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memri
July 6, 2012 No.
4818

The Alleged Assassination Of Six Syrian Officials: Another Round In The Media Battle Between Syria, Gulf

In the night between the 19th and 20th of May, 2012, Syrian opposition sources and other media spread rumors that six senior officials of the Syrian regime had been assassinated. According to the sources, the six were members of a special team established by the regime to handle the Syrian crisis. The six officials are: Hassan Turkemani, advisor to Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Shar'; President Bashar Al-Assad's brother-in-law, Deputy Chief-of-Staff Assef Shawkat; Interior Minister Muhammad Al-Sha'ar; Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha; National Security Chief Hisham Bakhtiar; and Ba'th Party assistant secretary-general Muhammad Sa'id Bakhitan.

The opposition group Al-Sahaba Brigades, which belongs to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), claimed responsibility for the assassination in a video it posted on the Internet.[1] The Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya channels, which belong respectively to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the leaders of the anti-Assad Arab camp, were quick to air the video and to interview members of the Al-Sahaba Brigades and the FSA, who confirmed the report.[2] In another communiqué, the Al-Sahaba Brigades explained that the group had recruited one of Bakhitan's personal servants to poison the officials' food during a meeting. The group added that the assassination was the first part of a comprehensive campaign in Damascus to topple the Assad regime.[3]

The Syrian regime was quick to deny the reports of the assassination. As a matter of fact, four of the six alleged targets soon appeared in public, alive and well. They and the official Syrian media used the incident to blast Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya and to accuse them of charlatanism, of lying, and of inciting against the Syrian regime. Syrian opposition elements condemned the Al-Sahaba Brigades for issuing the claim of responsibility, saying that this had disgraced the media of the opposition and its supporters. Some among the opposition and its supporters even suggested that the Syrian regime had contrived the entire affair in order to discredit the opposition and the media at large. It should be mentioned, however, that two of the six officials – Assef Shawkat and Hisham Bakhtiar – have still not appeared in public, so it cannot be ruled out that the assassination attempt took place but was only partly successful. (In fact, according to certain media reports, the officials, or some of them, were evacuated to hospital and were visited there by Assad and his wife).[4]

Whatever the case, this incident is a prominent example of the media war taking place between the Syrian regime and the Arab countries that oppose it, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia by means of their satellite channels, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya – a war which involves constant mutual accusations of lying, fabrications, bias, and lack of professionalism.

This report will present reactions to the incident inside and outside Syria.

Some Of The "Assassination Victims": Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya Have Lost All Credibility

On the day the reports of the assassination were published, three of the alleged victims appeared in public to discredit them. Hassan Turkemani and Muhammad Al-Sha'ar appeared in the media and denied the reports of their deaths, and Muhammad Sa'id Bakhitan visited the offices of the Al-Ba'th newspaper.[5] According to a pro-regime website, Daoud Rajiha attended a cabinet meeting two days after his alleged assassination.[6]

Syria's official news agency, SANA, published statements by these Syrian officials against Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. Turkemani accused the channels of "complete [moral] bankruptcy and media deception," and Al-Rajiha said that the incident reflected "the [moral] bankruptcy and failure of the terrorist groups [fighting in Syria] and of those who support them with money, weapons, and media." Al-Sha'ar accused the channels of funding terrorism in Syria instead of helping the Arabs of Jerusalem, who are suffering under the Israeli occupation: "Sadly, we have grown used to [hearing] these ridiculous reports from these bankrupt channels, who have been leading campaigns of deception since the onset of the Syrian crisis, and who call for the continued spilling of Syrian blood. Stop insulting the intelligence of the people, especially of the Syrian citizens. [They] are sick of listening to these channels... which have become war rooms that issue commands to the terrorists and encourage their terrorist activity... I was hoping to hear that those funding Al-Jazeera and the other biased channels [have decided] to give these funds – even [if it is only] 500 dollars a month – to a resident of Jerusalem groaning under the Israeli occupation... instead of sparking civil war in Syria... Haven't they had their fill of bloodshed? Isn't it enough for this Qatari empire to bloat its own [ego]?... Won't this bloated [ego eventually] explode?"[7]

Syrian Press: The Satellite Channels Have Fallen; Their Followers Will Fall Too

The Syrian government and pro-regime press joined the attacks on the two channels and on the armed Syrian opposition. It accused the channels of spreading lies, and the opposition of claiming to be peaceful when in fact it has been waging an armed battle since the beginning of the crisis.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia Are Spreading Lies

