Syria, Two Years On
How the Syrian revolution turned my world upside down
Published: 18 Mach 2013.
In the pre-Arab Spring era, the conventional wisdom was that an uprising in Syria was far fetched. Articles written by learned experts proclaimed Assad’s immunity to the tide of protest sweeping through Arab republics, confidently asserting that Syria was a “sturdy house,” an exception to the rule. This was the time when the cause of regime change in Syria was deeply unfashionable.
Friday, March 18, 2011 changed all that. As I returned to my office on that day after performing prayers at a community center in south London, I caught a glimpse of the first grainy images on YouTube of a mass demonstration in Dera’a, a city in the southern Hawran region of Syria. A crowd had congregated outside the historic Omari Mosque and was chanting, “Syria’s protector [Assad] is its thief!” An hour later, more images were uploaded, this time showing riot police using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Then there was shooting. One video showed several police officers dragging away the limp corpse of a young man.
My office was abuzz with these first images of revolt. At the time, I was running Barada TV, the first independent Syrian news and current affairs television channel. It was based at modest offices in London’s Vauxhall. My job was to use the channel to raise awareness of human rights issues, to empower civil society and to educate Syrian audiences on the virtues of freedom and democracy.
Being a second-generation émigré whose father had suffered at the hands of the Syrian government, I believed I had a historic duty to deliver my people from dictatorship to liberty, the sort that I had known and loved in Britain.
That was one way of looking at it. Another was that I was little more than a propagandist for the Syrian opposition, paid to make seditious broadcasts, incite rebellion and invite foreign interference.
On that Friday afternoon, it seemed that my prayers had finally been answered. Until that point, as much as I had desired regime change, I did not quite believe it would ever happen. This view was widely shared by the opposition, whose fortunes were at a low ebb after Assad survived US-imposed isolation following the Hariri assassination in 2005, and his subsequent rehabilitation at the hands of Sarkozy, Erdoğan and Qatari Prince Hamad.
Having judged which way the wind was blowing, the Muslim Brotherhood—the largest of the opposition groups—decided in 2009 to throw in the towel and suspend all anti-regime activities in the hope of negotiating its way back into Syria. By 2010, the opposition harbored no illusions about the desperate state it was in; short of direct foreign intervention (a highly unlikely prospect at the time) it had next to no chance of toppling Assad by popular revolt. When that revolt did come, I found myself a member of an opposition movement long reconciled with its political impotence.
Perhaps, then, it was a lack of confidence that made me, a normally perceptive reader of political developments, fail to see the coming tsunami in Syria. The signs were there for all to see: the mobile phone boycott of February 9, organized on Facebook to protest high charges and poor service; the spontaneous protest in Damascus’s Harika business district on February 17, after a case of police brutality; or the candlelight vigils organized by civil activists outside the Egyptian and Libyan embassies in Damascus on January 30 and February 22 respectively. These were the early tremors that pointed to a coming great eruption.
Barada TV covered all these events, perhaps the only media outlet to have done so, but my thinking at the time was clouded by calculations of a self-serving nature: since the opposition needed time to organize itself before it could hope to lead a popular revolt, the revolution must still be years away.
The Abazeid clan of Dera’a cared little for the interests of the opposition in exile. It was aggrieved at the arrest of some of its teenagers who, inspired by satellite television images of Tunisia and Egypt, scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school. Repeated attempts to negotiate their release through the intercession of local notables were rudely rebuffed by the governor and the local security chief.
My undercover reporter in Dera’a kept me fully informed of such developments. On March 9, 2011 he managed to interview a leading activist from the city, who confidently proclaimed that the revolution “had already begun.” Information came in from several villages in the southern province suggesting that isolated police stations were being vacated in expectation of looming trouble. The mood in the southern province grew darker as angry young men talked of revolt.
Despite this compelling intelligence, I was still reluctant to believe that Syrians would rise up. Sitting three thousand miles away on the banks of the Thames, it appeared overly ambitious—a near impossibility, in fact—given all that I knew and had experienced of the passivity of Syrian society, the fear it had for the mukhabarat (the military intelligence service), and the effects of brainwashing propaganda and social conditioning that discouraged collective action and promoted apathy. Besides, there were no reliable statistics on viewing figures, which meant that I was not quite sure whether my satellite broadcasts were even being watched or not. Like a ham radio operator trying to make contact with intelligent life in outer space, it sometimes felt like a hopeless task.
This was not helped by the general attitude of the expatriate Syrian community towards people like myself, which oscillated between open hostility when they did not know me and pity when they did. To be in the opposition was to be a member of a weird and dangerous émigré sub-culture that entertained outlandish notions of regime change. The thought was enough to induce sniggers of derision in so-called respectable circles.
Intellectually, I knew that Syria was ripe for revolution. My country was no different to Tunisia or Egypt; the same corruption, poverty and authoritarianism existed in Syria. And Syrians, I thought, could not be any less courageous than Libyans, nor could Assad’s henchmen be any more brutal than Gaddafi’s. Seen this way, revolution was a logical inevitability. But I still could not quite convince myself.
The reason for my lingering doubts was not really a rational and convincing counter-argument, but a series of emotionally induced responses born out of the experience of being a member of the Syrian opposition. To be a conscientious Syrian oppositionist before 2011 was to be relegated to the margins of the political mainstream, at the time still defined by the discourse of the so-called resistance axis: the alliance formed between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Working to bring down one of its key pillars resulted in a head-on collision with a powerful set of interests, not least the pro-Iranian and pro-Hamas lobbies that were well represented in important media outlets and in key political and religious organizations.
