(with apologies to W.R. Hearst, who used the heading How Do You Like the Journal's War? to celebrate his paper's unrelenting advocacy of war with Spain in 1898)
As Asad AbuKhalil a.k.a. the Angry Arab noted, The Independent’s Kim Sengupta committed the journalistic no-no of offering a lift to FSA fighters heroically getting the hell out of Dodge as their infiltration and uprising in a district of Aleppo collapsed. On August 10, Sengupta wrote:
… fighters without transport [were] desperately trying to get out. We gave some of them a lift to the Sahar district, in the outskirts, where minibuses were lined up to take people out of Aleppo.
This represents a step across the journalistic red-line from being a “homer” (one-sidedly supporting one’s favored team from the sidelines or the press box) to a participant (jumping out of the stands to give the ball a helpful kick).
Sengupta’s selective cheerleading was also on display in the article. He was anxious to downgrade the significance of the foreign jihadis entering Syria to get a piece of the anti-Assad action:
An Islamist battalion which had become noted for its unfriendliness to outsiders including fellow rebels, and had claimed Assad’s army would be defeated quickly if only they had more fellow jihadists, were the first to run from Salaheddine. One of their getaway vehicles, a red pick- up truck, had been hit from the air, just as it had come out of the district. Remains of three bodies lay at the back. A passing fighter, Hussein Ali Motassim, gestured: “They were full of talk about their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan; bombmaking and IDs [IEDs] but at the end, nothing.”
To pick a bone with Sengupta, it does look like the jihadis a) were right about the battlefield limitations of FSA units, whose commanders and fighters seem most interested in currying favor with sympathetic visiting journalists (as opposed to those unfriendly jihadis who, in at least one incident, indicated a strong interest in beheading two slumming infidel reporters) and b) they sacrificed themselves in a foreign land for their cause and perhaps didn’t really deserve having their corpses mocked by a member of the same anti-Assad team.
Badmouthing the blown-up retreating jihadists may turn out to be a triumph of on the spot war-reporting, but it may also mark the point when Sengupta’s enthusiasms clearly overcame his professional and analytic detachment.
There is also a lot of reporting suggesting that, contrary to Sengupta’s opinion, the FSA is demoralized and bedraggled, and some foreign powers believe that it needs an injection of backbone from hardened foreign Islamists and revolutionaries--some of whom are being thoughtfully provided from Libya, possibly as part of a program to export its large inventory of troublemakers to more remote and lethal jurisdictions.
For instance, Erika Solomon, reporting for Reuters from Aleppo at exactly the same time, wrote:
"They're extremely effective and secretive. They coordinate with us to attack the regime but they don't take orders from anyone. They get weapons and explosives smuggled from abroad that are much better," said a rebel in Aleppo called Anwar.
So we may not have seen the last of these jihadis, despite Sengupta’s contemptuous pronouncements.
Whether or not the Independent decides to care about Sengupta’s journalistic transgressions is another question.
My guess is No.
The Western reporting on the Middle East this year seems even more ghastly than the gullible reporting in the run-up to the second Iraq war.
In Egypt, even as the Muslim Brotherhood under Morsi executes a pseudo-coup against the complaisant military and consolidates power in execution of that canny Leninism + mass movement strategy that terrified Western pundits a few months ago, the chinstroking conclusion is that this is “good for democracy” or, as The Economist put it: "The sacking of a clutch of top generals is a welcome step toward securing Egypt's nascent democracy."
As for Syria, there seems to be a willful desire, almost a compelling need, to disregard the actual dynamic.
The domestic political revolution failed, a victim of lack of support among the upper classes in the big cities and an overly optimistic all or nothing strategy of overthrowing Assad. The domestic military insurrection failed with the collapse of the FSA stronghold at Babu Amr.
Today, the opposition to Assad depends on foreign sanctions, foreign financial and material support, the assistance of foreign jihadis, and, I suspect, the increasing participation of a variety of non-lethal and lethal foreign special ops forces, to crush the regime and, in the process, inflict misery on millions of its people.
