Tuesday, May 03, 2011

"Team Syria" get a boost from Spin-Doctor

Or in other words: بدو يكحلها آم عماها

I felt dismayed reading Camille Otrakji's interview on the Lebanese Political Blog, Qifa Nabki. Camille has long been known amongst Syrian bloggers, analysts and political commentators for his efforts in promoting dialogue about Syria. I've criticised him severely before about projects of his, such as Onemideast.org, and have also had the opportunity to present my views on his own websites - often to much controversy from visitors.

Yet that does not mean I ever intend to spare him from scathing criticism when it is due, for the same freedom which allows him to defend the inexcusable actions of the Syrian regime are also those which will allow me to highlight some of the fallacies he made in the interview. Far from being a 'lone voice in the wilderness' he risks being dismissed as just another regime apologist who uses a cloak of respectability to make benevolent dictatorship appear legitimate.

Camille is a sophisticated and urbane individual, highly literate and intelligent. Therefore whenever I view his articles, comments or discussions I know that there is a structure underlying his argument, and a deliberate statement he intends to deliver, that give his position coherence and force. But that does not mean that what he says is right, merely that it is logically valid. Whether the string of logically valid arguments he gives are consistent is another matter, and I think that this is where he has failed miserably. This is not an exhaustive critique of all he said, but simply a highlight on some of the more interesting things that he mentioned.

Firstly he uses statistics which are based on facts that he does not make known. Statistics hold an unusually powerful sway over readers because numbers are generally thought to never lie. They are facts, simple and clear. Yet statistics can be notoriously easy to falsify, and even mislead. Anybody who has read the now famous book, "How To Lie With Statistics" knows how easy it is to say that anything can be true. One commentator on the blog draws an interesting parallel to Camille's argument and points out that the same holds true in Egypt, and Egypt had a successful revolution with the same statistical figures. Unfortunately Camille does himself no favours by using such a weak argument and appears to not know the popular adage, "72.5% of all statistics are made up on the spot".

Underlying Theme

The underlying message that Camille want's to deliver is as follows: that not all Syrians approve of the revolt; that the grievances are legitimate; that the government is honest about its intentions to reform; and that there are foreign elements, from billionaire Syrian business men such as Khaddam and Ribal al Assad, Bandar bin Sultan, and Saad Hariri, who are all bent on exploiting the legitimate grievances of the people to destroy Syria's regional position as a key geopolitical player.

This narrative is the standard one being delivered by Syrian state media and has been constantly drummed into the population's minds. Apparently no foreign media are considered impartial enough to be given the privilege of reporting directly from Syria, and grainy mobile phone footage is dismissed as part of an elaborate hoax. Camille even gives an amusing example of what he thinks can be achieved by someone with enough tech-savvy to edit videos and sound. Frankly I don't buy any of what he said and most people in the world don't either. The onus is on him, and the Syrian government, to allow enough transparency for the world and, more importantly, the Syrian people to decide what is really happening.

My response

The crisis of legitimacy that the Syrian regime faces is largely of its own doing, and there is no reason why they should be given the benefit of the doubt. The crisis has been mis-handled from the start and instead of providing transparency and paying attention to what even the president of the country says were legitimate grievances, the Syrian regime decided to play the conspiracy card. All foreign journalists were banned from reporting and one al Jazeera journalist with American, Canadian and Iranian nationality is still missing after landing in Damascus Airport over four days ago.

Then there is the issue that the Syrian government is trying to show that it has always intended for these reforms to take place. That somehow this popular pressure is not the reason it has decided to pursue this course of action. This is shameful and ludicrous, and the fact that Camille wishes to give the regime 'a chance' till 'the next election' beggars belief that the government can be trusted at all. In fact, he would do well to note that the protests accomplished in four weeks what 40 (or 11 depending on when you think reforms began) years could not. It is also interesting to note that the Syrian government behaves as if relenting to pressure from the Syrian people is a sign of weakness and shame, rather than something to be proud of. The gulf between the rulers and the ruled is thus clearly defined.

There is the issue of the extreme violence that faces anybody wishing to protest. Unarmed, innocent protestors are being arrested, shot at, beaten and harrassed. The fact that the government considers their demonstrations to be 'illegitimate' is not acceptable. Using the bogey man of salafi inspired armed groups is also unacceptable. If it were true then why are the security people shooting unarmed protestors and not shooting bearded fanatics with explosive belts and machine guns? But this is a question that should not even be debated, so clearly fallacious, and so popular has it been, with other dictatorships that have fallen, or are about to fall, in the region that it can be given no credence whatsoever.

