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Syria Special: The Assad Regime's PR Campaign with British Journalists

Andrew Gilligan of The Daily Telegraph talks about his interview with Syria's President Assad

Amidst the continuing violence in Syria, with more than 60 people reportedly killed in the last 48 hours, we note a move by the Assad regime on the public-relations front.

Access by foreign journalists has been restricted since the uprising began in Syria, with those who do get in, save exceptions such as Nir Rosen and Anthony Shadid, closely monitored by government officials. This does not guarantee presentation of the regime line --- the recent despatch by Liz Sly in The Washington Post, mentioned in EA this week, is highly recommended --- but it does restrict coverage of the protests, clashes, and military operations.

However, President Assad and his advisors have apparently decided this is not enough, as tensions and casualties escalate in cities such as Homs and Hama. In what is far more than a coincidence, they have set out their case to two British journalists, Robert Fisk of The Independent and Andrew Gilligan of The Daily Telegraph.

Fisk was initally given access to military officers, then on Friday, The Independent published his interview with Assad's senior advisor Bouthaina Shaaban. While much of the column was handed over to Shaaban's words, the official was undercut by Fisk's chiding commentary and Shaaban's own words. She declares, in what reads as an emotional stream-of-consciousness outburst, "Early in the crisis, our army and police and security services paid terrible sacrifices but they were told not to shoot at demonstrators," raising the obvious (and unanswered) question as to what they are doing now.

So far from a win for Assad's people. However, Fisk may have handed them a consolation prize on Saturday when he posted a rather confusing "thinkpiece", "What the Killing of Gaddafi Means to Syria". The column actually reveals little about that supposed meaning, turning instead into a polemic against Washington --- Fisk was also allowed on Syrian State TV "to make the point that that Gaddafi was insane and that, whatever else you thought of him, Assad was not", but the interview has yet to be broadcast --- and a rather confused critique of a meeting between Assad's wife and a Red Cresecent team investigating reports of abuses:

I can see Asma al-Assad's problem. Had she spoken out directly against the killing of protesters, of course, the world's press and television would not have said that Mrs Assad stood up for human rights. The headlines would have been political, and would have read: "Syrian President attacked by wife." The truth, I fear, is that once war begins, you just can't win. Even if you are the wife of the president.

Perhaps Fisk will get the ultimate prize of a face-to-face with President Assad. If so, however, he will be second. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed on Wednesday that it had the "first interview with a Western journalist since Syria's seven-month uprising began". 

Andrew Gilligan's write-up of the encounter, which tries to intersperse Assad's comments with a summary of latest events, is garbled. So the reader is left to pick out the soundbites --- most of the international media, have seized on, "Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake … Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?"

There is also the standard Assad declaration that "the pace of reform is not too slow" in Syria's "very complicated society". However, most telling may be Assad's strained echo --- at least in Gilligan's report --- of Qaddafi's declaration of a valiant fight against Al Qa'eda forces trying to overthrow him. He invokes a "struggle between Islamism and pan-Arabism [secularism]" and continues:

We have very few police, only the army, who are trained to take on al-Qaeda. If you sent in your army to the streets, the same thing would happen. Now, we are only fighting terrorists. That's why the fighting is becoming much less.

So what's the score on this regime effort? It's far from the win that the Bahraini regime has achieved in Washington with its courting of US commentators who do not dilute the presentation of the PR with Fisk's sarcasm or Gilligan's tangled writing. But it is also far from a loss: after all, when you have a President Assad or his senior advisor before you --- or when you lose yourself in angry words about the US and Muammar Qaddafi or the journalistic injustice done to Assad's wife --- the headline is not about the latest situation in Homs or Hama or Deir Ez Zor or the Damascus suburbs or....

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