For all of the media bias, the blood of Syrians tells the story
The clouds of conspiracy are gathering over Syria. With more than half of Syrians supporting President Bashar Al Assad, there has been a concerted effort by the western media to minimise his domestic support while maximising criticism of his failings. In particular, the effectiveness of the observer mission is questioned, to speed the day when the United Nations authorises Nato intervention and ushers into power a more pro-western Syrian government.
That, at least, is the analysis of the situation that has been best articulated by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian and Aisling Byrne of the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum website. It is not wrong. But it is not right, either. Very few of the separate claims of this theory are inaccurate, but the way they are strung together misses the nature of what is happening in the Levant.
Start with the claim that the majority of Syrians support Mr Al Assad. This comes from a YouGov Siraj poll for Al Jazeera - in itself interesting, given how Al Jazeera has led reporting on the Arab Spring - conducted in December. Brian Whitaker, the Guardian's long-serving Middle East analyst, has succinctly debunked the poll, pointing out the methodology showed only 97 people within Syria supporting Mr Al Assad, a statistically insignificant figure.
Yet the broader point made by Steele is worth considering. His argument is that the dominant narrative in the western media has been anti-Assad, without regard to the facts on the ground. "Biased media coverage also continues to distort the Arab League's observer mission in Syria," he writes. "When the league endorsed a no-fly zone in Libya last spring, there was high praise in the West for its action. Its decision to mediate in Syria was less welcome ... so the league's move was promptly called into doubt by western leaders, and most western media echoed the line."
Steele is right about the dominance of particular narratives in reporting. Western media - media in general, frankly - tends to follow the line suited to powerful elites and consistently demonstrates an ability to forget inconvenient facts and focus on the narrative set by those in power. This has been especially obvious this past year in the Arab World, as popular uprisings against western-supported regimes highlighted the crimes of those regimes.
Egypt and Libya were good guys, until one day they simply weren't. The complicity of western governments in repressing Egyptians and Libyans was forgotten.
There were some hints of culpability, usually phrased as a wistful "we should have known more", but the dominant narrative was simplified to exonerate the western powers. Questions about the cost of the war and the involvement of the West were raised, but western politicians were always framed as disinterested and impartial. That, for much of the West's media, was the only conceivable frame.
Look, for instance, at the current discourse on Iran. That members of Iran's scientific community are being murdered in cold blood is met with a collective shrug, or cloaked in euphemistic language. Turn that around - imagine French scientists being blown apart on the streets of Paris - and the importance of the media frame is clear.
Such framing pervades the political discourse. When there is unrest on the streets of Iran, American, British and French politicians line up to declare what Iran should do. Yet when there is unrest on the streets of America, neither the BBC nor CNN queue to hear the views of the president of Iran. Through economic and military power, the West has arrogated to itself the ability to lecture other countries. That in itself isn't surprising; it is the complicity of the mainstream media in perpetuating that narrative that is concerning.
Steele's other point is that western governments are interfering in Syria, hoping for an end to Mr Al Assad's rule because that suits their regional ambitions. This is what realpolitik looks like and it is especially prevalent in strategic regions like the Middle East.
Yet Steele mistakes exploitation for causation. The United States has been a foe of the Assad regime and sought to replace it for years. That makes the credibility of the recent US criticism of the bloodshed questionable, in the way that criticism from Turkey - until recently a long-standing ally - is not. It is also undoubtedly the case that the US is seeking to use this moment of chaos to steer Syria towards a more pro-American stance.
But none of that means that America caused the instability in the first place. For one thing, that grossly overstates the US ability to influence events. The Iranians did not cause the US invasion of Iraq, but they certainly exploited it in a similar manner.
So while Steele - and others - have some coherent arguments, the way those arguments are strung together doesn't fit. And there is one pebble that begins these ripples: Mr Al Assad is murdering his own people. That remains the essence of the crisis and the starting point for any criticism of the regime. If Mr Al Assad's army were not slaughtering civilians, anti-Assad arguments would have little traction.
Mr Al Assad has not lost his legitimacy because he stands against the West in politics. His repression is not being highlighted merely because of a western media framework. The repression is real, and this is the reason he has lost his legitimacy. The story of today's Syrian crisis is not being written in the capitals of London or Washington. It is being written in Damascus, with the blood of Syrians.
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Updated: January 24, 2012 04:00 AM