The Grand Mufti of Syria has claimed at a meeting in Dublin on Thursday that Russian forces involved in the country’s brutal civil war have not been responsible for any civilian atrocities.
Dr Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun has attracted criticism for inflammatory speeches and was one of a delegation of senior Syrian clerics and doctors who addressed the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee this morning.
The delegation strongly backed the regime of Bashar al-Assad and none of its members criticised the actions of the president, or his international allies, Iran or Russia.
In a prolonged exchange with Labour Senator Ivana Bacik and committee chairman Brendan Smith, Dr Hassoun denied that Russian forces or the regime of Mr Assad had carried out atrocities in eastern Aleppo.
In an exchange with Senator Bacik, she asked Dr Hassoun was he ready to condemn any Russian complicity in war crimes.
“Russia and Iran did not kill any civilians. They came to defend the Syrian people,” he replied.
Ms Bacik said his assertion contradicted the view of the international community, of respected international agencies including Médecins Sans Frontières and the Department of Foreign Affairs.
“You are not willing to acknowledge any Russian complicity?” she asked.
He responded through a translator saying it was the opposition that was destroying everything not the regime.
Both Ms Bacik and Mr Smith expressed incredulity at the view. The Grand Mufti has attracted controversy, particularly for an inflammatory speech he made on television in 2012, where he said that there would be suicide bombers in Europe and the US.
Dr Hassoun told the committee the media and political opponents had distorted his messages. He insisted the speech was made following the international bombardment of Syria. He asserted that he had warned of the consequences such bombings would have in encouraging such a reaction and had not encouraged anyone to become suicide bombers as his critics had suggested.
Earlier, he told Ms Bacik that she should visit Syria to learn of the situation there, without the distortion of media coverage.
She asked if he would be willing to allow an international court to visit to investigate alleged war crimes against the Assad regime.
He said he would be willing, as long as it was unbiased.
The delegation was comprised of religious leaders. Two senior patriarchs from the Eastern Orthodox Church – Gregory Ill Laham and Ignatius Aphram - spoke to the committee as did as two surgeons, Dr Ahmad al Khaddour and Dr Bashir Mohammad.
The primary discussion revolved around the devastating impact the ongoing conflict has had on civilian life, as well as the country’s hospitals, many of which have been destroyed or lack essential equipment and medicines.
Made a plea for peace
All asked for the EU sanctions which are in place to be lifted. Dr Mohammed said: “We are looking for peace from the hearts of the Syrian people. Sanctions applied on our country have destroyed . . . our capacity to manufacture medication and to treat our patients.”
Dr Ill Laham made a plea for peace saying there had been enough war
“We can do war for ever and ever. Today is the time for peace. Now we are [all] seeking to point fingers and who is guilty
“In war everybody is guilty . . . We are here to work for peace.”
The Grand Mufti said he wanted to be the bridge of peace between the opposition and regime. During the session, he also spoke about the death of his own son, who he said was assassinated by opposition forces while attending university.
He also said Syria was a secular country not a religious one and it was his wish that it continue to exist as a secular state.
Dr Hassoun accused Islamic Centres in Europe, including the one in Dublin, of “telling lies” as representing him as a person who would send terrorists to Europe to kill themselves. He maintained that he had warned of the implications of the international bombardment of Syria, one of which was the possibility of suicide bombers.
Dr Hassoun also claimed young men had been radicalised in European Islamic centres before travelling to Syria to join Isis.
In a later session, Robin Yassin-Kassab, an author of Syrian assent, made a trenchant condemnation of the Assad regime and also criticised the appearance of the other delegation before the committee.
He contended they were apologists for the regime and for genocide. He also said their appearance had been “noted”.
Several members of the committee, including Mr Smith and Fine Gael’s Gabrielle McFadden, took issue with this phrase and defended the committee’s right to hear all sides, Mr Yassin-Kassab clarified it had not been said by him as a threat.
In his presentation, he outlined what he said was a deliberate strategy of the Assad military campaign to foment terrorism: “The regime practised a scorched earth policy on the areas it couldn’t control, burning the civilian infrastructure and driving millions out. This provided the vacuum in which transnational jihadist groups could thrive.”
He said half a million people have been killed, over 90 per cent at the hands of the regime and its backers. Twelve million were displaced.
“Humanitarian assistance is essential but insufficient. Ireland should call strongly for a ceasefire, for safe zones, for prisoner releases, and for sieges to end.
“As much diplomatic and economic pressure as possible should be brought to bear on Russia and Iran to deter their assaults. Russia should, for instance, be excluded from the Swift banking system for its repeated war crimes, employing incendiary and cluster bombs, and bunker busters, on civilian areas, and targeting schools, hospitals, and aid convoys.”