The Syrian government has banned foreign and, I would imagine, anything but state-media reportage on the ongoing unrest.
So I guess that foreign journos have little to chew on except reports relayed by dissidents and their own, understandable resentment at Bashar al-Assad’s attempt to dominate the news cycle.
Even so, I think The Independent’s Alastair Beach or his editors reached a new low in submissive fluffing of the Syrian revolution.
Detailed fisking is not even required. Just cut and paste.
The issue concerns a rather cool young Syrian gentleman, Ahmad Biasi, who made a guerilla video debunking desperate government spin concerning cellphone footage of heavy-handed government stomping of detainees in the town of Al Bayda. Not our town, said the government. Some old footage…maybe from Iraq?
Baisa did a video tour of his town, showing that the square where the stomping occurred was indisputably Al Bayda. At the end of the video, Biasi stood in front of the camera and held up his national ID card to certify the authenticity of his film.
The video went viral and the Syrian government detained Biasi.
Now let’s put the spinmobile in the capable hands of Alastair Beach. He writes:
But his bravery came at a terrible cost. Earlier this month, Ahmad was arrested by one of Syria’s most feared intelligence units. Human-rights activists – who received reports last week that he had died under torture – told The Independent that had been held in a secret-service headquarters in Damascus.
Before the weekend started, many people in Syria thought that Ahmad Biasi was dead. Human-rights organisations were receiving reports that he had suffered a terrifying final few hours at the hands of Syria’s secret police.
By Saturday night, it transpired he was very much alive and had given an interview to state television offering proof to that effect. “We know he was detained and taken by security,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Syrian human-rights organisation Insan. “He was humiliated in front of other prisoners. They urinated on him and he lost consciousness after being electrocuted. He was very badly tortured. They made him an example to the others and made other prisoners watch as he was being tortured.”
According to Mr Tarif, the types of abuse used by the Air Force Intelligence Directorate – the notorious branch of the secret police believed to have taken Ahmad – include electrocution, nail extraction and genital mutilation. “The level of brutality they are using is just absurd,” Mr Tarif added. “It is so inhuman.”
Other human-rights organisations also received reports of Ahmad’s death. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, residents in Al-Bayda had feared that “Ahmad may have died after being subjected to severe torture”.
At the end of the article, we get the denouement:
Syrian state television dropped a happy bombshell. It ran an interview showing Ahmad Biasi sitting on a leather chair in a blank room expressing his “surprise” at hearing about his own death.
Looking gaunt but otherwise healthy, he said: “I was home when I heard that I had died under torture in a prison. I was very surprised and I felt strange when I saw it on the news. I wondered how they broadcast such fake news. It is humiliating.”
The Independent’s takeaway: Score 1 for the Revolution!
Yet in spite of the dramatic turn of events, news of Ahmad’s fate may turn out to harm the Syrian regime more than it had anticipated when it released the footage. Activists have already accused the secret police of extracting a forced confession, while others are saying that the interview has inadvertently done what Ahmad intended to do in the first place: prove that he was Syrian and that the original video of government abuse did not take place in Iraq.
And the title of the piece:
Actually, he also appears to have exposed the exaggerations and misrepresentations that seem to permeate the media campaign of the Syrian dissidents…and the foreign media’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism.
In defense of Mr. Beach, it is possible that his efforts to report the fact of Biasi’s detention and the allegations of the opposition straight up got mangled by the editor.
Possibly, the original report was electrocuted, suffered genital mutilation, got pissed on, and/or suffered fingernail removal during its preparation. All these things can and do occur in the environs of a British newsroom and its adjacent pubs.
It would be irresponsible not to speculate, or recycle the unfounded assertions of interested parties.
But I just know it came at a terrible cost.
I do not doubt that the Syrian security forces do terrible things to detainees.
But the real story here was that they apparently chose not do them to Biasi—though I would think it likely that they leaned on him in unpleasant physical and psychological ways. The Syrian government hoped to score a propaganda coup by revealing Biasi—a self-identified, genuine, and celebrated dissident!— emerging alive and reasonably well from the maw of Syrian government detention, thereby giving the lie to the scaremongering of the dissidents.
