Middle East

Australian delegation condemned for Syria visit

There's been strong criticism of a group of Australians for going to Syria to meet President Assad.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The world appears to have stepped away from military intervention in Syria since a Russian-brokered deal in September for the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapons.

But the reaction in Australia this week after a delegation of Australians met the Syrian President suggests opinions have not shifted in his favour.

Representatives of the Coalition government and the Labor opposition have condemned the Australians' visit.

As Kerri Worthington reports, the delegation has dismissed the criticism.

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The Department of Foreign Affairs has warned Australians from travelling to Syria because of the ongoing conflict that's seen tens-of-thousands killed since it began in March 2011.

But a group that included WikiLeaks Party members and academics who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has spent several days in Damascus meeting the President and other senior officials.

Sydney University politics lecturer Tim Anderson says his organisation Hands Off Syria requested the meeting because it wanted to show solidarity with the Syrian people.

"It was also aimed at the Syrian people to say 'Look, not all Australians are supporting this war against you'. We had a Foreign Minister in this country that called for the assassination of President Assad some months ago, and that wasn't exactly the high point in Australian diplomacy. We were there to say we have friendly people in this country that support the right of the Syrian people to choose their own political system without foreign-funded terrorism. The second aim was to inform ourselves, to meet as wide a range (of Syrians) as possible."

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has condemned the visit, telling the ABC the delegation's actions risked involving Australia in the Syrian conflict.

"Exceedingly reckless. It's certainly counter-productive. It is not in support of the sanctions regime that Australia has in place. In fact it risks undermining the sanctions regime that we have in place and it risks aligning Australia with one side of the conflict in Syria, which is something that we would not do."

Senior opposition MP Chris Bowen has also criticised WikiLeaks for its meeting with President Assad.

Another delegation member, Jamal Daoud, who's a member of the national council of the WikiLeaks Party, says much of the rest of the world is willing to engage with President Assad.

"What Julie Bishop was saying, and Chris Bowen, is baseless and even outrageous because what they are doing is they wanted Australia to be marginalised on international arena because the Russians, the Indians, Chinese, Venezuelans, and I can go on and on, officials are meeting with President Assad and the Syrian government in a bid to reach a solution for the deadly crisis."

Critics say the delegation's visit will be used by the Syrian leadership as propaganda to show it has international support.

Syria's official SANA news agency reported the president had told the delegation Syria is under pressure from Sunni Muslim extremists.

The Syrian president also announced via Twitter that the delegation had met him.

The tweet included a photograph of the group, with Dr Tim Anderson sitting next to the president.

Dr Anderson says while he's not surprised by the ire his meeting attracted, it is misplaced.

"People in Western cultures form impressions very rapidly without reading very much and looking for the Hollywood 'goodies' and baddies'. But there are particular interests here too. The US has a project, it's been announced publicly, it's no secret that they want to dominate the Middle East. There's only two countries that don't have US military bases installed in that whole region, that's Syria and Iran. So there's a whole project on the part of our ruling cultures to say that here's this terrible monster killing his own people. So they create pretexts for war and the media has fallen in line with those campaigns."

Tim Anderson does concede, though, that the Assad government is not without fault.

"Oh there's room for criticism for any government, but to create a pretext to attack a country on the the basis of their political system is, frankly, illegal and against all concepts of human rights. The people who are funding the attacks on Syria at the moment, what most people in Syria regard as foreign financed and backed and mostly foreign participation in terrorism are the Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia, the least democratic of all the regimes in the region. Syria, to look at the positive side, is the only real secular, let's say pluralist nation in the region."




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