Comment is free and you get what you pay for


Yesterday, The Guardian’s Comment is Free opinion section published an online article by Charlie Skelton, purporting to be an anatomy of various Syrian opposition spokespeople. Bizarrely, HJS Communication Director Michael Weiss, who is neither Syrian nor an opposition spokesman, was included in the potted “profiles” put out by Mr Skelton, a former pornographic film critic turned comedy writer. Below, Weiss replies to Guardian editor Charlie English.

Dear Mr English,

I suppose I might be flattered that The Guardian has seen fit to characterise me as a Syrian opposition spokesman, a role that I’d be proud to inhabit if ever called upon. But Charlie Skelton’s piece, “The Syrian opposition: Who’s doing the talking?” for your Comment is Free website reads like something more at home at Lyndon LaRouche PAC or David Ickes’ website than it does at the leading liberal broadsheet.

I’ll leave it to you to assess the general tone and style of this emission, but a few factual errors and convenient elisions merit going over.

Skelton attempts to descry a vast conspiracy whereby actual Syrian opposition figures and the Henry Jackson Society, the think tank for which I work, collectively propagandise on behalf of the overthrow of the Assad regime and the glorification of key individuals opposed its rule.

The Henry Jackson Society is a registered UK charity that fuses human rights advocacy work with research and investigative journalism. Among its advisors and patrons are trans-Atlantic politicians and statesmen, academics and policy experts from all parties and political persuasions. Yet for all that, the vast majority of the Society’s Syria policy is and always has been determined solely by me as I am the in-house expert on the country and have written or co-written several briefing reports on the Syrian uprising and how Western governments might approach it. Skelton’s puerile treatment of some of our affiliates and patrons as an indication of how we determine our position is a non sequitur. Every person he names is a person I’ve neither met nor corresponded with since joining this organisation. They could all disagree with me, for all I know.

Skelton claims that my “relationship” with Ausama Monajed, a Syrian National Council (SNC) member and sometime media spokesperson for the Council, could “not be closer.”  Strange, because I have not spoken to, seen or corresponded with Ausama in several months and that last time we did exchange emails it was for an on-the-record quotation for an article I was writing that was critical of the Syrian National Council (more about which later).

The briefing I wrote on military intervention, to which Skelton generously alludes to as being the most detailed of any such offering in the field, was first released by the Henry Jackson Society in late December 2011.

It was then — with our permission — repurposed, updated and translated into Arabic for re-release by Ausama’s think tank Strescom. Why? Because he asked if I had any detailed thoughts on intervention following a Telegraph blog post in which I suggested that no-fly and no-drive zones might now be the only way to save the country from barbarism, a position which I note has since been echoed by several Guardian editors and contributors. Skelton neglects to say that I myself had been opposed to intervention in Syria as late as August 2011 when President Obama announced his policy of regime change. You can read my thoughts on the matter here, if you like.

I changed my mind, in print, because of the mounting butcher’s bill and the failure of the Syrian army to defect en masse. One would imagine an “ultra-ultra hawkish” think tank, as Skelton terms HJS, to have to called for air strikes and the rest of it from day one of the uprising. Perhaps just one “ultra” would have sufficed, then.

Skelton also fails to mention that Strescom has either published or republished the work of many Syria experts on everything from post-Assad economics to judicial reform. My involvement in its activities extends no further than what I have described above. As to Skelton’s silly attempt to claim that Ausama has acted as my personal press secretary for media appearances on Syria, I can assure you that he has not. I was put on Strescom’s press release about the intervention report for the simple reason that I wrote the bloody thing. I also happen to be the Communications Director of the Henry Jackson Society, which I means that I handle all our own media work. The implication that I’d need a Syrian opposition figure to arrange for my BBC or Al Jazeera bookings, much less to determine my stance on any particular issue, would no doubt be grounds for my termination.

Skelton sees an extraordinary conspiracy where there simply is none.

Again, as to that “closeness”, I have treated Ausama’s own various media statements since he joined the Syrian National Council (SNC) with a fair degree of scepticism, as I have the activities of the SNC in general. See this piece I wrote for Foreign Policy magazine, for instance, about the regime’s retaking of Baba Amr and the SNC’s attempt to form a military advisory council to liaise with the Free Syrian Army.

To quote from the piece:

The council’s media spokesman, Ausama Monajed, responded to an email inquiry asking who would sit on the new military bureau by stating that FSA leader Riad al-Asaad, retired Brig. Gen. Akil Hashem, and Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, and others “have [all] been contacted and [are] on board.”

