Damascus is burning

Alex Downie investigates the impact of the Syria conflict – there and in Australia





The 48-year-old mother of four had sent her twelve year-old son to the shop to queue for bread. While he was out, a rocket collapsed his family’s apartment block. He was the only survivor. Eight members of his immediate family were killed within two years. The eldest son of a relative is kidnapped by rebels for weeks and held for ransom. Members of the village must continue to pay safety money, or more of them will be taken.

This is the human reality of the crisis in Syria. Since fighting broke out between government and rebel forces in March 2011, over 100 000 Syrians have been killed and at least two million made refugees. In a conflict of this scale, stories like those above are devastatingly common.

An additional factor unites the accounts given above: they are accounts narrated by people living inside Australia. This is remarkable given the distances at play: Damascus is burning 14 100km away.

But wars are rarely limited to the countries in which they are fought. For many Australians, this conflict has hit much closer to home. Indeed, a number of Australians have become involved in the conflict, some leaving for Syria to fight or deliver humanitarian aid, others working here as activists.  And many Syrian Australians, particularly those who fled here to escape the war, anxiously collect any news of their families.

K, a Syrian expat in her mid 70s, fled Syria for Australia last year.  Her son – who remains in Syria – had insisted that she leave. He pleaded that any time she wasn’t at home he worried about where she was, and whether she was OK.

Today it is K worrying about her son. She speaks with him via mobile phone on most days, when the lines aren’t cut. There is a four-hour queue to buy a kilo of bread from government stores. He only bathes occasionally, when there is enough water.  His sleep is sometimes interrupted by the sound of rockets destroying neighbouring areas.  She is reduced to tears by a maternal concern, and I’m reminded of my Greek grandmother: she never taught him to cook, and she worries about what he eats without her there to look after him.

K had left Syria in the 80s for the West; however, Syria was “thriving”, and she returned in the 90s as there were “lots of imports and exports”, “amazing restaurants”, “culture”, and “banks from four or five countries”. And although anti-Assad expats I spoke to countered that most of these benefits were concentrated amongst the rich, all were horrified by the destructiveness of the war.

Pro-government newspaper Al-Watan recently estimated that wide scale bombings had already destroyed over USD$ 1.5 trillion worth of infrastructure and buildings. Sanctions imposed by – amongst others – the Arab League, the EU, the US, and Australia has crippled trade in the region. During fighting, landmarks that have existed for centuries, even millennia, have been razed in hours.

During our interview, it was clear that K felt powerless as she watched her country implode. She didn’t know how or when the war would end, and what would happen. She desperately clung to any news she could get of Syria, from family back home or from media outlets. Indeed, my weekday interview with K ended exactly at noon, when she abruptly left the room we’d been talking in. Her sister explained that she had gone to a back room to watch the SBS Arabic news, to see if there were any new developments in Syria.

The top story that day was on Dubai.


The Syrian Australian community is small, but growing. At the time of the 2011 census, 8 392 Australians were Syrian-born. Since the conflict began, thousands of Syrians have fled to Australia using dual citizenship, family support, or a rare refugee visa. Many of these new migrants consider themselves lucky: in Australia they are safe. Yet in many ways they are anything but fortunate. Separated from their families and friends, they receive only intermittent news about what is happening back home.

Some Australians have taken a more active stance, joining groups like the anti-Assad Australian Syrian Association or the pro-government ‘Hands Off Syria’. These groups fundraise for humanitarian aid, using contacts to smuggle basics like formula milk, flour, rice and sugar into Syria via Turkey.

They also lobby the government. I spoke with a founder of the Australian Syrian Association. In 2012, he had met with Rudd, Carr, Gillard, Abbott and other prominent politicians, pressuring them to deny visas to Syrian government diplomats, and shut down the Syrian embassy in Canberra. They were thrilled when, following Carr’s expulsion of senior diplomats in May 2012, the embassy closed down that July.

These organisations also maintain a social media presence and stage rallies in support of their respective causes. In part, these efforts are designed – according to an activist I spoke with – to “show unity and solidarity with the Syrian people.” However, these groups are also entering into the public relations war, attempting to influence public opinion and potentially foreign policy by pushing their competing narratives of the Syrian conflict.

The website of the pro-rebel Australian Syrian Association describes the conflict as the “struggle of the Syrian people for their freedom and democracy” from President Bashar Al-Assad.  The Hands Off Syria members I spoke with countered that the rebels were increasingly dominated by mercenaries and radical jihadists.