International patronage, which could have evened the odds, was hard to come by. Although sympathetic, the moderate Arab camp was loath to make any direct challenge to Assad, while the West’s obsession with regional stability meant that the opposition were politely listened to but duly ignored. No matter what persuasive arguments the opposition mustered, it was almost always trumped by the massive gap in power between the exiled handful of expats and the Ba’athist government. Social and political isolation ensued not only in Syria, but in the wider Arab mainstream too.
With no one to come to their rescue, the opposition endured years of what could be classed as emotional abuse at the hands of demagogic bullies of the resistance axis. The Syrian opposition became the perennial joke of newsrooms; they were the embarrassment of the Islamists or weak and resentful “intellectuals” whose patriotism was questioned, and whose commitment to the all-important cause of Palestine always in doubt.
The result was a list of symptoms that victims of childhood trauma would instantly recognize: low self-esteem, insecurity, lack of confidence, social isolation, destructive behavior and an inability to form partnerships. Having been vilified and mocked by one and all, the oppositionists’ frame of mind turned into an essentially defeatist one. Little wonder, then, that on the eve of revolution the last thing the opposition expected was events that would lead to a swift and spectacular turnaround in its fortunes.
The outbreak of protest was exactly that. But moments of triumph bring with them their own set of challenges. Like a rags-to-riches lottery winner, the Syrian opposition struggled in the months that followed to adjust to its newfound cause célèbrestatus. In many ways, it still has not. The opposition’s political strategy does not appear to be based on any discernible, grown-up set of rational principles, but on an overpowering emotional urge to court cheap popularity and solicit short-term funding, which has become the hallmark of the dozens of leadership bodies set up by the opposition.
The damage that this has had on the wider cause of regime change is all too obvious. But as to the question of why, from my vantage point and experience I can say this: that in letting its heart rule over its head, the opposition sought to recapture something of a stolen adolescence, a way of making up for years of carefree politicking denied to it by both circumstance and its enemies. At the historic moment of triumph, the Syrian opposition suffered a mid-life crisis.
That Friday afternoon in 2011, as I hunched over a computer screen in stunned silence watching replays of riot police, clad in all-black body armor like medieval men-at-arms, charging up the hill and into the city’s old quarter, my initial feelings of denial and disbelief made way for excitement and euphoria. Only days later did a sober realization set in: that my life would change forever.
Everything that I had worked for as a member of the opposition, from 2005 until that day, would become redundant. All the lobbying, the conferences, the demonstrations, the television appearances and hours and hours of political meetings—which were a triumph solely on the basis that they took place—would become irrelevant, nothing more than memories of note only to myself. A new era beckoned, with new rules, new battles and new enemies, but not all will find their place in it. Mahmud Qateesh Al-Jawabra of Dera’a, the first martyr of the Syrian revolution, turned my world upside down.
Published: 3 March 2013.
Published: 15th November
Last week, the leaders of the fractured Syrian opposition movement met in the Qatari capital, vowing to put aside petty squabbling and create a more inclusive body that would better represent the country’s democratic aspirations. The new organization, the brainchild of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and liberal opposition politician Riad Seif, was rather awkwardly dubbed “the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces” — or “National Coalition” (NC) for short. Its purpose is to attract the sort of international recognition and support that has eluded the now discredited Syrian National Council (SNC) — and thus to boost the opposition’s chances of ousting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
On the surface, there are grounds for optimism. In stark contrast to the SNC, which was dominated by exile politicians, the new group has reserved a majority of seats for Syrians closely linked with the rebel movement — including delegates from the revolutionary councils formed in liberated parts of the country. This week President François Hollande of France held an impromptu press conference to announce his country’s recognition of the NC as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This followed a collective decision taken by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sheikhdoms to extend a similar level of recognition, coupled with promises of hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the opposition.
The NC’s leadership too appears to be a step away from the old politics, with moderate Muslim cleric Muaz Al-Kahattib as president along with Riad Seif and female activist Suheir Al-Attasi as his deputies. All three of them left Syria recently and are largely untainted by the infighting that appears to have sunk the SNC, or any overt association with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) that will alarm Washington. “The ball now is in the international community’s court,” Attasi said in Doha. “There is no more excuse to say we are waiting to see how efficient this new body is. They used to put the opposition to the test. Now we put them to the test.”
So it must have been a terrible disappointment when U.S. President Barack Obama declined to oblige. “We are not yet prepared to recognize them as some sort of government in exile, but we do think that it is a broad-based representative group,” he said of the new coalition soon after his reelection last week. “One of the questions that we are going to continue to press is making sure that that opposition is committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria.” In other words, the NC has yet to prove itself before seeing any tangible rewards.
Obama was not alone in his cautiousness. Arab League ministers meeting in Cairo on Sunday urged regional and international organizations to recognize the new body as “a legitimate representative for the aspirations of the Syrian people” but stopped well short of a full recognition. This may in part be due to Saudi reservations about the NC, which it views with suspicion given the prominent role played by Qatar and Turkey in its creation, and what it perceives to be the exclusion of pro-Saudi opposition figures from the unity talks. While Al-Jazeera provided wall-to-wall coverage of proceedings in Doha, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya looked distinctly uninterested. The Russians too are not happy; not only were their Syrian opposition friends in the National Coordination Body (NCB) not invited to Doha, but the NC’s blank refusal to negotiate with Assad cuts against the grain of Russian thinking on how to resolve the conflict. The picture is a mixed one at best.