And of course, there's relentless fluffing of the insurrection by the Independent, the Guardian, al Jazeera, and a host of other Western and Gulf media outlets.
I think Helena Cobban has the right perspective on Syria: with all this foreign interest, why does the international community deny Syria the opportunity for a managed, win-win political transition of the type that the US and EU mediated for the apartheid regime in South Africa?
It’s probably because Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf regimes are understandably nervous about the emergence of populist regimes across the Middle East, new outfits that bypass or eliminate the traditional elites that were so sedulous in maintaining good relations with Israel and the Gulf autocrats.
Instead of being reactive, these conservative regimes have decided to be proactive, and submerge domestic and regional dissatisfaction with an aggressive program against external enemies. They are fortunate in that they have four shared targets-- Syria, the Hizbullah political and military force in Lebanon, the Shi’ite regime in Iraq, and Iran—whose well-being the United States has virtually no interest in sustaining.
Syria is the first opponent to get pitched into the meatgrinder, thanks to the vulnerabilities presented by its stark political and social divisions.
The next Shi’ite target will probably not be Iran, a rather cohesive and prosperous petrostate with strong Russian and Chinese backing.
Next up, I expect, will be Hizbullah in Lebanon (with an enthusiastic assist from Israel) and the shaky Shi’ite-dominated Maliki regime in Iraq.
Iraq is experiencing a Summer of Blood, not an Arab Spring, as busy Sunni militants do double duty, sticking it Iraqi government targets as well as the Assad regime.
What’s really going on in the region, in other words, is not simply a Syrian insurrection against tyranny; it’s part of a conservative Sunni counter-revolution, abetted by Israel, compensating for the political and demographic weakness of wealthy and powerful but unpopular regimes by co-opting and accelerating the revolutions in antagonistic neighboring states.
Just to be even-handed here, I include Russia and China on the list of callous meddlers. I think they’ve made the decision that, since reconciliation and modified regime survival are off the table in Syria, it’s preferable to have a catastrophic regime collapse instead of a regime change that puts a pro-Gulf group firmly in charge of a functioning Syrian state ready to do mischief against Iraq, Hizbullah, and Iran.
But in the Western press, all we get is mindless cheerleading for Syrian rebellion, instead of a grim acknowledgement that foreign intransigence has foreclosed the possibility of a political solution between Assad and his outgunned opponents and instead led to a bloody civil war that has killed tens of thousands, led to the destruction of large swaths of Syria’s major cities, and the creation of 2 million internally displaced persons.
Was there a better way for the “international community” to respond to the political crisis in Syria?
I don’t think the “international community” is interested in asking that question, let alone answering it.
But I think that the West’s selective enthusiasm for “revolution”—violent regime change imposed on a hostile nation in which the West has limited opportunities for beneficial leverage, or even directing the activities of its sometime allies and equivocal proxies--obscures a potentially much more realistic and positive agenda: promoting political and social evolution among US allies.
Instead of managing a flailing insurrection at a distance in a Syria, the United States and the other external powers could promote incremental political, legal, and social progress much more effectively, and achieve a lot more good, in the political and judicial systems of allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan.
That would make sense, of course, if they really cared about what happened to the people in the region.
Even Turkey, that suit-and-tie free market democracy and wannabe Europlayer that is a beacon of progress compared to the Arab autocracies, could benefit from some more US best-practices armtwisting.
Turkey is recognized as “the world’s foremost jailer of journalists” and not just in connection with reporting on the government’s bloody work in repressing Kurdish separatism. Journalists are caught up in Erdogan’s dirty war with disgruntled elements in the nation’s armed forces as well.
Hurriyet’s foreign affairs editor, Emre Kizilkaya, wrote:
Although the government alleges that several journalists are in jail, whether as a convict or a defendant, “because they are bank robbers and rapists”, the identities of such criminals are not revealed, even at the requests referring Turkey’s Freedom of Information Act.
