So after the Syria News Wire was picked as one of the Daily Telegraph’s favourite Syria blogs, the same British newspaper asked me for an interview.
The Daily Telegraph is Britain’s biggest selling quality newspaper, with about one million copies a day. But I had my suspicions. It has a reputation as the most right-wing paper. “They’re going to tear you apart,” said one of my friends. But the egotist in me couldn’t resist.
It was a joy to meet Harry de Quetteville. He knows a lot about the Arab World, and represented my views fairly. Here’s the result:
Harry de Quetteville, The Daily Telegraph, Nov 19, 2008
Syria is in the thick of it again, but this time for some of the right reasons. David Miliband has just visited Damascus amid growing rumours of possible détente – luring Syria away from Iranian influence and over to the Western camp. How do Syrians feel about it all? Sasa, 29, whose Syria blog I mentioned yesterday, tells all.
He prefers not to give his real name or photo, and was talking in London café after one of his frequent trips to Damascus.
The British Foreign Secretary is in Damascus. Is Syria ready to come in from the cold?
Syria has been asking forever to be associated with Europe and America. Europe listens but America doesn’t. So it all depends on whether America wants to listen.
Really? What about Israel?
Even Israel is talking with Syria. We have been talking for years and years.
Indeed. And negotiations over the return of the [Israeli occupied] Golan have come within a whisker of success, right?
Down to the last 10 metres of land. That was the deal breaker. Let me tell you, the Golan is the thing that is on every Syrian’s mind right now. There’s even a newspaper called The Golan. Every day Syrians feel closer to getting the Golan back.
But surely, after the Iraq war, relations between the US and Syria are all but irreparable?
Not at all. America has not been lastingly demonised in the minds of Syrians, not even by the war in Iraq. It wouldn’t take much for America to right itself in the eyes of Syrians.
But wasn’t there a big brou-ha-ha last month, when America launched a raid from Iraq across into Syria? Damascus didn’t like that much, did it?
Eight people died. So that remains a big story. I was in Damascus just before the American election, but the incursion was still the big issue. [US forces say the raid was ‘successful’, and killed Abu Ghadiya, who they describe as “one of the most prominent foreign fighter facilitators in the region”.]
That’s just the point though, isn’t it? How can Syria hope America will listen if it is harbouring people who attack its troops in Iraq?
The idea that [Alawite Shia] Syria encourages Sunni extremists is obviously wrong. Syria has been fighting Islamic extremism as long as anyone. Look at Hama. [Hama was the heart of a rebellion led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni movement founded in Egypt. They began an insurgency against the regime of Hafez Assad, father of current Syrian president Bashar, in the 1980s which was crushed, with tens of thousands of deaths (the exact figures are still disputed), in 1982].
But what about Islamic Jihad and Hamas? They have leaders and headquarters in Damascus.
Well, most Syrians don’t view them as extremists.
Who do they consider extremists then?
The Sunni extremist/al-Qa’eda groups.
And is Syria at risk of attack from al Qa’eda?
Well there was the huge bomb in September [that killed 17 people]. It was reported as though it was well outside Damascus but in fact it was only a few hundred metres from the Bab Sharki gate of the old city.
The threat from extremists has been growing for years. The US embassy has been attacked, some even tried to take over a television station. But the September bomb really shocked people, it was the first serious terror incident in Syria for years.
So I guess that if people are willing to tolerate Assad’s regime as long as they feel safe, attacks like this could seriously destabilise Syria?
On the contrary. I think Syrians are now willing to tolerate the security forces using much more serious tactics against it.
Ah. It’s get out the cattle prod time, is it?
How about you? Why did you start your blog ‘Syria News Wire’?
Initially it was at the time of the Rafiq Hariri assassination [on Feb14th ,2005]. It was a way for me to keep track of everything that was going on. There were so few Syria sites and blogs at the time that my site became a bit of a hub. Now, I’ve built up this web of expertise, I can’t let it go.
So much news in Syria goes unreported. So much is passed on by word of mouth. I try to explain the story, to put everything in context.
And London? How is life here?
It’s an old cliché but London is like the 23rd state [the Arab League currently has 22 members]. You’d be hard pressed to find an Arab scene as cultural and diverse as the one in London. There’s been a massive influx of expats, and as always the first to leave are the elites.
A final message?
More than anywhere else in the Arab world, Syria suffers from a gap between perception and reality. It is lumped in with places like North Korea and Iran, but it really shouldn’t be.