Saturday, May 14, 2011

Six Days in Syria

So what's really going on in Syria today? Times journalist Martin Fletcher, has just spent 6 days there posing as a tourist. Although not the last word on the subject, his measured view is worth reading:

"Having been in Homs on Sunday, I have no reason to disbelieve the reports of tanks shelling the city. There were tanks inside Homs and encircling it when I was there, and more than 100 in reserve on its northern fringe. The security forces were also rounding up young men in droves. I spent 6 hours in detention there, and from the windowless basement where I was held, I twice heard protracted bursts of automatic gunfire. Protesters and soldiers had been killed, and Homs was the proverbial tinderbox.

"Two aspects of the reports of tank shelling, however, made me uneasy. The first was that the regime does not have a monopoly on misinformation. The protesters have an agenda of their own - a vested interest in portraying the government in the blackest possible light.

"One 'witness' cited as a source for yesterday's reports claimed the regime had shut off supplies of electricity and water to parts of the city, and was refusing to let residents enter or leave - but I saw no evidence of that.

"The regime is undoubtedly brutal, and it invites misrepresentation by barring foreign journalists from the country, but there is a tendency by the media outside to accept without question the claims of opposition activists, to treat them as facts.

"The second is that headlines of 'Tanks shelling Homs' give a misleading and simplistic impression of what is happening. They suggest the country is engulfed in a straightforward civil war between the regime and its people, whereas the truth is much more complex.

"Certainly many Syrians hate president Bashar al-Assad, but many others support him. Many fear his authoritarian state, but others fear that if he goes, their disparate country will descend into the sort of sectarian civil wars that have engulfed neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq. There is widespread anger at the regime, but anger also at the protesters causing so much disruption.

"The protesters are incredibly courageous, and their aims laudable. They are mounting the most serious challenge to the Assad dynasty in its 41 years, but their numbers probably do not exceed 100,000 on any given Friday.

"They mostly come from the poorer Muslim Sunni areas and do not represent a broad cross-section of society.

"The notion that their revolt is spreading like wildfire or that the regime is close to losing control, is wrong. Large parts of Syria, including most of Damascus and Aleppo, its second city, remain calm and life goes on as normal.

"A particularly striking video that emerged this week reportedly showed a few dozen young men protesting in a Damascus street. The shoppers and pedestrians completely ignored them, and did nothing to prevent them being bundled into a police van.

"I am no apologist for this pernicious government. I have no doubt that it is butchering opponents. But having just spent 6 days in Syria, largely cut off from 'the news', I am surprised at the discrepancy between the complex situation and the rather simplistic picture being presented to the outside world.

"Most right-minded people would like to see Syria attain real democracy, but wishful thinking alone will not achieve that." (Complex truths in the battle for Homs, The Australian, 13/5/11)

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