Syria: truth is the first casualty

Sat, Feb 11, 2012, 00:00

SYRIA IS SUSPENDED between civic peace and civil war. Syrians who live together in harmony in the country’s main cities of Damascus and Aleppo have, in areas torched by rebellion, become bitter enemies confronting each other across urban front lines.

Mona Ghannem, an opposition activist, recounts a story to explain the situation. “Last summer I was on seaside holiday in Tartous. People from Homs and Hama also came. Although they were from communities that are fighting each other, they went around together and enjoyed themselves before going home” – where they resumed separate lives in warring neighbourhoods and, perhaps, even shot at each other.

Most of the country remains under government control, but in the north, south and west entire quarters of cities, as well as towns and villages, are held by armed rebels who have sidelined diminishing popular protests. Regime hawks have responded to increasing militarisation of the 11-month uprising by escalating their crackdown with the aim of imposing a “security solution”. Order is eroding in a country that had been the safest in the region.

The government, weakened by constant unrest and violence, cannot be defeated by opponents but cannot crush the opposition. Both sides admit to the stalemate that is proving costly for citizens caught in the crossfire and longing for an end to the troubles.

The regime, isolated and accused of war crimes, is responding to the stalemate by launching offensives against rebel-held strongholds. The rebels retreat in the hope of fighting another day while the external opposition is trying to “internationalise” the conflict in the expectation that there will, eventually, be military intervention from outside.

Some domestic opposition groups are prepared to talk to the regime, but the rebels and exiled opponents are not. They blame President Bashar al-Assad for the crackdown that has resulted in the deaths of 5,000-6,000 people and insist that he must step down before negotiations can begin. He has appointed his deputy, Farouk al-Sharaa, to seek dialogue with all opponents of the regime.

A source close to the government said, “We are prepared to talk to anyone. We are prepared to go to the moon . . . We are ready to give people living abroad safe conduct if they want to come here. But they refuse to talk . . . The next step is the referendum on the new constitution and then parliamentary elections by early June. The people will choose. We are ready for the government to go by peaceful means but not by a coup.”

SYRIANS SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH

Damascus is not quite itself: there is a whiff of gunpowder in the jasmine-scented air. Damascenes still indulge in their favourite pastimes: juggling traffic jams, basking in sunlit parks, sitting in cafes where they smoke water pipes and sip tea. As an old Arabic saying goes, “ Boukra fee mish-mish” (Tomorrow there will be apricots). But the apricot orchards that once surrounded Damascus have given way to high-rise residential suburbs.

Damascenes greet foreign visitors on the streets with “welcome to our country” and “how are you” but no longer trust the world outside their ancient oasis. They believe the West, courted by the government these past five years, has turned its back on them. Both regime opponents and supporters feel let down. They accuse the West of double standards and the Arabs of betrayal. “Why?” people of all stations in life and backgrounds ask. “Why?”

A friend who lives in the outlying town of Maadamiya, a former protest hub, says she has encountered close searches at checkpoints while coming into her office in the capital, now protected by checkpoints designed to prevent suicide bombers and shooters from reaching targets here. So far, there have been only two major bombings in Damascus, both claimed by al-Qaeda, which had been held in check until security began to deteriorate because of unrest.

People sit in homes, restaurants, cafes and shops, watching news bulletins on television. They constantly switch channels in the vain hope of discovering what is going on, say, in the central cities of Homs and Hama, the southern city of Deraa – the cradle of the rebellion – or the restive satellite towns ringing Damascus.

Syrians flip from channel to channel, from external satellite broadcasters to local stations. By taking in the full range of reports, claims and counterclaims, they hope to form a view of the situation.

But they are constantly confounded. An independent commentator remarks, “Both sides exaggerate, but the opposition exaggerates the most.” Syrians, foreign observers and journalists are victims of the media war raging in tandem with the power struggle being waged in the streets and squares of the country’s cities, towns and villages. The government tries to control news content, the opposition puts out stories, interviews and photographs of alleged atrocities with the aim of flooding the media with material, aware that accusations – even false accusations – tend to stick, creating a picture of the conflict that may or may not reflect reality.

The anti-regime Arab satellite television channels Al Arabiya (Saudi), Al Jazeera (Qatari) and the US-funded Barada (exiled opposition) are prominent in the media war. For nearly 10 months visas were not granted to most foreign media seeking to cover events in Syria. This gave local anti-regime activists with satellite phones and internet connections the opportunity to fill the world’s newspapers and television channels with the opposition version of what is happening here.