But there’s another problem that’s been largely overlooked in the news reports, and it’s one that could threaten to hobble the opposition movement in the critical months ahead. The much-criticized SNC has been sidelined by the establishment of the National Coalition — but it continues to exist. Just two days prior to the start of the unity talks between the SNC and other opposition representatives that effectively created the National Coalition, the SNC held a low-key “restructuring” conference, also in the Qatari capital, under the watchful guise of the country’s foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani. The purported aim was to elect a new leadership. Why the SNC, widely believed to be defunct, should bother with holding an election when a new opposition coalition was due to be created just days later, is no mystery. The reason has a great deal to do with the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The SNC leadership election resulted in defeat for the leading figures of the group’s liberal wing — people like Washington-based politician Radwan Ziadeh. Ex-SNC President Burhan Ghalioun did not bother to contest the election, while another liberal figurehead, Basma Kodmani, resigned from the SNC in August. Needless to say, no woman and no Alawite made it to the general secretariat. The Muslim Brotherhood marshaled their votes and did what their opponents expected least: it booted them out of the SNC by democratic means.
In the end, the Brotherhood was left controlling some 75 percent of the members of the general secretariat. The picture is even more stark in the Executive Committee, the highest body in the organization: seven out of eleven members elected are either Brotherhood members or affiliates. Having failed to win a seat in the general secretariat, the leftist Christian, George Sabra, was chosen by the Brotherhood to head the SNC as a figurehead, but only after he accepted MB hardliner Faruk Tayfur as his deputy.
But why go to all the trouble when the same effort could have been focused on building up the NC, the supposedly new-and-improved formula for opposition unity? “The NC was the idea of Riad Seif and Ambassador Robert Ford,” says long-time SNC member Abdulrahman Al-Haj. “The SNC came under tremendous pressure from the U.S. to accept their plan, but we could not simply abandon the SNC without knowing that the NC is going to work.” That the SNC, refurbished under Muslim Brotherhood guidance, should still be regarded as a useful contingency by a significant swath of Syria’s opposition suggests that they lack commitment to making the NC work.
As a result, there are now two opposition coalitions, the NC and the SNC, that are meant to do the same job. In theory, members of the SNC have been given 40 percent of the seats in the new organization, but the group is allowed to maintain its independent structure and policy-making. What’s more, the SNC is now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which condemns the NC plan as a U.S.-inspired plot to force the opposition to the negotiating table. And yet, the MB’s top brass sit at the head of the table in the NC. This was not the result that Ambassador Ford was hoping for, and may well explain why President Obama appeared so far unconvinced by the new body.
Meanwhile, the SNC is still alive and kicking, and thanks to its recent re-structuring, it has swelled its ranks so that even those wishing to by-pass it will struggle to find the manpower to create a credible alternative. With the Muslim Brotherhood at its helm and Qatar continuing to bankroll its operations, it will survive where many “credible alternatives” will fall at the wayside. Whether any of this helps the Syrian revolution defeat Bashar al-Assad is highly unlikely.
None of this is what the NC leaders were hoping for almost a week after they had signed the draft agreement on Saturday to great fanfare. A tone of desperation was clearly discernible in a statement issued by the new NC president Muaz Al-Khattib earlier this week, when he urged Syrians inside the country to hold up placards reassuring the U.S. president of their support for the new group. Khattib’s move may have been naïve, but it shows that he understands one thing quite well: If the NC does not pick up momentum early on, including that vital recognition from the U.S., it may go the way of the SNC. Or worse.
The early days of Syria’s uprising in spring 2011 saw young activists across the country rising to demand an end to the authoritarian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. Many were idealistic students or recent graduates now working in modern professions, who were inspired by the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Their aspirations for a new Syria began with free and fair elections, constitutional reform, freedom of speech, respect for human rights and a farewell to the brutal police state.
Samir, a 31-year-old IT professional and protest organiser from Zabadani, forty-five kilometres northwest of Damascus, is typical of many from this emergent activist community. He helped coordinate the first demonstration in his hometown on 25 March 2011, and co-established there the first tansiqiya(protest coordination committee). Before this, Samir had been unaffiliated to any political party but had kept himself informed by watching satellite news channels and browsing the internet.
What tipped him into action? Samir had admired figures such as a local doctor and pro-democracy activist, Kamal Labwani, then held in jail on trumped-up charges. He was also buoyed by events in Tunisia and Egypt. But it was the vigils, boycotts and demonstrations that had occurred in Damascus in previous weeks – even before the eruption in the town of Der’aa – that gave him the boldness to act. Samir and other activists say that Syria’s revolution began on 15 March 2011 when a courageous band of young people staged the first protest in the capital’s historic Hamidiya market. Their chants were “peaceful, peaceful”, “the Syrian people are one,” and “God, Syria and Freedom.” This nascent model of protest would later be replicated in towns and cities across Syria.
The intellectual point of departure for Samir and activists like him was a belief in the innate goodness of Syria’s people and the decency of Syria’s society. They believed that Syria, once freed from the malign grip of Assad and his cronies, would return to a liberal default setting – with a multi-party system and a free press – that resembled the model of the 1950s. If Syrians were left to their own devices, they would reject sectarianism and violence, coalesce around a freedom agenda, and create the conditions for a new society to emerge: de-Ba’athified, demilitarised, and democratic. What’s more, all this could be done without foreign military intervention.
Against the odds
The heady heights of the early phase of protests made such idealism almost forgivable. Now, twenty months and later – after thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of reguees, and massive destruction of infrastructure, with no end in sight – it is clear that this Jeffersonian vision of Syria’s refoundation from a “state of nature” was nothing more than wishful thinking. The country’s steady descent into sectarian civil war and chaos makes the initial hopes of a non-violent people’s revolution look naive. This hard experience has taught many activists who began by jumping headlong into a struggle for peace, freedom and democracy a hard lesson. Between the Syria of their dreams, and the land beneath their feet, a huge chasm has widened even further.
