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The Abdulrazaq Tlass affair and the naked truth

September 24, 2012 9 comments

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.

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Categories: Syrian uprising

My latest for Foreign Policy: SNC is a gang that can’t shoot straight

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Foreign Policy have kindly allowed me to express my strong feelings about the opposition Syrian National Council on their website. The result was a well-received article published yesterday (7th September) entitled  “The Gang That Cant Shoot Straight.” The title was not chosen by me, but I wholeheartedly approve.

The origin of this term appears to be a 1971 comedy called “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” about a New York mafia gang that uses a lion to blackmail a rival gang’s “clients.” It doesn’t appear to be a very good film but the term entered American English idiom. Before anyone takes offence, I’d like to stress that it does not imply that the SNC is a gang; it is simply a popular expression in the US to denote an incompetent group of people, which SNC politicians undoubtedly are.

Much of what I know about the Syrian opposition comes from first-hand experience. I have been a known Syrian opposition activist for at least the past six years, in other words, when it was highly unfashionable to be so. I have known the leaders of the opposition before and after they became of interest on the world stage. My involvement in the creation and running of opposition TV channel Barada TV gave me inside access into how and why the Syrian opposition makes the decisions that it does, and what consequences these carry on the political game. This insight is often missing in journalistic analysis about Syria, much to the detriment of the reader.

Special thanks to Arab commentator Sultan Al-Qassemi and The Guardian’s Ian Black for helping to spread the word about this article on Twitter and their kind words about it. Special thanks also to my friend and fellow SOAS alumni Ed Husain for describing the piece as “astute, courageous and visionary.” I think he was just being polite.

 

The Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight

The Syrian National Council has failed to galvanize international support for the rebellion — and it has only itself to blame.

BY MALIK AL-ABDEH | SEPTEMBER 7, 2012

Last week, the Syrian opposition columnist Ghassan Muflih, writing  in the online newspaper Elaph , informed his readers who was to blame for the failure to dislodge Bashar al-Assad. “The West is supportive of the demands of the Syrian people [to live in] freedom and dignity but does not encourage the success of the revolution,” he wrote. “The reasons are related to the Israeli desire to see the destruction of Syria at the hands of the Assad gangs. The Western position is justified by flimsy arguments, for example, when they speak of Islamist militants or the unity of the opposition. However, the essence of the western position remains: Give Assad more time to kill.”

It’s understandable that some try to hold the West accountable for the continuing horrors in Syria. Last month was the deadliest so far, with the overall death toll surpassing 20,000 and the number of refugees  that have fled the fighting exceeding 150,000. (The photo above shows a street scene in Aleppo earlier this week.) All UN attempts to end the bloodshed have so far come to nothing — a dismal failure underscored by the resignation  last month of UN-AL special envoy Kofi Annan. The prospects for his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi , are poor. Air support from the countries of the West would probably be far more effective when it comes to loosening Assad’s grip – but the prospects for that appear remote.

But while the West recognizes the inadequacy of the international response and has clashed with Russia and China over the matter, the Syrian opposition appears to be blissfully unaware of its own role in prolonging the conflict. By failing to create a credible alternative that appeals to Syrians, as well as to the international community, the opposition has consistently put a damper on any plan for western military intervention. Their division and incompetence are now the main lifeline for a beleaguered Assad.

The Syrian National Council  claims to be the largest, the best-financed, and the most well-organized of all the various Syrian opposition coalitions. According to its own books, it has received over $25 million from Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, not to mention assistance from the U.S. and the UK in the form of “non-lethal aid.”

Last week, SNC President Abdulbaset Sieda  lashed out at U.S. officials for saying that it was premature to speak about a transitional Syrian government. He described the many differences within the SNC as “normal.” Normality is a relative concept, but in suggesting that the SNC’s performance during the past year could in any way be considered “normal” in a country crying out for alternative leadership is as breathtakingly insulting as it is naïve.

SNC members like to cite the Western intervention in Libya as the sort of thing that needs to happen in Syria now. But the West’s involvement in Libya came about partly because the Libyan opposition demonstrated a basic capacity for leadership. A transitional council was formed within one week of the first anti-Qaddafi protests. That council appointed a commander-in-chief to lead the rebel forces. It sent emissaries around the world to represent the opposition to foreign governments, and it immediately established contacts with grassroots constituencies inside the country. A respected defector, Mustafa Abduljalil, was elected to head an executive team tasked with implementing a clear-headed strategy to bring down Qaddafi at all costs.

The SNC has done nothing of the sort. Its control over the Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups remains tenuous, sustained only by payments of cash but little else. Repeated attempts to bring the armed opposition under its political wing have failed because there is little trust in the SNC as a representative body. The resultant void in leadership has been filled by radical jihadist groups that have emerged as powerful challengers to the SNC.

Despite its claims to “serve as a political umbrella for the Syrian Revolution in the international arena,” the SNC has yet to appoint a single delegate or spokesperson in any of the world’s major capitals.

Competing factionalism within the SNC means that ponderous and ineffective delegations of twenty or more fly around the world at great expense because none of the constituent parties trust each other to sit with foreign governments alone. It should come as little surprise that no country apart from Libya recognizes the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Among the Syrian revolution’s rank-and-file, the SNC appears distant and increasingly irrelevant. Despite access to at least seven satellite television channels and dozens of websites and YouTube channels, the SNC was neither able to appeal to its own core constituency (Sunni Arabs) or to develop sophisticated messages to engage with the minority groups on whose continued support Assad relies.

