Thursday, June 17, 2010

Birth of a Myth: Winning Over Syria's Dictator with High-Tech?

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By Barry Rubin

The dispatch of an official U.S. high-tech delegation to offer the Syrian dictatorship more Internet access and other gizmos--in exchange for him abandoning his alliance with Iran, Hamas, Hizballah, and now even Turkey!--reminds me of a little personal experience which shows a lot about Western naivete and how the media works nowadays.

After Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria, following his father's death, there was a huge amount about how he was a devotee of Internet and a real kind of twenty-first century "hip" guy when it came to hi-tech. The main, in fact the only, evidence of this was that he was head of the Syria Internet Society.

Being a bit of a researcher, I took 30 seconds and went to the site of the Syria Internet Society. Within another 30 seconds I noticed what was really going on. Yes, Bashar was the head of the Society, but the previous head had been his older brother, Basil.

Everyone knows that Basil was supposed to be the successor to their father, Hafiz, and that Basil was a real thug. But when he wrapped his sports car around a bridge pillar on the airport road near Damascus and was killed, Bashar inherited the family business. No one ever would have thought that Basil was a big Internet surfer. So that's the real story: Bashar was head of the Society not because he loved computers but because he was the dictator-in-training.

So here's the basis for the idea that Bashar is a liberal, high-tech loving guy: He became head of the Society because he was son of the dictator and the successor, not because he was an Internet surfing dude. I wrote about this in my book and elsewhere but, to my best knowledge, no one else has ever done this simple task or quoted my points on this matter.

Instead, one still frequently sees, however, this image of Bashar being purveyed, even while Syria has more censorship over the Internet than almost any other country in the world and throws dissident bloggers in prison.

Let me give the U.S. government a tip: when you run a repressive dictatorship you don't want to furnish the masses with the benefits of better Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, satellite telephones, higher-speed Internet, and similar things. Of course, you might want to buy the latest technology for the secret police to use and you would want more information to figure out better ways to block and tap into such communications.

Ok, to be fair, the delegation says it is trying to persuade Syria to allow more Internet freedom. Yet why should a dictatorship that wants to stay in power--and knows that all the elite's wealth and their very lives depends on repression--want to allow more freedom? Do you think they never heard about what happened in Iran in the 1970s and in the Soviet bloc in the 1980s? Believe me, they know exactly what happened and have openly talked about avoiding this mistake.

Now here's another interesting question:

Is the silly idea that high-tech goodies will make the dictator abandon an alliance with Iran--which provides Syria with strategic cover; Islamic cover; billions of dollars; subsidies for mutual clients (Hizballah, Hamas, etc.); and now even nuclear weapons--based on this shallow Syrian public relations' myth about Bashar?

Yes, it is quite possible! This is the kind of unreality that governs a lot of Western policy and thinking about the Middle East.

And here is an article about how, visiting this repressive dictatorship, U.S. officials sent Twitter messages about how great the coffee is. Hmm, "Let them drink coffee!" A good motto for the administration's human rights' policy.

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 (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. 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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