The turning-point for Samir came in September 2012, when a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in his hometown gave him a video recording to pass on to the Al-Jazeera broadcasting network. It was of local fighters, inside a holiday villa belonging to a wealthy Damascene, going through the owner’s library and removing Shi’a theological books. The FSA wanted to show the world that the presence of such books was evidence that Shi’a Iran was aiding the Syrian regime in a proselytising plot against Sunni Islam.
What really upset Samir was how little he still shared with his revolutionary comrades in the way of political vision. He had joined the uprising out of patriotism, believing that by getting rid of dictatorship and campaigning for progressive values, Syria would be on the road to joining the ranks of successful nations. “The incident reflected how much our priorities have changed”, he laments, “it was a real wake-up call.”
But it was not only the rising sectarianism that put him off. He accuses jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood of stealing a revolution started by everyday citizens and skewing its aims for their own ends. “People came out to demonstrate for four main reasons: the Arab spring, corruption, religiosity, sectarianism – in that order.” Now he explains, the order has been reversed. “A lot of people stopped participating in demonstrations when the radical Islamists began controlling them.”
Emma Suleiman, a 31-year-old media activist, goes further. She visited the northwest town of Idlib in June 2011 to record a documentary about the uprising, and returned to the governorate in August 2012. “The change was huge”, she says, “it was like Afghanistan.” What alarmed her was not just the growth of Islamist power, but the general chaos. “There was no cooperation between the different groups, no strategy, no political programme, and everyone was working for themselves.” She cites a recent French initiative to fund the running of administrative councils in rebel-held areas of Idlib, which collapsed because local commanders couldn’t agree. She wanted to advise, “but no one was prepared to listen.”
Even more difficult for many of the initial activists to accept was how many opportunists and fake revolutionaries there were. These are the “climbers” who saw in the collapse of law and order and the availability of guns an occasion to profit. Edward Dark (not his real name) is a 35-year old protester from Aleppo turned relief worker, and one of few activists to have publicly criticised the FSA. “When I saw at first hand the crimes of some of the rebel militia done in the name of the revolution, my attitude changed”, he says. “There was open sectarianism and sectarian killing, kidnappings for ransom, killing of prisoners, looting and theft were rampant, as well as extortion of businessmen and landowners, the things which had always been whitewashed by mainstream media and prominent opposition figures.”
Behind closed doors, these activists admit that they have lost ownership of the revolution. That the majority remain largely muted suggests their disillusion is mixed with a degree of bet-hedging and (even more) saving face. Inter-opposition wrangling and recrimination play into the hands of the regime, which has already won much propaganda mileage out of a few activist defections. The opposition’s ranks, albeit mostly in rhetoric, remain united against Assad.
In fact, though, the activists’ fortunes have already been declining for some time. The rise of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the FSA in the latter months of 2011 helped relegate the young, university-educated idealists, armed with nothing more than their laptops and their conscience, to the bottom of the revolutionary pecking order. The latter had tried to set up their own organisations but these were either too narrowly focused on human-rights work to the detriment of playing a more active political role (as in the case of the Local Coordination Committees [LCCs], run by human-rights lawyer Razan Zaytuna), or unable to create a single representative body (as in the case of the Syrian Revolution General Commission [SRGC], which effectively collapsed).
The sad reality is that the odds were stacked against the activists from the start. They were mostly urban, middle-class and educated, a minority within a largely rural and working-class revolution. The regime’s uncompromising totalitarianism meant that they were neither able to act as interlocutors by extracting real concessions, nor commit wholeheartedly to the armed struggle. Amid the shelling, their initiatives to encourage nonviolent civil disobedience and civil-society empowerment began to appear indulgent, even luxurious. No wonder then, that when the unarmed protests lost centrality in the uprising, many of the more ambitious activists – from sincere conviction, or attracted by by the limelight and the facilities – gravitated towards the opposition’s political or military wings.
Between dream and reality
This tale of shattered dreams is not unique to Syria. The youth that created Tahrir Square were not able to capitalise on their victory, and have seen their march stolen by Islamists and former regime associates. In Tunisia, the young unemployed are beginning to turn against their democratically-elected masters. In Yemen, the game of musical chairs continues to alienate and disgruntle, a Nobel peace-prize notwithstanding. Perhaps, it was all too much to expect from a new and untested generation.
The activists themselves may also be criticised for failing to learn from history. Violent social upheavals do not always bring about lasting and positive change; quite often, they result in power shifting sideways to new elites and new paradigms of governance that are not very different from the old ones. The Russian revolution led to the gulag and the cold war, the Iranian revolution to the rise of an expansionist sectarian theocracy.
Syria’s own history, the 1950s precedent notwithstanding, provides little in the way of optimism. “Syria” and “Syrians” were, in Albert Hourani’s view – referring to the creation of a state by Britain and France after 1918 – “ancient entities but very modern notions.” The societies that inhabited a provincial hinterland of a backward and crumbling empire proved unable to keep pace with the rapid demands of newly-bestowed nation-statehood. The outward appearance of modernity belies a society still wrestling with a host of subnational and supranational loyalties and injustices that are the Ottomans’ legacy to today’s Levantines. A candid look at Syria today reveals a picture of tribal selfishness masquerading as populist nationalism; little wonder that scheming politicians, local toughs and extremists of every kind have prospered, and why violence, vulgarity and bravado have become the order of the day.
