Bashar al Assad is no dead man walking. One man can’t fake an entire country’s mood. So, why is the media harping on a fictional account of a ‘popular’ uprising? Amrit Dhillon in Damascus
THE TRICKY thing about a one-party State is that even when it has a legitimate argument, it fumbles and fails to get it across. The moment it opens its mouth, the world erupts in understandable and reflexive incredulity. Many West Asian observers and independent journalists have been arguing that the rebels who have been trying to overthrow the Syrian government since last March are being financed by anti-Syrian regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar at the behest of the US. The rebellion, they say, is not an ‘Arab Spring’ or a popular uprising.
But if any Syrian government official attempts to put across the same argument, people roll their eyes. In a crisis people tend to believe independent civil groups rather than the government, but since Syria has been ruled by the Ba’ath Party for over 40 years there are few such groups. Consequently, during the current crisis when the western media appears to be waging a campaign against the Bashar al-Assad regime in much the same manner as it did against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the Syrian regime stands alone, with no independent groups to vouch for the truth.
But even if such groups did exist, it’s doubtful if the western media would have given them much credence. A decision seems to have been taken that Assad must go and any evidence indicating that any of the following may be true, if only partly, is being discounted:
• that some sections of the population support him
• that some of the rebels are antidemocratic Islamists who will take back the freedom that Syrian women enjoy to dress and work as they please thanks to the secular nature of society
• that unsavoury governments such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are financing and supporting the rebels despite their own atrociously repressive regimes
• that the reforms which Assad has initiated — the removal of emergency laws, a new Constitution and elections on 7 May — may be a welcome first step towards introducing a multi-party democracy.
Obviously, the Ba’ath Party will win the elections. Its hold on Syria and its immense apparatus will ensure that none of the other parties — nine from earlier and nine new ones registered — stand a chance. But if the polls prove to be genuine and are accompanied by other media and social freedoms, at least the transition from one-party rule to a multi-party system will have begun. “The future of Syria will be represented by the ballot box. It will change the future face of Syria,” says Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Miqdad.
Before visiting Syria, my impression from watching BBC and CNN was that the country was burning and disintegrating. Footage of tanks, artillery fire, bodies, smoking ruins of buildings and armed gunmen dominated the coverage. When I arrived in Damascus, it was not just peaceful, it was buzzing. The roads were jammed with traffic, the coffee houses and restaurants were packed, the souks were bustling, and families could be seen picnicking all over the city in their peculiarly Syrian fashion, right on the roadside with their barbecue sets as though they are just too lazy to bother driving the short distance to a nice park. The only difference from earlier times was the absence of tourists.
The government showed us what it wanted to show, but you cannot manufacture normalcy in a city of 5 million
The government showed us what it wanted to show, but you cannot manufacture normalcy in a city of five million. Moreover, the countryside and small towns popular with tourists such as Maaloula, Syednaya, Shahba and even the country’s biggest city, Aleppo, were peaceful and normal. But no such pictures appear on western television channels.
Al Miqdad told a delegation of Indian journalists in April that the rebels fall into three main groups: elements of al Qaida (small but lethal); the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist Muslims; and the majority — criminals, outlaws, and smugglers who, even before the troubles, had been involved in crime from across the Lebanese and Turkish border. Of course, he did not say that ordinary Syrians opposed to the regime were also fighting with the rebels, but that must obviously be true after so many years of dictatorship by one family. You may disregard his description of the rebels given his position in the government, but plenty of Arabs in the region also describe the rebels as a ragtag of armed criminals and foreign terrorists, rather than the romanticised image portrayed in global media as “pro-democracy activists”. In fact, they are so divided that the regime cannot fathom who it should speak to.
The Syrian conflict is not as Manichean as the West would have us believe. It’s not “Assad bad, rebels good”. According to the government, the insurgents are trying not just to take over Syria, but destroy the harmony between the Sunnis, the Shias and the Christians. Syrians kept saying that religion is simply not an issue. The minorities have no need of affirmative action or quotas. Religion does not dominate life here, nor is it flaunted to assert one’s identity. When a Muslim man marries a non-Muslim woman, she does not have to convert.