An article in the pro-regime Syrian daily Al-Watan stated: "Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have no justification to continue airing after their resounding disgrace... Apparently, these two channels did not [stop to] consider how the Syrian media would respond to... [their] lie. With lightning speed, it countered their reports with a statement by a senior official, and invited the alleged assassination victims to appear on screen in full color and sound. Thus it stamped a mark of shame on the professional record of the two channels, which everyone in the media world will remember forever and ever." [8]

The Entire Revolution Is A Sham

An Al-Watan editorial stated that since the beginning of the violence in Syria, opposition activists have been spreading lies and purporting to be peaceful, when in fact they have been waging armed battle, threatening civilians, and trying to trigger an international military intervention that would bring them to power: "This is not the first time the so-called rebels have spread false reports... They have built a revolution over the back of the Syrian people's simple demands, launched a propaganda [campaign] in its favor, invented lies, fatalities and incidents, and claimed [to be acting] peacefully. But all their operations have been armed, in an attempt to trigger an international military intervention so that NATO's fighter jets would bring them to power, over the rubble of Syria and the dead bodies of its citizens, as happened in Libya.

"Entire lists of people were [reported to be] dead, but later turned out to be alive... and journalists fabricated images and reports. [The rebels] used weapons to force [the citizens] to strike, threatened anyone who did not take part in their revolution, abducted and tortured people, and mutilated bodies. Arab and non-Arab fighters were smuggled into Syria and supported with funds and weapons, so they would kill Syrians – and yet [the rebels] still claim to be [championing] freedom and [acting] peacefully!... The lies, deception and fabrication of events and fatalities render this [entire] revolution ridiculous..."[9]

The Channels Promote A Terrorist Agenda

Muhammad Al-Khuder, an editorial board member of Al-Ba'th, the paper of Assad's ruling party, wrote: "Syria is facing a cruel media war, which is no less dangerous than the incitement and economic sanctions [against it] and the attempts to isolate it [internationally]. It would be naïve to treat the reports about the 'assassination' as a [mere] error or stumble [on the part of the channels], or to view it separately from the overall coverage of the events in Syria, which has been replete with many [such] 'programmed' stumbles. This [policy] has turned a large part of this media into a force that carries out terrorist plans and agendas – and truth and objectivity be damned."[10]

The Countries Behind The Channels Will Fall Too

The editor of the government daily Al-Thawra, 'Ali Qassem, wrote that not only will the satellite channels fall, but also all the forces that take the same line and support it with funds and diplomacy: "It has been a long time since we first announced our position on the impudence and depravity of these media [channels], and in fact decided to ignore their existence. We were sure they would [eventually] fall. Clearly, this fall will not be confined to Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya alone, but will [include] all those who took the same line and were behind this strategy, supporting it with funds and diplomacy: people, countries and forces, both great and small. Like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, they will not be able to hide their disgrace..."[11]

Opposition Elements: The Assassination Attempt – A Lie By The Regime Aimed At Harming The Revolution

As for reactions by the opposition, some criticized the Al-Sahaba Brigades for rashly claiming responsibility for an event that never happened, thus undermining the credibility of the revolution and its media. Others maintained that the event had occurred but had gone wrong, which is why the details of the claim of responsibility had been inaccurate; yet others maintained that the regime had fabricated the entire affair – including the video in which the Brigades appeared to take responsibility – in order to discredit the opposition.[12]

A Rash And Inaccurate Claim Of Responsibility

According to an opposition website, Syrian opposition members took to Facebook to criticize the Al-Sahaba Brigades and the FSA for rushing to broadcast the news of the assassinations. One journalist assessed that upon hearing reports of the officials' evacuation to hospital, the Brigades assumed them to be dead and therefore rushed to publish their identities.[13] Another opposition website published a video in which the head of the FSA Military Council in Damascus and its environs, Khaled Al-Haboush, confirmed the action and described the sequence of events, but admitted that the FSA had acted on false assumptions: initially it believed that all six officials were dead, but later it learned that some of them had survived.[14]

Afaq Ahmad, a member of the Syrian security services who has defected and fled Syria, stated that there had indeed been a plot to assassinate the officials, but that the security forces had exposed it before it could be carried out. According to him, the security forces then forced the plotters' accomplice to report that the operation had been successful, thereby causing them to claim responsibility. Their goal, he said, was to make the Syrian citizens lose faith in the revolutionaries and the media.[15]

