When uprisings in the Arab world began, first in Tunisia some four months ago and rapidly followed by Egypt, many experts assured us that there were two countries which were immune to such unrest – Libya and Syria. Whilst quite a few hats should have been eaten in private since then, it is interesting to observe how difficult it appears to be for many an analyst to part ways with the accepted wisdoms which have been the basis of their careers for many years.
As demonstrations throughout Syria enter their second month, the CiF coverage of the uprising against the Assad regime has been on the whole remarkably subdued. It has largely been left to dissident Syrian ex-pats such as Anas Qtiesh, Ammar Abdulhamid and Rana Kabbani to write about the violent attempts to put down the demonstrations and to provide background on the repressive regime in Damascus. As for the Guardian’s own writers – well their hearts just don’t seem to be in it.
We have seen Simon Tisdall, Brian Whitaker and a couple of anonymous editorials discussing the finer points of Assad’s proffered reforms in remarkably low-key tones. On April 8th, when the death toll in Syria was reaching the 200 mark and protests taking place in most major towns entering their fourth week, Whitaker opened his article with the somewhat surreal words “[w]ith the protests in Syria apparently growing”. The week before that Whitaker was touting ‘the boldness of Bashar al Assad’, comparing him to “a gangly scoutmaster” and with remarkable absence of any reference to Assad’s bloody and oppressive record.
In stark contrast to all this cerebral analysis, one cannot but think back to (among other things) the barrage of emotional indignation which was let loose in dozens of articles on CiF last summer when nine members of the Turkish IHH were killed by Israeli troops acting in self-defence aboard the ‘Mavi Marmara’.
Of course the trouble with the Syrian uprising is that it exposes the vacuous nature of the established dogmata held by those subscribing to the ‘Guardian World View’ of the Middle East; a fact which presents quite a challenge to those intent upon avoiding divergence from the established doctrine. So, on April 11th, CiF wheeled out the renowned Arabist and favoured biographer of Assad senior, Patrick Seale, to gather its readers back into the fold and remind them of what is really important in the Middle East.
“The wave of protest engulfing the Arab world has pushed the Arab-Israeli conflict into second place. But that can only be temporary. Until it is resolved, the region will know no stability and little peace.”
This rather desperate attempt to cling to a belief which is being dismantled by the minute in the Middle East and North Africa in the last few months comes as no surprise from a man such as Searle, whose long-held anti-Israel sentiments are amply on record. So too are his attempts to whitewash the Syrian regime, including his unforgettable Guardian piece from 2005 in which he absolved the Damascus dictator of any involvement in the murder of Rafik Hariri and placed the blame firmly in Israel’s court, eerily pre-empting the identical wacky claim by Nasrallah over five years later.
“So attributing responsibility for the murder to Syria is implausible. The murder is more likely to be the work of one of its many enemies.”
To observe people such as Seale and Whitaker clutching at straws – and apparently incapable of re-evaluating their interpretations of Middle East events even while their long-held dogmata go up in smoke – may be mildly amusing in a ‘man with a sandwich board pronouncing the end is nigh’ kind of way, but it is nevertheless worrying to think that their ‘expert analysis’ is read not only by the man and woman in the street, but by opinion leaders, as well as policy and decision makers in the Western world.
One wonders what the demonstrators risking their lives in Dara’a and the rest of the Arab world think about their historic struggle being downplayed and relegated to one of mere secondary importance by Western commentators. One also wonders why so many of Seale’s ilk refuse to accept that a Middle East comprised of stable, democratic countries would be far more conducive to bringing about an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict than one dominated by the dictatorships, religious or secular, with which they – and the Guardian – appear to be so enamored.
Although the future of the Arab countries which are undergoing or have already undergone revolution is still very far from clear, the one thing which the West should have learned by now from these events is that there is a lot more to the Middle East than the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. But no; like a dog with a long-since chewed bone, the Guardian remains entrenched in its idée fixe.