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The Syrian Way

Tammam SulaimanTammam Sulaiman

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I'm your host Matt Smith. And I'm here today with Mr Tammam Sulaiman, Syrian ambassador to Australia. Thank you for joining me today.

Tammam Sulaiman:

Thank you.

Matt Smith:

Being a university, we'd like to know about the education in Syria. And as I understand it, the majority of Syrian universities are government-funded, which is a big achievement and education has been an important development in Syria in recent years. Has the increased efforts been rewarding for your country?

Tammam Sulaiman:

Yes. First, education in Syria is a priority and we have both the government and the private universities. And the interest in education, of course, is we have high level of literacy in Syria in general especially for learning other languages and specializations in different professions. With Australia, we have a lot of interest in increasing the academic relation with Australia in general and especially with La Trobe University.

We did this visit to further the relation with La Trobe University. And on La Trobe, I want to say that we have a very special relation with La Trobe. It was the first university which hosted the students from Syria, from Aleppo University, that was in 2005.

Our relation with the Centre for Dialogue in the University has also deepened. Our relations especially with the visit that Centre for Dialogue paid to Syria last year. And we want to explore the further possibilities of academic exchange and cultural exchange with many things.

Syria is famous of attracting the attention of history, ancient history in Syria. There are many European and American scholars who study in Syria. We have archaeologists, we have groups of archaeologists from Australia. We wish that La Trobe University could have interest also in archaeology because Syria lies in the bed of archaeological layers in history.

Syria is the only country in the world which until present time holds the language of Jesus Christ. Aramaic is still spoken by both Muslim and Christian villagers in Syria. There are three towns in Syria that speak Aramaic in their own houses. Learning English of course in Syria is very common and almost virtually most people speak English and not only Syria but everywhere in the world.

But for Australia, as an English-speaking country, we have lot of interest in promoting this relation and any possibility to this, we would welcome very much.

Matt Smith:

If I could touch on that. There are a couple of things that you talk about then. What are your impressions of La Trobe University now that you have a bit of a look around today?

Tammam Sulaiman:

Well, really I admire the extensive range of specializations that La Trobe University is involved with. Today, we had a very good round of discussion with the teachers from different professions in water management, in health and economics and applied sciences and education and they all really showed high calibre of level.

And we want to benefit from the relation with La Trobe and as I said that our students are interested in studying at La Trobe. And the Centre for Dialogue especially gives La Trobe a special status because we need dialogue, we need interaction, we need exchange of ideas and cultural dialogue and knowing each other. The young Muslim leaders at the Centre for Dialogue is promoting is a really good example that La Trobe is giving a lot of religious tolerance and religious understanding. We need all this to get across each other and promote our cultures and Australia being geographically-distant from our part of the world. We have friends and we need friends in Australia likewise.

Matt Smith:

What sort of things could Australians learn from Syria?

Tammam Sulaiman:

Australia being recent in history, relatively-speaking, and Syria being very old in history I mean. I'm sure the high sense that Australians have for learning and for knowledge and really that. So Syria must be the place for them to study the ancient history in Syria. And when we say Syria, we talk about the Greater Syria combined in history, current Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq.

And if I may say so, the word Syria itself in ancient history comes from ‘Saar’. 'Saar' means ‘the sir', 'the master'. The words in Arabic which starts from the two letters, and with the two letters ‘s’ and ‘r’ in Arabic means something which is high or sublime so language matters. Language historians say and phonologist say that if you lose stress of anything, you will find it in languages.

Matt Smith:

If I could ask you a question about the Middle East region. Has the election of Barack Obama in the United States been a good thing for peace in the Middle East and how would that hopefully change the war in Iraq situation?

Tammam Sulaiman:

Until present we don't know yet but what Barack Obama is saying is great and he started with very encouraging and positive steps which we look forward to. But the main thing that what we suffer in our region is the Israeli occupation of Arab land and we wish to see Barack Obama doing serious and positive role with Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.

The war on Iraq is something recent and is something that was thrown and made and projected upon us which we have no guilt in but we have basic problem in our region which is the Israeli occupation of the Arab land and the Palestinian land, the West Bank and Gaza and the Syrian Golan and parts of Lebanon.

