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Tonight on Insight - the conflict in Syria

JENNY BROCKIE: Hi, I'm Jenny Brockie, welcome everybody, good to have you with us tonight. Youssef, I'd like to start with you, you left Syria in January last year?


JENNY BROCKIE: Just a few weeks, I think, before the protests began, yes?


JENNY BROCKIE: And your family stayed behind in Daraa where the protests started last year?


JENNY BROCKIE: What's happened to them since?

YOUSSEF HARARI: Well, to be his honest my brother has been in gaol for more than nine months. He was arrested for no reason. He was coming back home from work and he was caught in, you know, in some random arrest spree by the regime forces.

JENNY BROCKIE: And you have another brother who was killed?

YOUSSEF HARARI: Yeah, my eldest brother, he died a couple of months ago.

JENNY BROCKIE: What happened to him?

YOUSSEF HARARI: He was kidnapped then given four bullets in the head, left in the woods. We were shocked. He's got four boys, I mean, terrible.

JENNY BROCKIE: Were your brothers activists? Were they part of the Free Syrian Army?

YOUSSEF HARARI: Just a school teacher, wasn't a part of the Syrian army or the Syrian free army. He's just a school teacher and I have no idea why he was killed. I mean they just randomly select people and slaughter them for no apparent reason and that is just unexplainable.

JENNY BROCKIE: Samir, you have relatives in Tartus?


JENNY BROCKIE: Is that right, which is an Assad government strong hold. Tell us what happened to your uncle?

SAMIR SULMAN: My uncle, he's a farmer, he was going with his friends to sell the vegies and the strawberries and on the way going to Damascus to the market, as they turning to a place called Joba, some armed group shoot them and kill them and stab them with an axe.

JENNY BROCKIE: Now why were they killed? Why - who, who killed them?

SAMIR SULMAN: Some of the armed group, as I said, start shooting.

JENNY BROCKIE: So you're saying the rebel group, rebel groups did this?

SAMIR SULMAN: When I say, exactly, that's what was there because they had a fight after that with the government.

JENNY BROCKIE: And how do you know it was the rebel groups that did it?

SAMIR SULMAN: From the investigation of what's happened.

JENNY BROCKIE: So your uncle was, he wasn't killed immediately?


JENNY BROCKIE: What happened?

SAMIR SULMAN: His friend was killed immediately and he has been taken to a hospital with some other victims, they wasn't there at the same time.

JENNY BROCKIE: And was your uncle, was your uncle aligned with the Assad government? Was he pro Assad?

SAMIR SULMAN: Yeah, he was supporter.

JENNY BROCKIE: And you believe that's why he was targeted?

SAMIR SULMAN: That's what I believe, yeah, and especially he's from a city, everyone knows in Syria they really supporting the President.

JENNY BROCKIE: Mohamad, you live in Aleppo, a key battle ground in this conflict. You're a supporter of the Assad government, why?

MOHAMAD: Why not? Actually there are so many reasons for me to support this government. It's not the Assad government, it's actually the legitimate Syrian government and for me it's, it's kind of my duty to actually support this government that I've actually voted for repeatedly.

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay. Tell us what's happening in Aleppo at the moment because we're hearing a lot about it in the news and a lot about shelling and so on by the Assad forces. Is that what's happening near you?

MOHAMAD: See - mortar shells have fell nearby just because the area is a Christian majority area and those mortar shells are, you know, fall on us every day just because I live, I happen to live in a Christian majority area. And they all come from east of Aleppo which is under, which is under the so called Free Syrian Army control.

JENNY BROCKIE: But we also know that they're shelling by the Assad forces too of Aleppo and we know that, we know there's been fighting there?

MOHAMAD: Yeah, yeah, I mean that's, when, when armed men occupy people's houses and kick them out of it, it immediately turns into a target. We can't just leave them in there and actually I wouldn't mind my own house being shelled by the Syrian army if the so-called Free Syrian Army occupy it.

JENNY BROCKIE: What if you were killed?

MOHAMAD: Um, usually we abandon hour our houses when they arrive into the area and that explains the large numbers of refugees in Aleppo and outside it as well.

JENNY BROCKIE: Now you're Sunni and you support the government. Can you explain to me why you support the Assad government?

MOHAMAD: I don't know why this sectarianism, you know, is really important, but this government is a secular government and have provided us with a certain way of life that we can't let those so-called, you know, those extremists, those what have you, you know, people to control our way of lives. We can't just abandon Syria and let it become into Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. I have for 24 years, I have grown up in this country, you know, living in my own building there are Armenians, there are Christians, there are Kurds, there are Sunnis, there are Alawites in my own building and we have lived together for decades, for centuries, and we can't just let some extremists and even sometimes coming from outside Syria to impose their own way of life on us.

JENNY BROCKIE: Tamer, you're an orthopaedic surgeon in Sydney and you're just back from Aleppo. You support the rebels, what's your response to this?

DR TAMER KAHIL: I think everything that he said should be discredited and I wonder why he's covering his face to start with? I was there, I went for humanitarian aid, trying to help the injured people and I worked in one of the field hospitals. The government is deliberately targeting civilians every day, around the clock, every five to ten minutes there is a bomb. There is a rocket. There is a barrel probably between 250 kilograms to 1,000 kilograms dropped from a helicopter, knocks down a five storey building.

