In its November issue, National Geographic magazine ran a feature story on Syria, calling it the “shadowland” and challenging suggestions that the ruling regime can ever raise the country out of its dark past.
The portrait of Syria, past and present, sketched by the author, Don Belt, is indeed dark. Belt describes a nation stifled by a succession of autocrats who have prevented political, economic and social growth. The late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was involved in a massacre in Hama, the article notes, while his son and successor, Bashar, is suspected of complicity in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Bashar, like his father, remains feared inside Syria for his regime’s notorious intelligence network that has kept the Assad family in power for decades.
Given this context, it is not surprising that the author of the article makes the Godfather analogy, with Bashar Assad filling the role of Michael Corleone, the son of Don, who rises to leadership of “the family” upon the unexpected death of his hothead brother Sonny, which in Bashar’s case would be his late brother Basil.
Whatever the merits of the 3,900-word National Geographic piece, it managed to provoke a 4,250-word rebuttal from the Syrian Ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha.
In the typical manner of the Syrian regime, Moustapha tried first to undermine the credibility of the writer by linking him to former President George Bush, the neocons and Israel. “Reminiscent of the neoconservative literature that was prevalent during President Bush’s era,” Moustapha’s writes in his letter, which goes on to deploy the neoconservative label some seven times, four of which with the word Israeli thrown in for good measure.
Along with hurling unsubstantiated accusations, Moustapha threatens the writer and the magazine, a step also typical of the Syrian regime. “I believe that many other countries in our region will reconsider their working relationship with your organization when they are made aware of this incident,” Moustapha writes, imagining an Arab boycott of the National Geographic in solidarity with the Syrian autocracy.
But Moustapha’s letter doesn’t just attack and intimidate, it also seeks to do the impossible: prove the popular legitimacy of President Assad. As one might suspect, the very attempt ends up undermining his argument.
“[T]he University of Maryland, along with the Zogby International Polling, conducted an opinion poll in six Arab countries earlier this year (all US allies), Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, and the UAE, which showed that President Assad was the most popular figure amongst Arab leaders,” Moustapha writes.
The fact that the evidence of popular legitimacy Moustapha chooses to cite comes from a US pollster — one whose methodology is questionable due to its small sample sizes, and which at any rate suggests at most Assad’s popularity in several Arab countries, but not the one he rules — rather than Syria’s own joke elections in 2000 and 2007 says much about Assad’s true legitimacy.
Having thus accused Belt of being part of a neo-conservative-Israeli conspiracy, warned that displeasing the Syrian regime has negative consequences around the region for the writer and his magazine, and “proved” that Assad is a popular pan-Arab hero, Moustapha now expresses surprise at how any one so fortunate to meet Assad could write such an unfavorable piece.
But how could an unknown journalist, in Moustapha’s words, meet Assad?
Bringing western journalists and academics to Damascus to meet with Assad has become a staple of the regime’s propaganda. Syrian ambassadors, like Moustapha, often meet these “opinion shapers” in person, and generously wave the visa fee while offering all manner of help for the scheduled trip – including a possible meeting with Assad.
Most of these Westerners end up meeting Assad’s wife, who clearly impresses visitors with her cordial manners and Western education. The effect is that many such visitors later become Assad’s defenders.
The New Yorker’s Seymor Hersh was granted such close access that he later reported that he was next to Assad when news broke that Hariri had been murdered. Eric Follath, the author of Der Spiegel’s controversial piece on alleging that Hezbollah was involved in the Hariri assassination, meanwhile, publicly boasted about his ties to Assad. For Academic David Lesch, his meetings with Assad led to his book, The Lion of Damascus. Rob Malley, of the International Crisis Group, often mentions this or that meeting with the Syrian president.
Almost all of Assad’s visitors have become his admirers. But Belt, surprisingly to Moustapha, broke the rule.
Moustapha’s original expectations of Belt could be easily gleaned from the rebuttal: “He should have discussed the mosques and churches… He should have described the over 120 boutique restaurants… he would note that Syria is actually ‘cozying up’ to Turkey… He [did] not interview someone from, say the Syrian Young Entrepreneurs Association.”
When Moustapha received Belt in his office in Washington to give him a visa, he probably “suggested” people to be interviewed, all of whom are the regime’s protégés, in addition to Assad himself. Even though Belt was unknown to Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador probably reasoned that Damascus can always benefit from a pre-planned piece in the National Geographic, at the time the Syrian regime is fighting nail and tooth to win some of the US administration’s attention.
When Belt’s article described Syria and its dictatorship more accurately than Moustapha had expected, the Syrian ambassador received a stern scolding from Damascus and had to rectify the situation by writing a rebuttal that was more incriminating to the Syrian regime than vindicating.
And for all those who could not finish the seemingly endless Moustapha response, rest assured that the Syrian ambassador never refuted Belt’s accusations that the Syrian dictatorship had further tightened its grip by censoring Facebook, YouTube and a dozen other websites. Nor did Moustapha deign to answer the questions about the fate of the activists of the Damascus Spring.
After all, there are limits to how much tyranny an eloquent and intellectual Syrian ambassador can cover in one written document.