So basically this is the initial and main conflict in our region that the Arab decided that if it is settled according to the international legitimacy and UN resolutions, all other problems will be settled in the region.

The Iraq War was a war that was imported to our region. We have nothing to do with it and we were all victims really of the war in Iraq. Syria received more than 2 million Iraqi refugees of which there was no enough international recognition of the burden that Syria had over this war and Syria also received the blame for maybe hosting the Iraqi refugees, the poor people. We are also victim of this concocted war of Iraq and on Iraq and onto the region.

Matt Smith:

Are you hopeful though for the conflict resolution particularly with the Golan Heights?

Tammam Sulaiman:

We are always hopeful. Syria on many occasions showed political will to solve this issue. But to be realistic and objective, Israel showed no political will and no instinct to solve the problem. The famous thing that we should talk about is that in the Beirut Summit in 2002. All countries, not only the Arab countries involved directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict traditionally like Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.

All Arab countries have agreed in the 2002 Beirut Summit to give a peace offer to Israel. It was described as "on the tray of gold” to Israel in return for the Arab land that Israel should withdraw from. Israel responded to this initiative in less than 24 hours by invading Jenin and the famous Jenin Massacre for which the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan dispatched Terje Roed-Larsen to investigate.

So we didn't see Israel serious and having the political will in making peace and we wish to see Israel willing to make peace because Israel always wants to procrastinate things. And it was acknowledged by Menachem Begin in 1979 when he made peace with Egypt.

After the peace deal he said, "I wish that the negotiations lasted for 10 more years." And then his colleague Benjamin Netanyahu later he said "No, actually I wish that the negotiations lasted for 30 more years" because the best thing for Israel in their thinking is to procrastinate things and leave things as they are without real solution.

Because a solution will force Israel to dismantle the settlements which they will never do. To give the land back which they will not do, we hope they will do, because it is our land. And it will cut of course the American aid to Israel. And there would be no justification for sending this huge amount of the tax payers money, the American tax payers money, for which there many objections in the US Congress that there is no proof that Israel is under threat anymore and it was never under threat. It’s the Arab countries who are under threat by Israel.

Matt Smith:

Does being a religiously significant country to both Islamic faith and Christian religions pose a challenge to Syria?

Tammam Sulaiman:

No, not at all. Syria actually, we are a secular country. We boast both our Islamic and Christian heritage but Syria is a secular country. The Ba’ath Party in Syria is a secular movement. It was the only political movement in the Arab world which gave security to both Muslims and Christians to work in the government without any religious fanaticism.

On the contrary, we in Syria we live together as one in harmony. And you can't distinguish Muslim from Christians in Syria. It is not noticeable and in Syria to be Muslim or Christian is totally insignificant at government or business. As if someone who smokes, someone who doesn't smoke or someone who drinks wine or it's totally unnoticeable. It’s purely a personal matter. It has nothing to do. It's not obvious in the government at all.

The number of Christian ministers in Syria for example varies and there's no quarter. There's nothing really. You could ask any Syrian Christian that they are not prejudiced against and this matter really is not an issue at all in Syria. It is an issue to other people maybe because they think that there is a problem in Syria. But if you visit Syria and you’ll see that this matter is totally not an issue at all for us

Matt Smith:

That must be something that Syria is proud of to be a country that both religions can trace important events to being in.

Tammam Sulaiman:

Yes that's true. I did mention to the university officials today that Syria witnessed a precedent in history. In 2001, for the first time in history, the late Pope John Paul II did a joint Muslim and Christian prayer in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The Umayyad Mosque was a church in itself and in the Umayyad Mosque, there is the Shrine of John the Baptist. He did a prayer with the Grand Mufti of Syria. Both Muslim and Christian people were together doing their prayers.

And our Mufti in Syria now current Mufti issued a Fatwa saying, which of course is accepted, that prayer and Muslim prayer could be done in the mosque, in the church, in the synagogue. We have complete separation between religion and between what is done in the name of religion. We separate between Islam and Osama Bin Laden. We separate between Judaism and Israel. We separate between the right Christian people and between Christianity as a pure religion that has nothing to do with what is done in its name.

Matt Smith:

Mr. Sulaiman, thank you for your time today.

Tammam Sulaiman:

Thank you very much.