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War of words over Syria intensifies in run-up to peace talks

The UN arriving at Madaya January 2016

The UN arriving at Madaya January 2016

As 25 January 2016 approaches, it is not just the fighting on the ground that is intensifying, it is also the war of words. This is the date set by the UN to start international peace talks in Geneva between all parties involved in Syria’s war, including the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, together with their respective key backers Russia and Iran, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The much publicised ‘starve or surrender siege’ in Madaya is the latest example of the media battle.

No western journalists were allowed in to cover the story of the international aid convoys reaching the besieged town, but a Russian journalist was on hand to give his version of events, duly reported on Russian TV:


He accused the rebels of keeping earlier deliveries of aid for themselves and selling it at inflated prices to the starving civilians.

This version of events was backed up by the Syrian government’s own spokesman at the UN:

http://sana.sy/en/?p=66404 He denied there were people starving in Madaya.

The BBC’s Lyse Doucet was not allowed in, so did the next best thing of interviewing Syrians who were protesting against the Madaya siege at the Lebanese border crossing, some of whom had relations inside the blockaded town. They tell a different story:


Western media generally focussed on the pictures of the starving children and interviews with local people trapped inside, as did the anti-Assad Gulf news channels like Al-Arabiya, though they also mentioned the rebel siege of the two Shi’a villages of Kafraya and Al- Foua’a in Idlib province which received simultaneous convoys of food aid yesterday, 11 January 2016.

The true picture becomes ever cloudier and more confused and unless we have first-hand knowledge of our own, all our perceptions of a faraway situation are inevitably shaped by whatever media we choose to read, hear or watch.

A UN Security Council resolution adopted in December set out an ambitious two-year roadmap for the upcoming peace talks, in which a new Syrian constitution will be drafted, followed by Syrian elections. The issue of the fate of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad remains unaddressed, as everyone knows this is the thorniest problem. The immediate aim of the Geneva talks is for all concerned parties to agree a ceasefire.

In the run-up to the talks, every side will be doing its utmost to slander and attack the other, militarily and verbally. We should expect ugly battles of words and violent atrocities. The Syrian government is demanding to see in advance the list of opposition figures who will be attending, a list arrived at with Jordanian help and coordinated by Riad Hijab, chosen to head the opposition negotiating body. A 50 year old Sunni from Deir Ez-Zour, he was briefly prime minister under Assad, before becoming the most senior figure to defect to the opposition in 2012. The hope is that he can straddle both camps, except there are not just two camps, there are many, including the Kurds, who also want a seat at the table in Geneva. ISIS and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra are not invited.

If all relevant parties actually make it to the table, it will be a miracle, a major achievement by Syria peace envoy Staffan De Mistura who is shuttling between Riyadh, Damascus and Tehran, in a fevered rush to make sure the date is met.

My advice to anyone following the build-up is to choose your media carefully. Maybe do the same as a Franciscan nun I met recently, who has spent a total of 23 years in Syria, including 6 years in Raqqa. When I asked her what media she followed, she replied:

“I watch the pro-Assad Al-Mayadeen and the anti-Assad Al-Jazeera. Then I know that the truth is somewhere in the middle.”






Only Syrian people should determine the future of their country, Putin renews





PR battle intensifies as Geneva II dates approaches

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’ Hijaz Railway with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

The 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.

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