What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so — Mark Twain †
In July, the US Peace Council sent a delegation to Syria for a week-long visit to meet with secular and religious leaders. They returned to the US and gave a press briefing at the UN on August 9th in which they denounced the entire US/western depiction and narrative of Syria as a propagandist lie:
“What we saw in Damascus and what we saw in the two villages outside Damascus belies the propaganda that has overwhelmed us. [Yet] it’s hard for even those of us who have been in the peace movement for a long time – it’s hard for us to ignore this propaganda – it is so well-orchestrated.”
I have produced a comprehensive transcript of the briefing which is attached as an addendum.
The journey from Homs however is a profound experience, for it involves hours of travelling across expansive plains, through miles of destroyed and deserted villages and towns that had been occupied, terrorised and destroyed by Islamist fighters, and the battles that ensued. Most of the millions of internally displaced who fled to the comparative safety of government-controlled areas, and refugees who have fled the country fled early in the fighting, both because of the brutality of the rebel groups, and because of the government bombing of the enemy. But none of us realised the extent of destruction which had been done at the hands of the fighters, who would destroy the homes and factories of anyone who opposed them.
As we passed through the deserted destroyed streets of one large town, we saw graffiti insulting a local Saudi Sheikh who had preached the Wahhabi ideology, and who had encouraged the town to rise up against the secular government. Throughout our visit, people in different places told us that one of the factors leading to the uprising had been the influence of Wahhabi doctrine on the thousands of Syrians who had gone to Saudi Arabia to work and study prior to the conflict. This was an insight of which I had not been previously aware.
writes Revd. Andrew Ashdown who led an entirely separate British delegation on a visit to Syria just one month ago at the start of September. The group, which included two cross-bench members of the house of Lords: Baroness Caroline Cox and Lord Raymond Hylton, had been invited by the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr. Hassoun; Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Armenian Archbishop of Damascus; Bishop Audo of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Aleppo; and Revd. Harout Selimien, President of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Syria.
Following visits to Damascus and Maaloula, the party journeyed onwards to Homs and Aleppo. This is Ashdown’s account of what they found in Aleppo:
Arriving in Aleppo from the Castello Rd is a bewildering experience. After passing through miles of destroyed suburbs, (formerly occupied by ‘rebels’, but now secured by the Syrian army) the road into town very suddenly becomes like any other city. Within the space of a hundred metres, empty ruins become tree-lined, car-filled boulevards, cafes, shops, Churches and mosques. The media give the impression that the whole city of Aleppo is destroyed. This is far from the truth. Large areas are, but two thirds of the city still stands, and in this city, constantly shelled by rebel-held areas, where death and destruction is a threat from all sides, a veneer of ordinary life goes on. Arriving at sunset, less than five hundred metres from an area that looks like a scene from Armageddon, people were out in the streets and the cafes were full. This is government-controlled Aleppo, where 1.5 million people live. These people are not being bombed by Assad. Rather the Syrian Army is protecting them, no matter to which sectarian or faith community they belong. These people are very grateful that the long siege of the city imposed by the rebels, which received barely any attention in the international media is now over.
The scenes of devastation that we see on our TV screens are real, but they are only a part of the story. The narratives we hear about on our media are exclusively reported from the rebel side, where an estimated 200,000 people struggle to survive. Of those, 50,000 are fighters, many of them foreign and most belonging to extremist factions, and the remainder are mainly families of those fighters. Most of the resident population of those areas have long since fled, either to the safety of the government-held areas, or have fled the country. […]
The Syrians we met asked if the world knew what was going on in Aleppo. I could only respond that as far as people knew, the whole city was destroyed, and that the government are bombing, shelling and gassing their own people. They were both amused and exasperated. They said that the rebels had used gas, not the government. It is also an extremely common view in Syria (and often repeated by those in Aleppo themselves) that the people whom the government are bombing in the city, are not civilians, but are almost exclusively terrorists and their families. The 1.5 million civilians living in the comparative ‘safety’ of the government-held areas of the city are exhausted by the constant shelling and ‘hell-fire canon’ attacks of the rebels, and are keen for the government to win the war.