Reports, however, already suggest that Asaad wasn’t even consulted about the new bureau, and Hashem has declined to head the organization due to an acrimonious argument with SNC President Burhan Ghalioun. And more bad news: Turkey has refused to host the new bureau.

Skelton also relies on my co-authorship of an HJS report with Hamza Fakher as supposed evidence that Hamza, Ausama and I regularly meet in smoke-filled rooms to plot NATO strategy for the Levant. In point of fact, Hamza no longer works for Strescom, a factual error which I hope will be corrected in the piece. But Hamza and I became friendly long before he went to work there. He was a source of mine. I interviewed him twice when he was living in Damascus as an anti-regime activist and media fixer, using the pseudonym for him of “Farid.”  The first interview was for my Telegraph blog and the second was for a more extensive piece I published in The Atlantic about Hamza’s hasty and dangerous escape from Damascus once the mukhabarat had been alerted to his identity.

Curious that Skelton also seems not to have read the report that Hamza and I co-authored for HJS. Or perhaps he did read it and for that reason declined not to give its full title: “Revolution in Danger: A Critical Appraisal of the Syrian National Council with Recommendations for Reform“.

This briefing explained how the SNC had failed to live up to its remit, had scandalised itself through administrative and strategic incompetence, and had very plainly become a vehicle dominated and controlled by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

So here is a basic question I’d expect any qualified Guardian contributor to ask: Why would someone who “could not be closer” to Ausama Monajed and a then-active employee of Ausama Monajed co-author a highly critical analysis of the organisation to which Ausama Monajed belonged and for which he served as media spokesperson? Might there be a measure of independent-mindedness here on the part of Hamza and myself that Skelton didn’t quite deem necessary for feverish thesis? And what does this say of my involvement with other SNC members “profiled” in the piece such as Basma Kodmani and Radwan Ziadeh? (Radwan’s brother Yassin was arrested by Syrian Air Force security last August. I wonder if that might not be a motive for his hyperactive commentary on Syria.)

Skelton goes to great lengths to suggest that my writing for NOW Lebanon is somehow part of an intricate marketing scheme contrived by Saatchi & Saatchi, which, if that weren’t laughable enough, also glaringly misses NOW Lebanon’s placement in arcane firmament of internal Lebanese politics. He claims that my articles for that outlet were “interventionist” in nature, yet he does not mention that three of them were dispatches from Hatay province, Turkey, in which I interviewed or profiled Syrian refugees and rebels, asking their thoughts on how the West ought to confront Assad. The Syrians did the talking, in other words. But no doubt the men and women and children living in tents in Antakya are neoconservative operatives in thrall to the Bilderberg Group. Time will tell.

Finally, not only have I written extensively about all aspects of the Syrian revolution myself, but I’ve also helped put other journalists in touch with on-the-ground sources. They include Liz Sly from the Washington Post, Deborah Amos from National Public Radio, and Austin Tice, who is currently embedded with rebel battalions and stringing for McClatchy Newspapers. He got into Syria through one of my contacts, in fact.  Had Skelton rung me up, I’d have gladly explained all this to him and invited him to reconcile it with his notion of a tightly regulated media campaign.

It seems some subjects merit closer scrutiny for Charlie Skelton. In relation to the 9/11 “Truther” movement, whose events he has serially attended, Skelton wrote in The Guardian in 2009: “Nano-thermite is a question. Truth is a question. 9/11 is a question. But here’s something I really don’t understand: when did it become uncool to ask questions? When did questioners become imbeciles?”

I’ll extend to the author the courtesy he chose not to extend to me or several other Syrians far braver than I and refrain from answering that last query for him.

Yours truly,

Michael Weiss

P.S. I cannot help but notice that whenever the subject of intervention in Syria seems to be gaining traction in international fora, Comment is Free always manages to put out a crankish piece that blackens the reputation of the Syrians calling for it. Right after the Houla massacre, Patrick Seale contributed one in which he suggested that the Syrian rebels committed the atrocities themselves — a conspiracy theory I’ve only seen elsewhere recycled by pro-Assad websites and The National Review. Seale’s piece also seemed to conflict rather starkly with the (excellent) news reporting that the newspaper produced on Houla. I’d hate to think that there is now an inverse ideological relationship between humanitarian imperative and reason in The Guardian’s comment pages.


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