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Why Aren't Western and Arab Media in Syria?

1:08 AM, Apr 10, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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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. However, other Saudi-owned media, like the pan-Arab London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, has been unsparing in its criticism of Damascus.

Perhaps that’s because the Saudis recognize that in a region with soaring illiteracy rates, video is a much more powerful medium than the printed press. Of course, it’s also possible to overstate the influence of Al Jazeera, especially compared to one of the region’s oldest and most powerful media, the sermon at Friday noon prayers. Last week in Beirut I heard rumors that the Saudis had instructed Sunni sheikhs and imams throughout Syria to calm things down and keep people out of the street. Apparently, the Saudis’ wishes were scattered by the winds of the Syrian uprising.

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