I’ve been British Ambassador in Syria for the last four years. Last weekend I decided to start this blog after Syria passed a terrible milestone. The Syrians have now endured six months of unrest and violent suppression of mostly peaceful protests. As they now look towards the next six months with a mixture of uncertainty, fear and hope, I wanted to share some personal impressions about what’s happening. Some thoughts about why it’s happening. And maybe to spark some debate about what comes next and what can be done.
In doing so I am privileged. Because I can. The last six months have shown the Syrians can too. But in doing so, they face censorship, threats and arbitrary arrest.
The Syrian regime doesn’t want you to know that its security forces and the gangs that support them are killing, arresting and abusing mostly peaceful protesters: The UN says over 2,700 people have died in the last six months, some of them under torture in prison. It doesn’t want you to know that it is preventing many from meeting peacefully to discuss reform. It wants you to hear only one version of the truth – its own. And to see only one way out – the return to authoritarian rule where fear surpasses a desire for freedom. This is a regime that remains determined to control every significant aspect of political life in Syria. It is used to power. And it will do anything to keep it.
People say that in today’s world it’s no longer possible to hide the truth. A lot’s been said about the power of Twitter and Facebook, the inability for information to be censored in Tunisia and Egypt. The cruel reality in Syria is that they are doing all they can to pull the shutters down.
Foreign journalists are refused entry. Any non-Syrian local correspondents are kicked out – sometimes after a beating. Syrian correspondents, bloggers and citizen journalists are systematically tracked down and imprisoned. It’s a criminal offence to have a satellite phone. Mobile phone and internet networks are heavily monitored, or connection reduced to a crawl especially on Fridays. They are cut entirely anywhere the security forces mount mass arrest campaigns or send heavy armour into cities. Websites and satellite TV channels are blocked, with help from Iran. Before the start of this crisis Reporters Without Borders already ranked Syria as the fifth worst place in the world for media freedom. Over the last six months it’s got worse. A lot worse. The regime wants to create its own truth. We should not let it.
Is it a bird, is it a bullet? It’s Syria’s new media law!
I suppose we all learn early in life that there’s quite a difference between saying something and doing it. Like pretty much all of its reform programme to date, the regime’s answer to its critics was to announce that there would be a new media law; and that a committee had been set up to draft it. But you don’t need a new law to decide to let journalists in. You don’t need a new media law to prevent the big brother mentality that prevails here. You just need to decide to stop restricting media freedoms, and then to act on your decision. And until that happens, why should anyone believe that anything will be different?
Mind the gap
I’ve got a feeling that this gap between reality and promise will sadly continue. President Assad has announced a big reform programme, several times. It’s got a lot of stuff in it that sounds pretty good. Some laws are indeed being passed, and there are more to come. But when you read the fine print, what you tend to find is that every path that’s signposted towards increased freedom and openness actually winds back to a chokepoint. Every avenue leads to a regime official who only lets through what he’s told to let through. Everyone else has to turn back. Or face the consequences.
Shine a light
Even so, brave individuals continue to find ways through to get out video clips that show Syrian security forces firing into crowds of unarmed protesters, or abusing detainees – you can search for them on YouTube. I’m constantly amazed at their skill, daring and ingenuity in finding ways to capture and upload pictures of events on the ground in something close to real time. Regime attempts to dismiss most of this as the fabrications of a foreign conspiracy are absurd.
But without context, it can be hard to make sense of jumpy grainy images. And tragically, repetition dulls the senses. Unless we have some information about what’s happening and why, we risk forgetting that another day, another death is real. It is not just an image of people in a street we don’t recognise, in a town we’ve never been to, chanting slogans in a language that perhaps we don’t understand.
That’s where I hope to come into the picture. As far as I’m concerned this blog will be worth it if it helps to get a discussion going – on this page, with your friends, or even just inside your head – about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and why it matters. Thanks for sticking with me this far. I hope you’ll want to take a look at the next instalment.