Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A Response to Creative Syria's Author on, "The Real Bashar al Assad"

Creative Syria's Camille Otrakji tries once again to convince people that Assad's not such a bad guy. I can often distinguish Camille's articles for his love of making up statistics and then drowning his readers in the detail; and who can ever forget how he - with a straight face - tried to cite Facebook polls as an indicator of the level of support that Assad enjoys. I have pointed out the discrepancies in Otrakji's logic and writings before (click here) but, regardless, I decided to dissect his latest mammoth post, "The Real Bashar al Assad", to see if I've just misunderstood our beloved dictator.

Firstly, however, Otrakji tries to remind people that Assad was once popular amongst Syrians. He tells us that Syria was not a bad place for women, that Assad was at the top of online polls for BBC Arabic, and that even abroad Assad was far more popular than Turkey's Erdogan. That is all well and good, but it seems Otrakji is incapable of understanding that a dictator whose regime has killed over nine thousand Syrian people since protests against his rule began cannot hope to remain as popular as he was beforehand.

About Corruption

Regardless, the first issue Otrakji tries to address is corruption, and again he makes the rather disingenuous statement that Syria is less corrupt than its neighbours Lebanon and Iraq. Yet the statistics he links to hardly inspire any confidence. According to the Corruptions Perceptions Index, Syria ranked only 0.1 points above Lebanon in 2011, and was equally abysmal in its corruption score with Lebanon  in 2010 at an atrocious 2.5 points. I'm not sure what point Camille is trying to make here, but even if we contrast Syria with the rock bottom scores of Iraq, then it hardly makes a difference. It is as if we are being told to cheer up because Zimbabwe is slightly better than Somalia; or that the British National Health Service, in comparison with the health service in Romania, is far better so we should stop complaining. The index that Otrakji quotes is an indictment of Assad's rule.

Next we are told that Assad isn't really that rich, and that his cousin Rami Makhlouf, just happened to make the best of the information he got from contacts in governments to enrich himself:

Makhlouf surely benefited from favourable treatment and insider information as he was awarded a license for Syria’s first cell phone company. He was also able to purchase lands that he apparently knew, through his government contacts, will appreciate in price in the near future. His real fortune is estimated at $2 billion to $4 billion, part of which he made through legitimate, non-corrupt, means including many investments outside Syria.
Perhaps, seeing how intimate he is with the financial affairs of Syria's ruling families, Mr Otrakji could tell us where the Assad's and Makhlouf's were in 1960? And how it is that Mr Makhlouf made his "real fortune" of two billion dollars in the first place? Incredibly, Otrakji contrasts how rich the Makhlouf's became with Lebanon's Hariri, as if the protesters in Syria really care about how rich Hariri is, and are protesting because of the corruption in Lebanon and not in Syria. He then gives us a smokescreen of statistics from the World Bank about how Syria's mortality rate and literacy rates are better under Assad's rule, but this has nothing to do with corruption, and I don't know why he put it under this section as he has not even contrasted this with other countries in the region. Is it not possible for a dictator to be corrupt and still afford his people good educational or health services? Interestingly, he follows this little non sequitur with a paragraph about Syria's oil industry.

This is an interesting paragraph, for Otrakji says:
Allegations that Syria’s income from oil exports used to be pocketed by the President, or his family, are false. They were mostly used to pay for food and energy subsidies. This was confirmed in private to a friend by Syria’s former chief economist Abdullah Aldardari. Both entries (income and expense) appeared for the first time in this year’s budget which explains why the budget is much larger than previous years.
It does not strike Otrakji as odd, and he does not point out to his readers, the strangeness that only now, after forty years of Assad rule, is the income and expense of oil exports included in the budget. What a coincidence! And we are supposed to accept, at face value, the statement of a friend of the former chief economist of the country. An assertion that Assad was using that revenue for food and energy subsidies. This beggars belief, and makes me wonder whether Otrakji takes his readers for fools.

Throughout the section in which Otrakji speaks about corruption in Syria, he extensively cites resources for information that is irrelevant. He speaks about the rumours surrounding those around Assad, he mentions superfluous information about education and mortality, and he speaks of the corruption of other Arab potentates or neighbouring countries, and yet when it comes to Assad himself, he says hardly anything at all apart from repeating hearsay or making general conclusions. So far in the article, the real Bashar remains elusive.

