Human Rights,  Media

Pretty Woman

Guest post by DaveM

Since returning from Syria, I’m constantly reminded of my conversation in Damascus with Farouq (not his real name) during Nancy Pelosi’s visit there.

I’ll never forget his dismay with “the appeasers in the West who want to work with this regime”.

“David”, he asked, “what kind of message do you think that sends to us? Those of us who want democracy and freedoms that you have in the West, how do you think this makes us feel?”

The day I left Syria, my teacher pleaded with me to tell as many people as possible about the true nature of the regime because he was sick to the back teeth of foreign correspondents and journalists swallowing and then regurgitating verbatim all the lies from their Ba’athist handlers.

I promised him that I’d do everything possible.

It’s not been easy. For a start people just don’t want to know. The truth is too unpleasant, too difficult, too complicated. It turns all the nice, cosy, widely-held assumptions on their heads. It’s a hell of a lot easier (and financially rewarding) to blame Israel and America for all the Middle East’s woes.

When people start talking about the ME and you try bringing up Faraj Bayrakdar and the “German Chair”, it cuts across the grain of the usual condemnation of Israel and the US, and thus tends to alienate people and ultimately free up your social calendar.

That’s fine. You make your choices and deal with the outcomes.

The frustrating bit is when you come up against articles such as Margarette Driscoll’s in the Sunday Times.

Now I don’t expect journalists to fully understand Syria. It took me a year of living there to figure it out. It took me three years to get to grips with the language. So it would be naïve to assume a journalist on a day trip to Damascus would be able to write with anything even approaching insight.

However even taking that into account, I don’t think I’ve read an article quite this obsequious and gushing. Well, not one that wasn’t written by the Syrian Arab News Agency.

Asma Al Assad is the wife of a dictator. No more, no less. The fact that she’s very good-looking and well-educated doesn’t change any of this. Yet this blinds Driscoll to the fact that she serves a vicious regime, despised and feared by the overwhelming majority of Syrians.

The fact that she was born and educated in the UK and worked in the US means that she knows our societies inside out and how to market her regime to us. Western democracies are mostly open and transparent, so it doesn’t take long for others to figure out how they work. Syrian dictatorships are not. They take longer to figure out. Even then nobody believes you when you try to tell them.

Driscoll fawns over Asma, drifting into banality, carefully avoiding anything critical:

Her warm, informal style has persisted, despite the muttered disapproval of the old guard, formed under the rigid regime of Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad. It was very much in evidence last week, on a visit to the Massar education centre in Lattakia, northern Syria – one of her pet projects – where she slipped quietly into the back of a room in which teenagers were discussing the internet (including their belief that their government blocked certain sites) and ended up in a spirited debate.

Hold on. Their “belief that their government blocked certain sites”? First, it’s not their government; they didn’t elect it. It’s a dictatorship. Second, it’s not their belief that the regime has blocked websites, it’s a fact.

Not only has the Syrian government blocked a number of websites– YouTube, Facebook, Levant News, along with websites of newspapers AshSharq AlAwsat, Mustaqbil, An-Nahar– but they imprison people such as Massud Hamid and Abdel Rahman Shaguri for posting “offensive [read critical] material”.

Driscoll takes the coward’s way out and avoids the issue. She doesn’t ask about the members of the Damascus Declaration imprisoned for “weakening [Syria’s] national feeling”. Instead we get this:

In person she is perfectly groomed, willowy and model slim. This month’s French Elle rates her as the most stylish of international political ladies (above Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Michelle Obama). At the mention of this she rolls her eyes. Being thought a style icon clearly amuses her, although her claim that she chooses clothes for comfort rather than fashion is ever so slightly undermined by the vertiginous heels – the scarlet soles betray them as Christian Louboutin – that she wears to visit the education centre.

Driscoll swallows the lie that the Assads are young, dynamic innovators seeking to modernise and reform Syria.

Old enmities became entrenched, although inside the country things did begin to change. The new president shut the notorious Mezze prison, linked to human rights abuses, and lowered the retirement age of the army, neutering a number of his father’s hardline colleagues.

He has quietly liberalised what was a stolid, socialist economy, welcomed private banks and foreign investment and begun to open up the internet. Syria is suddenly being featured in travel supplements as a hip new destination.