In the afternoon, we met with the Governor of Aleppo who told us of the efforts being made to receive what civilians are left in rebel-controlled areas. He mentioned the many stories of people who are wanting to leave those areas, being prevented from doing so, and some being killed for wanting to do so. He despaired of the international media’s misrepresentation of the realities on the ground.
Afterwards we were incredibly lucky to visit the Senior Doctor’s Council of Aleppo. This was a last minute arrangement, and by chance we interrupted a meeting of the Senior Executive of Aleppo Doctors. The doctors were glad to interrupt their meeting and welcomed us warmly, saying they were delighted we had come to see the situation. The group that were present included representatives of different medical specialities. The first thing we asked was about the regular media reports that there are only a few doctors left in Aleppo and that the last paediatrician was killed in a government airstrike. They laughed.
“Firstly you must understand that there is a media war against Syria, so you won’t hear about what’s happening in Government-controlled areas. Actually, there are 250 paediatricians currently active in Aleppo. The one that was killed is not on any register as a doctor of this city. Nor is the ‘Al Quds’ hospital that was supposedly destroyed known in Aleppo it all. It was probably a temporary field clinic set up by the terrorists. When they say that a ‘hospital’ has been targeted by the government, they are usually temporary field-clinics; they are not registered clinics or hospitals. Today, there are 4,260 doctors in Aleppo of which 3,150 are active. Of these, about 1,500 are specialists. Since the start of the conflict, 20 registered hospitals have been destroyed by the terrorists (these are not mentioned in the western media). But there are still 6 active public hospitals and about 40 small private hospitals in the city. At the moment we have a huge shortage of medicines and equipment in both public and private hospitals, including MRI machines. Our priorities are spare parts for equipment. Most of the aid given by the WHO and by other agencies, and all the resources given by Saudi Arabia and Turkey goes to the terrorists, not to the citizens of the city.”
Click here to read Ashdown’s full diary and a summary of the findings of his own delegation which concludes as follows:
While almost all media coverage in the West focuses on the devastating effects of military offensives by Government forces, in just one day during our visit (September 5th) the following attacks by the armed Opposition inflicting indiscriminate death and injury included:
Four car bombs at Homs with 12 killed and 30 injured; in Tartus 45 killed and 100 wounded; in the Damascus countryside, 3 killed and 12 wounded; in Hasaka, 6 killed and 20 wounded.
This is only a part of the daily toll of death and injury inflicted by Opposition forces on civilians, such as the shelling of the University in Aleppo by 4 missiles on the day we were there.
Already, we have been accused of spouting ‘government propaganda’. No. We travelled to Syria to listen to the voices of Syrian people and we have met hundreds from across the respective communities in the country. Personally, this is my fifth visit to the country since April 2014, and the messages remain consistent and widespread. What we are sharing is not ‘government propaganda’ at all, but the voices of ordinary Syrians. Anyone who thinks otherwise is showing their ignorance!
I would repeat the cry of most Syrians we have met. Come and visit us and see the reality for yourselves. I have seriously wondered whether the enormous pressure put upon us by both government and Church figures NOT to visit Syria, is precisely because they do not want us to see and hear the truth, simply because it does not ally with the deliberate misrepresentation the international community is conveying to achieve their own agendas.
I hope and pray that any ceasefire leads to a true and lasting peace. I also hope and pray that the international community will adjust their policies to consider the real needs and wishes of the Syrian people, and that we do not use the ‘provision of aid’ as a means of rearming militant factions to further prolong the war. The goal of everyone should be the restoration of peace; the rebuilding of the country; the respect of plurality and development of reform; and the reconciliation and healing of souls, which will be the most difficult task. Enough of fuelling war. Let us end the policy of violence, and truly seek the path of peace, and listen first to the voices of the people themselves.
[bold emphasis added]
Andrew Ashdown was interviewed about his experiences by Mike Robinson for UK Column on Thursday 6th. The interview is embedded below:
Eva Bartlett is Canadian freelance journalist and activist who spent more than three years living in Gaza documenting Palestinian life under Israeli rule. Since 2014, she has undertaken four trips to Syria and following her latest visit gave an extended interview to Sign of the Times Media [September 2nd] which is embedded below:
Click here to read more on her blog In Gaza.