However, that was a propaganda victory that The Independent appears dead-set to deny the Syrian government, even at the cost of some markedly ahem tortured prose.
The Syrian revolution is a little more complicated than non-violent protesters rising up against Syrian authoritarianism.
The struggle is still very much in the hearts-and-minds phase for both sides.
There are large numbers of Syrians not particularly sympathetic to the dissidents, whom the opposition is trying to wean away from the government by fomenting an ever deeper and ever more polarizing crisis and support the narrative of a government discredited by its own dysfunction.
It’s a different dynamic from Bahrain (total war against the Shi’a majority) and Yemen (popular revolution hijacked by Saudi meddling).
The government has tried to split the opposition by inflicting repression on those who continue to protest after the pledge of constitutional revision, inviting dialogue with those willing to discuss reforms through a state-mediated process, and raising the entirely plausible spectre of a sectarian meltdown similar to Lebanon’s and Iraq’s to sway the general public in favor of the regime’s continued survival.
Nobody has emerged from the ranks of the dissidents to negotiate; it’s pretty much Bashar-must-go.
How well this is working—basically, who will give up through exhaustion first, the demonstrators, the security forces, or the fence-sitters—remains to be seen.
However, from the smaller turnout, albeit at a larger number of demonstrations, there are some signs that the government’s grinding strategy of attrition may be prevailing.
And the opposition isn’t just a question of people’s power by non-violent demonstrators. It concludes some shadowy, militant forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood (which runs one of the top dissident social media sites) and reactionary, Saudi-backed strongmen like Rifaat Assad and Abdul Halim Khaddam.
Dozens of members of Syrian security forces have died in encounters with armed gangs. Dissident efforts to cover up and excuse the violence are a story in themselves. The soldiers “were shot by other soldiers who didn’t want to fire on dissidents”; they were “shot by their officers in a provocation”; in one instance, there was a concession that the security forces might have died at the hands of regime opponents, with the excuse that they reflected blood-for-blood tribal enmities generated by the crackdown. The sophists also had their go, declaring that, if the authoritarian government couldn’t protect its own troops, that was nothing more than a demonstration of the fact that it had forfeited its right to exist.
There is now a concerted campaign to keep the demonstrations going, while spurning the government’s attempts to engage in negotiations.
This might be because the dissidents fear that, once the tide of revolutionary passion recedes, they will have a hard time forcing the Syrian government to live up to any bargain.
It also might be because there are important elements among the Syrian dissidents who are still loath to take leadership of negotiations and reveal themselves, because the focus might shift to them…and the Syrian public might not like what they see.
Reportedly, the Muslim Brotherhood—which has a long and bloody history of opposition to the Assad regime, including the insurrection that terminated in the Hama massacre—is considering stepping forward to give direction to the hitherto fractured movement.
The MB is midwifing a gathering in Ankara, Turkey, May 31 through June 2, that aims to give domestic demonstrators and foreign governments something concrete to get behind, thereby ratcheting up pressure on the regime. The Syrian government, while mindful of the importance of continued Turkish forbearance on the issue of the future of Assad’s regime, is obviously anxious and unhappy that the Turkish government has decided to give the opposition a platform.
Until then, the current strategy seems to be to bumrush the revolution, and keep the ball rolling through enthusiasm, outrage, propaganda, disinformation, some of it delivered courtesy of The Independent.
P.S. For you forensic etymologists out there, “bumrush” originally referred to the forcible and unceremonious eviction of an indigent person by the bouncer from a bar or other place of business that did not welcome his presence. In the modern era, “bumrushing” took on a reverse meaning: a non-paying clientele forcing its way past security to gain admission to a club or concert. By extension, it means taking advantage of chaos, distraction, or carelessness by the powers-that-be to seize an otherwise unattainable and perhaps undeserved advantage.