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

NEXT: Doing Nothing on the Deficit: Not a Good Option, Not Going to Happen

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  1. One could hope that Bashir Assad would have a heart attack like his father or Hosni Mubarak.

    Unfortunately, Bashir Assad seems smarter and far more ruthless than Gaddafi and Mubarak.

    Still, as should have been done in Libya: Stay the f**k out of it!

    1. Unfortunately, Bashir Assad seems smarter and far more ruthless than Gaddafi and Mubarak

      Really? More ruthless than Gaddafi, who has essentially gone to war with half his country?

      Firing teargas and even real bullets into a few urban protests seems far less ruthless than a full-scale bombing and artillery mission against entire cities.

      1. Perhaps not “far more ruthless”, but I am sure Assad would bomb entire cities if he had to, but the reported execution of soldiers who refuse to fire on protesters indicates he is ruthless enough.

        I suspect, from the fact that there do not appear to be any “leaders” of the Syrian protests, that Assad had anyone he thought could be a leader rounded up at the first rumblings.

  2. Part of it may be that the assumption is that the Assads are ruthless enough to put down any uprising. They did obliterate an entire city, after all. Not much point in backing a resistance that will fail, the reasoning would go, and thereby further alienate the Syrians.

  3. I’d like to see America and Israel back the opposition because Syria unlike Libya is an enemy. I just don’t know what we could do for them, even if America weren’t tied up in Libya.

    1. The Israelis can not ask for a better defender of their border than Asad.

  4. Kinda scary when you think about it.

  5. Not that it means anything, but an interesting side note; Bashir Assad’s birthday is September 11th.

  6. 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.

    So Al-Jeezra’s stance is “sure Bashir Assad is a prick, but dammit, he’s OUR prick!”

    1. He’s a prick whose actions can’t be blamed on the US or Israel so he’s allowed to kill as many Arabs as he likes.

  7. Sand-worshipping cocksuckers.

  8. change of subject sort of:

    As a general policy, do you think that dictators who step down should be given some slack?

    I’m really mixed up on the subject. On the one hand, they are rights-violatin scumbag dicators, so string em all up with piano wire as far as I’m concerned.

    But on the other hand, take e.g. Mubarak. He was no doubt a rights-violatin scumbag dictator. But, he did give up power quasi-voluntarily. That was partially just a realization of political reality, but it was also partially, no matter how much it hurts to admit, an attempt on Mubarak’s part to “do the right thing”. He realized his time was up, and instead of killin lots of folks, he stepped aside. What do we want all millitary despots to see as precedent? If you step aside, we take 80% of your wealth, but otherwise you get to live out your life? Or, once you relinquish power, we come find you and then we kill you?

    1. I would be in favor of a “tyrant sanctuary” which would be a guaranteed safe haven for any dictator that left before things got to a certain threshold of bloodshed.

      Basically, the dictator would be told “You have until X date to fly out and claim sanctuary. You may take $X with you. You must give up all power and never intefere with your home country again. Violate those conditions and you will be thrown into the hands of your country’s post-revolutionary “Committee for Public Safety.”

      1. I thought that sanctuary used to be known as France?

        1. Wherever.

          If it protects innocent lives, I am willing to let the criminal get out safely. I am more interested in seeing people free and safe than in seeing a tyrant hung. (But I certainly wouldn’t weep if said tyrant choked to death on an escargot.)

  9. Am i the only one who got dizzy reading Tim Cavanaugh quote Lee Smith quoting Michael Young?

  10. Actually, if you pay close enough attention you’d realize Syria is not exactly an enemy of the US.

    The situation and the consequences are indeed very complicated.

  11. “The Israelis can not ask for a better defender of their border than Asad.”

    Depends which border you’re talking about. By which I mean, you can’t entirely discount Syria’s complicity with the Hezebollah threat on the ‘other’ border, can you?

  12. This administration and the State Dept.
    are more comfortable dealing with dictators than democracies. Democracies are messier. The State Dept. has always been Arabist(their dictators have money and the protesters do not.

  13. Wait for the results, who will listen to the strong, the same law.

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