New BBC documentary 'Dangerous Dynasty' ignores the West's role in destabilizing Syria
The new BBC2 documentary, 'A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad', should be contrasted with the 2010 BBC4 series 'Syrian School', which eschewed neocon propaganda and allowed us to make our own minds up about Baathist Syria.
Whatever happened to objective film making? Why does everyone today feel that the film or program maker must take sides and not just show us things as they are?
These thoughts were uppermost in my mind when watching the first episode of the 72 Films production, 'A Dangerous Dynasty' last week.
You could say the title was a bit of a giveaway. If you were expecting to see a balanced, intellectual analysis of Baathist rule in Syria, providing historical perspective, and putting the 'House of Assad' in some kind of regional context, you'd have been very disappointed.
We weren't even two minutes in before a voice-over declared: "Many have wondered how this former eye doctor [Bashar Assad] and his British-born wife ended up running a regime of committing war crimes, of gassing their own people… Understand their saga [the Assads] and you will understand how their country now lies in ruins."
Really? The 'House of Assad' had ruled Syria for over 40 years without the country being in ruins.
The descent into the abyss began in 2011. We can argue till the cows come home about 'who fired first', as anti-government protests swept the country, but even if we do blame the Syrian authorities for initiating the violence seven years ago, there's no getting away from the fact that the conflict which developed was deliberately stoked by powers hostile to the Syrian Arab Republic.
These powers were desirous of either regime-change or keeping Syria permanently weak and divided for geo-strategic reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with concern for human rights.
To blame all the bloodshed on the 'House of Assad', as 'A Dangerous Dynasty' does, is ahistorical nonsense and ignores the pernicious role that the US, France, the UK, and their regional allies have played in destabilizing Syria and keeping the fires of war burning.
"We have to ask ourselves how does this mild-mannered eye doctor end up killing hundreds of thousands of people," one commentator says in 'A Dangerous Dynasty', as if Bashar, who had originally planned to devote his life to the noble cause of medicine, just got up one morning and said "Right, now I'm going to kill hundreds of thousands of people."
The reality is that the Syrian president was faced with a foreign-backed attempt to destroy his country. He reacted with great force, but just look at how neighboring Israel responds when rockets are fired in from Gaza, or how the US responded after 9-11. Imagine how the White House would react if foreign-backed jihadists took control of parts of the US and beheaded captured US soldiers. Do we think the US president would have said to the 'rebels', "Hi guys! Let's sit round the camp fire together and sing Kumbaya"?
The program had unpleasant undertones of Arabophobia, promoting the narrative that Arabs, and in particular Arab 'dictators' who don't show sufficient subservience to Western elites, cannot be trusted.
It reminded me of an interview with Syria's deputy ambassador to the UN and a US neocon on BBC's Newsnight, in the lead-up to the Iraq War, which I wrote about for the Guardian here.
While the neocon was treated with great deference, the Syrian representative was treated with withering contempt and "Why should we believe YOU?" condescension. 'A Dangerous Dynasty' had much the same tone. Sinister music was played whenever a family photograph of the Assads was shown to make it clear we understood that these were 'the baddies'.
We were told that Bashar's mother was "tough and manipulative." His father Hafez "has extraordinary eyes that seem to look into your soul." Assad Sr. was "an old fashioned dictator." Female soldiers had to bite off the heads of snakes and male ones kill puppies to show their obedience. In one segment, we were told that Hafez al-Assad was like a crafty hamburger seller from the bazaar who removes the meat after you've paid your money. "He didn't trust anybody… he lives in a world of conspiracy and paranoia. His whole worldview was conspiratorial," an American envoy complained.
But didn't Hafez had good reason not to trust anyone – least of all American governments? Just look at what the US did to Iraq and Libya. Gorbachev trusted the Americans and believed promises that there would be no NATO Drang nach Osten following the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact. Today, NATO troops are on Russia's borders.
Arabophobia can also be seen in the surprise expressed that Bashar Assad, is "civilized" and "well-mannered" in his personal interactions. As if Arabs, can't do 'civilized' and 'well-mannered'.
Ironically, probably the most nuanced view in the whole program came from Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, who was a British diplomat in Syria in the 1980s.
"It was a socialist military dictatorship, but actually there was a live-and-let-live approach. It was a tightly controlled society but one where Western diplomats could move around fairly freely. If you didn't bother the Syrian regime they weren't going to bother you," Sawer said.
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No one disputes that Hafez al-Assad was a ruthless leader, but while the words 'regime' and 'dictator' were repeated ad nauseam, there was nothing in the program about the advances that Syria made under Assad and his son in the years 1970-2011. The way Christians and other religious minorities were protected by the secular government was ignored. Ditto Syria's very generous support for the dispossessed and stateless Palestinians, which made them a target.
The book 'Parting Shots', published by the BBC, includes a letter written by Sir James Craig, British Ambassador to Syria in 1979, to UK Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington. Craig admits he doesn't like the Baathists. But he also says "all I have said against them could be said against a hundred other government is this naughty world." He then goes on: "And there is this, above all, that can be said for them: ever since they came to power, and long before, they have devoted a preponderant part of their energy to the cause of the Palestinians, to which they are called not only by self-interest but by the ties of kinship, neighbourliness and compassion." Sir James said he found "a distinct spark of nobility" in their "obstinacy" on this issue.
If we go back eight years, a much fairer picture of Syria was shown on the BBC in 'Syrian School'.
This was arguably one of the best documentary series ever shown on British television. It didn't preach and it didn't tell us what to think. It simply showed us what everyday life was like in Syria – the good and the bad.
Max Baring, who worked as director-cameraman on the program said: "Syria is a country where, from poetry to politics, you can have an intellectual debate. You can re-imagine the world there in a way that we seem to have lost in the West, where even the credit crunch hasn't dented the orthodoxy of Liberal Capitalism, where 'The X-Factor' seems now to have become the cultural pinnacle."
You don't have to be a diehard supporter of 'House of Assad' to acknowledge that life was (and is) better under the 'dynasty' than under the medieval head-choppers of ISIS and other associated fundamentalist 'rebels', who the enemies of Baathist Syria seemed quite happy to support – either directly or indirectly. As my fellow Op-ed columnist John Wight correctly pointed out last week, "Not one Western journalist denouncing the Syrian government would have dared to set foot within so much of an inch of militant-held territory, knowing that if they did they would be peremptorily abducted, tortured and slaughtered."
Shamefully, it's "the Syrian regime" that 'Dangerous Dynasty' blames for the rise of hardcore jihadist terrorism. The neo-con endless war lobby, who set the Middle East on fire, gets a free pass.
The second episode of the hatchet job will be shown this Tuesday. I think I'll take a bath (no pun intended), instead. Looking further ahead, I've an idea (which I'll give them for just £10K), for the program makers for their next series. How about doing one about another father and son, who both launch wars in successive decades against the same country? The father, who was a millionaire, was director of his country's intelligence services. The son sold his illegal war on a pack of false claims about a country possessing weapons it didn't have, with the invasion leading to a million deaths and a refugee crisis of Biblical proportions.
'Junior' also invaded another country where conflict is still raging today, and under the pretext of fighting a 'War on Terror' introduced a surveillance state and established a detention camp where people were held indefinitely without trial. The title of the series: 'Dangerous Dynasty: The House of Bush'.
Over to you, 72 Films.
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