The Syria Comment website is an indispensable source for news and views on Syria. Unfortunately, it now requires a health warning.
In a recent article Joshua Landis writes that the protestors “failed to provoke a confessional split in the army as happened in Lebanon. Sunni soldiers have not split from Alawis, despite all the talk about “shabbihas,” which is code for Alawis.”
This, as so often in recent weeks, is an example of Syria Comment taking leave of reality in order to slander the uprising. I’ve been following activist websites and facebook pages, and talking to Syrians of a range of backgrounds. I haven’t come across anyone who aimed to achieve a ‘confessional split’ in the army. Of course, the protestors wanted a split in the army, between patriots and the dogs of the state. They wanted Syrian soldiers to refuse to fire on unarmed Syrian people, and it seems in Dara’a they got what they wished for. Nobody wanted a confessional split.
Next ‘shabeeha’ is not code for Alawis. I’ve heard Alawis talk about the shabeeha, and they’re not talking about themselves. The ‘shabeeha’ refers to a specific thuggish militia, which ran smuggling previously and breaks people’s heads now, while trying to spark sectarian fights.
Syria Comment is dedicated to supporting the regime narrative while debunking and discrediting opposition claims. When it focusses on the supposed leaders of the uprising it offers up Ammar AbdulHamid, an expat Syrian linked to neo-conservatives, or bad-tempered Islamists. The intention is to show that the protestors are sectarian savages manipulated by the West. This approach doesn’t account for the Alawis, Ismailis and Druze opposing regime barbarity. Today the Assyrian Christian community threw its weight behind protests. I wouldn’t be surprised if SC now discovers that the Assyrian church represents the Salafi branch of Christianity.
Syria Comment has also enjoyed mocking the international media and its reliance on eye-witness accounts and internet videos. Given that the international media is forbidden from reporting on events in Syria, and that journalists who do get in have been imprisoned, mistreated and deported, this mockery is in very poor taste. I posted a link on the site to a Robert Fisk report on Syrians fleeing state violence across the Lebanese border. Syria Comment then posted the statement on its main page “Robert Fisk is wrong.” Robert Fisk is often wrong, fair enough. Syria Comment’s reason for declaring him wrong in this case, however, was that ‘Aboud’ in the comment section said he was wrong. Aboud is a nickname like ‘Jack’ or ‘Jimmy.’ This is the site, remember, mocking the media for relying on eyewitnesses.
Syria Comment has failed to report in any detail on protests, killings, arrests and sieges. Once it stated that no protests had taken place in Syria that day. A quick check of the internet showed that there had indeed been protests in several cities. But it gets worse. SC has taken to repeating regime slanders of opposition figures. Ayman AbdulNour (of the all4syria website) for instance, was accused of visiting Israel in a trip organised by the PA’s corrupt strongman Muhammad Dahlan. The story is very silly, and very low. There’s also a facebook page dedicated to calling the brave activist Suheir Attasi a Mossad agent, and calling for her execution. Fortunately SC hasn’t repeated that lie. It has however allowed hate speech and even incitement to murder on its comments pages. Quite rightly SC doesn’t allow hate speech aimed against Jews or Arabs. But when those targetted are unarmed anti-regime protestors, the rules shift.
So why has SC travelled so far from objective academic analysis? One possible answer was suggested by one of the SC crew, an expat Syrian who I had considered a friend. He emailed me accusing me of ‘flipping’ from support of the regime. Of course I haven’t flipped, because I was never committed to supporting the regime. I supported Syrian and Arab causes, and I still do. I support intelligence, which Hafez al-Asad demonstrated a great deal of. I oppose sectarianism, the eastern Arab curse. When I see the Syrian regime acting against the interests of Syrians and Arabs, acting with enormous stupidity, and doing its best to enflame sectarianism, then I oppose the regime, and in doing so I remain entirely consistent with my values. But this ex-friend by his language suggests that his loyalty always was to the regime, in a regime-right-or-wrong way if not in the payroll sense, and not to truth.
Another answer has to do with sectarian prejudice. Joshua Landis married into an Alawi military family and unfortunately seems to have internalised some very ugly anti-Sunni attitudes. Years ago he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times which contains this little gem of a sentence: “For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority.” Chatham House’s Rime Allaf took Landis to task here for that article.
I have to keep reminding myself that Joshua is almost Syrian himself, by marriage and by virtue of having spent years in the country. If I thought of him as an ordinary white American I would accuse him of racism. So I think of him as a semi-Syrian unduly worried by fears of post-Assad revenge against Alawis. These fears are legitimate. Still, it’s easy to find clear-sighted Alawis who fear sectarianism but recognise the brutal stupidity of the regime and the innocence of the protestors.
Syria Comment remains a good and informative website. We link to it on PULSE, down there at bottom right. It’s a shame that it requires a health warning in these crucial times.