In his Feb. 20 Los Angeles Times article entitled “Syria Works to Polish Its Image,” correspondent John Daniszewski appears to have joined the official Syrian public relations campaign. The reporter obscures Syrian involvement in chemical and biological weapons, covers up the government’s support for Hizballah and other terrorist groups, and distorts Syria’s position vis-à-vis peace with Israel.
Daniszewski is dismissive of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, suggesting that it exists only in the minds of Western policy-makers. He writes:
. . . the government here knows that some influential Western opinion-makers and politicians think of Syria as little more than Iraq II, painting it as a dictatorship bent on supporting terrorism, suppressing human rights and acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
The reporter provides no details documenting Syria’s extensive chemical weapons program and its developing biological weapons program. Moreover, his uncritical coverage of the official Syrian damage control campaign in the face of Western “painting” further exonerates Syria:
Assad’s new spokeswoman, Bouthaina Shabaan, is upfront in saying her country has an image problem.
The picture of Syria held by many in the West is "almost the inverse of the reality," she argued. . . . [R]ather than wanting to acquire weapons of mass destruction, she said, Syria wants to rid the region of them.
First, it is deceptive to write of Syria and weapons of mass destruction in terms of “acquiring” or “wanting,” as Daniszewski does. Syria already possesses WMD, in particular chemical weapons, and a biological weapons program is under development. Also, if Syria really wanted to rid the region of WMD, why did Syria refuse to endorse the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention?
An impartial report might discuss Syrian denials regarding the country’s extensively documented and reported program for chemical warfare. Run since 1971 by the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), an ostensibly civilian outfit, the program, which receives from $1 to $2 billion dollars of the Syrian military budget annually, is hardly a modest operation (Dany Shoham, “Guile, Gas and Germs: Syria’s Ultimate Weapons,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2002). A fair and balanced article might also note that Syria’s scud missiles are designed to carry chemical and biological warheads, in addition to conventional weapons. Mass production of these weapons, including Scud-C and new, longer range Scud-D missiles, is expected to begin soon (Dany Shoham, “Poisoned Missiles: Syria’s Doomsday Deterrent,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002 and Jane’s Defense News, July 2002). In addition to missiles, Syria also has aerial bombs, rockets and artillery shells containing the nerve gas sarin (Richard Bennet, “The Syrian Military: A Primer,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Aug/Sept. 2001). A CIA report states: “Syria sought CW-related [chemical weapons] precursors and expertise from foreign sources during the reporting period [July 1 - Dec. 31, 2001]. Damascus already holds a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin but apparently is trying to develop more toxic and persistent nerve agents” (Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions). At least one test fire of a Scud-C missile tipped with VX was conducted outside of Damascus in 1998 (“The Great Arsenal of Autocracy: Syria’s Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Feb. 1999).
With respect to Syria’s developing biological weapons cache, SSRC is focusing on anthrax and cholera, as well as two toxins, botulinum and ricin. Moreover, Syrian defense minister General Mustafa Talas published an article entitled “Biological (Germ) Warfare: A New and Effective Method in Modern Warfare,” discussing his country’s plans to integrate these biological weapons into tactical and strategic arsenals (Ibid). In November, U.S. Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton commented on Syria’s involvement with WMD, stating: “We believe that it is developing biological weapons and is able to produce at least small amounts of biological warfare agents” (AFP, Nov. 1, 2002, “Washington lambasts Syria over expanding chemical weapons program”).
Moreover, in January, a Gilmore Commission report commissioned by the U.S. Congress identified Syria as the second largest sponsor of terrorism in the world (Middle East Newsline, Jan. 8, 2003). While one wouldn’t expect a story to cover all this detail (and certainly much more is available), a fair discussion of Syrian denials regarding WMD must include some documentation of the program’s existence. Unfortunately, though, Daniszewski did not provide readers with even one fact concerning Syria’s WMD.
Daniszewski’s coverage of Syria’s relationship with Hizballah is equally elliptical. He writes:
Bashar Assad’s government has also appointed fresh faces to argue Syria’s case to the world community and reined in violent incidents along Israel’s border with Lebanon, a Syrian client state.
(His euphemistic reference here–“Lebanon, a Syrian client state” (emphasis added)–whitewashes the illegal Syrian occupation of Lebanon.) He then goes on to contradict himself concerning Syria and Hizballah, stating later in the article:
The U.S. keeps Syria on its list of countries that support terrorism due to the regime’s failure to curtail Hizballah activities in Lebanon. . . .
