PR battle intensifies as Geneva II dates approachesThe BBC’s Chief International correspondent Lyse Doucet has posted a heart-rending news item this morning about Syria’s battle for bread:
Reporting from a government bakery in Damascus the footage shows queues of men (food shopping is traditionally the domain of men, not women across the Arab world) waiting to be issued with their packs of round flat thin bread, far thinner than what is sold in the UK as pitta bread. The price, because this is heavily subsidised by the government, is the same as it has been for 20 years, 2 Syrian pounds per piece (1p in the current exchange rate, 2.5p in the exchange rate of before the revolution). In private bakeries, she is told, the price is ten times higher, and in war-torn parts of the country, there is no bread at all.
The sub-text here, though of course Lyse Doucet is far too professional to say so because she has been allowed into Damascus on a government-sponsored visa, is that in rebel-held areas there is no bread because the rebels cannot organise the production and because distribution networks have been disrupted. Cereal production is down by 40% and what wheat there is is mainly controlled and distributed by the government. She phrases her words very carefully to avoid any suggestion of attributing blame to either side.
Next the footage moves to a distribution centre where UN aid, food parcels and blankets are being handed out to women and families queuing in the freezing cold. The snow has melted in central Damascus but the temperature range is still 1-7 degrees Celsius, quite normal for the winter months as Damascus lies at an altitude of 700m. She interviews a lady who assures her that all aid channeled in via the UN agencies goes direct to the Syrian people who need it – a reassuring message to all who have generously donated to the UN Syria appeals.
Again the sub-text is complex. UN aid has to proceed through government-approved channels and the process is tightly controlled. By definition rebel-held areas will not receive any such food parcels or blankets. Such areas have to rely instead on aid channeled in ‘illegally’ across the borders, raised by Syrian charities funded by individuals. The British surgeon David Nott, who worked for 6 weeks in and around Aleppo conducting operations on victims of aerial bombardments and sniper attacks, and teaching Syrian doctors how to conduct them in his absence, was escorted into the country by exactly such a charity, Syria Relief http://www.syriarelief.org.uk/syriarelief/.
The Syrian government agenda here is clear, in allowing a senior BBC reporter into Damascus now, in the run-up to Christmas, and more significantly, in the run-up to 22 January, the date just 5 weeks away set for the crucial conference dubbed ‘Geneva II’, aimed at reaching a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis. It wants to present its caring face to the world, to the international community who will be watching it at Geneva II. This government has learnt well the lessons taught it by the US and British PR firms it used to employ before the revolution to project its softer image across the world. Mindful of how this image has been damaged by the horrors of the country’s raging civil war, it is working hard on re-building it. As the date for Geneva II approaches, the government will almost certainly be intensifying its efforts to present itself as the only force in the country that can save Syria. And the biggest tragedy of all is that thanks to the vaccum left by western inertia, now increasingly filled by extremist Islamists funded by wealthy Gulf individuals, this assertion has probably become true.