If the rebels had their way, they would cleanse the country of the minority Shias and Christians. Even if the Syrian government is the worst and most brutal regime in the world, its point of view about the rebels deserves an occasional airing, just as the rebels’ views should be shown. Instead, most of the western coverage has been totally slanted in favour of the rebels.
Take just one example: On 27 April, the BBC mentioned the suicide bomber in Damascus who killed 10 people. The blast was dismissed in a few sentences and the rest of the report focussed on how western countries are furious at the government’s ‘violations’ of the ceasefire brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The report included a soundbite from US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice saying that American patience with the regime was ‘exhausted’. Exhausted? Only six observers arrived on 16 April and another nine had arrived in the next few days and were only just getting their bearings. But, by 27 April, Rice’s patience is already exhausted? How can 15 men enforce a ceasefire in a population of 26 million in 11 days?
If the ceasefire fails, it will be a prophecy foretold because the US is hungry — impatient for it to fail. (As are the Turks who set up refugee camps on their side of the border before there were any refugees). The clip of Rice was followed up by an interview with a UK professor who talked about how a “humanitarian corridor” would have to be carved out. In short, pushing the argument for military intervention.
Then, as this nicely balanced piece of news continued, Edward Luck, a man with the weird designation of ‘UN Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect’, told the BBC anchor at great length about how the ‘partition’ of Syria was inevitable, along with some phony noises of sympathy for the suffering of the Syrian people. Partition? Just days after a ceasefire? The anchor didn’t bat an eyelid at the monstrous idea of partitioning a country.
I suspect that the plan of the US, France and UK is to not allow a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis just as they didn’t in Libya where, instead of protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s repression through a ceasefire followed by political negotiations, the West opted for a no-fly zone and military intervention. They were interested in nothing but a regime change. Now, nothing less than deposing Assad will satisfy them because once Syria goes, it leaves only Iran that can promote the Palestinian cause.
This one BBC report alone was utterly one-sided and a good example of how the pretexts for war are being exaggerated or invented to justify western military intervention, but you would have to watch carefully to realise it. Most casual viewers would undoubtedly accept the thrust of most western reports. And once that perception has taken root in the western public ineluctably over weeks and months, it becomes easier for their governments to justify military intervention.
The fault for this biased coverage is partly of the regime’s, and its old-style Soviet tendencies to seek refuge in secrecy when it faces the glare of the world media. Instead of refusing visas to some western journalists, it should let them in. Syrian officials claim that they allowed western networks in to cover the conflict but were horrified at what they refused to show. Syrians may talk of a media “conspiracy” and the “agenda of the West” and it’s true that some of the editors at al Jazeera and al Arabiya have decided that Assad must be overthrown but at least some aspect of the government’s view of the troubles would have emerged.
Some networks, though, are trying to give both sides. Reuters had one recently from the Turkish side of the Syrian border, where its correspondent met some of the fighters who were there to drum up financial support. It portrayed the rebels as hopelessly fragmented, vying with one another for arms and admitting to the Reuters reporter that private donors, possibly frontmen for Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have funnelled millions of dollars to favoured rebel groups, with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis getting the lion’s share.
The report went on: Last month, the commander of a rebel unit in Homs province, Amjad al Hameed, who claimed to be funded by The Alternative Movement, criticised the leaders of several other groups. “We have armed men among our civilians that are a burden to our revolution,” he said in a 17 March YouTube video. “They are just thieves… It is impermissible for anyone to rape women, otherwise we are no different from Assad.” The next day, unidentified gunmen shot him dead.
There are also people like Patrick Cockburn of The Independent and Seumas Milne of The Guardian who have been unbiased. The Syrians are wrong to have given up entirely on the western media because if the falsehoods being peddled keep getting repeated, they will become reality. Moreover, there are plenty of independent journalists and media groups who could be allowed in to report on what is happening.
