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Reporting Syria: 1984 and Tass All Over Again

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George Orwell, writing in 1949 about the province of Oceania, referring to the USSR with its notorious Tass news agency, seems to be relevant again, in Syria of all places. By all accounts, the town of Daraa where the current wave of unrest started, continues to be the arena of unmitigated atrocities committed by the troops of Maher Assad, president Bashar Assad's younger brother. Bodies of peaceful demonstrators are up in the streets, but SANA, the Syrian Tass, tells us a different story altogether.

According to them, thousands of genuine admirers of president Bashar Assad assembled yesterday in the main plaza of the town and spontaneously sang collectively the praises of their beloved president. Then we hear Buthaina Shabaan, Bashar Assad's close adviser, a former noble peace prize nominee and a favorite of the Charlie Rose program, among others. She declared that the people and government in Syria are one. So much so, that the benevolent president decided to raise dramatically the salaries of government employees and examine possible relaxation of the emergency laws in place since 1963.

What a coincidence... sure enough, the famous advisor did not forget to blame Israel and the U.S. for being complicit in the riots. She also forgot that her boss, President Assad himself, pontificated just weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal to the West and his fellow Arab rulers, that the Syrian people genuinely love him due to his anti-Israel and anti-U.S. policies. However, in a surprising turn of events, it seems that both Israel and the U.S. have become so popular in Syria...

So, with all that coming out from Damascus, where is Al Jazeera when we in the West, and more importantly the Syrian people, really need them? The channel is alive and well, but not as much in Syria as it was in Egypt, at least judging by complaints of Syrians on the social networks, who harbor grudges about what they consider insufficient coverage. Maybe the Qatar government, the actual owner of the popular network is not interested in alienating Assad for whatever reason, and that is in contrast to the immediate and militant anti-Mubarak line.

Unfortunately to the Syrian regime, the truth about the atrocities filters out, and the emerging picture is one of state-run mayhem orchestrated by the security forces against the defenseless protesters. The actual number of fatalities far exceeds one hundred and counting. An ominous development for the regime is the spread of the violence to the cities of Latakiyya, Hammah and Aleppo. The first is a port town in the northwest of Syria, a mixed Sunni-Alawi city in an area which is dominated by the Alawi population, which happens to be the main pillar of support for Assad. The last thing that he needs now is a confessional conflict, the repercussions of which could be a game changer. Hammah is where the abominable massacre of 1982 took place.

At the time, it was rumored in Damascus that when the governor of Hammah gave a report to Hafiz Assad, the president asked him only one question: can the Muslim Brotherhood ever revive? What made it more than just rumor, is the fact that it was reported by no other than Patrick Seale, the famous pro-Assad Syrian watcher, in the London Observer, on 9 May 1982. It seems that after all these long years, the people of Hammah finally broke the barrier of fear. This is very bad news to the current Assad president.

Then we have Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, a traditional rival of Damascus over political ascendancy in the country, a city surrounded by Kurds who are on the verge of joining the anti-Assad protest.

In the regional arena, Bashar Assad received some bad news as well. His recent ally, PM Erdoghan of Turkey, called upon him not to miss the train and start immediate and significant reforms. Turkey has been Syria's second influential ally after Iran. Clearly, Assad did not like the cold shower coming from Ankara. He can rest assured that no such admonition will come from Iran. It seems that time is running out for President Bashar Assad, and with it also the self-denial about what really is happening in the country that has always prided itself as the Heart of Arabism.