Peoples and systems entrenched in power don’t go down without a fight. More than ever Bashar al-Assad deserves to go, but both his regime and the opposition will stop at nothing in their desperation to triumph. Outside observers have been shocked by the levels of wanton cruelty perpetrated on each side, to the extent that they wonder what Syrians now still have in common. The divide is accentuated by propaganda campaigns that focus on rallying core constituencies at the cost of promoting a middle-ground consensus. Events on the ground suggest that Syrians face a grim choice: a regime victory or the destruction of the state.
This presents an acute dilemma for the activists, because in their idealised conception of regime change there is still a firm requirement for, if not a strong dosage of civic awareness, then at the very least a modicum of state cohesion. This dilemma was never felt in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen, where government changed hands but society remained relatively cohesive and consequently the state remained standing. By misjudging the nature of their own society, the activists became actors in a struggle that was stubbornly refusing to play to the rules they had imagined for it.
The day after
Despite all this, it’s not curtains just yet. Almost two years and thousands of videos on, the activists still carry the unique currency of hope. That may seem less powerful than the violence of the FSA rebel warriors, it still matters. For revolutions are in the end judged primarily by what they aspire to and build, not what they destroy.
The uprising may have been lit by events elsewhere, but its fuel is homegrown: rural poverty and (mainly) Sunni discontent. In the end all combatants grow tired of fighting, and a new political order will almost certainly emerge that will address, in one shape or another, the delicate question of how to redistribute political power and national wealth more equitably. This is not a task that angry men with kalashnikovs can do. Wherever it may lead and however long it takes, in the struggle for Syria there will always be a place on the political stage for the champions of rationalism and pragmatism, moderation and compromise. When the guns fall silent, the liberal vision held by the activists is the only one that makes sense for multi-religious, multi-ethnic Syria.
In the race to rescue meaning from the nihilism of civil war, much will depend on whether Syrian activists can turn from disillusioned idealists to aspiring realists. In the process, they may achieve something that has so far eluded the youth of the Arab spring: the creation of a real leadership that advocates inclusive change.
To such an end, forty-five activists launched The Day After project in August 2012. This is an initiative designed to foster a shared vision of Syria’s democratic future, define the goals and principles of a transition, and prepare a detailed yet flexible transition planning document.” It’s a start, though many challenges remain: to frame the conflict within its real real historical and socio-economic roots, and set out out specific policies to address them, thereby laying the foundations for an enlightened settlement. In this regard, the younger generation of activists face a long road, and the moral qualities that motivated them in the early days of the Syrian uprising – as well as the tougher political ones picked up along the way – will be needed if they are to become agents of what Montesquieu called “a deeper immanent tendency of their society in motion.”
In truth, Samir and his colleagues may not see the fruits of their labour until they are well into middle age. But if the Syrian revolution is to grow up, it will still need the young men and women who once claimed it as their own.
The Media War in Syria
The conflict has exacerbated the media tussle between two opposing camps in the region
Exactly a year after the breakout of the Syrian uprising, Al-Arabiya TV did something extraordinary: it broadcast blow-by-blow details of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s emails that were leaked by opposition hackers. The emails contained sensitive information about the regime’s security plans, the state of the Syrian economy and embarrassing revelations about Asma Al-Assad’s extravagant online shopping sprees. The conflict in Syria has exacerbated the media tussle between two opposing camps in the region: the so-called “moderate” Arab states and the “resistance axis.”Arab media traditionally avoids stories that involve personal attacks on Arab heads of state, but in this instance Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya broke all the taboos. It was as close as you could get to a declaration of war.
The conflict in Syria has exacerbated the media tussle between two opposing camps in the region: the so-called “moderate” Arab states and the “resistance axis.” On one side, Syrian opposition satellite channels and Gulf-financed news networks are supportive of the uprising; on the other are the Syrian regime’s broadcasters plus those owned or funded by its chief ally, Iran.
For the past 18 months opposing armies of professional journalists and amateur activists have slugged it out across the airwaves and over the Internet, their stories are their slingshots. Traditional and new media have been deployed in this fight, and cyber warfare has been waged by both sides. It is a clash of two mutually irreconcilable narratives.
Martyrology: The Syrian opposition media
A central component of the Syrian opposition’s strategy for victory against Assad was control of the media narrative. Their calculations were informed by lessons learned in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which suggested that framed correctly, the West would intervene to support a “popular revolution” to overthrow the Syrian dictator—by force if necessary. As a result, what began as a limited demonstration over a local grievance in the southern city of Dara’a quickly developed into a nation-wide anti-Assad protest movement.
For the opposition’s media, the key objective was to win Western and Arab solidarity by ensuring massive coverage of the protest movement on television—and the regime’s brutal attempts to crush it. This was especially important given that foreign journalists based in Syria were not permitted to visit areas where demonstrations were taking place. Those who tried, like Al-Jazeera English’s Dorothy Parvaz, were arrested and deported. Only the regime’s own reporters were allowed to tell the world what was happening, and they were saying that no demonstrations were taking place. The reaction from the opposition was a whirlwind of amateur video on the Internet, proving the opposite.
Having previously headed the Syrian Computer Society, Bashar Al-Assad was acutely aware of the subversive potential of the Internet. Under his reign, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were banned along with dozens of opposition and independent news websites. Activists hit back with use of proxy servers and anonymzing software to circumvent online censorship—but in a country where only 17 percent of the population have access to the Internet, satellite television remains the mass communication medium of choice.
Having previously headed the Syrian Computer Society, Bashar Al-Assad was acutely aware of the subversive potential of the Internet.
Visitors to Syria are struck by the number of satellite dishes on rooftops, and it is through these that Syrians watch uncensored news and comment. If the opposition wanted to convey its message most effectively, it needed pictures to get the satellite television channels interested.