Which one is it? Has Syria “reined in violent incidents along Israel’s border with Lebanon” or has Syria “fail[ed] to curtail Hizballah activities in Lebanon”? They can’t both be true. Daniszewski further muddies the waters by reporting:
Nevertheless, sources in Damascus said, Assad’s government has worked for the past six months to limit Hizballah attacks, reducing the number of incidents near Israel’s border with Lebanon.
Contrary to the suggestion that Assad’s government has managed to transform the border into a quiet area, Hizballah’s use of anti-aircraft fire against Israel has been a regular occurrence over the last six months. There have been at least 17 incidents from Aug. 20, 2002 to Feb. 20, 2003 (IDF Web site, www.idf.il).
In addition, there is strong evidence that Syria has actually been arming Hizballah and assisting the terrorist group in other ways. As late as July, just over six months ago, there were reports that Syria was providing Hizballah with 270 mm rockets (Dennis Ross, “The Hidden Truth in the Mideast,” Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2002). In addition, according to Knight Ridder, “Iran has supplied Fajr-5s to Hizballah through Syria with the apparent acquiescence of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said a senior U.S. offical” (Jonathan S. Landay, “U.S. concerned Lebanese guerillas may have missiles,” April 12, 2002). Moreover, the deputy leader of Hizballah, Naim Kassam, spells out Syria’s support for Hizballah in his recently published book Hizballah. He writes that “Syria provides political support during the opposition” (i.e., Hizballah’s armed operations against Israel). He notes that “[t]he strategic relations between Syria and the party [Hizballah] develop in a systematic and stable manner.” He also observes: “Despite the difficult and complicated circumstances, the way is clear for the desired cooperation between Syria and the party in a manner that will bring clear mutual understanding at the highest levels with minimal danger and obstacles.”
Calling Syria and Iran “Hizballah’s two main backers,” the New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar reports: "Experts say Syria and Iran coordinate this activity [Hizballah’s secret military security service], but the identity of the official liaison is unclear" ("Hizballah Becomes Potent Anti-U.S. Force," Dec. 24, 2003). In addition, Daniszewski also ignores complaints from Israeli officials that Damascus has thwarted efforts by the Lebanese army to deploy troops in southern Lebanon, which is now under the control of Hizballah, in compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 425.
Daniszewski is similarly deferential in his reporting on Syria’s relationship with Al-Qaeda. He rightly reports that Syria has been providing Western officials with intelligence on Al-Qaeda. He also writes: “Rather than supporting terrorism, she [Shabaan] asserted, Syria has been fighting Islamic militants of the Al Qaeda type for decades.” But there are also press reports which indicate that Syria allowed Al Qaeda terrorists into a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon (AFP, Sept. 5, 2002). This claim was bolstered when an Egyptian man with alleged links to Al Qaeda was killed in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp (“Bomb Kills Islamist Allegedly Tied to Al Qaeda,” Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2003). While it may be impossible to determine the truth regarding this Syrian acquiescence to an Al Qaeda presence in Lebanon, why was it–and all other specific negative reports about Syria–ignored?
For instance, incredibly, Daniszewski also omits mention of the widely reported allegations that Syria was hiding Iraqi weapons from U.N. inspections. UPI reported:
Some U.S. intelligence agencies believe that rogue elements of Syria’s ruling elite have accepted millions of dollars in bribes in return for providing a safe haven for some of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, according to former and serving U.S. officials.
Chemical and biological weapons were taken by truck to a Syrian munitions compound near a military base near Khan Abu Shamet, about 50 miles northeast of Damascus, these officials told United Press International. (“U.S.: Syrians Hiding Iraqi Weapons for Cash,” Feb. 6, 2003)
Similar reports appeared as early as October in Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily:
Iraq moved stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear materiel as well as key production machinery and key experts to the Hsishi compound near Kamishli, in Syria, along with strategic weapons, ammunition, military fuels and other defense materiel, gold reserves, national archival records and national art treasures. It is believed that the moves took places in late August and early September 2002. ("Iraq Moves WMD Materiel to Syrian Safe-Havens," Oct. 28, 2002)
Another, even more damaging claim about Syria unreported in the Feb. 20 article is the charge that Syria smuggled arms to Iraq to assist in its war effort. The London Telegraph reports:
Syria is secretly helping Saddam Hussein to prepare for a United States-led attack by smuggling vital arms supplies to Bagdad.
