Friday, July 10, 2009

Misunderstanding Syria: How the Media Leaves out the Important Stuff

By Barry Rubin

Western coverage of the Arabic-speaking world is often a trifle one-sided, to say the least.  Take the question of Syria. Hundreds of articles present the case for Syria becoming more moderate and engaging with the West without even mentioning factors to the contrary. Today, let’s consider Sam. F. Ghattas, “Syria mends US, Arab ties as ally Iran in turmoil,” Associated Press, July 3, 2009.

In general, this article is professionally done which makes this kind of distortion all the more noticeable.

Briefly the story is this:

“Syria's leader sent a July 4 message full of praise to President Barack Obama on Friday and invited him to visit Syria , the latest signs Damascus is hedging its bets in Mideast politics, warming up to its rival the United States at a time when its longtime ally Iran is in turmoil.”

“The United States and its Arab allies have been hoping to pull Syria out of the fold of Iran and Islamic militant groups in the region.”

Ok, fair enough. But what’s missing? Ghattas gives all the reasons why Syria might go along with this but none of the reasons why it might not! True, he writes: “Damascus so far appears unlikely to take such a dramatic step, but it does appear worried about Iran's reliability and the long-term impact of that country's postelection unrest. Also, its Lebanese ally Hezbollah suffered a setback when its coalition failed to win June parliament elections, beaten out by a pro-U.S. bloc.”

He continues that events make dialogue “look even more attractive,” quotes Assad’s “peace” rhetoric extensively, says success with Syria would be a major victory, quotes the Syrian dictator’s wife and a pro-Syrian newspaper editor on how the regime wants good relations with the United States, and points out that Iran has problems following the internal crisis over the stolen election. It tells us:

“Syria also wants U.S. economic sanctions lifted and foreign investment, particularly Gulf Arab money for its economy. It is also wary of an international tribunal set up to try the perpetrators of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut at a time when Syria controlled the country.”

But what doesn’t it tell us?

--Syria is ruled by a radical, anti-American dictatorship which directs its media to produce a high daily level of hatred and antisemitism (for example, a multi-part television series showing Jews as seeking to take over the world and drinking the blood of non-Jewish children).

--The regime regime, of course, genuinely mistrusts America and the West and would never abandon a reliable, fellow radical ally to throw itself on the West's mercy.
--Iran provides badly needed Islamic religious cover for Syria’s non-Muslim rulers.

--Iran provides extremely important strategic depth for Syria whose alternative would be to throw itself on the mercy of Americans and Europeans it mistrusts. Once Iran gets nuclear weapons--which the Syrian leadership knows is on the way--it will be an even more indispensible ally.

--Syria is sponsoring terrorism against American soldiers and Iraqi civilians in Iraq, as well as against Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.

--Iran pays for Syria’s weapons. Is America going to do this? Of course not. So how could Syria possibly switch?

--Iran subsidizes Syria’s (and Iran’s) clients Hamas and Hizballah.

--If Syria were to open for “foreign investment” the regime would risk its tight control over the economy and country, having seen how such a step in Communist countries led to the regime’s downfall.

--If Syria were to make peace with Israel, it would face pressure from hardliners who would deem it to be traitorous and demands from citizens for more democracy. Making peace with Israel would be disastrous for the regime.

Not a single one of these points is made or even hinted at? Why not? Such arguments are almost always left out of articles. Many newspapers run op-eds or articles claiming that Syria can be wooed away from Iran and is becoming more moderate without mentioning, much less refuting, all these points.

So while this article contains none of the annoying open propagandizing so common today, it is still ridiculously one-sided. The job of news stories or analyses is not to present a thesis and then ignore every counter argument. It should either be balanced or at least honestly present evidence to the contrary and then prove why the author’s thesis is correct.

And consequently, Syria is profoundly misunderstood in Western policymaking circles, making the fantasy of Syria leaving the radical camp something credible in which time, resources, and concessions are invested.

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