Rather than waiting for the journalists to visit them—which was a near impossibility given the regime’s ban on journalists entering the country—the protesters used social media to reach out to the journalists instead. Twitter and Facebook may have played an important role in the Egyptian revolution, but in Syria the uprising is on YouTube. The visual nature of this video-sharing website lent itself perfectly to delivering stories to satellite news channels like Al-Arabiya or BBC Arabic, which hankered after footage of demonstrations to accompany eyewitness accounts. However, editorial controls meant restrictions on the use of user-generated content, and the networks invariably always qualified the footage with talk about not being able to independently verify authenticity. This spurred the creation of activist news agencies that were essentially groups of amateur, media-savvy young Syrians running YouTube channels under names such as Sham News Network, Flash News Network and Ugarit—to name but a few. Their job was to receive, verify, edit, and contextualize raw film into useable footage that satellite news channels would feel more confident airing.
The way in which the opposition controlled and exploited graphic images of dead or dying civilians proved to be its most effective recruiting sergeant. The massacre at Izra’, near Dara’a, on 22 April 2011 was a defining moment in the Syrian uprising. That evening, images were broadcast on all the major satellite news channels showing an anguished father carrying the body of his son, who had been shot in the head. It was the sort of image designed to induce an instant emotional response from the viewer; it certainly succeeded in convincing many young Syrians to protest in solidarity.
A few weeks later, the body of 13-year old Hamza Al-Khatib, who had been arrested, was returned to his family a swollen and badly bruised corpse. His family said that they were instructed by the mukhabarat (secret police) to remain quiet, but instead they filmed the autopsy and uploaded it onto YouTube. There were other tortured children, like Thamer Al-Shari’, a citizen journalists who had been shot like Rami Al-Sayid, and protest leaders who had their throats cut, like Ibrahim Qashush. Even dead foreign journalists were considered “martyrs of the free media,” the most famous being the Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin. More martyrs meant more rousing videos of martyrs and more reasons to challenge Assad’s rule. In their millions, the protesters chanted the now-ubiquitous slogan of the Arab Spring: “The people want the downfall of the regime!”
Images from Syria taken by amateur cameramen, often on mobile phones, were always carefully vetted by the activist news agencies to fit a specific narrative. This was that the country was undergoing a peaceful, non-sectarian, all-Syrian revolution that aimed to bring about the end of a bloody dictatorship and usher in an era of “freedom and dignity.” This narrative has hardly ever changed. What freedom and dignity meant in practical political terms, and what effect they would have on existing socio-economic structures, was neither asked nor made clear. The opposition’s narrative was successful inasmuch as it won over Arab and international solidarity, but as the conflict enters a civil war phase, the extent to which it remains factually correct is open to question.
Resistance versus moderation: Arab reporting on Syria
The key battleground in the media war remains, predictably, satellite television. At the start of the uprising, the Syrian opposition had two dedicated satellite channels: Barada and Orient. Meanwhile, the regime had its own state-run broadcaster, and could rely on privately-owned Addounia to toe the official line, as it can with a number of Iranian-funded channels. The rank of opposition satellite channels has since swelled to nine, and it includes religious-leaning channels, such as Shada Al-Houriya (which hosts firebrand preacher Adnan Arour), to local channels that focus on revolutionary activity in a specific region of Syria, such as Aleppo Today or Deir Ezzour TV. For the opposition, the two most significant recruits of all were the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera news networks, by far the most-viewed news networks in the Arab world.
The decisions by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to utilize their media assets to hasten Assad’s demise represent the most significant development in the media war between regime and opposition. For Al-Arabiya, the turning point came in August 2011 when the channel broadcast the content of a message by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, which condemned Assad’s “killing machine” and called on the Syrian leadership to “see sense before it was too late.” This immediately reflected upon Al-Arabiya’s coverage of the Syrian uprising, which up until that point had been broadly sympathetic to the opposition but stopped well short of endorsement. The channel’s subsequent championing of the Syrian uprising certainly raised the morale of the opposition, but it the Arab political legitimacy bestowed upon its struggle through television endorsement that became the opposition’s real prize.
The decisions by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to utilize their media assets to hasten Assad’s demise represent the most significant development in the media war between regime and opposition.
Joining the fray, the two pan-Arab heavyweights clashed head-on with their “resistance axis.” Unintended consequences became inevitable. Al-Arabiya was able to survive and thrive unscathed, mainly because its top management includes liberal Saudi journalist Abdulrahman Al-Rashid, for whom the Assad and Khamenei regimes are a political and ideological anathema. His views, found often in his column in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, fit in well with the foreign policy thinking of the Saudi establishment, of which he is a member and perhaps most eloquent advocate. Turning against Syria and Iran so violently did not cut against the grain of what Al-Arabiya was made of.
For Al-Jazeera, however, the impact of the sudden change of editorial direction was more keenly felt. The channel’s reputation was partly established because many “pro-resistance” journalists filled the higher echelons of its management, and who used the channel to voice a populist anti-Americanism that echoes in the Arab World—and most particularly in Damascus and Tehran. Their positions became untenable when Qatar moved off the fence on Syria and joined Saudi Arabia and the West in a hostile alliance against Assad.
This led to a number of high-profile resignations from the channel, the most prominent of which was that of its Beirut bureau chief, Ghassan Ben Jeddou. He went on to establish Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, a satellite news channel that serves as a valuable addition to the Syrian–Iranian media front. It launched in June 2012 and claims to offer a brand of journalism “committed to nationalist, pan-Arab and humanitarian issues within the template of professional journalistic objectivity.” It is one of the very few channels whose reporters are embedded with Assad’s forces. It recently came under criticism from opposition activists who accused it of passing information about Free Syrian Army (FSA) positions to the Syrian army in Aleppo.
