As the Syrian popular uprising unfolded over the last month, one of the more remarkable things to witness has been the trends in the commentary of the majority of professional Syria watchers. Aside from the spectacle of concerned, if unsolicited, public relations advice to the Syrian dictator from these analysts, most remarkable has been their uncritical integration and seamless reproduction of official Syrian talking points.
For whatever reason – whether out of desire to preserve access to the regime or whether out of true identification with it – the implicit thrust and often explicit objective of these Syria watchers’ commentary is to shelter the Assad regime from the storm blowing around it, while also shaping perceptions and attitudes in Washington, especially at the State Department, and advocating sticking with Assad as the best option for both Syria and the US.
To this effect, tracking the progression of this commentary from right before the outbreak of the popular uprising in Syria, throughout its various turning points up to the present moment, reveals a striking pattern of pronouncements that not only repeatedly proved wrong, but also, more importantly, conformed closely, if not verbatim, to the official Syrian line, or key aspects thereof.
Right from the outset, as turmoil swept through Tunisia and Egypt, the tone was set by Assad’s now-famous interview in The Wall Street Journal in which he smugly dismissed any possibility of revolution in Syria – an immunity, in Assad’s view, deriving from his regime’s ideological position in opposition to the US and Israel. This talking point immediately became the consensus view among the commentariat as they explained why Syria was unlikely to experience the regional wave of protests: Assad was a popular leader, especially among the young.
This recycled official line imploded as protests erupted in the southern city of Daraa, where the protesters’ calls quickly escalated to demands for the toppling of Assad. The guild of Syria specialists was taken aback at first, as their earlier assertion came crashing down. However, they quickly rebounded to reaffirm confidence, reflecting the regime’s own dismissal of what was happening as a temporary nuisance. Academic Joshua Landis sounded this view. After remarking how the rallies were confined to Daraa, he predicted that “The winds of change that have been sweeping the Arab world will stall in Syria.”
Needless to say, this ex cathedra declaration went up in smoke as the rallies continued to spread all over the country. But no matter, as another regime talking point was being recycled for the next turning point: Assad’s speech.
In the lead-up to Assad’s public address, when the Syrian president’s absence was raising eyebrows among the professional Syria watchers, the regime tried to shape perceptions by disseminating that Assad would announce overdue reforms that would pacify the demonstrators. The way this was presented was by placing Assad on the side of the region-wide wave of popular demand for reform. This was intended to stay in line with the carefully designed and marketed official image of Assad as a “reformer” – and the most devoted salesman of this official product has been Assad enthusiast, academic David Lesch.
David Ignatius, having talked to Syrian officials (probably the Syrian ambassador in DC), regurgitated and revamped the old talking point that Assad might stage a coup against his own regime. That line came straight from Damascus, as evident from how one of the regime’s reliable English-language publicists, Sami Moubayed, also wrote that Assad would be leading a “corrective movement.” Proof that this was indeed the script from Damascus came when one of Assad’s Lebanese clients, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, hailed Assad’s speech as (what else?) “The second corrective movement.”
The Syria specialist at the International Crisis Group, Peter Harling, was smart enough to wait before making use of the official line, writing in disappointment after the speech that “Assad’s master card was to lead a revolution against his own entourage.”
The insulation of Assad remains an important sales pitch for the Syrian regime, especially in Washington. That is why the comment by his advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, that the president had asked that not one shot be fired was swallowed whole and repeated verbatim, without the slightest critical evaluation, by writers like Landis, Alastair Crooke, and, in variant form, Harling, who contended, with zero evidence, that Assad had “pushed back” against those who wanted all-out repression, echoing the thrust of Shaaban’s point.
After the disappointing speech, the talking point shifted again, as analysts like Landis sought to downplay the reach and momentum of the protests, claiming that “quiet had returned” to Syria, and that the demonstrations had failed to spread to major cities. Similarly, Crooke reassured readers that Assad would emerge stronger from this ordeal. If anything, this smacked of exasperation and concern at the regime’s seeming inability to quell the demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Landis’ performance ended up evoking Baghdad Bob, as protests proceeded to spread to Assad’s own backyard in the coastal cities of Latakia, Tartous and Banias, where they continue to take root and where the regime has deployed tanks and brute force to try and quell them.
Obviously, there has been no self-criticism or admission of error, even when the analysis has clearly been tailored to fit the political preferences and agendas of these professional Syria watchers.
In all, this is an indictment of the Syria-watching community. While it is true that in the end their significance is minuscule, their case is symptomatic of a larger problem in Middle East expertise in the US. Regional regimes’ judicious use of visas, access, endowments and research grants has extracted an obvious toll on quality, objectivity and independence in analysis. In the Syrian case, the analysis oftentimes has been little more than an uncritical vehicle for carrying the Assad regime’s water.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.