There is some truth in both accounts. The defence of Assad made to me by one pro-government activist – that “nobody is perfect” – seemed unforgivably glib in the light of UN confirmation that his government is responsible for recent chemical weapon attacks in Damascus; the Sarin gas that was used is 26 times as deadly as cyanide. At the same time, the rebels have radicalised at an alarming rate, undermining claims by anti-Assad activists that extreme elements exist only on the fringe. British defence consultancy IHS Jane recently estimated that almost half of the 100 000 rebels fighting in Syria are jihadists or hardliner Islamists, with 10 000 fighting for factions linked with al-Qaeda.

Perhaps most striking is the conflict’s increasing sectarianism. William McCants, a fellow at the Brookings Saban Center, writes that although the civil war “did not start out as a sectarian conflict” in 2011, the divided became entrenched as the “conflict turned violent.” To generalise, Syrians in the Sunni Muslim majority tend to identify with the rebels, whilst most minorities – Christians, Assyrians, Armenians, Druze, and the Alawites, to which the Assad family belong – typically remain loyal to the Assad regime.

Do the activist groups in Australia mirror this divide? Hands off Syria argues that their membership doesn’t fall along sectarian lines. Indeed, many Australian activists have no family ties to the region. Hands Off Syria activists estimate that only half of their Australian members are even of Middle Eastern heritage.

However, while advocates from both sides in Australia care deeply about the wellbeing of all Syrians, sectarian undertones also pervade the activist scene. A leader of the Australian Syrian Association tells me of the 23 threats left on his mobile phone. “Assad is better than you and all the Sunnis we know,” he recalls.

That same leader then claimed that as their beliefs were heretical, Alawites such as Assad “are not Muslims”, he states. This is one of many traditional insults levelled against Alawites.

Most worryingly, this sectarian divide has escalated with assaults, arsons and even shootings. In November 2012, armed men chased the Alawite owner of a shop in Thomastown, Victoria, shouting “we’re going to shut you down, you Alawite dog.” A car displaying the emblem of the Free Syrian Army was twice firebombed. Jamal Daoud, an outspoken opponent of the rebels, was punched in front of Today Tonight’s cameras. While some of the reported attacks have targeted pro-rebel activists, most have been directed against government loyalists.

For targets of this violence, Sydney’s suburbs have split along sectarian lines. As I speak to more people, I learn that activists feel unsafe walking through neighbourhoods around Sydney. Prominent pro-government activists avoid Sunni-dominated parts of Lakemba, Auburn and Bankstown, while recognisable insurgency supporters are wary of travelling into Shia enclaves in areas such as Arncliffe, Rockdale and Belfield.


Photo: James Lawler Duggan

The Syrian conflict has intensified violence within Australia, but some Australians have also contributed to the violence in Syria, travelling overseas to fight in the revolution.

Three weeks ago, a Queenslander blew himself up in a truck outside a Syrian military airport. ‘Australia’s first suicide bomber’ was a married 27-year-old, rumoured to be of Lebanese heritage. He acted on behalf of the Al-Nusrah Front, a blacklisted rebel group affiliated with Al Qaeda.

This bomber is not the only Australian to have travelled overseas to join the fight. ASIO chief David Irvine has revealed that six Australians have been killed in combat against the Assad regime, and authorities believe there are about 80 Australians participating in the conflict in either combat or support roles, although some estimates range upwards of 200.

Most of the fighters who take this pilgrimage are young, ideological, and often marginalised in broader society. Most of these men support the rebels, although it is also believed there are some Australian Shiite volunteers fighting with Hezbollah militants for the Assad regime.

The majority of these fighters are born in Australia, and come from families with strong ties in the north of Lebanon – many, like the suicide bomber, are Lebanese dual citizens. David Malet, a lecturer in International Relations from Melbourne University, writes: “most likely, the particular ties of the Australian Lebanese community with its connections in the region facilitate easy access into Syria and give Australia its disproportionate presence in this conflict.”

When fighters return, they could face federal charges under the Crimes (Foreign Incursion and Recruitment) Act, which carries a 20-year maximum prison term. However the act is rarely used in practice. Irvine, however, was more concerned that these young Australians could “become quite severely radicalised.”

It is estimated that a ninth of Westerners who had fought or trained in overseas jihadist insurgencies ultimately became involved in anti-Western terrorist plots. If true, a small proportion of Australians returning from fighting in Syria will no doubt be targeted as a security risk.


I spoke with an anti-Assad Sunni grandfather. He had immigrated to Australia in the 1960s. He didn’t have time for much of the “nonsense” that the activists in Australia got up to. The fighters who left Australia to fight in Syria disgust him.

“Stupid extremists” and “filthy bastards,” he remarks.

The old man reminisces on decade long friendships with Christian pro-regime friends that had disintegrated as they argued over the conflict. Before the war begun, they had been “as close as brothers.”

There was one thing the man – and many others I had spoken to – emphasised, something that united both sides of the conflict: “At the end of the day, both sides realise that they want peace.”



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