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Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

As a civil war develops in Syria, reporters should not take sides

The line-up of foreign powers on the opposing sides of the Syrian conflict is beginning to resemble the coalitions that destroyed Biafra 40 years ago.

Nigeria buried the remains this week of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who died last November in Britain, in his village of Nweni. Col Ojukwu was a military governor in May 1967 when he declared the south-eastern province of Biafra independent. While the Igbo people of Biafra had suffered severe violence and discrimination, Col Ojukwu was unprepared for the two-year civil war that erupted in 1968. More than a million peopled died, mostly of the starvation brought by the federal government's blockade.

Britain supplied the federal government with arms and advice, while France supported the Biafrans. (Portugal, struggling to cling to its African colonies, sided with Biafra, as did South Africa and Israel. All of them claimed to be acting out of humanitarian concern for the beleaguered Igbo. If you believe that Ö ) Ojukwe's military weakness forced him to seek foreign help. Paddie Davies, an Igbo in the Biafra Propaganda Directorate during the war, later told the BBC: "Ojukwu's propaganda was very good. The propaganda necessarily appeals to the senses."

Propaganda that played on senses and sentiment necessarily ignored what the precedent of a newly independent African country breaking apart meant to the continent. Journalists disseminated photographs of emaciated Biafran children to convince the world to protect free Biafra by force of arms. This was unlikely to happen during the Cold War, when the superpowers preferred to fight each other by proxy and where the opposed calculations of Britain and France made western unanimity impossible.

Yet the propaganda had one serious consequence: it created hope among Biafrans that outside powers would arrive to rescue them. Thus, they fought on instead of seeking a better peace than the one imposed in 1970 by the victorious Nigerian army.

Last week, two western journalists trapped in Homs in Syria - the badly wounded Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro, and the freelance William Daniels working also for Le Figaro - finally escaped the city. Government forces have occupied the besieged district of Baba Amr. The bodies of my friend and colleague, Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times, and the photographer Remi Ochlik, were later recovered.*†The photographer Paul Conroy of The Sunday Times had already been rescued, but at a considerable cost.

Correspondents in Beirut reported that Syrian artillery killed 13 people escorting Paul Conroy to Lebanon. The Times of London took this as evidence that the dissidents died in order "to have their sacrifice known to the world and be of some avail". That is, they died because they had to. The implication was that, as Madeleine Albright said of the half million Iraqi children who died for lack of nutrition and medicine under the US sanctions regime: "I think it is a very hard choice, but the price - we think the price is worth it." Was it? To whom?

My experience of working with dissidents in Iraq, Turkey, Eritrea and other countries is that a tacit agreement between those who bring correspondents into a battle zone obliges them to take us out again. Our part of the bargain is not to tell their story, but the story. We are not, and cannot be, the propaganda wing of any movement - whether Syrian dissidents or US Marines. They have no duty to die for us, any more than we have for them. But each party, rebel and reporter, usually strives not to put the other's life at risk.

Alexander Cockburn wrote recently on his website, Counterpunch.org: "The performance of the western press has been almost uniformly disgraceful after the Aleppo atrocities [two bombs that killed at least 28 people and wounded 235 more on February 10], network journalists blandly quoted spokesmen for the Syrian rebels that the security forces had blown themselves up to discredit the rebels." To be fair to correspondents in Syria, most have not employed the platitudes that come so easily to western newsreaders who have never been to Syria and quote exile spokesmen whose credentials they have not scrutinised.

A civil war is emerging in Syria, and it is not the job of reporters to take sides. The Libyan example should serve as a reminder of that danger. Some journalists allowed themselves to become a cheering section for the National Transitional Council, with the concomitant endorsement of Nato's intervention to fight its war and put it into power.

Anthony Shadid of The New York Times wrote from Libya a week before he died of an asthma attack in Syria: "The country that witnessed the Arab world's most sweeping revolution is foundering. So is its capital, where a semblance of normality has returned after the chaotic days of the fall of Tripoli last August. But no one would consider a city ordinary where militiamen tortured to death an urbane former diplomat two weeks ago, where hundreds of refugees deemed loyal to Col Muammar Qaddafi waited hopelessly in a camp and where a government official acknowledged that 'freedom is a problem'."

The country where "freedom is a problem" has just offered US$100 million to Syria's rebels. A government spokesman, Mohammed Al Harizy, said: "We will see how this aid can be delivered. We don't know yet." Will it go to young idealists, Sunni fundamentalists, ex-soldiers or democrats? It probably will not be offered to the anti-violent coalition group Freedom Days, which urges general strikes and civil disobedience in a long struggle to change the country.

The line-up of foreign powers on the opposing sides is beginning to resemble the coalitions that destroyed Biafra 40 years ago. With the Assad regime are Russia, China, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon's Hizbollah. The dissident factions are counting on the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya and Al Qaeda. To this mix must be added a Syrian Sunni fundamentalist, Sheikh Adnan Al Arour. Sheikh Adnan appears regularly on television in Saudi Arabia to terrify Alawites, Ismailis, Kurds and Christians with the consequences of opposing the jihad against the regime.

Dissidents, journalists and mullahs who call for foreign forces to fight in Syria have only to look next door to Lebanon. During its long war, every foreign power that got involved burnt its fingers and escalated violence for the Lebanese. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) ostensibly responded to an appeal from Lebanon's Sunni Muslims for help in obtaining equality with the Christians. When the PLO left in 1982, their movement was badly wounded and even the Sunnis were glad to see it go.

Syria intervened at various stages of the war on behalf of the Christians, the Palestinians and the Shiites. Its departure in April 2005 was welcomed by the vast majority of Lebanese.

Israel came in 1982 promising to help the Christians. When it left in 2000, not even the Christians had a good word for them. As for the US's brief encounter with Lebanon in 1982-83, the less said, the better. Do the families of the 241 American service personnel killed in the suicide bombings of October 23, 1983, believe "the price was worth paying"?

Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books

* Editorís note: The original version of this story has been amended due to a copy editing error.

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