By Neelabh Mishra
November 21, 2011
With apologies to T.S. Eliot, let me twist his words around a bit and say, “Between the media and the reality falls the shadow.” Bouthaina Shabaan, the sharp political advisor to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, had her finger on the shadow when she told visiting Indian journalists in October, “Neither we nor the BBC knows what’s happening in Homs.” The candour belied the image of a secretive and blustering regime. After moving around Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia, we suspected that western diplomacy and the western media were tinkering with reality in depicting a complex Syrian situation.
But Homs was an eye-opener. We reached a spot barely 20 minutes after a three-hour (2-5 pm) gunfight. But it wasn’t security forces that opened indiscriminate fire on opposition demonstrators, as day after day, big media outlets had us believe about Homs. The dead, and the injured in a hospital we visited, were largely women and children. But they’d died from bullets fired by the opposition, not the state troops. Homs wasn’t a town completely up in arms against the ruling Ba’athists, as is being projected. It was divided, with several sullen streets, all shut and palled in ghostly silence. But there were also streets that were all lit up even after a gunfight, with passionate government supporters shouting pro-Assad slogans—also pro-India and anti-America slogans when they learnt that we were from India. An objective assessment of the situation in Syria would also include the violence inflicted by certain opposition groups, a stand that India correctly took in the UN Security Council, based on feedback from the ground provided by the Indian embassy in Damascus. This is a stand that has gone down well with large sections of people on the streets of Syrian towns.
The so-called uprising in Syria lies largely along an arc of towns near the borders—with Lebanon, Iraq or Turkey—indicating a degree of backing from across the borders. Non-western diplomats talk of four strands of opposition: a) Peasants uncomfortable with the recent market-driven policies of the Assad government. It’s an ‘economic resentment’, articulated in the terminology of popular non-fundamentalist Islam. b) Progressive sections of the middle classes, who genuinely want democratic reforms. c) Wahabi hardline Islamists backed by fundamentalist Arab elements, largely from Saudi Arabia. d) People who resented the secularist, Arab socialist Ba’ath party takeover and left Syria for western pastures. They have made their money in the West, live there and want to refashion Syria with western support, in the western image, and allied to western interests.
Government leaders like Bouthaina and foreign minister Walid al-Moallem differentiate between what they call the opposition rooted in the country and the violent armed bands, backed by foreign powers, which infiltrate their peaceful demonstrations. Certain Syria-based opposition groups responded to the government’s negotiation initiative, opened through the offices of the Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun. He told us his son was recently assassinated by fundamentalist Islamists. About democratic reforms, Bouthaina sounds quite candid: “We are serious in recognising that reforms are Syria’s need of the hour.” Hence, she says, the government has lifted the emergency enforced for decades in Syria and announced a timeline for multi-party parliamentary elections in February next year, governorate elections, also in November 2012, and presidential elections in 2014. Therefore the government accepted the Arab League’s proposal for widened talks with the opposition, but it is adamant in not compromising with Syria’s secular ethos.
The regime is capitalising on the horrors of extremist Islamist and foreign intervention in Egypt, where Coptic Christians were massacred and the army rules with an iron fist, Libya and Iraq before that. Ba’athist Syria has provided free secular space to women and religious minorities like the Christians and Islamic sects like the Shias, the Alawites, the Ismailis and the Druze. Syria is largely an educated, middle-class society: large sections have a stake in women’s emancipation and plurality. These people are alarmed by the political Islam exported by their neighbours. The Assad regime emphasises that the West’s rhetoric of human rights overthrows only secular nationalist Arab regimes, but stops at the doorsteps of autocratic and fundamentalist sheikhdoms willing to play stooge. It says western interests have not gone beyond oil and securing Israel. For now, Syria is more hit by the western economic sanctions than internal unrest. But sanctions also induce patriotic fervour, as witnessed in huge pro-Assad rallies. The West would do well to heed this and not create another bloody mess. Syria needs to be encouraged to reform and resolve its trust deficit. Unhindered by foreign interference.