In Middle East, Conspiracy Theories Over Syria Abound

The case to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons arsenal moves to the U.N. next week. The White House says a U.N. report released this week confirms that Syria's regime used poison gas against its citizens. But Russian officials beg to differ. The dueling narratives are fueling conspiracy theories in the Middle East.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Next week, the U.N. will take up the case to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. The White House says a recent U.N. report confirms Syria's regime used poisoned gas against its citizens. But Russian officials say the report is biased and incomplete. That gap between Russian and American statements is fueling conspiracy theories in the Middle East, as Arab audiences take in these dueling narratives. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Amman.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Here in Jordan, the first reactions to a chemical attack in a neighborhood east of the Syrian capital was shock. The distance between Jordan's border and downtown Damascus is less than an hour's drive. But there's been debate ever since about who launched the attack. You can hear the arguments in downtown Amman, at a market where Abu Mua sells sweets.

ABU MUA: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: I really can't say if Assad did it or not, he says. Also, the rebels in Syria, we don't know anymore who they really are. Syria's president continues to insist he didn't order an attack on August 21st, certainly not at a time when U.N. inspectors were in Damascus. It's an argument that plays to Jordanian perceptions that the Assad regime is brutal but too smart to make that kind of mistake, says political analyst Yasar Qatarneh with the Crisis Management Initiative in Amman.

YASAR QATARNEH: Many Jordanians, not few, would say that, who told you that he did it. It doesn't make sense.

AMOS: A U.N. report released last week, 38 pages of detailed analysis, was seen in Western capitals as a compelling case against the Syrian government. But it didn't register with audiences here, says Ramzy Mardini, an American analyst based in Jordan.

RAMZY MARDINI: You don't see, in terms of the media here, a smoking gun. And people will believe whatever they want to believe.

AMOS: And there are plenty of sources. Moscow's top diplomat, Sergey Lavrov, insisted again this week that there are grounds to believe the attack was staged by rebels. He'll deliver evidence, he said, to the Security Council supplied by the Syrian government. The blame game is important. As the U.N. considers a resolution to dismantle Syria's chemical arsenal, the Russians say the resolution must steer clear of any punitive threats.

But at the heart of the who-done-it debate is a contradiction, says Jordanian opinion writer Labib Kamhawi. If the Syrian regime didn't order the attacks then why agree to give up the arsenal?

LABIB KAMHAWI: They don't have to explain that. They feel that they have done something smart to keep the regime in power. And the only thing that matters, at the end of the day, is not the country. It is the survival of the regime.

AMOS: A move that strengthens Assad's position, he says, and took the threat of U.S. strikes off the table. The Assad regime believed the U.S. was ready.

KAMHAWI: The ships were there, the destroyers were there, the plans were there. They could not call the bluff because it could have cost them everything.

AMOS: Now the price is a robust media campaign to blame the rebels ahead of the U.N. vote. The Syrian regime has more than Russian allies. A Lebanese-born Carmelite nun based in Syria is playing a leading role. Sister Agnes-Miriam says her personal investigation concludes the attack was a rebel operation. She provided no evidence but Russia's foreign minister endorsed her conclusions and she's been quoted extensively by the Russian media.

Sister Agnes even gave an interview on a surprise visit to Jerusalem. I love Israel, she told Ha'aretz Newspaper. Israel is also threatened by radical Islamists, as is Syria, she says. And only President Bashar al-Assad can save Syria from al-Qaida. It's the same argument that Syria's president makes, says Yasar Qatarneh.

QATARNEH: We did realize in Jordan that for Bashar, he has got another chance to prove that he is the best option.

AMOS: An option that the U.S. and Russian agreement ensures, at least until the chemical weapons are dismantled, but the war of perceptions goes on, says Ramzy Mardini, and the U.S. is losing the battle in the region.

MARDINI: The U.S. reaction was far too fast to blame one side that it caused people to become suspicious around here.

AMOS: And he says, the Syrians and the Russian allies are trying to plant doubt, hoping to get a better deal at the Security Council.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Amman.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.