Syria: We All Have 20:20 Vision in Hindsight
An interesting argument is brewing over on The Spectator blog, between Nick Cohen and the always readable Matthew Teller.
It started off as a rant against travel guidebooks, Lonely Planet in particular. But it has ended up in a fight over who knew what, and when, about Assad.
Cohen’s opening salvo pulls out a few lines from the (2004?) Lonely Planet guide to Syria, as if to mock with his crystal clear hindsight:
Assad’s pre-revolutionary Syria, the guide informs readers, was a land with cautious hope for the future. ‘Reforms by the young president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, may not have been as wide-ranging as many might have hoped, but there is certainly a feeling of optimism in the capital. Culture and tourism are high on the agenda and Damascus has responded with a flurry of art gallery and hotel openings (including the long-awaited Four Seasons).’
The thing is, the book is absolutely right. There was cautious hope in Damascus, the regime was pushing culture and tourism hard (the Arab Capital of Culture was a massive deal for the regime), and expat Syrians were returning to the country.
Elsewhere in the book, the Hama massacre, political prisoners, and the death of the Damascus Spring are all detailed. Cohen’s selective reading fails to pick up on this.
Matthew Teller, never a fan of Assad, picks up the argument:
“Perhaps Cohen doesn’t know much about the Middle East, but there really were, on all sides, high hopes for Syria in the few years after Bashar al-Assad’s rise to power: indeed, the Western media dubbed the period the “Damascus Spring”. I can personally vouch for the accuracy of Lonely Planet’s identification of “a feeling of optimism in the capital” around that time. It’s easy to imply, as Cohen does, that writing about gallery openings and new hotels is a pernicious insult when placed beside the murderous violence we are now witnessing, but then hindsight has always been a seductive tool. At the time, in 2006, Syria-watchers were well aware that the opening of the Four Seasons in Damascus signalled the possibility of improving economic liberalisation. By 2009 even The Economist – notorious, of course, for its lefty whitewashing – was noting that “reforms have tapped suppressed entrepreneurial vigour [in Syria]”. Then the wheels came off, with unspeakably awful consequences. Journalists were wrong about Syria. Academics were wrong. Diplomats were wrong. Syrians themselves were wrong. But Cohen thinks the author of the Lonely Planet should have got it right.”
Cohen can’t let it go. His argument is hollow, and he doesn’t seem to understand that a paragraph he copies and pastes from the Lonely Planet website about Syria coming in from the cold is probably years old.
The fact is this – the revolution took us all by surprise, even lifelong anti-Assad activists. Cohen, though, saw it all coming. Shame he didn’t tell us back then.
If you’re struggling to remember what the world thought of Syria pre-March 2011, have a look at this compilation of Syria stories by Jillian York.
- A View From Iran: Syria and the Arab League ISMSAIL SALAMI: It’s time we made a choice. Either remain ignorant, or we need to open our eyes to the reality of things as they actually are. ...
- The ‘Essential Collection’ on Syria’s Blighted Year NEWS FROM SYRIA: It begins with the infamous Bashar interview and continues grimly as death and mayhem envelop the country...
- Syria: It’s Crunch Time for President Assad OMAR AL-ISSAWI: He has support among sections of society in Syria but Assad needs to show resolute leadership if he is to avoid his country spinning into turmoil. ...
- Assad, the Arab League and More Death in Syria SYRIA NEWS WIRE: The Arab League mission is close to collapse;physically attacked on the streets, verbally attacked by Assad. And the killing continues. ...
- The American Threat to Syria’s Revolution RAMZY BAROUD: The American ambassador to Syria has established an 'up and at 'em' reputation. But what is the bigger picture for the United States in Syria at the moment? ...
- Syria Jails Blogger: A Courageous and Committed Critic of the Assad Regime SYRIA NEWS WIRE: The Syrian authorities' patience with one of their most consistent and trenchant critics has snapped with Razan Ghazzawi's arrest. ...
The Syria News Wire is written from Damascus and London. It was the fourth Syrian blog to appear on the internet – back in 2004. It is a Lonely Planet favourite, award nominated, Toot-ified blog, which gets about 15,000 hits a month. In 2008, Damascus became the Arab Capital of Culture. The year was packed full of events. Every month, a programme was published – but it didn’t hit the streets until half the month had passed. In Damascus, that doesn’t matter. We find out what’s happening by word of mouth. And the same goes for news, or plans for the city’s development. This site puts some of those whispers on to the net. News from the streets of Damascus, and beyond.