The Al-Sahaba Brigades And Satellite Channels Were Tricked Into Acknowledging A Fake Event

A Syrian opposition official in the U.K. claimed that the Al-Sahaba Brigades had been tricked into claiming responsibility for a fake event, and expressed sorrow that the satellite channels, which have done great service to the revolution, also fell prey to these rumors, thereby damaging their credibility and playing into the hands of the Syrian regime. He pointed out that this is not the first time these channels reported on assassinations and on defections of military commanders that later turned out to be bogus.[16]

The Regime Faked The Event And The Video

The former general guide of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Sadr Al-Din Al-Bayanouni, said that, conceivably, the regime itself could fabricated the video, because it has done similar things in the past in order to discredit the revolution.[17] Syrian National Council member Jabr Al-Shoufi likewise said that the regime had broadcast the claim of responsibility in order to spread anarchy and demoralize revolution supporters.[18] A Damascus activist speculated that the regime spread such rumors in order to carry out electronic surveillance of activists who clicked on the link to the story on the Internet, or in order to cause the Arab news channels to broadcast false news, thereby damaging their reputation and sowing confusion among Syrian viewers.[19]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Editor: The Regime Cannot Be Eliminated Like In A James Bond Movie

The Syrian opposition was not the only one who claimed the event had been faked and criticized opposition elements for falling for it. The director of Al-Arabiya TV and former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, also believes that the regime made up the event to disgrace the opposition and its supporting media: "Those who published the claim of responsibility should have understood it was a false story meant to harm the credibility of the FSA, the opposition in general, and its sympathetic media. How can anyone assassinate six regime officials at once?... The FSA, which was quick to issue a communique, thus misleading many media outlets, should not have fallen for this lie... We must not fool ourselves into thinking that eliminating the Syrian regime will be easy. It will not be eliminated by the push of a button, or with a poison pill or an ambush at [some] meeting. Syria is not like a James Bond movie. Eliminating a police state is like digging through rock. It requires a confrontation with the regime in village after village and city after city..."

Al-Rashed raised the possibility that the regime will assassinate its own officials and place the blame on Al-Qaeda: "We will not be surprised if we hear tomorrow that the regime assassinated one of its own officials, such as Assef Shawkat, who was fired from his job and left the country for a while due to disagreements with his brother-in-law [President Assad], and returned shortly before the revolution [began]. Maybe they will get rid of him and attribute his murder to an Al-Qaeda terrorist group, since the regime has already murdered some of its officials as part of internal battles after Bashar Al-Assad ascended to power..."[20]

Arab League: Block Syrian Broadcasts

After Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and the other channels under attack mostly ignored the Syrian regime's accusations, the incident was largely forgotten. However, the Arab League continued to act against the Syrian media. In a special meeting on the Syrian situation on June 2, 2012, the Arab League foreign ministers called on the Arab satellite networks Nilesat and Arabsat to cease airing the Syrian channels, both official and unofficial.[21] The Syrian regime harshly attacked the decision, claiming that it was part of Arab media incitement against Syria, and once again accused the Gulf channels of lies and fabrication.

The Syrian Information Ministry said: "This decision against the Syrian national media... is an attempt to hide the reality in Syria, which is conveyed to the public via our national media outlets, both public and private, in a professional and objective manner, and with a [sense of] national and pan-Arab responsibility. However, some Gulf oil countries, who have hijacked the Arab League, condemn [us] and sponsor the channels of fitna, which broadcast the lethal poisons of incitement against the Arab people..."[22]

Endnotes:

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 22, 2012.

[4] Alarabiya.net, May 22, 2012.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 23, 2012.

[6] Syria-politic.com. May 23, 2012.

[7] SANA (Syria), May 20, 2012.

[8] Al-Watan (Syria), May 21, 2012.

[9] Al-Watan (Syria), May 21, 2012.

[10] Al-Ba'th (Syria), May 21, 2012.

[11] Al-Thawra (Syria), May 22, 2012.

[12] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 21, 2012.

[13] www.zamanalwsl.net, May 20, 2012.

[14] All4syria.info, May 21, 2012.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 22, 2012.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 22, 2012.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 22, 2012.

[18] Al-Hayat (London), May 21, 2012.

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 21, 2012.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 21, 2012.

[21] Al-Hayat (London), May 21, 2012.

[22] SANA (Syria), June 3, 2012.