Syria, the myth of Assad’s popularity and the media of disinformation


By Nureddin Sabir
Editor, Redress Information & Analysis
Nureddin Sabir views the misleading results of a flawed survey which suggests that more than half of the Syrian population want Bashar Assad to stay as president, and notes with dismay the uncritical coverage given to the survey by prominent mainstream and alternative media. 
Could it be true that most Syrians are in favour of Basher Assad remaining president of Syria?
If Jonathan Steele of the Guardian newspaper is to be believed, the answer is yes. His counter-intuitive conclusion is based on a recent YouGov Siraj internet survey on Syria commissioned by Al-Jazeera’s Doha Debates, which are funded by the Qatar Foundation.

The claim

According to Mr Steele,

The key finding was that while most Arabs outside Syria feel the president should resign, attitudes in the country are different. Some 55 per cent of Syrians want Assad to stay, motivated by fear of civil war – a spectre that is not theoretical as it is for those who live outside Syria’s borders.

Eager to give the survey credibility, Mr Steele reminds us that the poll’s funders are no friends of the Assad regime:

Qatar’s royal family has taken one of the most hawkish lines against Assad – the emir has just called for Arab troops to intervene – so it was good that the Doha Debates published the poll on its website.

And he laments the fact that the survey was “ignored by almost all media outlets in every Western country whose government has called for Assad to go”.
But there is good reason why the YouGov Siraj survey on Syria was ignored. It turns out that the 55 per cent of Syrians wanting Assad to remain president are in fact 53 internet users!

The survey

According to Brian Whitaker, the survey asked just over 1,000 people across the Arab world about their opinion of Assad and an overwhelming majority –  81 per cent – thought he should step down. However, Al-Jazeera says the picture inside Syria is different: “Syrians are more supportive of their president with 55 per cent not wanting him to resign.”
But a closer look at the survey’s methodology reveals a different picture. Writing on his personal blog, Mr Whitaker’s says the methodology

shows that 211 of the respondents were in Levantine countries and that 46 per cent of those were in Syria. In other words, the finding is based on a sample of just 97 internet users in Syria among a population of more than 20 million. It’s not a meaningful result and certainly not adequate grounds for such sweeping conclusions about national opinion in Syria.

Fifty-five per cent of a sample of 97 is 53. That is, 53 of the 97 Syrian internet users surveyed wanted Assad to remain president.
Besides, as Chris Doyle, Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, says in a letter to the Guardian, how can any survey in Syria be taken seriously when every telephone, email, Facebook account and conversation is liable to be bugged?

The propagandists and peddlers

What about the propagators of this insidious myth?
We have little to say about Jonathan Steele, other than that a journalist of his seniority and experience should know better than base an argument on a superficial and uncritical reading of a statistically unsound internet survey.
Other peddlers of the myth, however, are more colourful. As Mr Whitaker reveals in another blog posting, one of these is Aisling Byrne, who has been rather busy trying to delegitimize the Syrian uprising by denying its authenticity and attributing it to an imaginary “Zio-American” plot, to use a phrase popular with the Syrian regime’s propagandists. She is projects coordinator for the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum, a body with contradictory stances whose director is a former British intelligence officer called Alastair Crooke.
According to the Conflict Forum’s website, “While facing increasingly intractable problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan and elsewhere, we [the West] immobilize ourselves by turning away from the homegrown political forces that have the power to resolve these crises.” It’s a pity, then, that the Conflict Forum is strangely reluctant to engage with the “homegrown political forces” in Syria.
As Mr Whitaker says:

There’s an inconsistency and selectivity here that is also apparent among sections of the more traditionalist left. Pro-Western dictators like Ben Ali and Mubarak are considered fair game, but when it comes to toppling contrarian dictators like Gaddafi and Assad there’s lingering sympathy for them.
In Syria’s case this is further complicated by viewing the uprising through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For instance, a briefing paper on Conflicts Forum’s website examining Hizbullah’s continuing support for the Assad regime says:
“Just as Hizbullah viewed the 2009 protests in Iran as a ‘bid to destabilize the country’s Islamic regime’ by means of a US-orchestrated ‘velvet revolution’, the protests in Syria are branded a form of ‘collusion’ with outside powers who seek to replace Assad’s rule with ‘another regime similar to the moderate Arab regimes that are ready to sign any capitulation agreement with Israel’…
“Echoing Hizbullah’s stance on the Iran protests is Nasrallah’s characterization of the US role in the Syrian uprising as an extension of the July war [2006] and the Gaza war [of 2009-10]. Since the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine had foiled the ‘New Middle East’ scheme in both these military aggressions, Washington was ‘trying to reintroduce [it] through other gates’, such as Syria.
“With this in mind, attempts to overthrow the Assad regime are considered a ‘service’ to American and Israeli interests.”
Such views are not confined to Hizbullah, however. But how realistic are they? Many neocons hoped the invasion of Iraq would deliver a pro-Israel government there. It didn’t, and instead it strengthened Iran.
Tunisia is no more favourably disposed towards Israel than it was under Ben Ali. Nor is Libya. Nor is Egypt – if anything, less so. And a democratic Syria would still have the same territorial issues with Israel – the occupied Golan Heights, etc – that it has now. In any case Israel seems an odd reason for denying Syrians a chance to determine their own future.

The alternative media

As campaigners for justice, it is our position that the likes of Aisling Byrne and Alastair Crooke are beyond redemption because they have knowingly chosen to adopt a stance that is at variance with the truth.
However, the positions adopted by others in the alternative media towards the Arab Awakening, especially as manifested in Syria and Libya, are harder to understand.
Indeed, it is with sadness, dismay and considerable revulsion that we observe websites that have traditionally stood for justice and the truth peddling false information and questionable arguments about the Arab Awakening.
For many years, activists and campaigners for justice unhappy with the mainstream media’s flawed and lopsided reporting, especially where Israel or big business are involved, have looked to the alternative media as potential means of redressing the balance of news and information available to the voting publics.
Far from it. At least as far as Syria and Libya are concerned, some of the holy cows of the alternative media, websites such as CounterpunchCountercurrentsand Information Clearing House, have opted instead to take the side of the oppressors and against the Arab people – people who are seeking nothing more than the civil and political rights that are taken so much for granted in the West.
This is not only painful but also hard to fathom. One likely explanation is ignorance: those in the alternative media who support Assad and Gaddafi understand little about Syria or Libya and therefore are blind to the contradiction of supporting fascist dictators on the one hand and the downtrodden and oppressed on the other.

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