In the war between satellite channels, you can only fight if you remain on air. The decision taken in early September by Arabsat and Nilesat to suspend their broadcasts of Syrian state TV in compliance with an Arab League directive is a blow for the Syrian regime’s media effort. Although state TV in Syria can still be viewed terrestrially, this decision will impact on its reach and prestige. But while there are legal ways to get a broadcaster shut down, Al-Jazeera has fallen victim of an illegal method favored by the Islamic Republic: jamming. In January 2012, Reuters reported that the frequency used by Al-Jazeera was being jammed from two positions in Iran, leading the Doha–based channel to change its frequency for Arabsat viewers. (Al-Arabiya and a host of Syrian opposition channels have come under systematic jamming attacks from Iranian sources for years.)
Cult of the soldier-hero: Assad’s counter-attack
In an interview with a Russian broadcaster in May, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad admitted that his regime was losing the media war but said “the reality is what really matters” and not “the illusions” created by the media. Illusions, however, are the Syrian state-controlled media’s expertise. Keenly aware that NATO airpower is the ultimate arbiter of Arab civil wars, Assad’s media strategy focused primarily on projecting staying power. He figured that if he could convince enough of his own people and key Western countries that he was unlikely to be dislodged as easily as some of his less fortunate colleagues, he could weather the storm.
While the regime’s tactical messages changed depending on the particular phase of the conflict, the broad strokes of the regime’s message has remained constant throughout. Assad’s media adviser, Buthaina Sha’ban, set the general tone five days after the first major protests erupted, when she declared in a press conference that Syria was under attack by a “seditious sectarian conspiracy.” The notion that hostile external forces were animating internal players to destabilize and destroy the country under the guise of democratic slogans remains at the core of the regime’s grand media narrative.
In an interview with a Russian broadcaster in May, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad admitted that his regime was losing the media war but said “the reality is what really matters” and not “the illusions” created by the media.
From the outset, the regime’s media campaign suffered from a crippling credibility gap. Its failure to report on massive demonstrations happening across the country—and its attempts to besmirch the reputations of perfectly law-abiding demonstrators—earned it the contempt of many of its own viewers. Its repeated attempts to bolster its narrative with undercover recordings or TV confessions, often featuring pictures of confiscated weapons, drugs, and wads of foreign banknotes, not only made little impact on the constituencies that were set on bringing down Assad, but radicalised others that had been neutral. Efforts by pro-regime broadcasters to highlight inaccurate reporting by “strife channels,” such as the daily “media dishonesty” segment on Addounia TV that exposes enemy disinformation, did not stop Syrians switching over to the other side. A popular chant at protests was, “The Syrian media is a liar!”
The regime may have lost the battle of accurate reporting, but its narrative was still very much alive. It also had one major advantage over the opposition in that its media machine was centrally-controlled from an office in the presidential palace. A noticeable shift in the regime’s media strategy came about following the siege of Baba Amr in February 2012. By this time, the army had been committed to a nation-wide campaign aimed at achieving total military victory against an increasingly armed and belligerent opposition. As the level of violence escalated, and the regime’s hopes of placating the masses through limited reforms were dashed, the regime’s media switched to an all-out counter-offensive with the armed forces as its spearhead.
Assad figured that if he could no longer command the respect and loyalty of ordinary citizens, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) might. Having been the beneficiary of massive defense budgets and the source of important patronage networks, the Syrian Army was both the most powerful institution in Syria and Assad’s last line of defense. What stood between him and a fate like Qadhafi’s was the commitment of the humble grunt. It was imperative that the regime’s media campaign focus on rallying Syrians—not around Assad per se, but around the Syrian army of which he is commander-in-chief. It is a subtle difference that could prove decisive in solidifying Assad’s core support among religious minorities and the salaried urban middle classes, many of whom view the rise of the rebel Free Syrian Army as the harbinger of their decline.
State broadcasting is now full of vociferous, pro-army propaganda. It aims to portray the soldier as a committed and selfless defender of Syrian values and civilization against hordes of brainwashed “armed terrorist gangs” funded and trained by foreign enemies. Songs are broadcast that extol the virtues of the fighting man, and TV advertisements are aired encouraging recruitment into the various branches of the armed forces. In what has become a staple diet of news bulletins, young female reporters in flak jackets embed with the Syrian army and file daily reports from the front lines highlighting the army’s victories and sacrifices. A typical report includes an interview with “defenders of the homeland,” who invariably say that their morale could not be higher and that they were committed to defeating the terrorists wherever they may be. They also tend to include interviews with local civilians who declare their gratitude to the army for having evicted “terrorists” from their neighborhood and for having brought back “safety and security.” Often these reports include a human interest story, such as one about a citizen in a Damascus suburb who had been robbed by insurgents only for his money to be recovered by the army, or a soldier who had requested he be sent back to the front line, not perturbed by the fact that he had lost his left arm in an FSA ambush. In such reports, house-to-house searches are conducted with the utmost respect, and would often conclude with scenes of jubilant residents shouting, “God Save the Army,” or with images of children handing out sweets and cups of tea to the soldier-heroes.
