Roger Hercz on Syria and the Middle East in Dagsavisen: Mea culpa!

A thought provoking oped by Roger Hercz. Now it will be interesting to see whether his colleagues will follow suit and allow themselves similar reflexions, whether privately or shared with the wider public. (lifted from Dagsavisen.no – nye meninger)

The Middle East and us.

Published Yesterday at. 11:20 – 1080 views posts

Admittedly, some 20,000 Syrians were killed and up to a million civilians have been forced to flee their homes. But why should we really concern ourselves with the Syrians?

JERUSALEM (Dagsavisen): The question is, of course, brought to a head. However, based on our approach to Syria during the last fifty years, the question is still in place: For decades, the dictatorship in Syria was among the worst. And we cared very little. Or not at all. It is as if we first discovered Syria last year. That was also the case with Egypt. Until the people rebelled against President Hosni Mubarak, we were more interested in destinations such as the pyramids in Cairo or the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Finally, we discovered the people living in Egypt as well. But is it not a sad pattern here?

As you read these words people are killed in the Syrian city of Aleppo. These days it is almost normal that newspapers have reports from Syria. But how could we have been almost blind to the country for so many decades? Some basic information was apparently lost in our understanding of the Middle East. And sometimes, like now, it is necessary to stop up a little and try to understand what happened.

We journalists have to take on some of the blame. Maybe it was too easy just to cover the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Here we often knew what to think and write. And we had long since become accustomed to the Arabs who suffered under Arab dictatorships was not big news. Even if this represented several hundred million people.

After all, it’s us journalists who usually set the agenda on the Middle East issue. But with that comes a responsibility. That we – not only in the last few years, but actually in the last ten, twenty, thirty, forty and fifty years – rarely put ordinary Arabs human rights on the agenda, is a failure. And perhaps it has been easier to just continue to the next item on the agenda, which Syria now today, rather than to ask ourselves why it went so wrong for so many years.

You can say of course that the condition in Syria today is different because so many are killed there every day. But the reason why people were not killed in equal numbers before the rebellion broke out, was not because the conditions were satisfactory. It was because people were afraid to speak their mind. Syrians were held down by fear of the country’s brutal security forces.

The reality today is that President Bashar Assad’s days probably are numbered. It is difficult to imagine how he can survive such a riot and then continue to rule the country. But Bashar just needs to look at his own father, Hafez, to regain hope for the future. While Bashar in the course of 16 months has killed around 20,000,  his father in 1982, killed the same number in just a few days when the inhabitants of the city of Hama rebelled. And ultimately, the world was willing to forget the war crimes; Hafez ruled his country until his death.

But politicians, particularly ministers, must take on much of the responsibility for this historic anomaly. When the Norwegian foreign ministers met with Mubarak in Cairo, the main theme was always the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, not the oppression of the Egyptians. When the foreign ministers met with King Abdullah in Jordan, the main theme was the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, not the suppression of the Jordanians.

And when foreign ministers met with Assad in Damascus was …, well you know the answer. But the answer should not be so obvious. Here is a region where millions upon millions have been brutally held down, oppressed, while this topic essentially is removed from the agenda? As if the problem hardly exists. A political stunt Houdini would have been proud of.

It is not surprising that it was the dictators themselves whomade sure that their human rights violations was kept a non-issue on the diplomatic agenda. Far more surprising was the fact that Western foreign ministers agreed to this. How could these dictators continue to rule in peace, with no apparent pressure from the West.

Sometimes,  Western leaders said that the dictators gave stability, sometimes the dictators were preferable to the Islamists. But even when the West preferred to look the other way, people in the Middle East would one day have had enough, and stand up for themselves – alone. This has not been the finest moment for the West, the cradle of human rights.

But all this talk about how we have failed serves no purpose unless it helps for the future. The time has come for a debate on what went wrong. For, as they say, those who do not learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat the mistakes. Such mistakes cannot be afforded in one of the world’s most dangerous regions.