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In Syria, al Jazeera’s Credibility Implodes

by PETER LEE

Over the last couple days the Syrian army has moved into the Baba Amr district of Homs.

The action is Syria’s Tiananmen.

The Western shorthand for Tiananmen is “authoritarian regime reveals its true monstrous face to the world and its own citizens by trampling on helpless pro-democracy demonstrators.”

Maybe so, but in the Chinese official political lexicon Tianenmen was “a demonstration of state power against a dissident group meant to illustrate the absolute authority of the state and the utter marginalization of the protesters.”

On February 25, I wrote this about the Homs endgame in Asia Times:

“Then there is Homs or, more accurately, the Baba Amro district of Homs, which has turned into a symbol of resistance, armed and otherwise, to Assad’s rule.

“Assad’s Western and domestic opponents have put the onus on Russia and China for enabling the Homs assault by their veto of the UN Security Council resolution, a toothless text that would have called for Assad to step down.

“However, the significance of the veto was not that it allowed Assad to give free rein to his insatiable blood lust for slaughtering his own citizens, as the West would have it.

“The true significance of the veto was the message that Russia and China had endorsed Assad as a viable political actor, primarily within Syria, and his domestic opponents, including those holding out in Baba Amro, should think twice before basing their political strategy on the idea that he would be out of the picture shortly thanks to foreign pressure.

“It is difficult to determine exactly what the government’s objectives are for Baba Amro. Hopefully, they are not simply wholesale massacre through indiscriminate shelling.

“Recent reports indicate that the government, after a prolonged and brutal softening-up, has decided to encircle the district, send in the tanks, and demonstrate to the fragmented opposition that ‘resistance is futile’, at least the armed resistance that seems to depend on the expectation of some combination of foreign support and intervention to stymie Assad and advance its interest.

“Whatever the plan is, the Chinese government is probably wishing that the Assad regime would get on with it and remove the humanitarian relief of Homs from the “Friends of Syria” diplomatic agenda.

“The message that Syria and China hope the domestic opposition will extract from Homs in the next few weeks is that, in the absence of meaningful foreign support, armed resistance has reached a dead end; it is time for moderates to abandon hope in the local militia or the gunmen of the FSA and turn to a political settlement.

“To Syria’s foreign detractors, the message will be that the genie of armed resistance has been stuffed back into the bottle thanks to “Hama Lite”; and the nations that live in Syria’s neighborhood might reconsider their implacable opposition to Assad’s continued survival.”

I think this interpretation of events is pretty spot on.

And I wish somebody would address the issue of who were the 4000 who stayed to the end in Baba Amr, “a working class district of 100,000”: Was it the core of the resistance? People who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave when the Syrian army tightened the noose?  Any second thoughts on that botched exfiltration of that Sunday Times reporter that got him out a couple days before the Syrian army moved in (and moved the journalists out) but apparently got 13 people killed?

Was Homs a) a carnival of slaughter unleashed by a madman against his own citizens? b) a bloody exercise in Fallujah-style collective punishment meant to terrify Syria’s Sunni majority into submission? c) a brutal and effective coordinated military/security/political/diplomatic campaign meant to isolate and marginalize the rebels and convince Syrians that the insurrection has no hope of foreign succor or domestic success?

Inquiring minds want to know.

It looks like they won’t find out from al Jazeera.

The main event, or what should be the main event, for Western observers of Syria is the messy implosion of Al Jazeera’s credibility.  Somebody disgruntled with the diktat of channel management that the Syrian revolution (at least the SNC version of it) “must be televised” leaked some raw footage of Homs coverage and interviews staged for maximum anti-regime effect.

As’ad AbuKhalil, proprietor of the Angry Arab newsblog, hails from the atheist/Marxist/feminist quadrant and is no friend of the Bashar regime.  He had this to say about recent trends in programming on Syrian state TV:

“It seems that Syrian regime had agents among the rebels; or it seems that the Syrian regime obtained a trove of video footage from Baba Amru.  They have been airing them non-stop.  They are quite damning.  They show the correspondent or witness (for CNN or from Aljazeera) before he is on the air: and the demeanor is drastically different from the demeanor on the air and they even show contrived sounds of explosions timed for broadcast time…

“PS This is really scandalous. It shows the footage prior to Aljazeera reports: they show fake bandages applied on a child and then a person is ordered to carry a camera in his hand to make it look like a mobile footage.  It shows a child being fed what to say on Aljazeera.”

Later in the day:

“This is rather explosive.  You know how low Aljazeera has sunk when Syrian regime TV stations have a field day with the shoddy journalism and fabrication procedures of Aljazeera.  It seems that people inside Aljazeera have leaked raw footage and pre-air reports to someone in Syrian regime TV.  I am not surprised of the leak at all: I am in contact from people inside Aljazeera who are disgusted by the propaganda work of the network in the last few months.  …  I know how those things work and they know that I know.  The footage that are being shown show staging of events of calling a civilian an “officer” in the Syrian army, of faking injuries and feeding statements to people before airtime, etc. Aljazeera seems to be writing its own professional obituary.  I don’t know how it can really resurrect itself again.  It is mortally wounded. I know that there are people in the network who are pained about what is happening but royal orders are royal orders in the network and no one dare to disobey.  I am told that orders came down to the effect that no half-position would be tolerated and that categorical adoption of the Qatari foreign policy on Syria is a job requirement.” 

Actually, information about Al Jazeera’s Syria biases had already reached the English language media on February 24 (and Syria watchers when Josh Landis posted it on his Syria Comment blog), when an article in al Akhbar reported on some e-mails hacked off al Jazeera’s servers by the Syrian regime’s “electronic army”:

“The major find to be made public was an email exchange between anchorwoman Rula Ibrahim and Beirut-based reporter Ali Hashem. The emails seemed to indicate widespread disaffection within the channel, especially over its coverage of the crisis in Syria.

“Ibrahim … protested that she had ‘been utterly humiliated. They wiped the floor with me because I embarrassed Zuheir Salem, spokesperson for Syria’s Muslim Brothers. As a result, I was prevented from doing any Syrian interviews, and threatened with [a] transfer to the night shift on the pretext that I was making the channel imbalanced.’

“Ibrahim also spoke of how Syrian activists invited onto Al Jazeera use terms of sectarian incitement on air, ‘which Syrians understand very well.’

“They also confirmed an allegation Ibrahim had reportedly made in one of her emails: That Ahmad Ibrahim, who is in charge of the channel’s Syria coverage, is the brother of Anas al-Abdeh, a leading member of the opposition Syrian National Council. He allegedly stopped using his family name to avoid drawing attention to the connection.”

Yes, emphasis added.  The guy who runs al Jazeera’s Syrian coverage is the brother of a SNC bigwig.

The requisite ironic coda (and what should be the obituary for al Jazeera as a serious news outfit, at least as far as its current Syrian coverage is concerned) is contained in this observation:

“However, the scoop did not attract the attention that had been hoped for. Like other official Syrian media, the channel is not widely watched and has suffered a loss of viewer confidence.

“Thus the report was barely noticed, and Al Jazeera itself completely disregarded it.”

Yes, news you can report just by walking into your newsroom; that’s too far for al Jazeera (and, probably CNN).

PETER LEE has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on international  affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.com 

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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