Vanessa Beeley is a British investigative journalist and photographer. The daughter of Sir Harold Beeley, Middle Eastern Advisor to Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, she too has been a frequent visitor to the Gaza Strip and campaigner for Palestinian rights.
Vanessa Beeley was a member of the US Peace Council delegation that visited Syria in July (see above). After the main contingent returned, however, she journeyed onward and continued with her own investigation. Here is an interview she gave on Liberty Report in late September shortly after returning:
Click here to read more on her blog thewallwillfall.
Addendum: transcript of US Peace Council speaking at UN
It was quite evident to us over the several years that what we were hearing and reading from the press was obviously confusing the American people and the peace movement – the large vocal anti-war movement that exists in our country. We saw the same pattern of ever other invasion where the leadership of the country was demonised and therefore used as an excuse to intervene in the internal affairs. Our organisation, US Peace Council, is a firm advocate of the United Nations Charter, with deep respect for the sovereignty of all countries; respecting the rights of the peoples of those countries to determine their own destiny.
It was our consideration that we had to reach out to the US peace movement and ask that they participate in a delegation to Syria to see for themselves what existed, to speak to both officials and non-officials, [and] civil society, to try to determine for themselves independently, the situation in Syria and the road to peace. That is our responsibility. Our responsibility is to reach out first to the US peace movement and then to the American people.
The campaign to confuse the American people has been intense. And it is our purpose to try to bring some light – some understanding – which can perhaps lead to the American people demanding an end to the intervention and peace in Syria.
We reached out to many peace organisations in our country to try to get a broad delegation to go. I would be less than honest if I did not say that some did not come because they were fearful of going into a warzone. Others demonstrated a confusion that does exist because of reading the propaganda and the barrage of, unfortunately, the media which gives such a one-sided story. We feel we have that obligation. And it is a tribute to those who went that they overcame those obstacles and agreed to go and, may I point out, paid their own way to go.
– Alfred Marder, President of the US Peace Council [3:00 mins on]
I think what Alfred said is so true: we are fighting a mass of propaganda that has demonised the Syrian government, demonised its leaders. An effort that precedes every other intervention that the United States has made over the course of many, many decades. In order to convince people that it’s okay for quote-unquote “humanitarian reasons” to overthrow a government, and to replace it with whatever. The United States prefers a government that is not independent, that is a willing participant in whatever US policy is. So what we saw in Damascus and what we saw in the two villages outside Damascus belies the propaganda that has overwhelmed us. It’s hard for even those of us who have been in the peace movement for a long time – it’s hard for us to ignore this propaganda – it is so well-orchestrated.
We spoke to members of industry – the chamber of industry. We spoke to leaders in the student union – the national student union. We spoke with NGOs that are involved with taking care of the orphans of those who have died in this war on both sides. They don’t discriminate. Orphans are orphans: whatever side they were fighting on these young people have to be taken care of. We spoke with an NGO that trains women (who don’t have a skill in sewing) because they lost the breadwinner in their family. We spoke to an NGO where they’re trying to deal with reconciliation and trying to make sure supplies get to the country that is under the control of the terrorists – the mercenaries.
And we make a distinction between opposition – the political opposition with whom we also met – and the terrorists and the mercenaries with whom we did not meet. We met people in Syria who work non-violently to bring about change. We learned of their efforts to bring about change working in opposition to the government, working with the government, but non-violently.
We met with government officials. We met with the Minister of Administration. We met with the Ministry of Health. We met with the Minister of Reconciliation: a whole approach to bringing back those Syrians who have for one reason or another joined the mercenaries and the terrorists. […]
We saw for ourselves the damage that was done to the university. Even while we were there a shell fell into the School of Architecture killing students and faculty. And the students themselves were rebuilding the damage. We saw villages that are basically Christian villages that have been besieged by the terrorists but have now been liberated. And the damage done to a shrine in a village called Maaloula, which is a village where they still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. And the attacks on the Christian population.
