Media Middle East

BBC Middle East Editor on Twitter

The BBC’s reporting of Syria has produced some fine examples of really bad journalism: Silly mistakes along with selective wording, and biased reporting that favours good news stories about the opposition and an ‘Assad Is Bad’ rhetoric that grossly over-simplifies both the man and the Syrians attitude towards him; all of which has shown the BBC to be amateurish and unreliable in informing the British people about the truth into Syria. Not surprisingly, I didn’t hold out much regard for the Q&A session about Syria by the BBC Middle East correspondent, Jeremy Bowen on Twitter. In all fairness, however, his answers were quite revealing and honest.


At a time when the British government is planning to illegally by-pass EU sanctions by providing weapons to the Syrian rebels, it’s worth taking a closer analysis of Bowen’s comments about Syria.

Bowen has been reporting about the Middle East for the BBC for over 15 years. He is, without doubt, a much respected and knowledgeable reporter on Middle East issues.


Q: Is there any sign of deep divisions among the different rebel groups fighting against Assad?

Jeremy answers: Rebels share common goal of toppling Assad. The real arguments will start if they do that.

What Bowen is saying here, is that the conflict will not end if Assad is toppled. In fact, he makes it clear that quite the opposite is true. This is a very revealing answer and makes clear that greater instability will occur in Syria if Assad is overthrown. Coupled with some of Bowen’s answers to other questions, it suggested such instability would be forced onto the Syrian people for many years to come.


Q:  How true is the line from Assad/West that the revolution’s been “hijacked” by extremists

Jeremy answers: In today’s mideast, jihadists bound to join in, and are strong fighters. but their worldview not shared by most Syrians.

There is enough evidence to show that jihadists have already joined in. Planting bombs in the streets of Syria and killing innocent people is pretty extreme in most people’s judgement. These bombings have been the admitted responsibility of extreme anti-Assad forces.

Almost from the beginning of the up-rising, Syrians have been distributing photos and videos that demonstrate the iconography and phraseology of Islamic extremism, during which, western media were reporting the ridiculous lie that tanks and armed soldiers were being held back and forced to retreat by ordinary Syrians armed with nothing more than sticks and stones.

Extremists from Libya have been infiltrating Syria since the over-throw of Gaddifi. In 2011, when I was in Syria, there were reports of Libyans caught in a submarine on the west coast of Syria.  For Bowen to suggest, with the use of the phrase  ‘bound to join in’, that jihadists are not yet involved, he is being misleading.

Now let’s look at the second part of his answer: “ Their [jihadists] worldview is not shared by most Syrians.  Bowen’s answer to this question and the one immediately below are of the same theme: Assad’s support in Syria.


Q: How much of the Syrian population is for and against Assad?

I know the person who submitted this question. The full question, no doubt abbreviated for Twitter but read by Bowen was: “Since a civil war demands a sizeable population in support of a government, in your HONEST opinion, how much of the Syrian population is for and against Assad? 

Jeremy answers: no opinion polls in Syria. Assad has core support from Alawites and some other minorities, most armed rebels Sunnis

The popularity of Assad in Syria is the most important aspect of the conflict and our involvement in it. Western governments justify an attack on Syria with claims that it’s freeing the Syrian people from an oppressive regime. If a significant number of Syrians support Assad (a civil war would suggest this) or do not support the west intervention in his overthrowing, then the West has no justification in attacking Syria.

Bowen is telling the truth: there are no opinion polls in Syria, but it is possible to get a feel of opinion, which the original question to Bowen asked for. The general consensus of opinion in Syria is that around 70% of the population are in support of Assad. The amount of support shoots up to over 95% when the choice is: Assad or western intervention.

From my many trips to and through Syria, I believe these figures represent the ‘feel’ of opinion. The 70% figure was told to me by a very rare example of diverse opinion: A Syrian Christian who opposes Assad. Such an example, suggests that not all opinion is defined on religious ground, as suggest by Bowen in his answer; although, as a rule of thumb, Bowen is spot-on. These minority groups include Alewites (the President’s sect), Christians, Druze and non-religious groups such as gay people.

Those who support Assad, do so for a variety of reasons and with an equal number of concerns and demands. Some genuinely want him to stay until he dies, some until the election in 2014, some until a viable, non-extremist, non-western opposition can be found and secured.

All of which adds up to a very complex set of opinions about Assad that is not and never has been as simply and as clear cut as western media makes out. To be fair to Bowen, he had the limitation of 140 characters in his answer and does admit that there is support for Assad in Syria and that most Syrians do not hold the jihadist views that are in the rebel camp, which is supported, and likely to be armed by the western governments.


Q: What’s it like day to day in Syria’s cities? Are the schools still open? Are people still working?

Jeremy answers: In war torn areas, normal life in tatters. In other places, eg central Damascus you still see kids going to school.

This is a fair and honest account of Syria right now, but could have been expanded on, even with Twitter’s limitations. It’s true in some areas normal life is in tatters and very difficult and that the majority of Syria and Syrians function as normal. However, there is a lot of depression and emotional fatigue. Terrorism is not about bombs going off, it’s the waiting for the next bomb and wondering if you or a loved one will be caught up in it. Bowen could have mentioned something about the stress and fear that is in evidence throughout the entire country.

There is a greater nation army presence in all cities. However, let me make this clear as a western who has travelled through Syria and met with some close-calls, you feel a LOT safer with the Syrian army around you than you do the rebels.

Travelling inter-city is inconvenient and slow because of military check-points. There are also no-go areas for Syrians based on their religious sects, and for westerns.

News media has to report the exciting bits of a conflict, so Bowen’s answer is probably one of a very few times you will get an idea of the true levels of danger in Syria from western media.

Overall, Bowen’s comments on Syria mark a slight change from the BBC’s general reporting of the country’s conflict. He suggests that opposition for Assad in Syria is not as evident or widespread as is often reported; neither is he supportive of a rebel resolution to the conflict. Western journalists are often criticised for not asking the pertinent, awkward questions about Syria to western politicians. It remains to be seen if Bowen’s opinions about Syria reflected in his comments on twitter will inspire more potent questions to politicians and his reporting of Syria in the future.

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