JENNY BROCKIE: Well you filmed your trip, didn't you?

DR TAMER KAHIL: I did, absolutely and I did.

JENNY BROCKIE: Let's have a look at some of that footage and if you could talk us through what we're seeing here. I should warn people that some of this footage may disturb them.

DR TAMER KAHIL: That's only five minutes after I arrived and this woman - I was actually in the change room getting ready and this lady, I heard an explosion probably about fifteen minutes prior to this, and I think that she died on the table. That child is dead, had shrapnel through his chest. This fellow here had a severe injury to his chest and look at the blood. This child lost his mother and you see, you see the dead people now?


DR TAMER KAHIL: And this fellow, look at him, he has a head injury, his forearm, his arm, he's civilian, they're all civilians there, right? I didn't think….

JENNY BROCKIE: And how do you know that they've all been either killed or wounded by the Assad government? How do you know that they haven't been caught in other conflict?

DR TAMER KAHIL: Because the type of weapons they using. It's not homemade weapons, these are Russian made weapons and I've seen it with my own eyes.

JENNY BROCKIE: Hanadi, you're looking like…



HANADI ASSOUD: Because this is, he's already got a agenda. He already - therefore I will discredit him because he's got an agenda, and what that guy is saying is correct. I have family there, they're telling us what's going on.

JENNY BROCKIE: And what are they telling you?

HANADI ASSOUD: They are telling us that they've been targeted, being the minority. If you are not with them….

JENNY BROCKIE: Targeted by whom?

HANADI ASSOUD: By the rebels. They come in - you see I come from Homs, from the same city the doctor comes from. We, the area that I know, this - I mean mother Agnes was here, she said that 80,000 Christians were forced out of Homs. So other, it is true and mother…

DR TAMER KAHIL: It's not, I'm from Homs.

HANADI ASSOUD: I'm sorry, can I finish?

JENNY BROCKIE: Yeah, yeah, just let her finish what she's saying, I'll come to you in a minute, just let her finish what she's saying.

HANADI ASSOUD: And when she came, she was in Australia and she was interviewed. She said, and I know a lot of people, we have Christians here, they can tell you their stories as well. They have families, they've 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".

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, gentleman here.

MOHAMMAD EL HAMWI, AUSTRALIAN SYRIAN ASSOCIATION: Yes, I'm from Homs, my name is Mohammad El Hamwi, 32 members of my family were dead, murdered. Four of them beheaded between 7 years old and 11. They refused to leave. Who refused to leave from inside those suburbs, they were beheaded?

HANADI ASSOUD: Can you prove it?

MOHAMMAD EL HAMWI: I prove it. I am the spokesperson for them inside in Syria.

HANADI ASSOUD: Yes, but do you have facts, do you have pictures? Can you prove….

JENNY BROCKIE: But there are independent verifications of atrocities on both sides. I mean the UN independent commission, the UN independent commission has said there have been atrocities by both sides but the atrocities on the Assad side are on a greater scale, they're more severe and they're more common.

HANADI ASSOUD: If they have combat in civilian areas what do you expect? They use them as human shields. So therefore it's expected. But why if they want to you fight a government why don't they go fight them in a place where there's no civilians? If they care about the people of Syria, they care about civilians, why use them as human shields? Why force the people outside their houses and use their house? Is that how you fight?

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, Tamer, it's a good point?

DR TAMER KAHIL: Yeah, I think the lady in here, she heard some stories which could be true but we must look into it in-depth. Who did this? It's the government that actually set up things where they can hire people or force people from any sect to do something against the other.

JENNY BROCKIE: But are you saying the rebels aren't involved in any atrocities?

DR TAMER KAHIL: The rebels never, ever done what she said.

JENNY BROCKIE: How can you know that?

DR TAMER KAHIL: Because I've met them. I've been there. I have been there. Have any of you guys been there?

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, okay, I'm going to go to different points of view throughout the evening, I'm going to go to different points of view here. Nadia in Melbourne, I wanted to ask you about this listening to this. I mean do you acknowledge there are atrocities being committed by the Assad government?

NADIA: I think that in this type of environment you may actually have, I'd say, maybe casualties on both sides, but I think it might be a little bit difficult for the Syrian army to go in and behead people in a rebel controlled area. Babaspar was a rebel controlled area. My own cousin has been beheaded by the Free Syrian Army while he was on the way to work with his business partner. Now they looked at his ID card and they found that he's, my cousin was a minority, they beat him up, they tortured him and finally they behead him. So their freedom cost my cousin his head.

A couple of days later obviously the army found him thrown on the side of the road. They contacted his parents then and told them to pick up his body from the national hospital in Homs. That same night they received a call from the rebels that had kidnapped and killed him and told them they had possession of his head and if they wanted his head back they were to pay them 200,000 Syrian pounds. They chopped his head off and then they decide to ask for a ransom for his head. So that is what we're dealing with, with the Free Syrian Army.

