Published: 3 March 2013.
It may sound cruel but over the past few weeks Syria’s pro-democracy revolutionaries have been pushing and shoving for headline space with their Libyan and Yemeni counterparts. It’s not hard to see why. Getting the West interested in your particular revolution is a sure way of maximizing the potential for its success, for every Arab knows that the US and the EU who have long accepted dictators as a fact of life (and therefore legitimized them) can de-legitimize them with a press conference or two. Getting the Western media to talk about your revolution will lead to public pressure, which leads to leaders making statements, paving the way for policies to be formulated and political pressure exerted.
The Libyans have so far received the lion’s share of interest. To be fair, they did get in first when they sparked their uprising against Gaddafi back in mid-February. Their column inches is impressive, if not the present course of their revolution which has stalled on the battlefields of Brega and Ras Lanuf.
The Yemenis have so far followed the rather more peaceful Egyptian model, remarkable given the amount of weaponry in ordinary citizen’s hands. However, lack of economic incentives, the relatively low number of dead and injured and the real threat of Al-Qa’ida has made the Western media somewhat wary of embracing the Yemeni revolution. In many ways its a less “sexier” revolution than Libya’s: there’s no Dr Evil-type villain, no African mercenaries, no perfect Mediterranean backdrops, no oil fields; just thousands of Yemenis in traditional garb squatting in the centre of the capital San’a.
The Syrian revolution took everyone by surprise. I say everyone; some did foretell what was to come but these voices were drowned out by the well-informed experts who assured us that the Syrian regime was ‘immune.’ How the mighty have fallen. The problem as far as the Syrian revolutionaries are concerned was that their timing was awful. By mid-March the Western media was enthralled by the images of NATO jets taking off on bombing runs in Libya, and terrified by the threat of nuclear meltdown in Japan; both stories easily relegated Syria to the back pages.
Not for long though. Hundreds of protesters turned into thousands, and inevitably, dozens of dead and injured. Syria is at the crossroads of converging political interests; it is a police state par excellence run by a militarized mafioso family; it’s beauty and romance tempered by undercurrents of danger and extremism. The world just had to take notice.
Take notice it did; the problem was that the debate was being framed within the context of reform, not revolution. This has meant that news editors are giving Syria less attention that it deserves. In part this is the fault of the protesters themselves who initially went out onto the streets demanding reform, not regime change. The media as a whole however, Arab and Western, did not pick up on the subtleties of Syrian doublespeak, which inevitably develops in a totalitarian dictatorship of 48 years. When Syrians say they want “change”, they mean regime change, not just a change in the law, and when they talk about “freedom” they mean freedom not to be ruled by the Assads. The culture of fear still permeates Syrian society, and many still prefer to skirt on the edges of the hated “red lines” rather than dare cross them. All this has meant that there is a great deal of confusion as to the real aims of the revolution. The body count is there, but not the clarity of purpose.
In Tunisia it took several weeks for the protests to solidify into a popular, coherent and nationwide anti-Ben Ali uprising. Syria will take longer; the adversary is more sophisticated and considerably more brutal. If the protests continue, which they will, and Libya-fatigue begins to set in, Syria will feature more prominently in newspapers and on news channels. Glad tidings for the revolution as it seeks to find its deserved place in the media limelight.
There have been rumours circulating for some time of clandestine support being extended to Gaddafi by Syria. It started with talk of Syrian mercenaries participating in the violent crackdown on protesters in Benghazi. Then I received an email from a Barada TV viewer who said that he was one of many Syrian migrant workers stranded in Triploi who were evacuated by ship. I checked out the claim from multiple sources
and I discovered that a ship had indeed sailed from Tartus to Tripoli. The viewer claims that he saw many plain-clothed security men were aboard the ship, and that the ship’s crews demanded bribes to allow the stranded families safe passage back to Syria.
Circumstantial evidence perhaps. Reports then surfaced of Syrian mukhabarat arriving in Tripoli to “cleanse” the Libyan intelligence archive of evidence that may incriminate Damascus in acts of terrorism committed in the 1970s and 1980s. This particular allegation was made in Al-Hakika website, run by Paris-based Syrian journalist Nizar Nayuf. His source is an unnamed former MI6 intelligence officer who said that:
Last Wednesday [2nd March] UK authorities had observed Syrian mukhabarat officers arriving at Abdulsalam Jallud’s villa in the Libyan capital … It is believed that the “delegation” belonged to the external branch of the Syrian General Intelligence – or more likely – to the Air Force Intelligence.
