Reporting Syria

Egyptians in solidarity with Syria

The Syrian regime’s blanket ban on journalist access has some carefully selected exceptions. Robert Fisk, for instance, who seems to be compensating for the naive anti-Syrian and pro-March 14th line in his reporting of Lebanon over the last years by treating the statements of Syrian regime figures – professional liar Boutheina Shaaban is one – with great naivety. At least he didn’t apply the ‘glorious’ epithet to her which he used to describe Walid Jumblatt’s wife. Fisk’s book on Lebanon “Pity the Nation” is a classic, his account of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila remain fresh in the mind (the blood-footed flies clambering over his notebook), and for many years he was one of the very few English-language journalists with some real knowledge of the Middle East. Sadly, his knowledge doesn’t extend to a working familiarity with Arabic. In several recent articles he has informed us that that the slogan of the Ba‘ath Party – umma arabiya wahda zat risala khalida – means ‘the mother of the Arab nation.’ In fact it means ‘one Arab nation with an eternal message’. Fisk is confusing ‘um’ – mother – with ‘umma’ – nation. It’s a rather disastrous mistake. Someone ought to tell him about it.

Nir Rosen is an excellent journalist who clearly does speak Arabic and who makes the effort to talk to ordinary people rather than just politicians and PR people. His book “Aftermath” is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how the American occupation of Iraq catalysed an outbreak of Sunni-Shia sectarian hatred across the Arab world. His recent visit to Syria (see here and here and here and here) seems to have been both above and below regime radar. While he appears to have been smuggled in to certain locations he also interviews such regime figures as the state Mufti Hassoun – someone once known for his touchy-feely liberalism and his campaign against honour killing now making absurd threats about armies of pro-Asad suicide bombers lying low in Western countries. Unfortunately, Rosen sees Syria through the prism of Iraq’s sectarian war. He expects to find expressions of sectarian hatred, and he finds them aplenty. He can’t be blamed for making it up, because sectarian hatred certainly does exist in Syria, and because he honestly reports what people say to him. The danger of this method, however, is twofold. First, his selection of informants necessarily reinforces his bias. He does interview some pro-regime Sunni figures (like Hassoun) but chooses not to interview Alawi, Christian, Ismaili or secularist figures who support the revolution. He doesn’t consider such people to be representative of the revolution because he’s decided that the dynamic must be sectarian, even if the Ismaili town of Selemiyeh has been demonstrating for months and secularists like Suhair Atassi are very prominent in the revolution’s Coordination Committees. (Indeed, Burhan Ghalyoun, the head of the umbrella Syrian National Council, to which many demonstrations have proclaimed allegiance, is fiercely anti-clerical).

The second danger is the lack of context. To take a small example – an informant from an area of Homs where Beduin have settled tells Rosen that Beduin women wear only the hijab headscarf whereas non-Beduin Sunni women wear the niqab face veil. Anyone who knows Syria will know that this is untrue; only a small minority of Sunni women (Beduin or non-Beduin) wear the niqab. But Rosen simply reports what he is told, and a reader who does not know Syria will come to a false conclusion. In the near-civil war which the regime has brought the country to, after months of armed Alawi villagers terrorising Sunni cities, after non-stop sectarian propaganda from the regime, there do seem to be increasing incidents of sectarian killing. Rosen doesn’t give us a sense of how Syria arrived at this point. Neither does he attend to the countervailing revolutionary current which stresses national unity. His reporting does not explain the Alawi actress Fadwa Sulaiman leading the crowd in besieged and blood-soaked Homs in chants of ‘No Muslim Brotherhood, No Salafis, We All Want Freedom.’ If a journalist used Rosen’s method for a story on Israel-Palestine, interviewing some ordinary men in a cafe in Gaza and some other ordinary men in a cafe in Sderot, but ignoring secularist and Jewish anti-Zionists, and paying scant regard to historical events, he could easily bring his readership to the false conclusion that the conflict is an inevitable one between ‘the Jews’ and ‘the Arabs’.

Then there are the scribes of the counter-revolutionary Left, who fortunately have far less relevance than mainstream journalists like Fisk. Just as some retrospectively saw the Libyan revolutionaries as NATO plants and (at the very same time) al-Qaida operatives as soon as Britain and France began bombing, so they believe the Syrian revolution is managed by imperialist forces because Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the West have come to the end of their patience with the Asad regime. It took months and months of carnage for them to lose patience. The reason they have done so now is because they can see what is obvious: that with the army splitting and the demonstrations growing, the Asad regime cannot survive. Until the regime falls, Syria will slip further into a civil war which will torment the entire region. For this reason these powers are now working to bring about the regime’s fall. Of course they don’t want a democracy in Syria (although Turkey, the only outside power which may take military action at some point, would be pleased with a democratic conclusion), but they are not ‘managing’ the revolution – nobody is – and it’s hard to see how they could impose a solution on the country after Asad.

The worst example of counter-revolutionary leftism has been Joseph Massad’s Jazeera article, in which he advises Syrians to give up on their revolution for the greater anti-imperialist good. Not only is Massad’s analysis plain wrong, his advice is remarkably unrealistic. Syrian revolutionaries cannot afford to give up even if they wanted to. If they give up they will be living on borrowed time, until the regime locates them and tortures or kills them. Very usefully, Massad offers them his “condolences”. (Massad’s former contributions to Middle East progress have been to attack Walt and Mearsheimer’s excellent work on the Israel lobby and to paint Arab homosexuals as pawns of ‘the Gay international.’)

With nothing except the very welcome rhetorical support of the Turks and the Arab League to help them, against the opposition of imperialist Russia and sectarian Iran, and in the face of the tanks and gangs of a brutal torture state, Syrian revolutionaries are continuing their fight.

Amal Hanano’s excellent analysis of Rosen, Fisk and others on Syria is absolutely essential reading.

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