WAGING THE MEDIA WAR

Correspondents trying to report on events have become dependent on these sources and dismissive of information provided by the government, which lost the initiative in the media, or propaganda, war. As the saying goes, truth has been the first casualty in this conflict. This makes it very difficult to obtain facts and to break free of narratives produced by both sides in order to come up with independent assessments without being accused of bias in favour of one or the other.

In an attempt to provide a corrective, the ministry of information has recently been issuing visas to foreign journalists and arranging interviews and trips to trouble spots for them. Journalists go where they are taken and see what the government wants them to see. They can speak freely to people, however, ask questions, probe officials they meet. They also can travel independently if they sign a waiver absolving the government of responsibility for whatever happens to them. The death of a French television journalist in Hama has made the authorities overprotective of journalists.

Without permits and escorts, it is difficult to get past army checkpoints containing rebel-held areas. Without local guides and contacts with rebels, journalists cannot do their job and can find themselves in danger. Journalists who make deals with smugglers who spirit them into Syria from Lebanon and embed with rebels are even more tightly restricted by their hosts than those who enter the country on journalistic visas and rely on the ministry for visits to cooled hot spots. They, at least, are free to pursue their own inquiries independently.

WHO IS FIGHTING WHOM?

Naturally, the primary objective is to try to find out what is happening in the escalating conflict. A diplomat, a foreign humanitarian worker and several people I deem reliable have told me the conflict is being waged by a variety of actors.

On the regime’s side are the regular army, a militia called the shabiha,the state intelligence apparatus and the police. So far the overwhelming majority of troops and officers remain loyal to the regime. Many senior officers come from the minority heterodox Shia Alawite community, to which the ruling Assad family belongs, but soldiers are conscripts from all communities.

On the opposition side are armed men who have exploited protests to strike at regime targets, army deserters, militias raised locally for protection, veterans of the Afghan and Iraq campaigns, Muslim Brotherhood members who have infiltrated the country, and al-Qaeda elements. Eighty per cent of opposition fighters are said to be Muslim fundamentalists, some of them ultraorthodox Salafis inspired by the puritanical Wahhabi sect that rules Saudi Arabia. Funding for opposition forces apparently comes from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

In addition, thugs and criminals are exploiting the lack of security and order to kill and loot while clans, tribes and sectarian or ethnic groups pursue feuds with rivals.

During the first weeks and months of unrest, the regime cracked down hard on protesters in the belief that they would desist if confronted with overwhelming force. Hundreds of protesters were killed, thousands arrested, some tortured, most freed to make room for others. The crackdown did not work.

Armed elements fought back and multiplied until they became an insurgency. Weapons of war flooded into the country across the Lebanese, Iraqi and Jordanian borders. As protests gave way to conflict, the situation in contested areas has become increasingly ugly, particularly in Homs, the current centre of the struggle. There the regular army is seeking to wrest control of several neighbourhoods in the west seized by Sunni militiamen, reinforced by defecting soldiers, who are are advancing towards the city centre.

LOOTING, KIDNAP, RAPE

The struggle for territory is accompanied by looting by militiamen and criminals, and by kidnappings of Sunnis by Alawites and vice-versa. Some victims are exchanged, some ransomed, others tortured and killed, their bodies dumped on waste ground. According to my diplomatic source, more than 100 Alawite women have been abducted, held for long periods and raped, tortured and slain. Alawites have retaliated by kidnapping and abusing Sunni women.

The source remarks that, in rebel-held Sunni neighbourhoods of Homs, mainly fundamentalist militants have the full support of the populace and even the “old families” who harbour long-standing animosities towards the secular regime. “It is an Islamist uprising to reassert the supremacy of Muslims over infidels,” he said. “Sunnis [elsewhere] do not admit what is happening in Homs. The opposition has used religion to incite people in the streets. While the opposition accuses the regime of exploiting the threat of sectarian warfare to turn people against the rebels, the government’s only hope is to keep playing the secular card.”

AN ECONOMY IN REVERSE

Syrians agree that nearly a year of unrest has largely reversed the gains the country made during the economic liberalisation programme launched by the government in 2004-05. During this period Syria’s Soviet-style command economy was transformed into a “social market” system, designed to provide a safety net for the poor and lower middle class while opening Syria’s doors to foreign banks, investment, trade and tourism, effecting a rapid transformation of a country that had shunned the world. Luxury hotels sprouted up in Damascus and Aleppo, western designer clothing shops proliferated, ATMs were planted on street corners and new foreign-manufactured cars filled the streets.

But the safety net did not materialise, prompting protests by have-nots against the haves that have turned into an armed rebellion demanding “regime change.” Now, women carrying bundled babies, and children with filthy faces and tattered jerseys beg in the streets. Sanctions imposed by the international community are stripping bare the cupboards of poor and middle-class folk but not harming the rich and powerful.