It’s not on the front pages of the Western press, and it’s not leading the hour for the main Arab satellite networks like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, but the Syrian uprising continues apace, while the Assad regime’s countermeasures are becoming increasingly brutal.
Yesterday brought more protests to Syria—and the Assad regime is tightening the screws. According to sources, security forces opened fire on protestors in Deraa, ground zero of the revolution, leaving twenty-five dead and hundreds wounded.
It seems that the security services have adopted an interesting tactic: abandon weapons with the hope of tempting protestors to pick them up, which the regime seems to believe would then justify the use of Qaddafi-like levels of violence to put down the uprising. One website, Ammar Abdulhamid’s Syrian Revolution Digest, is confirming a report that an army officer was shot by security forces for refusing to open fire on civilians.
The streets of other Syrian cities also filled with protestors, like Damascus suburbs Harasta and Douma, and then larger cities like Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zour, as well as Kurdish areas, like Qamishly, and, most dangerous for the regime, coastal cities with heavy concentrations of mixed Sunni and Alawite areas like Latakia and Tartous.
Rumors originating in Damascus regarding Bashar al-Assad’s anxiety are circulating in Washington where, the regime fears, policymakers have targeted it for regime change. That’s doubtful, as David Schenker explains in The New Republic, since recent history, dating back to the 1970s, shows that Damascus seems to have a knack for escaping the baleful eye of Washington. At least Obama is finally using stronger words to condemn the Syrian regime’s violence—not that words matter much to Assad.
What’s peculiar is that given the size of the uprising—people are in the streets of every major Syrian city except Aleppo—and the bravery of the demonstrators, there’s been little attention paid to it. After all, these are not Egyptian security forces under the command of a U.S. ally like former president Hosni Mubarak. Any Syrian who steps out into the street understands that if security forces have a clear shot, they’ll take it, and no one is going to stop them, certainly not the regime, and not fear of repercussions from the international press either. The same Western and Arab media that covered the Egyptian uprising as it unfolded is all but absent from Syria.
The New York Times’s reporting is coming out of Cairo and New York; the Washington Post’s coverage is based in Beirut; Reuters has people in Damascus, but the regime keeps detaining them and throwing them out. That is to say, the Assad regime has done an excellent job of keeping the curtains closed on events, so that the main source of news coming directly out of Syria is almost exclusively from the Internet, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. The social media galvanized Egyptian and Tunisian protestors, but for the Syrian opposition it is the main source of media they have to show the world what’s happening.
As Washington, D.C.-based Arab journalist Hussain Abdul Hussain notes:
Arab satellite channels dedicated more air time to Syria than in the previous weekdays. The first 30-minutes of Al-Jazeera's news coverage were dedicated to clashes in Syria. However, Al-Jazeera, which has been exceptionally silent on Syria, perhaps because of the good alliance between Assad and Al-Jazeera's owner the Sheikh of Qatar Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, cherry-picked its coverage of Syrian rallies.
Of course, Al Jazeera broadcast those earlier revolutions and boasted of the role it played in bringing down Zein Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. But the Doha satellite network is much less present in Syria, as Michael Young explained in his Beirut Daily Star column:
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.