‘Syria’ on our exit visas we were handed over to the counter-terrorism unit! Even so, we eventually got out of the country, made it smoothly through Beirut airport and then to the Syrian border by taxi, where we found, to our delight, that our visas had been approved. A short drive further and we were at the beautiful Dama Rose hotel, and you wouldn’t know that you were at the centre of a nation-wide war (except for the 40 or so checkpoints that we had to pass through to get there).

I announced our intention to get to Yarmouk right away to the people I thought might be able arrange something, and various phone calls were made. Even so, it wasn’t till we met with the Minister for Tourism the next day (a man whose portfolio sadly leaves him with time on his hands) that the right connections were made and plans were put in place.

Yarmouk is only a few kilometres south of Damascus. It was once a thriving centre of colour and life with a vibrant market that made it much more than just a Palestinian enclave. Over the last four years though it has been the centre of so much violence and death that it is now the most festering wound on the ailing Syrian body. And perhaps the most tragic dimension of Yarmouk at the moment is the way the suffering of these people is being manipulated to provide a new rationale for Western military intervention.

The dominant narrative at the moment is that ISIS, by lodging themselves in Yarmouk, are on the doorstep of the Presidential palace, threatening to take over Damascus! The Assad government, in response, is throwing everything it has at Yarmouk (including its notorious ‘barrel bombs’), killing rebels and civilians alike, in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable. The only hope for the poor people of Yarmouk (so the narrative goes) is to send in the Marines!

Of course the Marines don’t have a great track record when it comes to solving other peoples’ problems, especially in the Middle-East (think Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, …). Even so, if the people of Yarmouk are suffering at the hands of a reckless government in its death throes, can we really expect our benign super-powers to sit on their hands?

My thought was that I needed to get to Yarmouk to see for myself what was going on, and we got there.

We got to within about 300 meters of the border anyway, where the Syrian military made sure we stopped. We could see the front line from where we were but, as our guides pointed out, this meant that ISIS snipers could see us too, and so we soon moved off from the main entrance road and entered a school on the government controlled side of the border where a number of Yarmouk residents were being housed as well as schooled.

We spent our first few hours there teaching the children to box. I appreciate that most people would see that as a crazy thing to do but the kids certainly enjoyed themselves. There was lots of laughter and cheering as young and old put on the gloves and learnt how to throw punches against the pads without hurting their hands (which is not as easy as some think).

After we’d exhausted ourselves playing we sat down with the Principal of the school and some of the elders of the camp and talked, while enjoying the obligatory coffee that always accompanies such meetings.

From our day at Yarmouk, and through subsequent discussions with local Palestinians and with others in Damascus who knew what they were talking about, I came to some pretty firm conclusions about the situation in Yarmouk and, as I expected, the truth is pretty much the reverse of what we’re being told.

The Syrian Arab Army are not the chief villains in this drama. On the contrary, the Yarmouk residents that we met were being housed and fed by that army, and the children that we saw treated the army men like benign uncles. Indeed, when one of the officers who was with us put on the gloves and started throwing punches, all the children started cheering for him!

This is what I’d expected to find, as I’d spent time in a similar encampment for displaced persons from Yarmouk almost exactly 12 months earlier. There again we’d met hundreds of children, all of whom had been relocated to safe places by the army, and we’d taught them to box.

So let’s be clear on a few points:

  • Firstly, Syrian Army never enters Yarmouk. This isn’t contested by anyone on the ground. The army may work inside Yarmouk through their proxies in the Palestinian militia but army personnel never enter the camp themselves.
  • Likewise, the army does not shell Yarmouk. Clearly the Assad government does not want to be remembered for murdering Palestinians.
  • Finally (and predictably) those who are fleeing Yarmouk are running in the direction of the Syrian army in order to escape ISIS. They aren’t running to ISIS in order to escape the Syrian army. And the army is finding shelter and protection for the fleeing residents.

This is not to say that every Palestinian loves the Syrian army or the Assad government. Indeed, one Palestinian man I spoke to swore that the army had deliberately shelled ISIS in such a way as to force them into Yarmouk! “Why would they do that?” I asked? “In order to bring ISIS into contact with their other great enemy, Hamas, so that they would destroy each other”.

Whether or not that guy was right, his analysis highlights the absurdity of the other side of the media narrative. ISIS are not threatening the Presidential palace from Yarmouk. On the contrary, whether by design or by good fortune, the Syrian army is probably quite pleased to have ISIS in Yarmouk.

There are apparently only around 2000 ISIS militants in Yarmouk in total, and even with superior weapons (being channeled in from Qatar) it seems that they can still be contained by the Palestinian factions opposing them, let alone the Syrian army who have been containing rebels within Yarmouk for a number of years now. The residents have paid a terrible price for that, but the strategy has certainly been effective in protecting the capital.

And so the big lie needs to be turned on its head. The people of Yarmouk are not suffering at the hands of the Syrian army. They are suffering, but the Syrian Arab Army is probably the best friend they have at the moment.