I have another cousin who was shot to death with her husband in front of their little child while they were on the way back home in Homs. They were visiting family and their car, on the way back their car was just pelleted with bullets. Now this story came from their son because his father had told him to drop to the ground of the car so that he wouldn't be killed. Obviously he had seen the car with the armed men. This child is now orphaned, he's living with daily nightmares of his parents being killed in front of him and since then have had another three family members that have also been killed. Many have been displaced from their homes and others have been threatened.

JENNY BROCKIE: What I'm trying to get a sense of is whether any of you are prepared to acknowledge that there are atrocities going on against civilians on both sides?

SAAD BARAZI: Of course there are, of course of there.

MOHAMMAD EL HAMWI: But the one he got the power..

AUDIENCE: There are atrocities on both sides.

JENNY BROCKIE: I'm talking about civilians. Saad, yeah?

SAAD BARAZI: Jenny, of course there are atrocities on both sides but you don't expect one side over other when they see atrocities on that side not to behaviour in a similar way on their side. I mean come on - two wrongs don't make it right. Now it is known that the Syrian army of the government is not a Syrian army, it has elements coming from Iran and it's been proven beyond doubt it has elements coming from Hezbollah in Lebanon and it has been proven beyond any doubt. The armed shipment from Russian is continuously arriving to Tartus base. But the Free Syrian Army also is not what it started. It started with defectors from the army who could not bear the thought of being ordered to kill their own people. But with the time that it has taken so long, it has nearly become two years now since the start of the rebel, the rebellion, there are other elements that came into Syria. Everybody knows, we have people who are supporting Syrian free army now who are coming from everywhere.

AUDIENCE: I was making a point here, he's saying it took up to two years, two years for foreign elements to start coming into the country. From Turkey, from Lebanon, now if it's taken up to two years, what does this show you about the general public? The general public is still, the majority is still….

JENNY BROCKIE: So you're saying that the general public supports the Assad government?

AUDIENCE: Definitely, definitely, the majority, let me just finish

ZAKY MALLAH: Let him hold a free election. Let Assad

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, okay, no, no, no don't talk over him. Go on.

AUDIENCE: So from what we can see at the moment, the majority of the people are with the Assad regime.

JENNY BROCKIE: Why is there so much fighting then? Why is there so much resistance and why have….

AUDIENCE: Well it's believed at the moment, it's believed at the moment, there's independent verifications also, that 30 to 40 percent of the terrorists that are fighting in Syria actually are from outside the country.

JENNY BROCKIE: Saad, what about this idea? I mean you say outside influences coming in, but what about outside influences coming into the Free Syrian Army as well?

SAAD BARAZI: That's what I'm saying, the regime has allowed this to happen. The regime should have found the solution initially when the people went down the street peacefully, they did not even carry a knife, month in, month out.

JENNY BROCKIE: So what do you think then of the battle that's being waged by the Free Syrian Army at the moment and the composition of the Free Syrian Army?

SAAD BARAZI: The Free Syrian Army have no choice but to fight. They can't go back any more. There is more than 40,000 people killed, more than 70,000 disappeared and nobody knows where they are. Even with Bashar Assad himself admitting that there is 70,000 in gaols. I mean what's happening to the Syrian people?

JENNY BROCKIE: Mohamad, you wanted to say something?

MOHAMAD: I wanted to say a lot about this. Firstly, when they talk about the Syrian army being a non Syrian, that's a huge lie because my cousin in this army from day one has been for two years with the Syrian Arab army defending his post and I'll be joining the Syrian army soon in Shallah. The fact that there are, there are so many, so many Turks, Afghans, Libyans, Tunisians. Every day we see them first hand, we see them with our own eyes. With the so-called Free Syrian Army.

JENNY BROCKIE: Rodger, what did you want to say because you're, a - you've served as UN military observer in South Lebanon and Syria.

RODGER SHANAHAN, LOWY INSTITUTE: But the way I look at it is there is, you know, there is no right side in this. If there was a right side at the start, those days have well and truly past us.

JENNY BROCKIE: Why do you say that, if there was a right side at the start that's gone?

RODGER SHANAHAN: You know, the reaction of the Assad government at the start exacerbated the situation. I think prematurely the opposition in Syria got overtaken by elements who wanted to militarise the fight and as soon as that decision was taken, whether it was conscious or unconscious, it's led down to the path where we are 18 months hence. And the kind of strategic location that Syria is in, inevitably meant that other countries would become involved, other individuals would come involved on both sides of the conflict. And now it's, we are irrevocably intertwined in a greater regional, in a greater sectarian conflict and the centre of that is Syria.

JENNY BROCKIE: I think it's a very difficult conflict for people outside that region to understand too in all that complexity?

RODGER SHANAHAN: This, I don't think at the moment and in contemporary conflicts it doesn't get more complex than Syria is.

JENNY BROCKIE: And why is that?

RODGER SHANAHAN: Because it has every element that you would, every intractable element that you would not want into a conflict if you wanted to try and resolve that conflict. I mean you can just even see in here, hearsay becomes fact, conspiracy theories abound. My cousin told me this - that becomes the fact, therefore I'm going to react in that way. Very few people look at it objectively and you know, a good example….

