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'G'Day Damascus': Does Australia really have the biggest contingent of rebel fighters in Syria?

If there are 200 Australians fighting as rebels in Syria, as has been widely reported, then Australia’s contingent would be the largest of any developed nation.

That is the assessment contained in a report published last month on TIME magazine’s website carrying the headline: ‘G’Day Damascus: Australians Are Joining Syria’s Rebels in Surprising Numbers’.

The article claimed that there are currently 200 Australians fighting in Syria, which it attributed to a “public statement” made by the Director-General of ASIO, David Irvine.

“Surprising estimates suggest that Australians now make up the largest contingent from any developed nation in the Syrian rebel forces,” the TIME article stated.

“There are around 120 French fighters in Syria, about 100 Britons and a handful of Americans — but there are at least 200 Australians, according to a public statement made by David Irvine, director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

“… when looked at as a proportion of the Muslim population of Australia, the figure is startling. The French, British and American rebel fighters are drawn from communities that number 4.7 million, 2.7 million and 2.6 million respectively. The Australian contingent is drawn from a Muslim population of just 500,000, and is causing concern to a government that fears the homecoming of a battle-hardened group of radicalised Islamists when the conflict ends.”

But there is scepticism over the 200 figure in the academic community.

Bringing further doubt to the estimate, Mr Irvine said through a spokesperson that he has never commented on a specific number.

“Mr Irvine did not state a specific number, but in response to a question said the number of Australians believed to have travelled to the region due to the conflict was closer to the ‘hundreds’ rather than ‘tens’,” the spokesperson said in a statement to The Point Magazine.

“Mr Irvine noted that did not mean all had joined terrorist groups in Syria, rather that it took into account a spectrum of activity ranging from the provision of medical or humanitarian aid and other non-violent means of support, through to engaging in fighting.”

A leading researcher at Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre and editor at Australian Policy Online, Andrew Zammit, said there was no one official, public estimate of the number of Australians fighters in Syria.

“Instead there have been several conflicting reports of statements by government officials,” wrote Mr Zammit in a recent article published on his website.

Aaron Zelin, who headed the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) review on foreign fighters in Syria, estimated that there are between 18 and 123 Australians fighting in Syria, a figure which he tweeted in late March.

The ICSR is a partnership of five academic institutions, including an Arab and an Israeli institution, based at the King’s College, London.

“My own view is that 200 figure is extremely high compared to past trends in Australian jihadism, and therefore is probably an over-estimate,” Mr Zammit said.

According to Mr Zammit, the “widely reported 200 figure” originated from an April article in The Australian newspaper, which quoted “senior government sources” as having provided the figure.

He cautioned that the sensitive nature of the Syrian conflict in Australia “only makes it more important for anyone writing on the issue to be careful with the facts.”

Despite the need for caution, Mr Zammit maintains that the involvement of Australian individuals in Syria “raises extremely serious security concerns for Australia, both because of current local violence and the potential threat from returning fighters.”

The ongoing civil war has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

At least four Australians have been killed in Syria since the conflict began more than 2 years ago.

As reported last month in The Point Magazine, the Federal Government has listed the Al-Nusrah Front, which is also fighting against the Syrian regime, as a terrorist organisation following concerns over the group’s links with al-Qaeda. It says that it is “illegal” for any Australian to fight for, or to fund, “either side” in the conflict. Those that do could face criminal charges. 

The conflict has also raised tensions within the Sunni and Shiite communities in Australia.

'We also call for dialogue and unity among the Muslim sects.'

– Sheikh Youssef Nabha, Imam at Masjid Arrahman in Kingsgrove

Mr Zammit said that there have been over 17 reported incidents of violence attributed to the Syrian conflict.

Boycott lists of both Sunni and Shiite businesses have appeared on social media, which have allegedly led to acts of vandalism and firebombings.

Families with outspoken views have also been allegedly targeted. In June the ABC reported that Assad supporters had targeted the family of Roger Abbas, who was killed in Syria last year.

Sheikh Youssef Nabha, the Imam at Masjid Arrahman in Kingsgrove, a Sydney mosque that attracts a significant number of Shia worshippers, condemned any acts of violence.

“We reject all forms of persecuting thought and freedom of expression, and call for mutual understanding and harmony with those with different views,” he said in a statement to The Point Magazine.

Sheikh Nabha also suggested that dialogue between the different Muslim sects could be organised by government officials and community groups to help relieve tensions. 

“We also call for dialogue and unity among the Muslim sects,” he said.

“The state official and community organisations can organise meetings for the top-level spiritual leaders in Australia. The events in Syria should be tabled for dialogue and discussion as everyone has ideas and views on this matter.”

Many of the Australians fighting in Syria are believed to be Sunni Muslims.

Sydney\'s Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman, from United Muslims of Australia (UMA), said he was \"very surprised to hear from the Australian news and officials that there is 200 Australians fighting in Syria. I personally believe that this number is way over exaggerated. I do not deny the fact that there are some Australian individuals that did travel to Syria and the vast majority of them went for humanitarian aid work, but not in the hundreds.\"

 

Sheikh Shady said the Muslim community is an \"emotional and passionate one - with everyone and for everyone, regardless of the race of those who are oppressed or their nationalities.\"

\"It also becomes more emotional and passionate if those who are oppressed share the same religion or culture,\" he said.

\"Therefore, many Australians would come out of their own comfort to comfort others and to support others. 

\"The beauty of Islam is that it always teaches and preachers to stand by the principles, not by the individuals. 

\"As a Muslim, I must stand for justice and peace and stand against injustice and oppression, regardless who with or against.  

\"A very common saying in Islam [is] \'that you must stand with a non-Muslim just leader against an unjust Muslim leader\'. 

\"With the current situation in Syria, Egypt or anywhere else around the world, whether a Muslim or non-Muslim country, Arab or non-Arab countries, east or west, we as Muslims want justice to all mankind, and stand up against oppression on all people. We want all people around the world to share the same peaceful and comfortable life that we are blessed here in Australia. 

\"Our prayers are always with those who are less fortunate and those who are suffering.\" 

The Point

Does Australia really have the biggest contingent of rebel fighters in Syria?

Author Note

<p>Contributor: Nadia Jamal</p>

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