One of the things I bring back – there are two things I want to mention finally, that we feel are really important – one is that while the United States would like to divide the Syrians up by religion, or within a religion by the different beliefs within that religion, there wasn’t a Syrian we talked to who would accept that. We spoke to the Grand Mufti and he said people ask me how many Muslims there are in Syria, and his response is always 23 million. That’s the population of Syria. And when we spoke to the bishop of one of the Orthodox churches he answered the same thing. The number of Christians is 23 million. We will not allow ourselves to be divided up the way that the United States has divided up the people of Iraq or Libya or Afghanistan or so many other countries. We won’t allow that. And that unity, I believe, has led to the ability of the Syrians to withstand an invasion by the most powerful country in the world and its most powerful allies in Europe [and] its most powerful allies in the Middle East. With what is a vicious attack on the Syrian people.
The second is the sanctions. I have to admit that I did not know before I went that the United States has imposed sanctions on Syria in a way that’s similar to the sanctions the United States imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, in order to weaken that country and that government, that the United States admits killed 500,000 children in Iraq (during the 1990s sanctions). That set of sanctions means that the Syrian people cannot get medicines that they desperately need, that they cannot get factory parts that they need to maintain their economy, they can’t get infant formula and many other things. Their students cannot go abroad. Their lawyers are separated from the rest of the international legal system because of those sanctions.
These sanctions are not reported in the US media to my knowledge and we need to know about them. These sanctions are another way to weaken the Syrian government and the Syrian state.
— Henry Lowendorf, Member of the Executive Board of the US Peace Council, Head of the Syria Delegation [7:30 mins on]
I went to Syria because I thought it was important to learn from the Syrian people themselves what was actually happening in Syria because there has not been a focussed enough response by the peace movement in the United States to what’s been going on in Syria.
I can’t add a whole lot to what Henry and Al have said but I want to make this one particular point because I think it’s very important and it gets to the core of everything that’s going on. This is not a civil war in Syria. That’s probably the first thing we heard and we heard it over and over again. It is not President Assad against his own people. It is President Assad and the Syrian people all together in unity against outside forces – outside mercenary forces – terror organisations. And the names change every day, or every other day, to try to protect their identity and maybe keep the connection between the country that funded it and that group a little more nebulous. But there are groups – mercenary forces – supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, and underneath it Israel – the state of Israel. And these outside mercenary forces are the ones that are terrorising the Syrian people and are attempting to divide the Syrian people.
I remember when the US invaded Iraq. Our organisation was against it well before the invasion ever began. But once the invasion was over and the United States was setting up a government we talked to many Iraqis who said: we’re not Sunni and Shia; we’re not Sunni, Shia and Kurds; but the United States is trying to divide us that way. And we got exactly the same message when we were in Syria. We are Syrians. As Henry said before: whether you are Christian, Muslim or other you are Syrian; and that’s one of the things that enabled the Assad government to withstand five-plus years of this kind of outside attack.
When it was time for the US to unseat Saddam Hussein after years of sanctions and two wars, he fell like that [click of fingers]. When it was time the United States decided for Gaddafi to go he fell like that [click of fingers]. But when it was time the United States decided for Assad to go, he did not fall. And why? Because he has the support of 23 million Syrian people – and it was more before all these refugees were created and sent around the world.
The whole idea of regime change – the policy of regime change – is illegal under international law. The United States has no right to do that. The United States has no right to decide for the Syrian people who their government leaders should be. And so during my time there in Syria I felt over and over again “who are we?”, “why are we presuming to know what’s best for the Syrian people?”
And the other part of this that I think the people of United States need to know is that the Assad government provides free healthcare – free universal healthcare to everyone. It’s part of the government’s mission. Free education for everyone from primary school all the way through, even to university and medical school. And when we met with this one particular person from the non-violent opposition, we asked him, well tell us, what are some of your grievances with the Assad government, and he said, well, you just heard that it costs about $50 a year for people going to medical school, we think that’s too high. He was being somewhat facetious, of course, but these are the kinds of policies that our citizens here in the United States are calling for: tuition free college; universal healthcare. So the Assad government is in the business of doing this and providing this to the people. And without a doubt, even the non-violent opposition parties, who had issues with democracy or corruption prior to 2011, everyone has thrown themselves in behind the Assad government because that’s the best hope, the best bet for the Syrian people.