The rest of the people, which seems like the whole lot of journalists behind the bars, are doubtlessly jailed because of their journalistic work, as the evidence is clear:
Their homes and offices are being searched, their public writings are being seized as “criminal documents”, their unpublished books are being banned by prosecutors, they are being questioned about why they published a certain news story and the indictments against them list their news items or published commentary as the only “smoking gun.”
The pro-government media in Turkey, on the other hand, amplifies the human rights violations of the political authorities, worsening the personal tragedies of objective journalists or their dissident counterparts.
Character assassination becomes the norm. For instance, wiretapped conversations, which have generally nothing to do with the legal case, are being published or broadcasted in violation of the privacy of the defendant.
Cold facts and flat statistics cannot properly describe the tragedy of the Turkish journalist as a human being, though:
Take IPI World Press Freedom Hero Nedim Sener, who was kept in jail for over a year in spite of the huge international outcry over his arrest, as well as his colleague Ahmet Sik, an equally respected investigative journalist.
When we visited Sener in Silivri Prison on November 2011 with another delegation of IPI’s National Committee, he had told us how his 8-year-old daughter offered to be jailed with him. “If they have biscuits, it would be enough for me”, she had explained to him.
Later, when he was released on March 2012, the same Sener would be crying on live TV when revealing how her daughter was strip searched at the entrance of the prison, because three metal buttons of her skirt had alerted the detectors.
Spencer Ackerman might use the Pussy Riot trial as a masturbation aid for his fantasies of punk revolution in Russia; but the systematic suppression and degradation of Turkish journalists typified by the ordeal of Sener and his daughter seem to me to be more moving and significant--and worthy of redress.
It’s not all beer and skittles for minorities in Turkey, either, as Kizilkaya wrote on his personal blog on August 1:
Firstly, the home of an Alevi family was stoned and their stables burned down by an angry mob in the southeastern Malatya province, after the family allegedly told a Ramadan drummer not to wake them for suhoor, the last pre-dawn meal before fasting. The Sunni mob argue that the family insulted their religion, while the Alevi family defended that they were singled out as a target without any justification.
Then, in downtown Istanbul last night, Kurdish construction workers, who had allegedly molested young women in the neighborhood, were attacked by a local mob in an all-out street brawl of 600 people. The fight continued unabated until suhoor. The construction workers quited their jobs and returned to their eastern villages today.
As a point of information, the Alevis of Turkey are a different sect from the Allawites of Syria, though the two are sometimes incorrectly confounded.
Even Qatar, home of Al Jazeera and home to 250,000 prosperous indigenes who rely on the labor of 1.5 million (visa’d and politically nonexistent) guest workers in what is in effect the world’s largest gated community, and therefore an oasis of stability in the Middle East, could conceivably benefit from some US attention.
Qatar, in addition to serving as a key paymaster for the Syrian insurrection, is the obesity capital of the world.
Or, as England’s Daily Mail put it with its usual subtlety:
Qatar named as the fattest nation on earth where HALF of all adults are obese
That’s about double the US rate.
America’s CENTCOM, whose “forward headquarters” resides in Qatar’s Al Udeid air base, could perhaps provide a signal service by deploying its forces to encourage exercise, reduced consumption of fatty foods, and less smoking by flabby Qataris to protect them from a threat much more immediate than an Iranian attack: diabetes.
17% of all Qataris already suffer from diabetes, to the dismay of the government. Again, that's double the US rate.
My proposal is tongue in cheek of course but long after the bloody shambles of Syria is over, tens of thousands well-to-do Qataris will be mourning the loss of their limbs, vision, and/or overall health to the scourge of diabetes.
And, of course, hundreds of thousands of Syrians of every class will be mourning the loss of their loved ones, health, livelihoods, and futures to the protracted insurrection and the political posturing that sustained it.
Maybe it’s time for a different perspective on the Middle East and the struggles that matter--and the ends to which the United States can bring its still-considerable power and influence to bear.