Disinformation? An assortment of issues
Every week we have committed ourselves to dealing with media issues. However today we cover
1. The problems faced by the Christian community; and
2. An apology for our own shortcomings.
The Case of the Disappearing Christians
The Christians of Syria are, predominantly, pro government. The French press has been carrying a number of articles suggesting that the Christian refugee issue is being used for propaganda purposes by unscrupulous members of the Syrian government. They are correct of course. However there is an underlying problem. Christians are being displaced in Syria, in their thousands.
If the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) continues to persecute Christians (or is perceived to persecute Christians because perception is as important as reality), this should be cause for concern to the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) who are responsible for the uprising at grass roots level. If the persecution of Christians goes on much longer the Christian community of Syria will have nowhere to go but to stand by the government and will do so to the last man.
Take a look at the pictures on this link of a church in Homs. Is this a staged picture? Are these Shabiha dressed up as rebels trying to implicate the rebels as vandals? Or are these a couple of renegade members of the much feared Al Farooq Brigade of the Free Syrian Army who operate in and around Homs?
In a sense in it does not matter who is responsible. The problem is a real one. If you trawl the internet you will find numerous examples. This is still a Christian church in Homs and this is what is happening to it and to others. As long as this sort of thing is happening on a regular basis, Christians will presume that the rebels are responsible and believe that they have no future in a post Assad Syria. Christians represent just under 10% of the population and are a substantial fighting force. If this becomes a totally sectarian civil war, and it is shaping up that way, it will be a very long war indeed.
Both the FSA and the LCCs need to think seriously about what they will do to reassure – and protect - the minorities. Time for a wake up call.
Apology – the Kurdish casualties
When drafting our recent reports we made quite an issue of the casualty question. We focussed in particular on the Kurdish bus bombing near Aleppo as an example of an unreported atrocity. One seemingly reliable source informed us that ten had died, another source informed us that there were fourteen dead. So we reported that between ten and fourteen had died.
We have since learnt that in fact just two persons died, as clearly indicated in the various videos on youtube. That is not to say that this crime is any less terrible for having fewer victims. The prophet Mohamed once said that to kill one person is as terrible as to kill the world.
The point is that we were mistaken, which just goes to show, with the best will in the world, how difficult it is to be sure of casualty figures.
Apology – the deserting General
We reported that a Reuters story about a general fleeing over the Turkish border with his men was false. In an environment in which disinformation proliferates it was too incredible to believe. It now turns out to be true:
Syrian Brigadier- General Manaf Tlas
Rumours that a high ranking General of the Syrian Army defected to Turkey on Wednesday, were confirmed yesterday. According to the New York Times, Manaf Tlas, a Brigadier in the elite Republican Guard, son of the former defence minister as well as a close friend of Bashar al-Assad, left Damascus and is now thought to be making his way to Paris where his brother lives. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed yesterday that Tlas had fled, and “Syriasteps” website also confirmed the defection. Reports of soldiers and civilians fleeing to Turkey are numerous. AFP reported a total of 66 people fleeing to Turkey on Wednesday alone.
This latest defection is certainly significant as Tlas is the highest-ranking military officer to have fled Syria. The general was a member of the ruling Baath Party’s Central Committee, furthermore several reports have placed Tlas as a close friend of Assad. His family is one of the most powerful Sunni families. Naturally the defection of such an important figure has been seen by many as extremely damaging to the Assad government. The image of unity conveyed by senior officials has been shattered with a member of the “gilded circle” escaping. Reuters suggest that this escape may be anindication of a larger erosion of support amongst wealthy Sunnis. Some have suggested that Tlas disagreed with the use of military force against the FSA, particularly as his home town of Rastan has been under intense assault recently. Syrian National Council member, Bashar al-Heraki, claimed that Tlas would soon make a public declaration that he had defected to the opposition. Heraki considers this incident a watershed moment, indicating that Assad is beginning to lose control.
There are those, however, that have a different take on the incident. Some argue that the defection will actually have very little impact at all. According to those who take this perspective, the Tlas family have been distancing themselves from Assad for some time and it was no surprise that he fled the country. They go on to say that “it will not change the balance of power”. Similarly, Syriasteps websitereports a Syrian security official saying that General Tlas’s escape ultimately meant nothing.