JENNY BROCKIE: It's difficult to look at it objectively if you've lost relatives and lost family members though?

RODGER SHANAHAN: Exactly, but you know, one of the questions that people ask is why isn't the west intervening? And the reason the west is not intervening is because western decision makers step back and look at it objectively and say here is the Assad regime which is delegitimised in most western capitals. It's waging a very difficult battle against widespread opposition, and yet nobody feels comfortable in supporting the opposition because nobody knows who's is in charge of it. Nobody knows what they stand for. There is no unity in the opposition and if you can't unify the opposition when you're up against the Assad regime, when if there is one thing that should be able to unify you, it's against what you consider to be an oppressive regime, if you can't unify in those circumstances what hope have you got of unifying when you're dividing the spoils up after it, which is exactly the reason why the west is not going to support the opposition until they can get a handle on who they are, who's in charge of it, who you can deal with. So from an objective observer outside, Syria is a massively complex problem and neither side is right.

JENNY BROCKIE: And Mounjed, I wonder what you think listening to that because I know that you're Christian and you're against the Assad government. You're anti Assad?

DR MOUNJED DAGHER: I'm actually against….

JENNY BROCKIE: But you're sort of anti rebel as well yes?

DR MOUNJED DAGHER: I'm against the violence that's being perpetrated by both sides.

JENNY BROCKIE: Tell us what your view is?

DR MOUNJED DAGHER: I think, I think what's - I totally agree with Roger. I think what started as a popular movement with legitimate grievances. I think the regime wasted a chance by the forceful response at that time to the popular movement. But the popular movement itself was quickly hijacked by external factors. I think once the opposition took up arms, I think it lost the high moral ground by two ways. First, by the violent tactics. Secondly by alliance with reactionary regimes like the Gulf countries - I don't think you can ask the Gulf countries to help you in a democratic cause. I think that's - and then we've been hearing calls for international intervention. I think calls for such an intervention, if that happens I think would look, the killings that's happening at the moment look like a picnic because it would just double or triple, quadruple the number of….

JENNY BROCKIE: So where does that leave you in terms of what you want for Syria?

DR MOUNJED DAGHER: I don't think we can look, I don't think we can look at the Syrian uprising in the same romantic way that we did on March 15 when it first started. I think now it's turned into an armed conflict and I think for the Syrian people, they, the Syrian people ask for democratic reforms, for end of corruption, but I don't think they asked for, um, a violent opposition as well with extremist elements. Although the mainstream of the opposition is not extremist but there's extremist elements in the opposition.

JENNY BROCKIE: Mimi, you're Syrian, your background is Syrian and you're Sunni, yes? And you're a staunch critic of the rebels, why?

MIMI EL LAHAM: Well I think this whole debate is ignoring the main point here which is that the rebel uprising or the democratic uprising is not that, it's a Muslim brotherhood uprising. The Muslim brotherhood was the main opposition group in Syria for the last 40 years and they're the ones that want to remove the secular government and I'm not a government supporter. I am for the reform process, just like the majority of the Syrian people, but the fact is before you interrupt me sir…

JENNY BROCKIE: Let her finish.

MIMI EL LAHAM: The fact is it is American and NATO governments and Israel that are funding these Al Quaeda terrorists and Muslim brotherhood extremists and that is the point that everybody here is missing. And the fact is that, excuse me sir but you do have a stake in Syria because we have Russia emerging as a super power and you have China emerging as a super power and you want America and NATO want to control the Mediterranean Sea. They want to cut off this now pipeline deal that is happening between Syria, Iraq and Iran. They want to cut off ties between Syria and Iran which is why these people hate Iran so much and why these sectarians are against any unity between Syria and Iran, because they want to see Syria get destroyed and that is what this is about, destroying Syria.

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, Youssef?

YOUSSEF HARARI: Yeah, I mean, made a point talking about the Muslim brotherhood, back in 1980's the father's regime oppressed that revolution which resulted in more than 40,000 people killed in Hama, in 1982 to be precise. I mean if we wanted to talk…

JENNY BROCKIE: Can I just put to you this point about who the Free Syrian Army is? I mean who is the Free Syrian Army? What is it made up of, who is it made up of?

YOUSSEF HARARI: If you want to address the issue you have to look at the root causes as to why the Syrian army sprung up. For the first seven months it was a peaceful protest. Peaceful…

WOMAN: Jenny, can I just…

JENNY BROCKIE: No, no, you can wait until he's finished.

YOUSSEF HARARI: It was a peaceful protest against the government and no one paid attention and the Syrians after day and day of killing an average of 50 people dying on a daily basis, they decided to take matters in their own hands and no one sided with the people. For the first seven months, if you look at the UN reports, it was a peaceful protest and may I just remind you of something? The casualties were report amongst the anti regime protestors. And there were pro regime protests and none of them were targeted.

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, let me ask the question again, who is the Free Syrian Army, Tamer?