And the army is not about to be overrun by ISIS troops streaming out of Yarmouk. That’s not to say that the army isn’t in trouble. Indeed, they have real problems to deal with in Aleppo and Idlib, but Yarmouk is a relatively minor headache.

In truth, I’m not sure what more can be done for the people of Yarmouk or for the Syrian army. One thing I am sure about though is that we don’t need the Marines, or any more foreign military intervention in Syria. Indeed, the further away our military stays the better are the chances for the people of Yarmouk and for the country as a whole.

Welcome to Yarmouk!
Boxing with the kids of Yarmouk (1)
Boxing with the kids of Yarmouk (2)

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Father Dave Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four.…

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ISIS shows its true colours in Yarmouk! They are the enemy of the Palestinian people.

Father Dave with refugees from Yarmouk (April 2014)

Father Dave with Palestinian refugees from Yarmouk (April 2014)

ISIS has shown its true colours! They are the enemies of the Palestinian people!

Commentators around the world are appalled at the ISIS take-over of Yarmouk refugee camp, still home to around 18,000 Palestinians, and supposedly only a 10-minute bus ride from central Damascus.

The stories of brutal beheadings and other atrocities being committed by ISIS troops in Yarmouk are already emerging, along with concerns that this strategic battlefield success may empower the ISIS recruitment drive as they seem to be on the Syrian President’s doorstep. My reckoning though is that the attack on Yarmouk may have the opposite effect, and could  spell the beginning of the end for ISIS!

From a military perspective, the takeover of Yarmouk is no great threat to Damascus. When I was in Damascus in 2013 there were rebel forces on the edge of the city at multiple points.  They didn’t break through then and there’s no reason to assume that ISIS are going to succeed now where comparable forces have failed. Yarmouk itself has indeed been disputed territory for a number of years now which is why the Syrian Army sealed it off. This resulted in terrible suffering for the civilians remaining in Yarmouk but it simultaneously proved effective in stopping the advance of rebels into the capital.

Where the assault on Yarmouk could rebound negatively for ISIS is in the PR department.

The success of ISIS depends on their success in recruiting angry young Muslim men to their cause. There are no shortage of angry young Muslims around the world, of course, and this for very good reason. The US and its allies, including my country (Australia), have been on a murderous rampage across the Muslim world for more than twenty years, killing as many as 3.3 million Iraqis by some people’s reckoning, along with countless Afghans, Libyans, Syrians, etc. Mr Obama has indeed bombed no less than seven majority-Muslim countries since he took office! No wonder countless Muslim men and women feel angry, and no wonder so many young men are ready to fight for the one man who is standing up to the bloodthirsty West in the name of Allah!

Al Baghdadi has indeed succeeded in uniting many Muslim people under his banner. Even so, there is one other cause that resonates even more deeply with Muslim people everywhere. For the last generation there has been one thing that every Muslim in the world – from Iran to Yemen to Somalia to Indonesia – has in common. Every Muslim on the planet is opposed to the Palestinian Occupation! Support for the suffering Palestinian people is a fundamental part of what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century, and now ISIS has started butchering Palestinians!

I don’t think we should underestimate the impact this may have worldwide on the ISIS recruitment drive. ISIS has shown itself to be the enemy of the Palestinian people!

I appreciate, of course, that relations between Palestinians and the Syrian government have also been strained in recent years, but it has always been a minority of Palestinians in Syria that are opposed to the Syrian government. Palestinian refugees receive full citizenship rights in Syria (unlike in Lebanon and Jordan) and many are open in their support of the Assad government. When  Khaled Meshaal and the Hamas leadership moved their headquarters from Damascus to Doha in 2012, this was not a reflection of broad Palestinian dissatisfaction with the Syrian government, but rather a reflection of the non-Palestinian forces controlling Hamas – namely, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite 2013 reports that Hamas was training rebel forces opposing the Syrian government, there has been no ongoing enmity between Palestinians and Bashar Al Assad. On the contrary, what we have seen in the last few days has been open cooperation between the Syrian Arab Army and Palestinian militias seeking to defend Yarmouk from ISIS, who are the real enemy!

ISIS has shown its true colours in the assault on Yarmouk. These people are not warriors of Allah, fighting to establish a holy state. They are brutal mercenaries, ready to sacrifice the lives of countless beleaguered Palestinians – men, women and children alike – for the sake of gaining a more strategic military position against the Syrian government.

The current humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk gives the Syrian government a significant opportunity to show itself to be a true friend and protector of the Palestinian people.  To an extent this is already happening (even though it is barely being reported).  Refugees fleeing in the direction of the Syrian Arab Army are being relocated to shelters, away from the fighting. We can only pray that this continues and that all civilians can extract themselves from the firing line.

ISIS, of course, are not going to want to let go of their human shields. Even so, the longer they use Palestinians as human shields, the more they betray their identity as Muslims!

Father Dave

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