Syrians themselves sound fairly hopeless about their inability to influence public opinion abroad. Tourism Minister Lamia al Assi said that her own daughter, who works in Dubai, called her in panic when she saw on BBC great plumes of smoke rising from the military airport right next to their home. Looking at the airport through the kitchen window, Assi calmed her daughter down saying no such thing was happening there. And with such footage, who knows who caused the plume? The government? Or the rebels?
Many in West Asia had hoped that after the fictional narrative of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, western journalists would have reflected on their abject failure to question and expose their governments’ arrant lies but such an exercise is yet to happen. The disinformation campaign to remove Gaddafi was conducted along similar lines. Cook up story after story to build up the momentum to justify an unlawful military attack on Libya, while failing to explain why similar attacks should not be launched against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain whose regimes are equally, if not more, vicious and tyrannical.
If Sarkozy faced subversion by Muslim extremists in, say, Lyon, would he not defend his regime by suppressing them?
Which western media network has really questioned their government’s stand? In covering Syria, it’s been a predicable pattern — quote a rebel, film an anti-regime demonstration and show a man with a gun in Homs. Any demonstration by regime supporters in Damascus finds no place in their pre-conceived framework.
If Assad is so hated by his people, why have the rebels not been able to overthrow him after more than a year and instead are begging other countries to intervene? In Libya too, it took months for the rebels to make any headway precisely because Gaddafi, brutal dictator though he was, enjoyed a measure of support from some sections of the people. After a brief visit to Syria, I’m in no position to say that all the people are behind Assad. Far from it. But nor does the West have the right to claim all the people are against him.
One disturbing corollary of the West’s demonisation of leaders such as Gaddafi and Assad is that the people who support Gaddafi are somehow not Libyans and the people who support Assad are not Syrians. They don’t count. It’s just as well the West did not decide that all Kashmiris were against the Indian State, despite Pakistan’s sedulous efforts to convey this impression.
EVENTS IN the West are unfolding according to a pre-conceived plan. The US wrote off the Annan peace plan before it had even got off the ground. Three days after the first batch of UN observers had arrived in Syria, the BBC quoted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying he was “disturbed” by reports that the ceasefire was being violated and that Assad’s opponents were being harassed and executed, after talking to the observers. I and other Indian journalists met the UN spokesman in Damascus after he had been there for three days and he made no mention of this. Surely Ban could have waited until he had received the report of his observers before jumping to conclusions?
Syria doesn’t seem to be going the Arab Spring way in that it appears to enjoy a greater measure of support from Syrians than Egypt or Tunisia, which saw popular uprisings. But the war drums are getting louder, with US President Barack Obama and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisting that Assad must be stopped from “slaughtering” his own people. The West can cause the deaths of 1.5 lakh civilians in Libya but Assad must be toppled for killing his own people.
If Sarkozy faced subversion by Muslim extremists in, say, Lyon, would he not defend his regime by suppressing them? Governments have done this throughout known history. You may agree with the rebels or agree with the government, but the basic principle of allowing a regime to defend itself against violent subversion cannot be trampled on. The West would have us believe that Assad is fighting against his own nation and that all his people are against him. It creates the impression that Assad is wickedly engaged in wanton killing of his own people when, in fact, he is only acting against the rebels. There is a difference. But the difference has been lost in the media campaign against Syria. France has said that if the peace plan fails, it will press for a Chapter 7 resolution at the UN, which allows for action that could be backed by force.
Syria fears going the way of other regimes in the region. The people are proud of the secular principles embedded in their society and consciousness. They see the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt, gaining control in Morocco and expected to win in Algeria, while in Libya, chaos reigns. The idea of Muslim religious parties ruling them is anathema. It goes against their deepest instincts.
Amrit Dhillon visited Damascus in April as a guest of the Syrian government