In the next section, Otrakji next lays the blame on the President's appointments:

Over the past 11 years the President mostly failed to meet his people’s expectations as he kept appointing Prime Ministers, Ministers, governors and senior officials that were too often corrupt, inefficient, unqualified and, in general, guaranteed to be undistinguished in any way.
The only thing this section tells us is that the Syrian president is incompetent and unable to hire the right people for the job. But perhaps the most baffling thing about Otrakji's article is what he says next.

Continuing on with the theme of corruption, Otrakji makes a bizarre - and I think desperate - attempt to portray Assad as some kind of champion to his people. He posts links which portray how delighted Israel is that the Assad regime is being threatened - ostensibly to portray that the Syrian revolution is some kind of foreign plot - and then says a few very interesting things:
While the coalition opposed to Assad successfully appeared to champion more individual freedom and dignity, Assad’s supporters’ reaction was: “great, but never at the expense of our national freedom and dignity”. This is a key element that western media fail to understand about the psychology of the Syrian people. Many Syrians are more preoccupied with protecting their country’s national interests rather than their own right to challenge President Assad at the 2014 Presidential elections. 
Otrakji speaks about the "psychology" of the Syrian people with a confidence that can only be misplaced. He then refers to "many" Syrians and again confidently refers to them without citing sources, perhaps he is referring to his Facebook polls? Who knows? He goes on to say:
To many Syrians, including but not limited to Assad’s supporters, “The international community” + the GCC are seen as vultures and sharks. The two Assads, unlike the Qatar financed Syrian opposition, have always been willing to suffer constant pressure, punishment and isolation, to protect Syria’s dignity and independence. If you don’t understand this, you are severely biased.
 So there you have it. He presents you with irrelevant facts and figures and then - defying logic -  presents you with his conclusion and nothing to back it up, and you either accept it or you are severely biased. This is hardly a basis for any kind of discussion the author would expect with people who are highly critical of Assad, and for all the reasons not mentioned in this article.

Handling the Crisis

 This is a fairly vague part of Otrakji's piece. He basically states that either the high death toll in Syria is  everybody's fault or somebody else's fault. I thought he was going to speak about Assad's handling of the crisis, but instead, and rather incredibly, he begins to speak about Burhan Ghalioun, as if the latter is directing the revolution or also ruling the country in tandem through some official position. He then - quite incredibly - seems to dismiss the Syrian revolution as almost entirely an armed conflict, discounting the brutality and murder that Assad's regime has inflicted on unarmed civilians and protesters, the arbitrary arrests, and the widespread torture. At no point does he speak about Assad's handling of the crisis. Again, fifteen minutes of my life wasted on reading something that has nothing to do with what I was lead to believe it was about.

Facebook Polls - Yes...Otrakji refers to Facebook polls. I don't think I need to say anything more.

Counting Pro- and Anti- Assad crowds

In this bit Otrakji uses a U2 concert to contrast - I kid you not - the number of people in pro- and anti- regime protests. What point is being made exactly here? That Assad has equal levels of support and opposition? How does that justify the outrageous brutality inflicted by Assad's state? Otrakji concludes by saying that:

Both assumptions proved to be wrong. There is enough support, opposition, and indifference to make all potential outcomes of the crisis possible. Assad has a tough challenge ahead to lead Syria through the reforms process, but it would be a mistake to assume he is bound to fail.
 Yet a startling omission is made here. Why is there a disproportionate level of violence surrounding anti-Assad demonstrations, and why, if Otrakji is so confident about Assad's level of support, is there not a free and transparent process for elections or referendums allowed? And ones without the threat of violence and intimidation for anybody?

Finally, and based on arbitrary assumptions and guesses, Otrakji presents us with a graph, as if this will give some legitimacy to this shoddily written and badly structured piece. There is nothing about Assad here that is of any value, only dodgy percentages, assumptions and hearsay, sprinkled with a few selective - and often times irrelevant - quotes. As far as I can deduce, Otrakji has dedicated the better (or worst) part of this article deriding those who oppose Assad, or deflecting criticisms of the man, but without offering anything substantial. He certainly hasn't given us any insight into the, "Real Bashar al Assad". Disappointing.


Abu Kareem said...

Camille Otrakji has lost all credibility. The regime's brutality against its own people renders meaningless any other statistic trotted out to defend it, period. You can put as much makeup on a pig as you want, it is still a pig.

Maysaloon said...

Or a lion, for that matter...