Sunday, December 13, 2009

Why is the West So Easily Fooled by Middle East Dictators? Case in Point: Syria's "Independent" Media is Owned by the Regime

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By Barry Rubin

It's remarkable how easy it is for Middle Eastern dictatorships to fool the West. Iran has been stringing along Europe and the United States for seven years on the pretense that it is ready to make a deal on its nuclear weapons' drive. The Palestinians persuade the West that they really do want to make peace but just need a better offer. And so on.

Sometimes the foolishness is due to ideology or bias, but ignorance is often a major factor. The assumption that Middle East dictatorships or Islamist revolutionaries really want to be moderate, that they're just victims and everything is the West's fault, or that a solution of conflicts is just a concession away overwhelms anything like a sense of history, research, or comprehension of what's going on.

Here’s an example, only one among hundreds. What makes it so symbollic is because it would have been so easy to get this story right. Since Bashar al-Asad inherited the family dictatorship eight years ago, there have been an endless stream of stories on how he is a really nice guy and just wants to be friends. Stories about the regime's sponsorship of terrorism and extremism--visible in every speech Bashar and his colleagues make in Arabic and all that appears in the Syrian state-controlled media--don't get much coverage. Neither does the fate of democratic dissidents.

Syria, of course, is a brutally repressive dictatorship where non-violent dissenters are consistently arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. It also sponsors terrorism in all directions, against Americans and Iraqis in Iraq; against Lebanon where it murdered about a dozen people in recent years including former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri; against Israel by sponsoring Hamas and Hizballah; and periodically against Jordan.

But the comedy of errors regarding MIddle East drama never ends. Now a Guardian columnist praises the launch of a new English-language newspaper in Syria, Baladna English, as “the latest stage in the liberalization of Syria's media.”

In this case, it might be worth asking who owns this new, supposedly independent newspaper? Answer: The son of Bahjat Suleiman, formerly the head of [wait for it] Syrian intelligence, named in the international investigation as a prime suspect in the Hariri murder, and a close pesonal friend of the dictator. In fact, Bahjat was one of the main architects of Bashar al-Asad's consolidation of power.

And what was the previous stage in the “liberalization of Syria’s media”? The creation of the first “├»ndependent” Syrian newspaper in Arabic, al-Watan. And who owns that one? Rami Makhluf, the regime's top money guy and brother of the powerful current head of Syrian intelligence, Hafiz! Oh yes, he’s also a cousin of President Bashar al-Asad.

Here’s the write-up on Rami from the U.S. Treasury Department:

“Rami Makhluf is a powerful Syrian businessman who amassed his commercial empire by exploiting his relationships with Syrian regime members. Makhluf has manipulated the Syrian judicial system and used Syrian intelligence officials to intimidate his business rivals...[and is] one of the primary centers of corruption in Syria.”

This is the face of press freedom for Syria? No wonder many in the West can’t identify terrorists, sponsors of terrorism, tyrants, and dedicated enemies.

For even more on this story see From Beirut to Bayside.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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