Lastly, I think I want to echo what Henry said, that to a person, people ask that the sanctions be lifted. While we were there someone came and said a certain pharmaceutical company which name I forget at the moment was refusing to send childhood immunisations from the United States to Syria causing great harm to Syrian people. That’s not how this country or any country should act within the world’s community. So the sanctions, as we’ve learned many times, do not hurt the governments they’re intended to hurt, they hurt people – and so, they need to be lifted.
We also heard that the border between Turkey and Syria needs to be closed so that this pipeline of trained groups – terror groups – is blocked, and no more of those groups get into Syria. And finally, that the United States needs to stop supporting some of those outside terror groups. All of the support for the outside terror groups needs to be withdrawn. And allow the Syrians to fend for themselves. The Syrian Arab Army is fighting for its life and fighting for the life of Syria, and we need as a country to acknowledge our role – what we’re doing to cause harm and destruction to the Syrian people – and we need to stop it, and we need to stop it now, and that’s one of the things I’ll be saying over and over again since my return from Syria.
— Madelyn Hoffman, Executive Director of New Jersey Peace Action, Member of the Syria Delegation [16:30 mins on]
I have been a human rights and a peace activist as long as I can remember… I was honoured to be asked to be part of this delegation. […]
As an American citizen it is shameful for me to admit what my government is doing in the sovereign country of Syria. We have no right to impose these illegal sanctions. In fact, these sanctions, allegedly the government says, are against the government of Syria, but in fact, it’s against the people – civil society. People who are attempting to maintain the infrastructure, the healthcare, the safety of all Syrian people. One of the things that stood out to me is not only the lack of medication [but] the fact that Syrian children are dying because they can’t get chemotherapy med[icine] into the country, because of the illegal sanctions that the US and the West has imposed.
Also, they’re not allowing parts and materials to get to businesses who are trying to maintain. And they are trying to maintain for more than one reason – not just to continue to make money, but to employ people. Because when people have no way to earn a living they become desperate. And we know that some of the Syrian people who may have chosen to join the terrorists [did so] mostly for economic reasons, because they couldn’t earn a living. And their benefactors, the US and all the others who are collaborating together to fund this terrorism, are paying people very well to participate in this illegal activity against the Syrian people.
So there are so many ways – subtle ways – that the US sanctions are affecting the Syrians. And when we spoke the business people, they mentioned to us that we are desperately trying to stay in business, we’re desperately trying to keep our people employed, so they don’t become desperate, and they don’t then feel like they have no other choice.
Something else that’s very important is that we did have the opportunity to speak with civil society – not just all of the official organisations. And we met with people who have witnessed, and lived through, and shared their experiences with the mercenaries and explained unspeakable things that I’m not going to go into detail about what those were, but it was very difficult to sit in the presence of someone whose child was assassinated, whose niece was kidnapped and is still missing, whose daughter was raped – kidnapped, raped and then sent back – male and female rapes we heard about.
So this is what the US is financing. This is what the US is backing. And this is not okay. And as a citizen, beyond being a peace and human rights activist, I will not be silent about what I learned, and we have to take responsibility for what’s happening in this country, and the lack of morality when it comes to our foreign policy, and what we are doing elsewhere.
I do want to say that we had almost a two hour meeting with President Assad which we were all very grateful for. After listening to all the voices of civil society groups and officials that we met with, if you think about it, it makes no sense what the US and western media is reporting. It makes no sense that Assad, who is trying to maintain the infrastructure and look toward the future for the Syrian people, would be the one destroying hospitals, and all these places that the US media and western media is saying he is the one responsible for destroying. Just doesn’t make sense. He is interested in the future for Syria. He told us flat out, when this is over with we can have another election, [and] if they don’t want me, they don’t want me, that’s fine. But for now, I have been elected to lead this country and that is what I will do.
