By Andrew L. Urban
A leaflet comprising 20 question-clusters and intended for media outlets was sent to me onJuly 19, 2011 by Susan Dirgham, a Melbourne woman married to a Syrian academic working inAustralia. It was the latest in a series of emails generated by Dirgham all of them suggesting (or linking to posts that suggest) that media coverage of the Syrian upheaval has been uninformed and/or biased, presenting an inaccurate picture of the unrest. The situation, goes the narrative, is more complex than portrayed in the media; it is implied by Dirgham and her group of loyal supporters of President Bashar al-Assad that in fact foreign elements have been and are responsible for stirring up trouble. And perhaps it is armed thugs who are shooting Syrian security personnel
The leaflet lists 20 question-clusters that the media should be asking, many of which are phrased to imply that a hidden agenda – or agendas – lurk beyond the demands for democratic reforms of a home grown protest, eg:
What are the outside influences involved in stirring up trouble inSyria, if any? What would motivate them?
I have no answer for that, nor for this:
How are sectarian divisions being stirred up? What basis do people have for claiming that the Syrian government is an “Alawi” regime? Is secular Syria under threat? What do the Christian communities have to fear if the unrest escalates? And the Alawi communities?
But by coincidence, Human Rights Watch published a report on July 20, which does have answers to a couple of the questions on the flyer (which were handed out at public meetings inMelbourneoutside the ABC offices on Friday July 22).
Question 4 on the flyer asks:
What political reforms have been introduced by the president? How significant are they? What is a reasonable time frame for the reforms to be implemented? Who has been involved in the National Dialogue which began on July 10th, one of the first steps in the process toward reforms? Why have some opposition members refused to participate? Will their refusal increase or decreaseSyria’s chances of becoming a democratic country in the near future?
The Human Rights Watch report says:
The government has been arresting and holding activists despite the start of its National Dialogue Initiative on July 10 that, government media maintain, is intended to facilitateSyria’s transition to a multi-party democratic political system. Opposition figures boycotted the event, saying the government first needs to stop arresting, torturing, and killing activists and protesters.
“President Assad talks reform but continues to practice repression, not only through the widespread killings of demonstrators but also through mass arrests,” said Sarah Leah Whitson,Middle Eastdirector at Human Rights Watch. “Who does President Assad mean to include in his ‘national dialogue’ when his security forces are targeting the very people who might have something to say to him
Question 6 on the flyer:
It is known that many civilians have been killed in recent unrest inSyria. What information do we have about these killings that is reliable? Who exactly are the people or organizations which provide information to the media about these killings?
Example 1 – Human Rights Watch,July 6, 2011:
Syrian security forces responded to a large peaceful protest onJuly 1, 2011, inSyria’s central city ofHamawith a series of deadly raids, killing at least 16 people in the last 48 hours, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces and pro-government armed groups, known locally as shabiha, raided homes, opening fire several times, and set up checkpoints encirclingHama,Syria’s fourth-largest city.
The National Organization for Human Rights, a Syrian human rights group, published a list of 22 killed.
Example 2 – Human Rights Watch,July 20, 2011
In one of the most recent arrests of a nationally known activist, a group of about 20 plainclothes security forces went to the home of George Sabra, a senior member of the National Democratic Party and a key opposition figure, at about 1:30 a.m. on the morning of July 20 and took him away. His wife confirmed his arrest to Human Rights Watch by phone. “Security forces came and took him at about1:30 a.m.There were about 20 people outside with both military and civilian cars, but only about six or seven actually entered the home, all of them in sports clothes and carrying guns. They searched the house and took his computer and his mobile. All they said is, “You are wanted,” but nothing about what security branch they were from, where they were taking him, or why he was being arrested.”
Dirgham’s point is that reporting by western media is one sided, biased and/or uninformed. And Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, she says, gets his advice from the media. “I have sent information to Mr Rudd’s office about the situation inSyriaas I saw it after a visit there at Easter and I have received a letter from a representative in Foreign Affairs in reply. A friend I showed it to yesterday remarked, “I wonder what newspaper he has been reading”. The point being there is nothing in his letter that he couldn’t have taken from a newspaper article or that my neighbour, who knows nothing aboutSyria, couldn’t have written after reading articles in The Herald Sun or The Age. “
On the other hand, of Dirgham’s flyer with 20 questions, not one question (or question-clusters) addresses the killings and mass arrests as reported, not by the media, but Human Rights Watch, July 20, 2011;
“Syrian security forces have intensified their campaign of mass arrests in cities across the country that have had anti-government protests, Human Rights Watch said today. The targeted cities include includingHama,Homs, and various suburbs aroundDamascus.
Reliable activists and witnesses contacted by Human Rights Watch estimate that since late June, 2011, security forces have arrested more than 2,000 anti-government protesters, medical professionals providing aid to wounded protesters, and those alleged to have provided information to international media and human rights organizations.”
While it is reasonable to suggest that the situation in Syria is far more complex than most readers in the West may understand, and more complicated than much of the media may reflect, it is self contradictory to argue that unrest has been the work of armed insurgents, probably aided by foreign interests, while at the same time pointing to reforms being promoted by al-Assad that are meant to address the genuine calls for a less oppressive regime.
Question 16 on the flyer might have been usefully followed by an answer from those who posed it, since they are distributing the flyer:
Rallies have been held in support of the president and reforms acrossSyria, and the Syrian Australian community has held rallies inAustralia. Why do people in the community support the president? What are their fears for the future ofSyria? How do their views differ from those of the ‘opposition’?
Human Rights WatchJuly 20, 2011report in full
The New York Times,March 29, 2011:
President Bashar al-Assad accepted the resignation of his cabinet on Tuesday as thousands of government supporters took to the streets of the capital in an effort to counter a rising tide of pro-democracy protests in several cities, news agencies reported.
The cabinet resignation, announced on state television, appeared to be a concession to protesters and came as the political crisis inSyriadeepened on Monday, with the armed forces in the restive southern city ofDara’afiring live ammunition in the air to disperse hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators.
The unrest in Syriaposes a serious challenge to President Assad and his Baath Party. Mr. Assad was expected to announce as early as Tuesday the repeal of the country’s emergency law, in place since 1963, which effectively allows security forces to detain citizens without charges. Whether the repeal — or the cabinet resignations — would quell the protests remains unclear; other laws restrict freedoms and give immunity to the secret police.