The conflict in Syria has caused strong divisions during 2012 within the Syrian Australian community, Kerri Worthington reports.
By
Kerri Worthington

22 Dec 2012 - 6:00 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The conflict in Syria has raged all year with no let up in sight.

It's attracted varying amounts of attention around the world, but for Syrians in Australia the now-civil war looms large in their minds.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it's caused strong divisions within the community.

Kerri Worthington reports.

Syrian Australians have been quick to jump to the defence of one side or another in the Syrian conflict.

The Australian government has made no secret of which side it's on, and its criticisms of Syria's government have not helped to heal community rifts.

This incident, for example, following Foreign Minister Bob Carr saying an assassination could be needed to unseat the Assad government.

"It sounds brutal and callous, perhaps an assassination combined with a major defection taking a large part of its military is what is required to get one, a ceasefire, and two, political negotiations."

Spokeswoman for the pro-Assad government Australians for Syria Susan Dirgham says the group was appalled by the Foreign Minister's remarks.

"I just am shocked. I am shocked. He is presenting a lynch mob mentality, and presented that on behalf of the Australian government and the Australia people. He's not referring to international law. He's not showing any understanding of the conflict in Syria or the suffering of the people. He's talking about Syria as if Syria doesn't have 23-million people who are suffering because of the war there."

But the Australian Syrian Association, which is in favour of regime change in Syria, welcomed the Foreign Minister's comments.

Spokesman Mohammed Al-Hamwi says he agrees that Bashar al-Assad's assassination is necessary.

"Assassination is the best choice. Just to get rid of the tumour of the body. If somebody has cancer it has to be cut out, otherwise, it spreads out."

A forum discussion on SBS TV's Insight program looking at the uprising in Syria further exposed the divide amongst Syrian Australians over the conflict.

People siding with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sat side-by-side with others who told the audience they've lost family members to government attacks.

Likewise, government supporters told of beheadings at the hands of rebels.

This participant, Yousef Hariri, says he left Syria just weeks before the uprising began in March last year.

He says he has one brother who's been jailed by the government, and another who's been murdered.

"Yeah my eldest brother, he died a couple of months ago. (BROCKIE: What happened to him?) He was kidnapped, then given four bullets in the head. Left in the woods. We were shocked. He's got four boys."

Several people shared similar stories of witnessing and being told of brutality and murder by government forces.

Hanadi Assoud from the pro-Assad group Hands off Syria accused rebel groups of terrorism.

She says her family members in Syria say they're the victims of rebel attacks because they're Christians.

"I know a lot of people. We have Christians here. They can tell you their stories as well. They have families that have been killed. We have people that have been beheaded, and this is their slogan: 'If you're not with us, you are to be beheaded."

The main sectarian divide in Australia's Syrian community, though, is between the two main Islamic sects, Shi'a and Sunni.

In February, a group of men stormed the Syrian embassy in Canberra, smashing up the ground floor.

Three staff members were there at the time but no one was hurt.

The attack was one of several at Syrian embassies around the world, including Berlin, London and Cairo.

The Canberra embassy's Charge D'Affaires Jawdt Ali said he didn't know who the attackers were or what side of Syrian politics they identified with.

"They behaved in a very barbarian action, I consider what happened a very brutal action, it is an act of vandalism, it doesn't serve any purpose it is an aimless action and they terrorised the people inside the embassy."

Just days later, there was a shooting in Sydney apparently linked to the Syrian conflict.

The injured man, Ali Ibrahim, was an Alawi, like Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

After expressing pro-Assad views on Facebook, he was shot three times in the legs on the doorstep of his home.

His father, Jamel el-Ali, believed it was a warning from the anti-Assad camp.

"The man, he shot him in the legs to make him a cripple and to give him warning (that) that's the first warning, that's what that means to me. It's the first warning -- 'We make you cripple, next time you're going to be dead'."

Police investigated, but they have provided no further details on any progress.

Another Alawi Muslim, who wanted to be know only as John, told SBS Online how tensions have risen in his south west Sydney suburb, Greenacre.

"Since the uprising, this area has actually changed. We found a lot of extremists and fanatical people coming in. (Reporter: When you say "extremists," are you referring to Sunni or Alawi or Shi'a?) Extreme Sunni. (Reporter: What is it, exactly, that makes you feel threatened?) If they find out that you're an Alawi, they will actually attack. They will say something."

The speaker was referring to verbal attacks, even people refused service at shops because of their apparent political affiliations.

Those affiliations, in the opinion of many in the community, could have repercussions for family back in Syria.

Asma Fahmi, a Syrian community worker who identifies as Sunni, explained to SBS Online people are reluctant to speak because everything is monitored in Syria.

"For many decades, Syrian people were not able to speak out against the Government, and, if they did, they would be kidnapped and tortured. And there's many accounts of that. So this is quite new for a lot of people, and you find a lot of people will not speak about this. The majority of the Syrian community are still refusing to speak. It still affects them, even in Australia, because they feel that there are people in Sydney who are still monitoring them, and so you hear constantly (that) most people refuse to speak out because they're worried about what would happen to their family and loved ones back home."

The impact of the Syrian uprising leaves many in the Syrian Australian community confused about their allegiances.

For Asma Fahmi, it is not simply a war between the sects.

She says it can also come down to being pro- or anti-dictatorship.

"It's a generalisation to say that one particular sect supports the Government because the Syrian Government is a part of that sect. I have Shi'a friends, for instance, who are against what the Syrian Government is currently doing to its people. I'm well aware of Alawis who are also against what's happening and Druze who are also against what's happening. This is being reported, where they've seen a divide between the older generation and the younger generation, who are questioning what the Government is doing."

The western and Arab support for Syria's opposition coalition worries some in the Syrian Australian community.

Sydney doctor Antoine Barich, who describes himself as an independent on Syrian politics, says Syria is on the road to becoming another Iraq.

Dr Barich says peace talks between the government of Bashar al-Assad and those opposing it are the only way to take Syria forward.

"As an independent, I think anybody who will not support peace talk between the government and the coalition and thinking of paying for guns and military action would likely destroy Syria, like in Iraq. In Iraq, the Americans stayed for 10 years, and they couldn't restore it. I mean, 300,000 American soldiers have been in Iraq, and they're still bombing and still bombarding the cities. And it's still divided, the north does not agree with the south, and so there is no united nation in Iraq, there is no central government that can really spread all its military around all the land in Iraq. And then we say, 'Look, so, we need democracy.' So if this is a democracy ..."