DR TAMER KAHIL: They are several types of people. The first and the majority are the defectors from the Syrian army where they refused to shoot and they had no way but to go and form groups by themselves to protect themselves and protect the peaceful demonstrators. Another group are those who are local civilians where their loved people got killed or has been evacuated from their places and started forming groups to protect, to prevent the killing of their own families. And these are becoming now united with the regular Free Syrian Army who are the defectors. There is a third group that are coming from outside the Jihadists, let's call them, and they are a minority. They're not the major fighters.

JENNY BROCKIE: Alright, can I get a response? So who are you - who are you saying the Free Syrian Army is?

MIMI EL LAHAM: The Free Syrian Army are Jihadists from Libya and Yemen, part of them are Al Quaeda affiliated, whatever you call Al Quaeda.

JENNY BROCKIE: Rodger, would you like to say what you think the Free Syrian Army is made up of and who is fighting whom?

RODGER SHANAHAN: Yeah, it's a series of smaller groups, normally regionally based, and there are large number of defectors in there. There are also a large number of Syrians, ordinary Syrians.

SAAD BARAZI: Volunteers.

RODGER SHANAHAN: Ordinary Syrians who have taken up arms. There are also Jihadists. The greater issue is who is funding which element. It is who is the best funded out of them and again there have been increasingly, an increasing number of disturbing reports that, you know, the Qatarese and the Saudis are not particularly diligent about where their money and weapons go. So then there becomes a competition for these internally and that's again one of the reasons why the west is not providing lethal aid to what we call the Free Syrian Army because unless you contract the supply chain from the point at which you put a weapon or finances to the point at which that person at the other end has that weapon, you have no control over the end user. And that's another reason why people are not keen on supporting the Free Syrian Army outside of Syria because nobody is exactly sure who they are, what their command chain is and what…..

JENNY BROCKIE: Well they don't have commander, do they? Do they have a commanding officer?

RODGER SHANAHAN: They have two competing commanders who call themselves a commander but in reality they're much stronger regionally. So they're smaller elements that are self contained but they need external support for logistics and finances, and that's where the issue is.

JENNY BROCKIE: Zaky, you've just been to Syria and you've made contact with the Free Syrian Army. What were you doing there?

ZAKY MALLAH: I wanted to go see the situation for myself. As an Australian, I wanted to know what's going on face value. I've never travelled to the Middle East in my life, this is the first time mind you.

JENNY BROCKIE: So were you fighting with them?

ZAKY MALLAH: I was not fighting, no, I went there to record and my video's on Utube.

JENNY BROCKIE: Well your video is on Utube and I just wonder why this photo is part of that video. Can we have a look at the photo?

ZAKY MALLAH: That's a beautiful photo.

JENNY BROCKIE: Why is it - if you weren't fighting then why is that?

ZAKY MALLAH: That's an AK, that's correct Jenny, that's an AK and the Free Syrian Army armed me with that and I told them that it is against Australian law that if I was to take up arms and engage in combat, I will be charged when I go back home, so they took that off.

JENNY BROCKIE: If it had been legal to fight, would you have fought?

ZAKY MALLAH: If the Australian government today gives me the green line to go to the front line tomorrow, to Aleppo, I'll be out of here within twenty four hours.

JENNY BROCKIE: Now you have a Lebanese ground, yes?

ZAKY MALLAH: That's correct, yes.

JENNY BROCKIE: What's your interest in the Syrian conflict then?

ZAKY MALLAH: The whole world is interested in Syria.

JENNY BROCKIE: In Syria? What is it you're fighting for?

ZAKY MALLAH: I've been there once, I came back you a few weeks ago, this is my position. If the Australian government can clear me tonight to go and fight against this terrorist, thuggish dictator of a President that he is, which you call doctor, Dr Assad, if the government could give me permission to fight for freedom, I will be there within twenty four hours because it is the revolutionists, these Syrian individuals who at first democratically went to the streets of Syria to hold free elections, to have freedom, to have democracy and then they got killed, they got bombed, they got shot.

JENNY BROCKIE: Alright, can I then ask you, I mean you have been gaoled here under the anti terrorism legislation.

ZAKY MALLAH: Acquitted too, before you jump to any conclusions I was acquitted of terrorism charges.

JENNY BROCKIE: But you were gaoled for threatening to harm ASIO and Department of Foreign Affairs officials. Now I want to ask you what sort of government you would like to see in Syria?

ZAKY MALLAH: I want a government that the Syrians themselves find acceptable which is freedom. If they couldn't democracy, then so be it. If they want Sharia law they are entitled to it. If they want anything else other than what I've mentioned, then they are entitled, they are the ones that are choosing. I cannot say what they should be choosing.

JENNY BROCKIE: Do you see, okay, I'll come to you in a moment Saad. Do you see yourself you as a Jihadist?

ZAKY MALLAH: No, I see myself as freedom fighter, if I was to go and fight the front line because the Free Syrian Army are fighting for one thing Jenny. They are fighting for freedom against an oppressive, barbaric regime that is killing. Up to 30,000 people have been killed so far. AKs, 40,000 AKs versus tanks and planes and you're telling me that the FSA are terrorists? Shame on you guys, shame on you.

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, alright, everyone wants to say something. Yes, Samir?