The cult of the soldier-hero is expressed in less restrained terms online. While the regime has been outperformed on that front largely due to the opposition’s army of Internet activists, there are a number of YouTube channels updated daily by regime supporters whose primary purpose these days is to glorify the SAA. “SyriaTube” is one these, in which you will find images of dead FSA fighters accompanied by text commentary that reads, “The Syrian Arab Army’s jackboot seal has been stamped on this terrorist’s neck.” Another video shows a column of Syrian army tanks and vehicles that snaked for miles to the soundtrack of Requiem for a Dream, entitled “Aleppo: We are coming.” It is an unbridled expression of fascistic militarism, and it is the stuff that Bashar Al-Assad is using to build his illusion of power and permanency.
In the same week as Prince Harry’s nudity made it onto the front page of the UK’s biggest selling newspaper, an equally racy expose was made on a Syrian news website involving a naked rebel commander and his laptop.
The commander in question is little known outside the Middle East, but 25-year old Abdulrazaq Tlass (pictured) is the undisputed poster-child of one of the largest groups in the Free Syrian Army: the much-vaunted Farouk Brigades. He is a brave and handsome lieutenant who led the successful defence of Homs against Assad‘s hordes of army and shabiha. Recently, and to signal a growing religious piety, he took to sporting a beard in the Salafist fashion.
So when he decided to go online and engage in a spot of Skype sex sometime in mid-August, little did he know that regime hackers had installed spyware that enabled them to capture images from his webcam. The recording found its way online and one opposition news website decided to run with it.
Terribly embarrassing it may have been for him, at a time of revolution personal indiscretions are easily forgiven. A public apology would have helped, but in the end Syrian media activists like myself decided that, big-picture wise, it wasn’t worth the fuss.
What happened after that made me, a dyed-in-the-wool opponent of Assad, question the motives of those leading the revolution to oust him.
Three days after the video was posted on the Internet, Lt. Tlass issued a video response in which he, quite straight-faced, claimed that the entire recording was a regime fabrication aimed at besmirching the reputation of revolutionary figures. Assad’s accomplices in this cheap propaganda trick were Russia and China, “who supplied him with the technology to do such things.” In the words of Shaggy, it wasn’t me.
At this point it might be worth reminding ourselves of what Lt. Tlass had done wrong. He used a laptop and satellite Internet connection donated by Syrian expats to conduct an online sexual liaison. He sort-of cheated on his wife with an unidentified female, though the rumour points to a journalist in Turkey. He displayed a gross lack of judgement and brought the FSA into disrepute.
All that, however, was dwarfed by the simple fact that he lied. The intelligence of millions of Syrians was trumped by his sense of personal honour; he actually wanted us to believe that his word outweighed video evidence. The audacity, the gall, the bare-cheeked effrontery of it, was remarkable.
Equally remarkable was the reaction of the Syrian opposition, office-holders and humble activists alike, who launched into vulgar verbal tirades against anyone who dared question Lt Tlass’ character. “His shoes are more honourable than you dirty scoundrels” was one comment left on the opposition news website that dared to post the video. “You are Assad’s dogs and whores. Why do you make up lies about the opposition? Who is paying you?” screamed another.
The journalist who called for his resignation was bombarded by over one thousand abusive messages on his Facebook page, some even demanding he be hanged as a traitor. Those less shrill dismissed the video as a fabrication, and calmly asserted that even if it was genuine “who among us has not wronged?” It was a case of a public corruption passing off as private misdemeanour.
The big taboo
Assad’s propaganda machine spent the first few months of the uprising trying to convince the world that protest footage aired on Al-Jazeera was fake. It went as far as to claim that a giant Hollywood set of famous Syrian landmarks had been erected in Doha as part of a US-Zionist-Wahhabi wag-the-dog conspiracy. It didn’t quite wash, but it wasn’t all together unexpected coming from a regime that accused teenage bloggers of being Mossad agents.
Naturally, one would assume that the opposition would be radically different. They would champion free and independent media reporting as part of a wider vision for a post-Assad Syria that centered on freedom of expression and public accountability. Unfortunately, experience of working within the opposition media machine has shown that that vision is lacking.
The Syrian opposition runs at least seven satellite television channels and scores of news websites. But if you want to know what the opposition is up to, you’re better served trawling Facebook where you can pick up half-truths and hearsay. Voices that criticize opposition leaders (and there is much to be critical of) or that shed light on the internal workings of opposition organizations such as the Syrian National Council, have been quietly hushed. Rocking the boat is taboo.
In February of this year, an Istanbul-based member of the SNC Executive Committee, the highest body in the organization, claimed on Al-Jazeera that his brother in Aleppo has been murdered by the regime. A Barada TV investigation that I oversaw however, revealed that it was the FSA itself that carried out the hit because it believed his brother was a financier of the shabiha. Family honour dictated that the SNC leader suppress this news, and so he lied. He did so because he thought he could get away with it.
And he did. He threatened to sue the channel if it broadcast the story and promised swift political retribution on all those associated with the investigation. The channel’s management caved in, and an hour before it was due to be aired the story was spiked and replaced with something less offensive.
This was by no means an isolated incident. Eighteen months of self-censorship has meant that gross incompetence, petty squabbling, vote-buying, clientelism, embezzlement of funds, and yes, lying to the world by members of Syria’s opposition has gone unreported and unaccounted. The result has been a break down of trust between the political opposition and the grassroots, and a strained relationship with the West – and the revolution as a whole has suffered for it. The Abdulrazaq Tlass affair shows that the rot has now infected the FSA.
At stake is the kind of media that will emerge in a future, democratic Syria. Opposition media activists should not be impervious to the risks of cosying up to the revolutionary figures of today who may turn into the dictators of tomorrow. There is a balance that can and should be struck between robust and responsible journalism and not handing the regime a propaganda victory. If the Syrian revolution is genuinely about freedom and democracy, those claiming to be its champions should live up to its ideals.