Friday, November 18, 2011
This week Syria saw what may have been the single deadliest day since the uprisings there began in March, with estimates ranging from 50 to more than 80 dead in one 24-hour period.
But this week also saw some of the biggest blows to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Deserters from the Syrian army reportedly attacked government offices, and the region's leaders too are turning against Assad.
Last Saturday the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership and then gave Syria three days to, quote, “stop the bloody repression of its people and allow outside observers in.”
Foreign policy blogger Marc Lynch says that the very idea that fellow Arab leaders are even questioning Assad’s legitimacy on the grounds of killing his own people represents a significant shift in the political mentality of the Arab world. In fact, he says, it's unprecedented.
It really is a radical departure for the Arab League. That's an institution that's totally built on state sovereignty, giving them carte blanche to do whatever they want to their own people.
And, in fact, even among nations that have voted for this suspension, impunity is still pretty much the status quo, right?
Well, let's put it this way: The Saudis didn't really have a problem with the crackdown in Bahrain, and Bahrain itself continues to carry out widespread repression of its own people, and its legitimacy has not yet been challenged.
Really, across the entire region you still have very high levels of repression, of control. But for the first time, there does seem to be a level over which you lose your right to be a member of the club. That is something new, and that seems to be as blatant as taking your army and shooting lots of your own people in the streets.
So it's a pretty high threshold, but it is a threshold. You've just got this unbelievable change in the media. You’ve got all of these people uploading these videos and sharing information, which just makes it impossible to hide this sort of thing.
In Syria every day you're being bombarded with dozens of videos of people with their head blown off. It makes it much more real and much more graphic and intimate, compared to just reading in the newspaper that a bunch of Kurds were killed in Iraq.
So the rules of the game has now changed on an official Arab League level. What about in the populous?
One of the most interesting things that I've seen over this extremely interesting year is that among most popular opinion, you've seen the rejection of the old idea that Western intervention was worse that these abuses. It used to be that the Syrian government could have just said, this is a conspiracy against a staunch opponent of Israel, and that would have been enough to shut people up.
In these uprisings, it just hasn't been enough. When the Bashar Al-Assad tried to pull that card, it was roundly rejected. The idea that, you know, this is less then ten years after the invasion of Iraq, which was incredibly, almost universally, rejected across Arab public opinion, that now you would have large majorities of Arabs calling for Western intervention in places like Libya or Syria is breathtaking.
Let's just go back in time a little bit and talk about what else has happened in the region. Just the very existence of Al Jazeera, the rise of social media, the revolution in Tunisia, the rest of the Arab Spring. And now this.
And in that new Middle East, the new media environment is extremely important. The idea that states can no longer hide what they do at home really matters.
One of the more interesting things which has happened has to do with Al Jazeera itself. In many ways, the entire Arab Spring is the culmination of the kind of coverage that Al Jazeera broadcast for the last decade, this passionate, pan-Arab vision of critiquing the status quo, supporting the efforts of the people for change - all of these things are at the core of the Al Jazeera mission.
But over the last six months old, Al Jazeera’s been struggling because they’ve become so closely identified with Qatari foreign policy, that they're seen as less independent than they once were.
And in some cases, people feel that they've overplayed their hand. Their intense coverage of the Libya war and now their intense coverage of the Syrian uprising at a certain point starts to feel more like advocacy than like journalism. And I think that Al Jazeera is going to really have to struggle to rebalance itself in the coming years.
Let me ask you, Marc, a chicken and egg question. Is the coverage that you see shaping the new mentality on the street and within these governments or, you know, vice versa?
I think it's a bit of both. One of the most interesting moments in the Arab revolutions was on January 25th, right at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution. And Al Jazeera was determined at that particular moment to focus attention on the so-called “Palestine papers,” which revealed the inner workings of the peace process.
And so, they were putting out story after story about the Palestine papers, but the public wanted to see Egypt. They were forced to basically back off the Palestine story and focus on Egypt because of audience response.
At the same time, if you look at what happened in Syria, the Syrian regime complained incessantly that this is a crisis that Al Jazeera created, saying that they're egging the protesters on, exaggerating the violence, etc. And I don't think it's right. The Syrian government's use of violence is what has fueled the uprising. But there's no question that Al Jazeera’s relentless coverage of the story has very much focused Arab attention upon it.
And when you ask the question, how do you get from internal violence in Syria up to this historic decision by the Arab League, I think the Al Jazeera coverage has to play an important part in that story.
Marc, thank you very much.
Well, thanks for having me.
Marc Lynch is a political science and international affairs professor at George Washington University. And he blogs as Abu Aardvark at Foreign Policy.