Syria's Friendless Uprising


Syria: A Christmas kind of place.

Are the media ignoring Syria's widespread rebellion and the Assad family's violent response? If so, are they doing it it just out of fatigue with the Arab Spring or for Byzanto-Levantine political reasons? 

It seems like it was just one issue of Vogue ago that President Bashar Assad and his dazzling wife Asma were singing "Jingle Bell Rock" with Catholics and showing their grateful subjects a glamorous, young, very chic style that contrasted refreshingly with the "couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power." 

That Vogue article — which unlike most of what was published this past February is still a must-read — was one of many bullish takes on the Assad dynasty. Assad became a person of Western interest in part due to his public relations strategy. The Syrian president effectively talked up reform while reinforcing his police apparatus and giving it more power over the citizens. The game kept even Reason correspondents guessing. A few months ago I proposed that by deftly stoking mutually negating group hatreds and maintaining a policy of enforced hopelessness, the Alawite inner circle had guaranteed that Damascus would go down last, if at all. 

Now that's all gone kerblooey, and at the Weekly Standard, Lee Smith says we'd be hearing more about it if Arab media could get over their own vogue for the Assads: 

The social media galvanized Egyptian and Tunisian protestors, but for the Syrian opposition it is the main source of media they have to show the world what's happening.

As Washington, D.C.-based Arab journalist Hussain Abdul Hussain notes:

Arab satellite channels dedicated more air time to Syria than in the previous weekdays. The first 30-minutes of Al-Jazeera's news coverage were dedicated to clashes in Syria. However, Al-Jazeera, which has been exceptionally silent on Syria, perhaps because of the good alliance between Assad and Al-Jazeera's owner the Sheikh of Qatar Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, cherry-picked its coverage of Syrian rallies. 

Not to scale.

Of course, Al Jazeera broadcast those earlier revolutions and boasted of the role it played in bringing down Zein Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. But the Doha satellite network is much less present in Syria, as Michael Young explained in his Beirut Daily Star column:

Syria is part of the "resistance axis," and the downfall of its regime would only harm Hezbollah and Hamas. The same lack of enthusiasm characterized the station's coverage of Lebanon's Independence Intifada against Syria in 2005. It is easy to undermine Ali Abdullah Saleh, Moammar Gadhafi, and Hosni Mubarak, each of whom in his own way is or was a renegade to the Arabs. But to go after Bashar Assad means reversing years of Al-Jazeera coverage sympathetic to the Syrian leader. Rather conveniently, refusing to do so dovetails with the consensus in the Arab political leadership.

So the Syrians find themselves largely abandoned today, their struggle not enjoying the customary Al-Jazeera treatment – high in emotion and electric in the slogans of mobilization. The televised Arab narrative of liberty has not quite avoided Syria, but nor has it integrated the Syrians' cause. As the Arab stations weigh what to do next, they may still hope that the Syrian story will disappear soon, and their duplicity with it. Shame on them.

Young also faults Al Arabiya, the majority-Saudi-owned network, founded in 2003 for no other purpose than to deter its Qatari rival, Al Jazeera, which came to prominence through its attacks on Riyadh and other Arab rivals, including Cairo.

To toss Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya into the same basket is entirely justified here, because both Saudi Arabia and Qatar share a desire to avert a breakdown in Syria, fearing that chaos might ensue. Their views are echoed by a majority of Gulf states, whose leaders have called Assad lately to express their backing.

It's true that the Saudis, who have been at loggerheads with Syria ever since they suspected Syrian involvement in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, don't want to see Assad fall. They fear that the wave of Arab uprisings is likely to reach them next, and this is a good place to block a domino. 

Again we see how a Middle East narrative that seemed clear from a distance melts in air as we get closer to it. The lack of western attention to the Syrian uprising (Smith notes that The New York Times is covering Syria from Cairo and New York; the Washington Post and the L.A. Times are reporting from Beirut) is just a proxy for an overextended, penniless America that can spare nothing — no attention, no money, no pills, no planes, no artillery pieces — for another Arab uprising. 

Courtesy of Iyad El-Baghdadi