SAMIR SULMAN: He said, he said, he said it's been a peaceful protest from the start. My uncle has been killed in April, 23rd of April, it's not after six months or nine months of 2011. So after one month, exactly one month from all the uprising start. I've been two times and from March to April I've been in Syria and from August to September I was there. So what I say every day some people dying, every day, that's innocent people and every day a police officer's dying every day. Who's killing them?

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, do you think the Free Syrian Army is a cohesive organisation?


JENNY BROCKIE: And why doesn't it have a commanding officer? Why is there no single commander?

DR TAMER KAHIL: They do have a commanding officer called Mr Al-Asaad and there is another one that's helping him. The other speaker mentioned that they are not in good terms or probably competing, that's not true. I met Mr Al-Asaad and I met Mr Shiv as well. They do have some differences in there, in the tactics, but they have one, one aim and the way to implement it is different. And that's natural in each revolution.

JENNY BROCKIE: Nick Kaldas, you've been very patient listening to all this. You're a Deputy Police Commissioner in New South Wales and you've also taken a keen interest in the region as well. Are you worried about these sort of tensions existing in the local community?

NICK KALDAS, NSW DEPUTY POLICE COMMISSIONER: I think what's happening in Syria is a monumental tragedy and it's difficult listening to the stories here tonight not to have an enormous amount of sympathy. But what we have to keep in mind in Sydney here, and the police certainly do, while we understand that the events in the Middle East, affect people greatly whatever happens over there can never be an excuse to break the law here or hurt someone or damage property or worse.

JENNY BROCKIE: And is that happening?

NICK KALDAS: There have been a few sporadic incidents but no, overall I'd say most people, while their passionate about their views, have not gone out and, you know, broken the law in large numbers or anything like that.

JENNY BROCKIE: Are you concerned about people here going over there to, potentially to fight or going, travelling between the countries?

NICK KALDAS: I'd be concerned about people - anyone from Sydney going to fight near Jihadi battle anywhere else.

JENNY BROCKIE: Well it's illegal?

NICK KALDAS: It is illegal. All of that is a matter for the federal government, not for us. But if I just make the point Jenny, I am an Arab, I was born and brought up in Egypt and I've got 30 years in the police here. I'm proud of my Egyptian background but I'm even more proud of being Australian and that's what everyone has to keep in mind here. We cannot jeopardise the paradise that we have here because of what's happening somewhere else in the world.

JENNY BROCKIE: Well let's have a look at just how much some of those tensions are spilling over here.


VICTIM: I was in a rally….supporting the Syrian government. It was a peaceful rally, we had no problems. We all finished the rally peacefully, everybody go home.

Me, my wife and kids catch the train from Martin Place to Sydenham, at Sydenham we had to change for a bus and that is where the trouble started.

I was waiting at a bus station, I was having a cigarette and some guys come in. There were six of them - young people, between 20 and 25, something like that. Strong-built.

Because I had a poster of the Syrian President and the flags, they asked me “Do you like that guy?” I said yes. Next minute I can remember nothing. They just….bashed me up.

Maybe they followed me from the city, I’m not sure, but I saw them waiting in front of the train station.

They talked to me in Arabic, they were Middle Eastern people, I reckon they were Wahhabis or something like that, they had beads but no moustaches. I remember they hit me with steel on my head, there was blood everywhere.

The police came, the ambulance took me to the hospital and I got broken ribs, broken spine, I got stitches in my eye and my head. And I stay off work for a couple of months.

My wife and my two kids, they witnessed everything and my wife tried to push them away from me and they didn’t go. My wife she’s always, you know upset and scared about that. I’m very concerned about safety because these people are animals - what they have done is animal.

JENNY BROCKIE: There's laughter here from some of you, why? Tamer, why laughter?

DR TAMER KAHIL: Discrepancy in his speech. He said the first thing that he remembers was the hit and then he didn't remember anything and he gave explicit explanation of what happened after that. And he used the word Wahhabi, which is slang.

JENNY BROCKIE: But he has got medical reports, we've seen the medical reports.

DR TAMER KAHIL: Look, whatever account that he's given is possibly true. But the way that he is presenting it and saying that he knew that they were Wahhabis from their language, right, is absolutely crap.

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, do you all condemn what happened to him?

SAAD BARAZI: I condemn what happened to him.

ZAKY MALLAH: I get a lot of death threats in my inbox, I mean a lot of people know who I am because a lot of people know that I came from back Aleppo and everyone knows that I'm a strong supporter of FSA.

DR TAMER KAHIL: I have two occasions in my surgery, in my office, right? People come and put posters in there for Assad because they know that I'm anti regime.

JENNY BROCKIE: Nick, I want to go back to that tape piece that we had before with that man. Are you aware of that case?

NICK KALDAS: I am. It is currently being investigated and I don't think there's any doubt, he was definitely beaten up. He ended up in hospital, it happened on the 5th of August and the police are investigating it at the moment.

JENNY BROCKIE: And where is that up to at the moment?

NICK KALDAS: We haven't arrested anyone at the moment but it's still under investigation.

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, and have you seen much of this happening in Sydney?

NICK KALDAS: That's probably the only case of such an extreme nature. There have been other - you know, incidents where people have pushed and shoved and a few other things that have happened but they're very small numbers and we certainly hope they don't increase.