He may have shut down Mezze prison but now all the political prisoners are sent to Tadmour (Palmera) prison instead– incarceration in the desert rather than in a Damascus suburb. This is reform? How?

The closest we get to anything critical is this:

Syria is still suspected of involvement in the murder of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, three years ago.

Not just Rafiq Hariri but also journalist Samir Kassir, ex-Communist leader George Hawi, MP and An-Nahar editor Gebran Tueni, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, MP Antoine Ghanim and MP Walid Eido.

None of this gets mentioned in the article.

So with this sort of crap being published in the Sunday Times (and I’ve lost count of articles in other newspapers which follow this line), where do you get to hear anything truthful about the Ba’athist dictatorship?

Now I don’t think he wears Christian Louboutin shoes and I’m pretty sure that French Elle never ranked him above Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in the style stakes. But Walid Jumblatt is absolutely correct here when he states that totalitarianism and dictatorship can’t be gently reformed and made nice. Ba’athism doesn’t work like that. You’d be a fool to think otherwise.

LBC’s Mona Saleeba: “The head of the Democratic Gathering, member of parliament Walid Jumblatt used the occasion of Progressive Socialist Party’s general assembly to launch one of the fiercest attacks on the Syrian Regime and its president Bashar Al Assad. Junblat also announced that they were still at the beginning of the road and warning that the danger [from Syria] is greater than any time previously, and the Syrian regime is first and last danger on the Lebanese independence movement”

Waliid Jumblatt: “Nothing has changed since 1977 [the assassination of Kamal Jumblatt by Syria] and nothing will change. From father to son [i.e. Hafiz Al Assad, Bashir Al Assad] it’s still the same beast.

“The regime is the regime. The whole regime is incapable of changing and becoming a regime named as democratic or emancipated. And all these hopes, or better yet, all these delusions from the West, American and others, [believing] in the theory of bringing Syria in from the cold or Syria improving from within. All these theories are just absurd delusions. It’s nothing more than just Western conciliation with the Syrian regime.

“We avow that this Western pressure on the Syrian regime for gradual change, if even just a bit, will not cause us to split [from the Lebanese Independence cause].

“The Syrian regime remains and will remain the first and last danger not only on the Lebanese Independence Movement, but also on the Palestinian independence movements.”

Mona Saleeba: “Jumblatt’s speech was accusatory and also a warning, plus it admonished the West for breaking the Syrian regime’s international isolation”

Jumblatt: “We’re still at the beginning of the road and the danger is everywhere. Especially after the Syrian regime was able to end its isolation and the arrival of delegations and heads of state who began to flock there in order to break Syria’s isolation and directly engage with it under pretexts which I don’t want to get into right now, absurd pretexts. It’s absurd [to think] that the Syrian regime can adjust, and that it can change from within to become free, and so on…”

Mona Saleeba:
“The 2009 elections determine Lebanon’s future – Jumblatt said ‘either independence or going back into Syria’s sphere of influence.'”

Jumblatt: “The axis, the base, the essential examination, will be the 2009 elections. May or June 2009. These elections will be decisive. Either we are victorious and we can keep free speech alive in the Lebanese Independence Movement, via the decision of an independent nation. But if we lose these elections this will be a major setback. We’re not saying a defeat but a big setback and Lebanon will officially return back to Syria’s sphere of influence and Syria’s allies.

“Until this moment our policies are based on consent and equality, up to now we are able to make these our policies. Despite all the challenges and all the assassinations and occupation of Beirut on 7th May, we’ve been able to stay, politically, alive. If we don’t win [these elections] that will change the picture.”

Mona Saleeba: “From Lebanon to Palestine, Jumblatt also accuses the Syrian regime of destroying independent Palestinian jurisdiction as represented by the PLO.”

Driscoll’s Sunday Times article is pretty offensive. It offends the intelligence of the Times’s readership, it offends the hell out of me, but most of all it’s a slap in the face of all the people suffering under that regime. Who speaks for them? Where’s their voice?

I’ll leave the last word to Faraj Bayrakdar:

“I do not have many ambitions. Simple things, like the end of the emergency situation that has lasted for 45 years. I wish I would be able to say good morning to Syria and not be faced with a frown. I might want to be more ambitious and imagine my country saying good morning to me first. I dream of a day when the Syrian regime would acknowledge that the percentage of those who had suffered from its rule is almost the same percentage that the Syrian president gets in any election.”