Next we are given an outrageous statement comparing Syria's Alawites to the Jews of Israel or the Kurds and Kurdistan. That somehow Syria is the only country in the world where they can have a say in their own affairs. Well, Camille, you do need to make your mind up whether Syria is an Alawite state or a secular state. Or is it a secular state that happens to be Alawite, regardless of the fact that Alawites are a minority there? Or do you not realise that most Alawite's are not actually in the regime and have suffered just as much from the regime's corruption and repression as the rest of the population. Or do you not realise that you are giving legitimacy to the illegal settlement of Palestinian lands by using such an argument, and in so doing you undermine the entire supposed raison d'être of the Syrian regime. Or is it alright to use this argument for some people and not for others? Why has this statement been made and what do you mean by it?

At one point, Camille asks "What are you talking about when you say 'the Syrian regime'?" That is a very good question, and one which he himself needs to ponder over especially considering the question I raised above. At this point I thought he would give an interesting answer, but what follows next is a long rambling history lesson on the geo-politics of the region. We are told that democracy cannot happen the way we want it to in Syria, and we are given a convoluted and irrelevant argument using examples from Lebanon and Iraq. 

Camille, in essence, appears to me to be saying that in the Middle East, we cannot have democracy as is commonly understood; That the region has unique challenges and problems and only Syria is capable of pulling off the steady development curve needed. What Camille neglects to say is that Syria has a large hand in the lack of stability in both Lebanon and Iraq. I have written numerous articles highlighting Syria's formidable and highly successfuly foreign policy, but I won't sit back and allow him to ignore what he knows very well to be true, that Syria is itself a factor in the destabilisation of those governments. Of course that doesn't mean I oppose the intervention - for we live in a 'rough neighbourhood' - and in Iraq the government was imposed by an American occupation whilst in Lebanon it was a Western backed government which was quite happy to see Israel destroy half of Lebanon in order to eliminate the Lebanese resistance.

The argument that democracy cannot work in the case of Syria does not gel. What we have are Syrians of all sects and ethnicities asking for a bit of dignity and respect, they didn't even ask for 'one man-one vote democracy' but for freedom. The initial slogans people called out were that "The Syrian people cannot be humiliated". This freedom is freedom from arbitrary laws, police brutality, torture and the freedom to say what is on your mind without fear of arrest or harrassment. Besides, the finer points of democratic elections are not the focus of the discussion and we all know that most democracies now have elaborate systems that go beyond one man, one vote elections. Camille is here, and in fact throughout the entire interview, creating an artificial argument, and does not go towards addressing the real issues that have angered Syrians enough for them to go out onto the streets and risk death. He just wants them to stop demonstrating, to believe a regime that is killing them when it says that it will give up power to the people willingly, and that it will reform itself out of existence - Because this is what these reforms actually mean, whether they take effect in 5, 10 or 20 years.


Camille concludes that only Syria, or those who rule it, are capable of understanding the challenges of the region, otherwise we would all risk instability. But this is precisely the argument that Bin Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi have used to convince the West that they can keep their people in check. But perhaps that is a bit of a Freudian slip? There has been nothing more catastrophic in recent Arab history than the repression of the people of the Middle East at the hands of their own rulers. Even Arafat was, in the end, kept in power by the Israelis to keep his people on a tight leash and not because he had their best interests at heart. Is this the kind of Middle East that Camille believes we should preserve? It seems that the Arab people (in all their sects, ethnicities and religions) have already answered that question: الشعب يريد اسقاط النظام


Rabi Tawil (AKA Abu Kareem) said...

I was equally disappointed with Camille's interview. He used the same numbers justification that Landis used in a recent post which led me to write my most recent post:http://levantdream.blogspot.com/2011/05/how-many-syrian-demonstrators-are.htmlhence

كسار الزبادي said...

Numbers and discussions are not happening IMHO, everybody is starting from a predetermined position because of group ploarisation http://kassariyat.blogspot.com/2011/05/blog-post.html

Maysaloon said...

Abu Kareem,
Thanks for stopping by. I saw your comments too. It is good that other people are not sucked into the Stockholm syndrome that has affected many Syrians. By the by, Camille mentioned he might reply but I suppose he has been quite busy, or perhaps we're not worthy of his time :-)

Maysaloon said...

I don't think a reductionist narrative works with what is happening. It is not simply about starting from a predetermined position. Many, including myself, wanted to give Bashar a chance, but the chap has failed spectacularly at every moment when leadership was needed. To say that there is a middle ground, such as what Camille is talking about, is to ignore the reality of what is happening. Syria has been hijacked by some thugs who call themselves a government. It is time to say no to the abnormal situation we have been in for the past half a decade.

Unknown said...

Read again my interview toady and please ask yourself again if I was really that wrong ...