The last piece I want to talk about is, you know, having been a student and scholar of restorative and transitional justice for many years, I was really very, very impressed and excited about the fact that they have a Ministry of Reconciliation. That even in the middle of the trauma that Syrian people are involved with at this point, they are looking towards the future and they are dealing with people in a restorative and healing way already. So if some Syrian citizen has joined the mercenaries and if they put down their arms, they are welcomed back into Syrian society. They are fed and their families are fed and restorative justice techniques are being used so that you don’t have a group of Syrians now who are feeling outside of society. So everything I have said, I will continue to say and I will continue to share with other people. And I feel now, since I have been there, we are now capable of sharing truth that unfortunately our media has not been offering the world, and we intend not to be silent from here forward.
— Donna Nassor, Professor and Lawyer also part of US Peace Council [23:30 mins on]
I am reminded of the famous comment by the American writer Mark Twain who once said that it’s not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, what gets us into trouble is what we think we know for sure that just ain’t so. And that’s what I think of when I think of my fellow Americans and what they know about Syria – and what they think they know about the war and the Syrian government and the Syrian leadership. What they think they know, just ain’t so. So we have to take that on, because we’re getting into trouble.
Our delegation came to Syria with political views and assumptions, but we were determined to be sceptics, and to doubt everything – meet everyone we could – and to confirm or disconfirm received opinion, conventional wisdom, and to follow the facts wherever they led us. I concluded a number of things from the trip: I won’t go over things that my colleagues have already mentioned.
The motive, in my opinion, of the US war is to destroy an independent Arab secular state. It’s the last secular Arab state standing, and it wants a client regime like Libya, like Iraq, like a number of other countries you could mention. The US hostility to independent Syria long precedes 2011, the beginning of the war.
US, I concluded, claims to be against ISIS, but yet has been loathed to fight a really consistent fight against terrorism. Certain privileged groups such as the al-Nusra Front – the names shift – are called ‘moderate rebels’ because they fight the Syrian government, and the US wants that. They are not moderate: they beheaded a twelve year-old boy when we were there – we saw it on youtube and on TV.
The motives of the US proxy states are somewhat different: sectarian motives and regional power rivalries affect Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Wahhabist ideology, the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, is a sick, medieval, backward ideology, it drives the Saudi state, it motivates that state to finance this war, and Damascus by contrast promotes a socially inclusive and pluralistic form of Islam – and we met the leaders of that form of Islam and they are humane and democratic-minded people, and have every reason to join with the American people in stopping this insane support for Wahhabism, which is behind so much terrorism in the world.
Those of my fellow countrymen who are dogmatic about Assad demonisation are not going to like what I have to say now, which is that the Syrian government is popular and for that reason it is winning the war. The battle for Aleppo will probably be decided soon – relatively soon – and may be the last hurrah, in my opinion, of the foreign mercenaries. The president is popular. His government is recognised as legitimate by the UN. It contests and wins elections. The elections are monitored. There’s a parliament which contains opposition parties – we met them. There is a significant non-violent opposition, which is trying to work constructively for its own social vision. Some of it is inside the government, which in effect is a government of national unity; some of it is in the parliament – we met them. The Minister of Reconciliation deals directly with armed groups, and he’s an opposition leader.
So let me conclude. The US policy on Syria regime change is not wrong in its details, it is wrong in its fundamentals. It is wrong, root and branch. It violates the UN Charter. It violates international law. The US is bombing parts of Syria without the consent of legitimate government – that violates international law. The sanctions violate international law. […]
I think, out of our trip flows certain tasks. I think it is the task of the US anti-war movement to unite around a different vision than what it has united around thus far. Thus far it has united around a feeble vision that is partly false: that partly accepts the dominant State Department, corporate media narrative. We must directly and forthrightly challenge US policy if we are to shift US public opinion. Some organisations alas buy into the dominant mainstream media narrative. They have not covered themselves in glory by so doing.
This is a dangerous moment. Without mentioning names, apparently the leading candidate for president is surrounded by military advisors who are talking about ‘no-fly zones’, which means air-war against the Syrian airforce and the Russians, or ‘boots on the ground’ which means US invasion. If we’re not frightened by that talk, we should be (frightened by that talk). This is a dangerous moment. We have to change the basic US policy, we need a different anti-war movement, and we must begin to shift US public opinion.
— Joe Jamison, Member of the Executive Board of the US Peace Council, Member of the Syria Delegation [30:00 mins on]
† Widely attributed although unsourced.