Abdulsalam Jallud was considered to be the number two man in Libya until he fell out with Gaddafi in 1993. It is believed that he was involved in many acts of terrorism including Lockerbie, which were perpetrated with the active knowledge and support of the Syrians via the Abu Nidal Group and the PFLP-GC. Nayuf says that it is documents relating to these acts which are in the Libyan intelligence archives that the Syrian officers wish to destroy.
The story could be true, but I am deeply sceptical of Nayuf’s unnamed former MI6 source. A more credible report appeared in the 3 March edition of Intelligence Online (below), which says that Syrian pilots based in Libya have taken part in bombing raids against the protesters with the consent of Bashar Al-Assad himself.
The report claims that following telephone calls between the Libyan and Syrian leaders
President Assad told General Isaam Hallaq, the commander in chief of the Syrian air force, to instruct the pilots and technicians in Tripoli to help the Libyan regime should Gaddafi decide to bombard dissident regions.
A long-standing defence agreement between the two countries has meant that a number of Syrian pilots are stationed in Libya to train with the Libyan air force.
Intriguing.. and quite possibly true. What gives this story a large degree of credability was the shooting down yesterday of a Libyan air force jet by rebels, killing both pilots. After checking their ID papers, the rebels discovered that one of the dead pilots was a Syrian.
A cameraman working for France 2 captured the moment. Watch the video here.
It is of course saddening to hear of Syrians participating in attempts to crush the Libyan revolution. Unfortunately, it is does not surprise me in the least. Not only is the Libyan dictator one of Syria’s closest Arab allies, his downfall may encourage Syrians to rise up against their own regime. Reason enough then to make sure he survives.
Running an Arab dictatorship is not as easy as it used to be. There was a time when all you needed was to parrot something about Islamist extremism/oil contracts/immigration/peace with Israel, and Western leaders were happy to do business with you. The growing influence of the media however, has meant that dictators have to try that little bit harder.
The Guardian has uncovered the role played by global lobbying firm The Monitor Group in improving the image of the Gaddafi regime in the US. The campaign, believed to be worth $3m, focused on paying for top academic figures from leading American universities to travel to Tripoli for personal conversations with the Libyan dictator.
The revelation reflects a growing desire by Arab regimes to improve the way that they are perceived in the West. This didn’t matter very much in the past when realpolitik considerations reigned supreme. However, the end of Soviet patronage, the decline of Arab nationalist ideology in favour of democracy and human rights, and the need to attract foreign investment to keep the armies of young people in employment, has meant that regimes in the region have had to embrace the PR industry.
Improving a regime’s image abroad is as much about maintaining control at home. A state visit to a European capital, a well-placed article in a respected newspaper, or a well-timed photo-op creates the impression that the cherished leader is “backed by the West.” This disheartens the opposition, which assumes that the dictator and the West are in cahoots. The focus, as always, is on renewing sources of legitimacy, thereby consolidating the regime’s power over it’s people.
Cue Asma Al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria. She has appeared in Vogue this month to, and I quote the magazine, “put a modern face on her husband’s regime.” So we’ve established that it’s a marketing exercise. But it goes well beyond that. The messages that were being conveyed through the piece have been carefully constructed and tweaked to appeal to a Western audience. They seek to suggest that:
1- Assad’s Syria is a haven of security and stability in an unstable region.
2- Assad’s Syria is a “stands for a tolerant secularism in a powder-keg region, with extremists and radicals pushing in from all sides.”
3- Assad’s Syria is a reforming and modernizing Arab state, with civil society being encouraged by the first lady herself.
Using these three basic messages, regime publicists have been at it for years, using any opportunity to get positive headlines.
The dictator’s wife may well be an attractive and intelligent woman, but all that is beside the point. It’s not really about her as a person, it’s about Asma the product. The PR men have turned her into a poster child for a Syria that does not exist, and whose sole purpose is to charm the Western media for the benefit of her husband’s regime.
The Vogue piece therefore is not a one-off. It’s part of a well-organized and well-financed image makeover executed by lobbyists and image consultants, and not much different to what The Monitor Group has been doing for the Gaddafis.