JENNY BROCKIE: Nadia in Melbourne, you say that you fear for your family's safety, why?

NADIA: Absolutely, because I had a visit one weekend from - I would call them Salafis or what have you, extremist Muslims, mainly for the same reason they had the big long beard, they looked specifically like the guys that are fighting in Syria basically. Now what happened is they came to my house - there was four of them, there were two adults…

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, can we listen please? Can we just listen to this story? Yes, go on.

NADIA: Two adult males and two children with them, they seemed to be in their early teens. Now they came and they greeted me in the Islamic greeting where obviously I'd heard some stories of them doorknocking. Now I was terrified when I saw them through my security door, I was absolutely petrified. I've got four little boys in the house that were absolutely terrified looking at him through the door.

JENNY BROCKIE: But were you threatened Nadia?

NADIA: I wasn't threatened because I didn't tell him, honestly I don't know what he wanted but I didn't tell him that I was Muslim and I didn't tell him that I was the person he was after. No, I've reported it to the police immediately. After I told them they had the wrong house they went to my neighbour's house and asked them about me, and that has all been reported to the police.

JENNY BROCKIE: Mounjed, what did you want to say?

DR MOUNJED DAGHER: I think in the heated argument between the diehard supporters of the regime and the diehard supporters of the opposition, there's another opposition in the middle which is being overlooked I think which is represented by lots of intellectuals and some groups which actually sits in the middle. So I think it's important we acknowledge there's another opposition in the middle that is, that's got the interests of the Syrian population at heart and I think they have, they're calling for peaceful demonstration for democracy for reform, without actually being aligned with the west or the Gulf countries and without taking up arms.

JENNY BROCKIE: Tonight we're talking about the future of Syria. Mohamad, you've made it clear that you're a supporter of the Assad government. Do you think it needs to reform?

MOHAMAD: Of course, any government is subject to corruption and that's just the way things go. But there are, there is a difference between the so-called corruption and extremism and I would definitely support reforms that have been so far implemented widely and vastly along the government, all over the government. But yeah, we still need, definitely still need more reforms and that's just natural.

JENNY BROCKIE: Alright. Saad, your response?

SAAD BARAZI: What kind of reform is he talking about? I mean if he's talking about the reform of more freedom for the people it doesn't exist. If he's talking about more reform to the parliament, it doesn't exist.

JENNY BROCKIE: What sort of government do you want to see in Syria Saad?

SAAD BARAZI: I want a free democratic government, elected on the free ballot box, not by the gun, and I also want it to represent all factions of the Syrian people without exception.

JENNY BROCKIE: Mimi, Mimi, what sort of government do you want?

MIMI EL LAHAM: Of course I would like to see a government that has less corruption but also maintains our foreign policy which is of the utmost importance because we have an imperialist, Zionist entity right next door to us, Israel, which is funded by NATO and the whole crisis is being created by our enemies, Israel, NATO, America…

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, can I just ask you though, do you want Assad to survive?

MIMI EL LAHAM: Right now, Assad has to survive because his replacement is going to be Islamic extremist, the Muslim brotherhood. A Zionist puppet.

JENNY BROCKIE: But do you want him to survive?

MIMI EL LAHAM: I want him to survive for now.

JENNY BROCKIE: But do you want him to run Syria? Is he the person you want running your country?

MIMI EL LAHAM: I want to run Syria, eventually, okay?

JENNY BROCKIE: You want to?

MIMI EL LAHAM: Right now I see that the fall of the Assad regime would be a disaster for my country because it would turn into another Afghanistan.

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, Yehya, can ask you what sort of government you want in Syria?

YEHYA EL-KHOLED: I want a democratic government that respects obviously the minorities and you know, like again like my brother said here, we are one hand and if you don't want to believe that's how I feel, I'm not going to fall for this little game of divide and conquer kind of thing. Youse are my brothers regardless if youse like me or not. I wouldn't a democratic Syria. I want people to vote for their president. I want - I don't want Syria to be the place where people want to run away, to get married, to go to Australia. I want the people in Australia to want to get married to Syrians and go to Syria.

JENNY BROCKIE: Well Susan, you are married to somebody. Susan, okay, hang on a moment, hang on a moment. Can I ask a question please? Thank you. Susan, you are married to somebody of Syrian background and you support the Assad government. Why?

SUSAN DIRGHAM: I think President Assad is a figure that unites the people and you've got a situation of war and you always need a strong figure. You need someone that's respected by the majority of the people in order to take that country through the times of crisis. I was in Syria in April last year, and I was watching television in Syria in a hotel room and there were killings of soldiers every day because you saw the funerals. You saw the grieving families.

At the very beginning of the crisis in Syria, there were fatwahs issued against secular Syria by extremist Sheikhs or clerics. One of them was Sheikh Qaradawi, the most prominent Sheikh who speaks on Al Jazeera every week and he's got a very big presence on the internet. He issued a fatwa, and he also said and it's well known in the Middle East by people who speak Arabic, he also said that it's okay to kill a third of the Syrian population as long as it leads to the toppling of the heretical government. This is what, this is what the Syrian people, the Syrian army is facing. People who feel motivated to kill minorities because they're on the list, and also to kill secular Syrian Sunnis who don't support that extremist ideology.

