Interview with Prem Shanker Jha.
Ulrike Reinhard :all4syria
Prem Shankar Jha is a well known journalist based in New Delhi, India. He mainly writes about politics and economics in India with a focus on globalization. His analytical and honestly balanced writings gave him more than once a hard time to survive in crucial positions within India’s newspaper landscape and get his books published in the West. In 1990 he served as the information advisor to the Prime Minister of India, V.P. Singh.
You are saying that Syria has NOTHING in common with the Arab Spring. What happened in Syria instead?
NOTHING – capitalised – is too strong a description. Like Egypt and Tunisia Syria had an autocratic ruler and a strengthening middle class that wanted democracy. But what it did not have was a deep alienation of the people from the Assad regime.There was no spontaneous uprising in Syria. The reasons are many, and would take too long to enumerate. But two differences make this clear:
Location and size
In Tunis, Cairo, Alexandria, Amman and Sanaa, tens to hundreds of thousands turned out day after day and they congregated in the centre of the cities. By contrast the first demonstration of any size in Syria took place not in Damascus or Aleppo, not even in Hama or Homs, but in Deraa on the border with Jordan, Deir Ezzor on the Iraq border, Tel al Khalaf on the Lebanese border and Idlib towards Turkey. This configuration reeks of outside involvement, for spontaneous popular uprisings nearly always start in the capital or the commercial hub of a country. That is where convergence is easiest and the protesters get the maximum publicity. This facilitates further mobilisation of support.
The Arab Spring started on January 6, 2011 in Tunis, spread to Cairo on the 24th and to Amman and Sanaa by the 28th – just over three weeks. But nothing happened in Syria. The foreign media reported that the first call for a demonstration in front of parliament in early February drew no response. A second call a week later drew 200 people. The first large protest (in Deraa) occurred six weeks (!) later, on March 14. This long gap suggests premeditation.
Accounts of who opened fire first in Deraa depend on according to who is telling the story. But it is not accidental that the centre of the conflict was the Omari Mosque which is the seat of the powerful blind Salafi preacher Sheikh Ahmed Siyasanah of the Hizbut Tahrir. Siyasanah has made no secret of his desire to rid Syria of its secular and therefore ‘infidel’ regime. This increases the credibility of the official account that police firing on March 14 was provoked by attacks from one or more people in the crowd. That there were – from the start – armed foreign groups within the Anti-Assad group was confirmed by the report of the Arab League Observers led by General Daby of Sudan. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States got the report suppressed. It was only leaked many months later, by then the impression that all the violence was being initiated by Assad had become set in stone.
What could/should the West have learnt from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya ….?
That the Bush Security Doctrine of 2002 which replaced the use of force as a last resort with the use of pre-emptive force as a first option as the best way to safeguard national security has backfired upon the US and NATO. Instead of making the world more secure for the West it has made it more insecure. Instead of delivering peace it is dragging the world into a state of near constant war.
What role did Western media – including Al Jazeera – play?
The Western media has given moral legitimacy to the destruction of Libya and is doing the same thing in Syria. In Libya they uncritically accepted the Western figment that Gaddafi was killing peaceful demonstrators when he was trying to crush an armed Islamist-led revolt in Cyrenaica that – in the very first week – had killed six times as many people as the State forces. Not till December 2012, almost two years later, the New York Times disclosed that Qatar had been buying arms from the US and other countries to supply the rebels in Benghazi from the very beginning and that the US’ main contact among the rebels was the former associate of Osama bin Laden Abdel Hakim Belhadj.
The media did exactly the same thing in Syria: repeating ad nauseam that Assad ‘was killing his own people’. They did so when they did not have a single correspondent in Deraa or for that matter anywhere in Syria. They thus broke the most fundamental rule of journalism to cross check a story with at least one other reliable source, or if that is not possible to get the version of the injured party and publish it in the same story.
As the civil war in Syria intensified the media dropped the ‘unconfirmed sources’ qualification. They began to quote specific sources like Barada TV, The Syrian Revolution 2011 and ‘The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’. They continued to quote these sources long after they were exposed as fronts of the Muslim Brotherhood and worse. Barada TV was exposed by Wikileaks as a CIA funded operation whose news director was the brother of Anas Al Abdah, the head or a key member of the Muslim Brotherhood in London. The Syrian Revolution 2011 was based in Stockholm and run by the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sweden. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was a tailor in East London who ran this collection and dissemination service for the ‘rebels’ from above his shop. But none of this mattered to the media.
Al Jazeera led the media onslaught on Syria. In March 2011 it announced with pride that it had set up a special unit to ‘trawl the social networking sites’. Only recently I learnt that distributed expensive mobile telephones and up linking software to opponents of the Assad regime were used to cover the Syria conflict. In short it was not simply trawling social networking sites but setting them up to trawl. Al Jazeera thus crossed a red line: it generated the reports that it wanted to report. The Emir of Qatar has done what an Indian newspaper owner has done to his own paper during my half century as a journalist: to allow its professional editors to build up its credibility and then use that credibility to serve his personal ends. Al Jazeera is learning what they’ve had to learn: credibility vanishes the moment it is abused and like the Greek Muses, never returns.
What are the pitfalls of youtube and what needs to be checked to avoid them?
Youtube has democratised access to visual information. But its utter anonymity makes it hugely susceptible to abuse. We can now see murder, assassination and execution, but we don’t know who is doing it, who is filming it, why they are being allowed to film it and even whether the event is real or staged. To my mind there is no way to prevent this abuse. We can only chase down instances of abuse, publicise them and destroy the credibility of the abusers.
In general there is a huge support for Assad in India – is this so?
Yes, but it is not given on communal grounds. No one in India thinks of the Assad regime as a Shia or Alawite regime. Shia’s make up only 25% of India’s Muslim population. For us Syria is simply a Muslim country, but a modern secular one. Our support springs from admiration for Syria’s secularism and its freedom from sectarian conflict in a part of the world where this is rife. We also understand, from our own experience, the threat that takfiri Islam poses to peace not only in the Arab world but in India. We know that if Syria falls, Jordan and Israel will be next.
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