Syria, the Media and Jihad: An Interview with Frédéric Pichon

Syria, the Media and Jihad: An Interview with Frédéric Pichon

The French Syria specialist Frédéric Pichon accuses the Western media of irresponsibility in its treatment of the Syria crisis: of being ignorant about the region and its history, neglecting to verify sources, blithely parroting activist talking points–in short, of “refusing to deal with the reality.” After completing a first degree in Arabic, Pichon lived for many years as a teacher in Beirut, before returning to France, where he completed a doctoral thesis on the Christian minority in Syria. His most recent book is a co-authored volume on “The Geopolitics of the Middle East and North Africa” (Presses Universitaires de France, 2012). John Rosenthal spoke with him for Breitbart News.


JR : The regime of Bashar al-Assad is accused of having violently repressed peaceful protests at the outset of the unrest in Syria, and it is accused of still killing civilians now – even in the last week since the official start of the ceasefire required by the Annan Plan. One NGO in particular is almost invariably cited in Western media reports as the source for these accusations: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). What can you tell us about this organization?

FP: Well, the SOHR has a name that is very reassuring. It is reassuring, notably, for the media. I have experienced this personally in speaking with a journalist from one of France’s leading news channels. When I raised some questions about the organization, the journalist replied, “Really? But it’s got ‘human rights’ in the name!” So, from the point of view of marketing, the name is obviously well-chosen.

But the problem is precisely that so little is known about the SOHR and yet the media continue to use it as source without asking any questions about the accuracy of the casualty numbers it reports or whether all the civilians reported killed were in fact civilians. What we know for sure about the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is that it is not based in Syria. It is based in London. The president of the organization is named Rami Abdel Rahman. But it would appear that no such person even exists. In mid-2011, a few journalists worthy of the name first raised doubts about the matter. The confirmation did not come from pro-regime sources, but rather from the SOHR itself. In January of this year, the SOHR published a notice on its website acknowledging that Rami Abdel Rahman does not exist and explaining that the name is a pseudonym used by various collaborators of the organization. But this has not stopped the AFP, Reuters and other news agencies from continuing to cite “Rami Abdel Rahman, president of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” to this very day!

By the way, the choice of the pseudonym could provide a clue about the group’s orientation. “Abdel Rahman” is a name that has a very definite resonance in Arabic. It means “servant of the Merciful”–“the Merciful” being one of the names given to Allah in the Quran. So, in other words, the name means “servant of Allah .” All the chapters of the Quran begin with the invocation of “Allah, the Merciful.” Muslims will have this invocation engraved in their memory. This is the sort of detail that Westerners have trouble appreciating. But the choice of the name is absolutely not neutral.

JR: The UN observer mission to Syria is in fact the second observer mission to visit Syria in just a matter of months. One hardly hears anything about the first mission, which was undertaken by the Arab League. What happened to the Arab League mission and what were the Arab observers able to ascertain about the situation in Syria?

FP: It’s a good question: Why has the report of the Arab League mission received so little attention? It was, after all, readily available–not only in Arabic, but also in English and in French–by the end of January. It is true that the report reveals certain picaresque aspects of the mission itself. It would appear that some of the observers preferred to stay in their hotel in Damascus, rather than to venture out onto the terrain, as they were supposed to do. But the report also revealed the presence in Syria of what are described as “armed groups” possessing not only light weaponry, but also heavy weaponry, including “armour-piercing projectiles.” All of this is difficult to reconcile with the romantic vision that was prevalent in the Western media at the time and that depicted the opposition as being essentially unarmed. The report likewise found that the French journalist Gilles Jacquier, who was killed in Homs on January 11, was killed by opposition mortar fire, not by Syrian government forces. Perhaps it is because Saudi Arabia unilaterally declared the mission to have been a “failure” that we have heard so little about it.

JR: It is by now generally admitted that jihadist groups are involved in the rebellion against al-Assad, but there is disagreement about the extent and the chronology. On your estimation, how significant a role has Islamic radicalism played in the rebellion and since when have Islamists been involved?

FP: The unrest began in March 2011 in the city of Deraa. At least at the outset, Deraa was the epicenter. This is significant, because Deraa is a city that is known for its ties to Islamic radicalism and has a long history of opposition to the regime. It is a Sunni-majority city that is just across the border from Jordan, where, it should be recalled, the Muslim Brotherhood is a major political force. Numerous jihadists who fought in Iraq are known to have came from Deraa. Dozens were arrested by the Syrian regime on the Iraqi border. It is also notable that Deraa is a kind of Sunni enclave in a region where the majority is Druze. There were no protests in the other towns in the area.

As concerns the involvement of armed Islamist groups, recent terror attacks in Damascus and Aleppo obviously bear the hallmark of al-Qaeda. But my impression is that the jihadist radicalization of the uprising already took place last summer: around late August, early September. It was at this time that some of Syria’s regional neighbors–above all, Saudi Arabia and Qatar–got involved. Libya appears also to have been involved. Several sources have spoken of jihadists and weaponry reaching Syria via Turkey from the Libyan port of Misrata.

Behind all of this, one has to see the role being played by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been attempting to exercise a kind of leadership over the Sunni Arab world in an effort to counter the rising power of Iran. As such, Syria is secondary: it has become a sort of surrogate in this struggle. The opposition between Sunni and Shia is the major source of tension in the region. It is much more important than any opposition between Arabs or Muslims, on the one hand, and Israelis, on the other.

JR: I want ask you about the situation of Christians in Syria. Both your first book and your dissertation are on Christians in the Middle East, and you have spent a lot of time visiting Christian communities in Syria. There have been reports of violence against religious minorities in areas controlled by the Syrian opposition: against Alawis, who are, of course, associated with the al-Assad regime, but also against Christians.

FP: It was perhaps in order to defuse such reports that in January of this year, the Free Syrian Army published an official text providing assurances that the rights of minorities would be respected. The text cited the famous Pact of Umar, a decree that was supposedly issued by the Caliph Umar in the 8th century and that is traditionally cited to demonstrate the protected status that religious minorities or dhimmi enjoy in Islam. The pact, by the way, is a forgery that was written later. All historians agree on this.

JR: But is not the reference to the pact also a way of admitting that the state as such will be Islamic? The state will be Islamic and members of other religious communities will have a subordinate status.

FP: Absolutely. There is in fact nothing in the pact that should be reassuring for minorities or, in particular, for Christians. The spirit of the document is entirely medieval!

JR: And how about under the rule of the Assads? What has been the situation of Christians in Syria under the Assads?

FP: I know one could easily say that this is an argument that can be used by the regime. But, nonetheless, one has to acknowledge the facts. There has really been a sort of “Syrian exception” in the Middle East in this respect: not only with regard to Christians, but also with regards to other religious minorities–the Alawis, of course, but also the Druze. Since the 1970s, the regime succeeded in developing a Syrian national consciousness that makes no confessional distinctions. It is true that this civic consciousness was, in a sense, imposed from above. Every form of confessional politics was associated with “fitna“–“disunion” or “discord”–and was repressed. “Fitna” is originally an Islamic concept, but here it was given a secular usage. I have witnessed the results myself. I have seen in Syria how on Easter the imam from the neighboring mosque will come to visit the church in order to present his best wishes to the priest. And vice-versa: the priest will visit the imam. It is undoubtedly all very formal, very obligatory. But, up to now, it worked.

(Translated from French by John Rosenthal)

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at or on Facebook.