Western intelligence officials have discovered that at least 52 crates containing new air-defence systems and spare parts have been smuggled into Iraq from Syria since the start of December. (Con Coughlin, "Syrians ‘smuggling arms to Bagdad,’" Dec. 15, 2002)
Why did the reporter fail to mention any of these details concerning Syrian assistance to Hizballah, Al Qaeda and Iraq?
Daniszewki is similarly deceptive when it comes to human rights issues. He writes:
Of course, part of that peace is due to tightly controlled system, in which multiple security forces limit dissent. There was a revolt against the government by the Islamic-extremist Muslim Brotherhood, but the dissidents were defeated in 1982 with iron-fisted tactics, and the country has been quiet internally since.
Here he is referring to an infamous massacre in which 12,000 Syrian troops attacked the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold of Hama with field artillery, tanks and airforce helicopters, killing as many as 38,000 people, or one-tenth of the entire population. In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman describes in detail the brutal devastation:
Entire families were apparently rousted out of their homes and gunned down on the streets, simply because a single member was listed by Syrian intelligence as being linked to the Brotherhood. Those civilians who could tried to escape through underground sewers or bribe their way through the ring of steel the Syrian army had thrown up around Hama, but few were successful . . . .
For the next several weeks, there was a settling of accounts between the Assad regime and Syria’s fourth-largest city; many more people perished as a result. Most of the casualties in Hama apparently were registered during this phase. Syrian army engineers set about systematically dynamiting any buildings which remained standing in ‘Brotherhood’ neighborhoods, with whoever was inside. Ancient Hama, the marketplace, craft quarters, and mosques, which provided the social fabric for the Muslim Brotherhood to flourish, were totally obliterated. (P. 84-5)
The reporter further assists in bolstering Syria’s image by quoting Patrick Seale, who describes Bashar Assad as “realistic, moderate and cautious.” Daniszewski notes that Seale is “a Syria specialist and biographer of Hafez Assad.” He misleads readers by not identifying Seale as a virtual p.r. agent for the Assad family (Itamar Rabinovich, “The Godfather,” The New Republic, July 3, 1989; Amos Perlmutter, “The Mask of David,” National Review, March 30, 1992; and Daniel Pipes, “Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East,” Orbis, Fall 1989).
The reporter’s depiction of Syrian attitudes towards peace with Israel is equally protective and inaccurate. He reports that Shabaan
denies her nation is unalterably opposed to Israel, saying Syria wants the Middle East’s agony ended and offers, peace, security and normal ties if Israel withdraws to its pre-1967 borders, restoring to the Arabs the formerly Syrian Golan Heights and other territories.
In fact, in the 1999 peace negotiations, Israel had offered to withdraw entirely from the Golan Heights. The deal fell through, however, because Syria demanded that Israel hand over land all the way up to the Sea of Galilee, which was never legally Syrian territory. The only official border between the two countries historically was the 1923 International boundary, which was slightly east of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. (Britain and France deliberately drew up the boundary this way, so as to protect Palestine’s sparse water sources from Syria.) In 1948, Syria invaded Israel, conquering land west of the boundary. In 1949, Syria accepted an Armistice on the areas they occupied and withdrew their troops from that region. The demilitarized area was within Israel’s territory. Thus, the June 4, 1967 “border” (actually, not a border at all) is identical to the 1949 Armistice line. Therefore, to represent lands up to the 1967 lines as Syrian territory, as Syria does, is fallacious.
Daniszewski keeps to his pattern of only reporting positive developments and omitting negative aspects in his discussion of the opening up of Syrian society. Thus, while he reports on the introduction of the Internet, he fails to note that access is restricted. According to the Boston Globe, “The Yahoo and Hotmail services are blocked at government-controlled sites. Internet sites with a designation that includes ‘Israel’ or ‘sex’ and a long list of other words are also blocked” (Charles Sennott, June 21, 2000).
Finally, the Times exacerbates Daniszewski’s misrepresentations about Syria in the sidebar on facts about President Assad. The item states: “The ruling Baath Party elected Bashar its leader a week after his father’s death in June 2000. A month later, Syrian voters endorsed him as their new president, giving him 97 % support in a referendum.” Readers should have been informed that Bashar was the only candidate for President.
Daniszewski, apparently, has a soft spot for Syria. Just over two years ago, he had similarly misrepresented the facts about Syria, that time with regards to the 1967 war.