To this day, the SNC does not have a discernible media strategy. It failed to understand that the key to winning the media war is not credibility but consistent messaging. Opposition activists have become obsessed with reporting details while the regime media machine keeps its eye on the big picture. “People don’t have to believe what is being broadcast,” says Nadim Shehadi, Syria specialist at Chatham House, “but the overall message [of the regime’s propaganda] is ‘we’re here and here to stay,’ which is quite strong.”

Leadership in the SNC is very much “by committee,” and this precludes the emergence of a strong and popular leader. The SNC was created by a series of delicately constructed alliances between competitors: secularists and Islamists, Arabs and Kurds, party affiliates and independents, tribal chiefs and Facebook activists. What this means in practice is that decisions, more often than not, are compromises.

The SNC’s first president, Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, was just such a compromise, and it showed. A Paris-based academic with no prior experience in front-line politics, his nine months at the head of the organization were marked by dithering and confusion over policy towards militarization and foreign intervention. Under his watch, the initial goodwill that was extended by the international community steadily ebbed away. His successor, a Stockholm-based Kurdish academic, did nothing to dispel the air of the exiles’ elitist disconnect from the street.

Perhaps the most damning failure of the SNC was its inability to frame the struggle in Syria in its own terms. In what can only be described as a shameful case of intellectual cowardice, little attempt was made to define the revolution using the language of politics. Where is the list of specific grievances and demands? Where are the revolutionary slogans and symbols? Where are the thinkers that are shaping the way that Syrians understand their act of rebellion? What the revolution is about and what it aims to achieve are questions that invariably draw vague and emotional responses from SNC politicians — responses that, though playing well to Al-Jazeera’s audience, have left western observers feeling confused and underwhelmed.

The conflict exposed a series of ruptures within Syrian society — be it sectarian, ethnic, class-based, or ideological — which the SNC was expected to address head-on as part of a compelling new vision. The adoption by protesters of the pre-Ba’ath Party, green-white-black tricolor known as the Flag of Independence, a symbol around which Syrians rallied in their struggle against the French mandate, should have been enough to convince the SNC that they needed to seek legitimacy not in Doha or Paris but in Syria’s “golden age.” The post-independence liberal democracy (1946-58) is a reference point from which the SNC could have launched a progressive political program based on freedom, equality, and national reconciliation. What they actually came up with was an uninspiring four-page document called the National Covenant for a New Syria. It is doubtful whether any Syrian inside the country has heard of it, let alone knows what it says.

The regime, meanwhile, has been able to frame the conflict in terms favorable to itself: a struggle between secular urban sophistication and religious tolerance versus Islamist country bumpkins fuelled by petro-dollars and jihadist ideology. While this is not a wholly accurate portrayal, the SNC’s failure to offer an alternative that allows for the role of rural religious conservatives and absorbs them into a broader liberal-national narrative, has allowed the regime to claim, not without sympathy from some in the West, that it is on front lines of the war on terror. The SNC’s fundamental failure is not one of organization but of imagination.

The SNC claims to draw legitimacy from the Syrian people. In reality, it sources of legitimacy are external: Arab money and western recognition. For now, Arab money still flows into its coffers but the West has grown impatient and is looking for alternatives.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to meet an SNC delegation in Istanbul last month; she opted to meet with independent activists instead. Recent diplomatic activity points to an incipient consensus in London, Washington, and Paris that encouraging a credible alternative to Assad based around the SNC is a policy that has failed. And, that in turn, has prompted criticisms of the West from the SNC leadership.

But so what? Blaming the West has always been a useful crutch for failed political institutions in the Arab world. In this case, the SNC has concluded that it cannot afford to lose contact with the U.S. As a direct result of the recent snubs, the SNC announced on September 1 a restructuring of the organization that would see the group’s general assembly grow from 300 to 400 members and each opposition group to be represented by at least 20 members. The idea is to make the SNC more representative.

In reality the SNC needed to slim down, not pile on weight. More members means more contenders jostling for position, more avenues for corruption and waste, and less chance for consensus-building and thoughtful policy formulation. It also means more meaningless posts, adding to the noxious mix of ego, ambition and incompetence that has stifled the SNC from its inception. It is a solution worthy of a committee of Arab bureaucrats.

Last week a key founder of the SNC resigned. Dr Bassma Kodmani had been involved in a tug-of-war with the Islamists for months, who reacted decisively by voting her out of the all-powerful executive committee. Her exit signals the end of the liberal-Islamist concord that established the SNC as a cross-party coalition. Now it is the Muslim Brotherhood who are firmly in the driver’s seat.

The Syrian National Council has presided over a catastrophic failure of leadership. The West is right to seek an alternative, but in so doing, it will need to contend with the Muslim Brotherhood. Right from the start, the SNC was viewed by the Islamist movement as a useful tool to rebuild its own organization and position itself to capture power in Syria. Knowing that many in Syria and in the West dislike the Brotherhood, the SNC proved to be useful camouflage.

Sidelining the SNC means sidelining the Brotherhood, a task that poses considerable problems. Brotherhood leaders are well-versed in the arts of prevarication and backroom dealing, and they will try to smother any rival organization that attempts to compete with the SNC for money and international recognition. In the meantime, one can be sure that anti-western rhetoric will get louder.

It must surely be a worrying development when those working to bring down dictatorship are found to be borrowing from the dictator’s manual. West-bashing will not save the SNC or the Syrian revolution. Only by demonstrating a modicum of effective leadership can the Syrian opposition hope to convince the international community that it is a credible alternative and worthy of a Libya-type investment in men, materiel, and political will.

A British diplomat summed it up nicely at a meeting with SNC representatives in April: “Spend less time communicating with us and more time communicating with your own people.” The irony is that the SNC is now doing neither.

Categories: Syrian uprising
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