Dr Jeremy Salt is one of Australia’s leading experts on the Middle East. He worked as an Associate Professor at Bilkent University (Turkey) for many years.

23 November 2016

Dear Sir/Ms,

I am writing with reference to the ‘Australian Story’ program, entitled ‘The Road from Damascus’, screened on November 21, 2016. The program dealt with the situation in the ‘rebel-held’ Syrian town of Madaya, not far from Damascus. The program succeeded in conveying the message of the suffering of civilians but even insofar as it went it lacked context and balance. The outside sources quoted included the Syrian American Medical Society and the Syria Campaign, both of which groups are aligned/embedded with ‘rebel’ forces in Syria. A third source was the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, a person whose extreme views on Syria are too well known to need recounting here.

The frequent references in the program to the ‘regime’ are consistent with mainstream media mis/representation since the beginning of this conflict. Syria does not have a ‘regime’. It has a government with voter support in presidential and parliamentary elections in recent years surpassing the percentage of voters who turned out for the recent American elections. Outside monitors from many countries confirm that these elections have been held fairly and without government intervention. The anti-government demonstrations to which your program refers were vastly outnumbered in 2012/2013 by the masses of people turning out in support of the government. Far from anti-government protests only turning violent because of the violence of the ‘regime’, as your program suggests, they were violent from their beginning in the southern city of Dara’a. Many police and soldiers were killed in the first weeks of this ‘uprising’ and while I have no firm evidence, it is my belief that the snipers firing into demonstrators, as mentioned by James Sadri, of the Syria Campaign, by implication government security forces, were in fact agents-provocateurs.

Sophie McNeill admits developing a close personal relationship with the main character in this Australian ‘story’, Khalid Naanaa. This clearly affected her ability to tell this story as it should have been told according to the standards of objective journalism. Mr Naanaa is presented as a well-meaning naif driven by good intentions and ending up providing medical assistance in the ‘rebel-held’ town of Madaya. The viewers were informed that ‘only now’ is he telling his story of ‘everything that happened in Syria’, which clearly he could not do, seeing that he was living either in Damascus or Madaya. This was sheer hyperbole. At one stage Mr Naanaa (a nurse and not a doctor) says he decided to treat any patient who came to see him in Madaya. His patients clearly included many children, but what we needed to know is whether he also treated wounded ‘rebels.’ My guess would be that he did, given that the ‘rebels’ control Madaya and would frequently be in need of medical services, but this question was not even asked. There is immediate sympathy for suffering children but what would have been the effect on viewers of seeing heavily bearded jihadists being treated by Mr Naanaa? The propaganda effect would certainly have been spoiled.

Your viewers were entitled to know who these loosely defined ‘rebels’ actually are, but Sophie McNeill did not take up this issue any more than she asked Mr Naanaa about his relationship with them. The answer to the question she did not ask about the ‘rebels’ holding Madaya is that they are members of one of the most violent takfiri/jihadist groups in Syria, Ahrar al Sham.

There is no shortage of detail about the background, the intentions and methods of this group. Your researchers could have turned to Nafeez Ahmed’s article in Middle East Eye (October 16, 2015), ‘Ahrar al Sham’s Apocalyptic Vision for Syria and Beyond’. Ahrar al Sham maintains a close working relationship with the recently rebranded Jabhat al Nusra (Al Qaida in Syria) and the Islamic State and is a central pillar of the extreme jihadist fighting coalition known as Jaish al Islam (Army of Islam). It has a long record of shocking atrocities to its name including, in May 2016, the massacre of Alawis, including women, children and old men, in the Homs governorate village of Al Zara; including, in March, 2015, the massacre of Christians in Idlib; including, in August, 2013, participation in genocidal attacks on Alawi villagers in Latakia province, with an assortment of takfiri groups massacring upwards of 200 villagers and abducting dozens more.

While an estimated 20 groups took part in this slaughter, the US organisation, Human Rights Watch, named Ahrar al Sham as one of five groups, including Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State, that were the key fundraisers, organisers, planners and executors of the attack (see the HRW report, October 10, 2013, ‘You Can Still See Their Blood’. Executions, indiscriminate shootings and hostage-taking by opposition forces in Latakia’). On May 13, 2016, Amnesty International included Ahrar al Sham among takfiri/jihadist groups responsible for ‘repeated indiscriminate attacks’ that may amount to war crimes in northern Syria, along with allegations that it has used chemical weapons. Yet the head of Ahrar al Sham in Madaya believes that it is ‘the best group to bring justice to Syria.’

Ahrar al Sham has been accused of hoarding food and profiteering in Madaya. Whether or not these accusations are true, it is certainly not true, but in fact a slander, that the civilian population is being intentionally starved to death by the Syrian government, as one speaker in your program claims. The provision of supplies to Madaya has depended on the outcome of negotiations between the government, UN mediators and Ahrar al Sham and does not depend solely on decisions taken by the government in Damascus. It is the difficulty of getting all parties to agree on the opening of a humanitarian corridor that has repeatedly stalled the supply of food to the civilian population of Madaya.

