One day during my high school studies in Syria, over a decade ago, the school’s administration decided to replace a sport class with a science class to compensate for the absence of a teacher. About half of my classmates rejected the decision (they liked their sport), refused to enter the class and stood outside in protest.
I had never seen the school’s administration more nervous. That negligible act of rebellion compelled the headmaster to come and speak to us personally, armed with what I’d call the Baathist tools of coercion. “I know that most of you are good people,” he told us, “but I want you to point out to me the subversive student among you, who I know is an ikhwanji (a pejorative term that refers to a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood organisation).
“If you do not, I will have to call the Political Security (a branch of the mukhabarat, with an office adjacent to the school)”. That sentence was powerful enough to make us return to class, without uttering a word.
I’m reminded of that defining day on the schoolyard as I watch the world try to make sense of the absurdity of the Assad regime today, and its answer to any form of dissent by calling Syrians “mundasseen” - infiltrators.
Syrians raised under this regime know that taking to the streets to call for the government’s downfall is the very definition of audacity. Syrians do not need to be told by media what the regime is capable of or how it behaves when it is confronted. They also do not need to be told to fight until the end because they know full well the regime kills and tortures in times of calm, as it does when it is embattled.
Yet outside Syria, a narrative taking root suggests that the Syrian uprising is somehow less worthy than the other Arab pro-democracy revolts that swept the region last year. The Syrian uprising, according to this narrative, is a foreign conspiracy promoted by biased media and instigated by extremists. The position is maintained largely by the Arab left, pan-Arabists and anti-imperialists, as if the only way to resist imperialism or an Israeli threat is for the Syrian people to endure living under Baathism.
Mohamed Hassanein Haykal, a veteran Egyptian journalist and a former adviser to the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, dismissed the Syrian uprising late last year as one spurred by foreign intelligence. He said the cities that revolted against the regime were border cities - proof, he said, it was not a real revolution. Only if Damascus and Aleppo rose up, he argued, could the uprising be considered a legitimate revolution. Since the two main cities rose up, however, he has remained deafeningly silent. (It’s worth reminding Haykal that all Syrian cities, except Hama and Suweida, are border cities).
Others have jumped from denying the existence of a popular uprising to labelling it a civil war. When Abdul Razzaq Tlass defected in June last year, for example, Asad Abu Khalil, an influential Lebanese-American pundit known for his criticism of Israel, posted this comment on his blog: “Western and Arab (Saudi and Qatari) media are so desperate for any news that is damaging to the Syrian regime that they play up the ‘news’ of YouTube-based defection of individual soldiers or officers. That is really not news worthy.”
Not long after that comment was made, the lieutenant became a nightmare for the regime, battling with a group of military defectors for 28 days in Baba Amr.
The Syrian opposition has undeniably committed several human rights violations. But it is one thing to highlight these violations, quite another to undermine the sacrifices of people who seek nothing but freedom from a brutal regime. Syrian activists, via social media, highlight and criticise abuses more often than any human rights organisation. In March, when Human Rights Watch issued an open letter to the Syrian opposition about human rights violations, Syrian activists issued a letter that unequivocally acknowledged the importance of constructive criticism and called on the organisation to continue to highlight violations.
Abu Khalil and others have tried to taint the Syrian uprising as a foreign plot, and save particular ire for Qatar. Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite behemoth based in Doha, has borne the brunt of this criticism.
Last week the astute Emirati commentator Sultan Al Qassemi wrote that both Al Jazeera and Al Arabia have “lowered their journalistic standards, abandoned rudimentary fact-checks, and relied on anonymous callers and unverified videos in place of solid reporting”.
I share some of Al Qassemi’s sentiments but disagree with the attempt to undermine the narrative of the activists, especially the suggestion that anonymous callers are paid “handsome amounts of money” to appear on these channels.
Qatar’s role in the Arab world was once hailed. In 2006, Abu Khalil called the arrival of Emir Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani in Lebanon a “PR coup for the Qatari government”. After the Hizbollah-Israel war in 2006, during a visit to Beirut, Qatar’s emir was symbolically handed keys to Lebanon by Lebanese officials, who called the emir the owner of the land rather than its guest.
But regardless of how the uprising is being portrayed by regional governments, or their affiliated media, the only narrative that matters for Syria is the fact on the ground. The regime is suffering everywhere in the country, from Idlib to Damascus to Deir Ezzor. Generals continue to defect, others are killed in battle and officials at the regime’s helm continue to defect.
These are all stories that must be told.