SAAD BARAZI: No, no, I'm sorry, I disagree Jenny because the lady is in hotel in Syria watching television. Do you really think the Syrian television is going to show her the other side? That's one thing. Second, the Syrian people have never been so divided until this regime came into power. Also, excuse me, also, when you look back at the demonstrations that used to take place, how come when hundreds of thousands come to the streets in support of Assad, not one is injured? While the other side, when they go out in demonstrations, tens and hundreds are killed every demonstration. How come? It doesn't make sense, it doesn't make sense.

JENNY BROCKIE: Rodger, Rodger, can I ask you, hang on a moment hang on a moment. Rodger, can I ask you a question? If the rebels were to overthrow Assad, what sort of government do you think would be delivered to Syria?

RODGER SHANAHAN: It's an impossible question to answer because there is no coherent military leadership, let alone a political leadership in opposition that people can talk to and be confident that that is what the opposition political program represents.

JENNY BROCKIE: So where does that leave Syria and where does that leave you? I mean what would you like to see happen?

RODGER SHANAHAN: Yeah, at the moment it's a stalemate because neither side can get a military advantage. So there is no incentive for anybody to undertake real negotiations. The both sides think that they can topple the other and while they're in that kind of stasis, nobody is going to undertake serious negotiations.

JENNY BROCKIE: So how do you break through that?

RODGER SHANAHAN: On one, on one side…

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, let him answer please.

RODGER SHANAHAN: You have to continue efforts at negotiation. So external, external powers need to, external powers, excuse me….

JENNY BROCKIE: Hang on please?

MAN: I'm a Syrian, I'm a Syrian, I left my country, I studied in Aleppo university, I have more, more Muslim, more Muslim friends than you. All my friends are Muslims. I'm here, I'm here to say what's the real Syrian people want. The real Syrian people want peace, want peace, want to live, want to save their children, they don’t want to be refugee - no one, you stay in Lebanon, not go to Syria.

JENNY BROCKIE: Nick, what about - Is it just about what's going on in Syria between the two sides or is it about broader regional issues?

NICK KALDAS: I think in many ways there are a lot of feelings, deep feelings about everything that happens in the Middle East and they do play out in Sydney. But I mean the Syrian conflict is currently the focus obviously that everybody has their eye on. But even before that came along there were tensions obviously in the community. And what we're trying do is firstly engage and communicate as much as we can and then in that communication to send the message to everyone in Sydney, while you may feel very deeply about what's happening in Syria, or the Middle East generally, you also need to focus on what's happening here. I mean the debate tonight has been amazing and there's a lot of feeling in the room, but I'm really happy to say that nobody sort of did anything that they shouldn't have done.

JENNY BROCKIE: That might be because you're here.

NICK KALDAS: I don't think anyone's afraid of me but anyway we'll see about that. But the thing is we have to cherish and I just ask everyone to take that on board even though they feel very deeply about what they're saying, that what we have here incredibly valuable. It's the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression, the freedom of religion, the freedom of movement. All of those things, you know, we begin to compromise all of that if we adopt values and arguments to such a degree that we begin to jeopardise that.

JENNY BROCKIE: Can we all agree on that? That's probably a good spot to, that's probably a good spot.

AUDIENCE: In regards to that, and this factor, what he said was excellent but the question I'd like to propose to him is we do all know that there are Australians going fighting in Syria. Are we going to allow these people to come back into this country? ASIO is very aware of these people. My fear is that in the next 10, 15 years these people with their foreign elements might cause, let's say, a terrorising attack in Australia.

JENNY BROCKIE: Well that's speculative, are we concerned about this Nick?

NICK KALDAS: It's difficult for me to comment on issues of foreign policy effectively and the federal government, ASIO, the AFP, that's

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, Tamer, final comment from you?

DR TAMER KAHIL: I would like to see Syria united and I would like to see democracy in there. The fear that people travelling from here to Syria to fight it's coming actually from two sides, not only on one side. Pro Assad and against Assad and this is an absolute fact. What I see that the conflict is going to continue because the international community is not allowing it to stop.

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, final come from you Hanadi.

HANADI ASSOUD: Okay, I just want to say we are not Assad regime supporters. We are Syrians. Therefore we've seen the uprise in the Middle East, we've seen that so-called Islamic brotherhood uprise and the proof is in Egypt, the leader now is a brotherhood extremist. In Tunisia, the leader is a brotherhood extremist, in where else? Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, this is what concerns us. We want Syria to stay secular. We've lived there, I've lived there for eight years myself, everybody practiced his religion freely. We've all had free education, we've had it all. What is it they want. I want reform, we all want reforms. We do know every country has corruptions, we want that to go. However, we don't want extremists to come and run our country, that's all we're saying.

JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, let's leave it there on a hand shake between you two, at least that's some progress. Thank you all very much for joining Insight tonight. You can keep talking about this on-line if you'd like to go to your Facebook page, Twitter or our website there's conversation there.