Like eastern Aleppo, Madaya is held by a thoroughly murderous sectarian group armed and financed by outside governments, including the government of Saudi Arabia, one of the most reactionary regimes – a true regime – in the world, which is concurrently running another war, against the Shia population of Yemen. Ahrar al Sham’s enemy is not just the Syrian government or the Shia and Alawi it has massacred but Christians and Sunni Muslims who do not conform to its murderous ideology, which differs from the Islamic State’s only on minor points of theological detail.

The suffering of the civilians of Madaya is terrible but it is the armed men who have infiltrated their town who bear the first responsibility for their plight. No government in the world could allow a situation to continue in which a terrorist group is holding a civilian population hostage. This is the reality of Madaya. Knowing the essential facts there is surely no Australian watching your ‘Australian Story’ who could regard a group like Ahrar al Sham with anything other than abhorrence yet in your report on Madaya this group is not even mentioned. Neither is there any attempt to question Mr Naanaa about his dealings with this group and possibly his affinity with its ideology. It is certain that he could not have operated in Madaya without its support and without at least appearing to support its aims. The outcome is a report that is superficially heart-warming but is by no means the true story of what lies behind the ‘siege’ of Madaya.

Yours sincerely,

Jeremy Salt


Some questions raised by ‘The Road From Damascus’

  • Khaled Naanaa supported a militarized opposition. For balance, why didn’t Australian Story present the views of people in Damascus that don’t?
  • In 2011, who was urging Syrians to take up arms against their government and to kill soldiers and police? Who inspired Khalid to support the militarised opposition? Were they sheiks in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Egypt?
  • What evidence can be found of anti-government armed groups in Syria that support the same democratic beliefs and values Australians uphold?
  • It is acknowledged in the program that people had a good life in Damascus before the crisis. What determined this good life and what justified taking up arms to kill soldiers and police to put the good life of millions of Syrians in jeopardy?
  • Where did the weapons for the ‘rebels’ come from? Ali Hashem, a former Al-Jazeera reporter, claimed he saw armed men cross from Lebanon into Syria in 2011, but Al-Jazeera wouldn’t allow him to report this. Has Al-Jazeera presented biased reporting on Syria and, if so, has its reporting had an impact on mainstream reports in Australia and even on the federal government policy regarding Syria?
  • Sophie McNeill repeats Mr. Naanaa’s claim that doctors and nurses ‘tortured’ injured protestors. Why would doctors and nurses be so brutal toward injured people brought to hospital, particularly when the circumstances of the shootings at anti-government protests were not clear? Is it credible that any group of doctors and nurses in any country would act so?
  • The people presented in Australian Story to back up Khaled’s claims are from the Syrian diaspora. It’s been recognized that some prominent Iraqis from the diaspora gave false witness and credence to the US and UK push for war against Iraq. Could a handful of vocal Syrians in the diaspora be doing something similar?
  • Who funds the ‘Syrian Campaign’ and what is its mission?
  • Who funds Syrian American Medical Society? What is their ‘mission’?
  • Doctors Without Borders (MSF) provided material support to the field clinic in Madaya. What checks did this NGO carry out to ensure (1) it was not materially supporting groups that terrorized civilians in Syria and (2) best possible medical practice was observed in the clinic?
  • What is known about the demographics of Madaya in 2016? The 2004 census puts the population at 9,371, and Sophie McNeill refers to it as a ‘small village in the mountains’, but a news report quoted in the program claimed it had a population of 40,000.
  • What happened to the doctors and nurses that must have served the people of Madaya before Khaled arrived? Is it possible that ‘rebels’ who occupied the town killed the local staff as they refused to cooperate with them? (There were reports that doctors and nurses were killed in the town of Adra, near Damascus, when ‘rebel’ groups occupied it.)
  • Why are there no voices of ordinary Madaya citizens presented in the program? If Khaled was motivated by the best of humanitarian instincts to support the armed groups in Madaya, as Sophie McNeill suggests, then other people in the town would have been, also. Why didn’t Khaled interview them?
  • Did local people in Madaya have reason to be very angry with Khaled, so he was forced to flee? For example, did patients die on the operating table because he was carrying out operations while watching YouTube?
  • Did some in Madaya believe Khaled had exploited them by taking images of the very poor and malnourished to push an agenda for ‘rebel’ groups that relied on terror?
  • The person listed in the credits under ‘Research’ is Fouad Abu Gosh, someone who has worked closely with Sophie McNeill in the Middle East. Does Ms McNeill depend on Mr Abu Gosh to introduce her to Syrians? If so, does he introduce her to a broad range of Syrians or mainly to ‘rebels’ and their followers?
  • It is stated just before the credits, ‘The Assad Government declined requests for comment.’ Since the start of the conflict in Syria, ABC crews have entered Syria illegally from Turkey to report from areas controlled by anti-government armed groups. With this in mind, who in the ABC approached representatives of the Syrian government for comment and whom did they approach?
  • Has Australian Story interviewed any Syrian refugees to ascertain if they also support anti-government armed groups, as Khaled does?
  • Did the Syrian army lay siege to Madaya because its proximity to the Lebanese border and Damascus gave the government reason to fear Madaya would be used as an base for anti-government armed groups, foreign and local, to attack and occupy the capital? What were the government’s options in this case?
  • What is known about the sieges carried out on towns and cities across Syria by anti-government armed groups? Have populations been deprived of food and water and has terror been used against the civilian populations and, if so, for what purpose?