October 31, 2006 | The Mideast Monitor

Syrian-Saudi Media Wars

The recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah produced a dramatic resurgence of Saudi-Syrian tensions, which have been boiling beneath the surface since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and fueled by Assad's strategic alignment with Iran.

While Saudi Arabia (along with Egypt and Jordan) criticized Hezbollah's July 12 raid into Israel as reckless, Syrian President Bashar Assad cheered on the radical Shiite Islamist group. After the fighting ended, Assad escalated the war of words by calling Arab leaders (whom he refrained from mentioning by name) “half men” for failing to support the struggle against Israel. When the media of the targeted countries retaliated with a barrage of anti-Syrian material, Assad dispatched a secret envoy to Saudi Arabia to try and patch things up,[1] but King Abdullah refused to receive him (this after Bashar himself was reportedly refused an audience).[2]

For Assad, the problem with waging a media war against the Saudis is that most educated Arabs read Saudi-financed print media (e.g. Al-Hayat, Al-Sharq al-Awsat), while few outside Syria (or inside) read the Assad regime's state-run newspapers (Tishrin, Al-Thawra, and Al-Baath). Syria's riposte was therefore launched through two Internet outlets controlled by Assad's inner circle, Cham Press and Syria News.

Assad's Internet Media

Cham Press is published by the Independent Media Group, headed by Baathist journalist Ali Jamalo,[3] best known for denouncing outgoing Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam at the June 2005 Baath Party conference, burnishing Assad's narrative of being besieged by “old guard” reactionaries bent on stopping political and economic liberalization.[4] After Khaddam's defection in December 2005, Jamalo ran several articles in Cham Press “exposing” the former vice president's illicit wealth, replete with scathing comments ostensibly from Syrian citizens.

Cham Press was initially financed by Muhammad Hamsho, a Sunni Damascene merchant said to be “a longtime front for the shady business deals of Maher Assad.”[5] Following a behind-the-scenes political-business fight between Bashar and Maher over a satellite television venture, Hamsho was briefly arrested early this year and his business offices were raided.[6] Bashar then took Cham Press away from Hamsho and handed it over to his powerful cousin, Rami Makhlouf.[7] Cham Press, once supervised by Maher's office, is now said to be affiliated directly with the Presidential Palace, with Jamalo still at the editorial helm.

Syria News is said to be owned by Firas Tlass, the son of former Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass and a close ally of the president. Military Intelligence Chief Assef Shawkat (the husband of Assad's sister, Bushra) is reportedly the overseer of Syria News.[8]

After Abdullah snubbed Assad, Cham Press and Syria News went on the offensive against the Saudis. On August 27, Cham Press quoted a “knowledgeable source” accusing the Saudis of preventing Russian arms from reaching Syria at a time when Israelis were poised to attack at any moment (a position he was sure to contrast the with that of a neighboring “non-Arab” country that did allow arms to reach Syria). The source noted that while Assad had called on Arab leaders to “side with their people,” the Saudis provided “cover for the [Israeli] aggression” against Lebanon, because they “cannot afford to see Hezbollah victorious.”[9] The cartoon at right was featured in this article (the caption reads, “The world's eighth wonder”).

On September 4, Syria News published an article alleging that the Saudi military attaché in Syria had been trying to persuade (presumably Sunni Arab) tribal leaders to revolt against the regime. The article went on to quote an anonymous “informed source” as saying that Saudi Arabia has long “worked against Syria's interests, trying to tighten the noose around it and to destabilize it.” The source went on to accuse Saudi Arabia of “providing an Arab cover for the Israeli attacks on Lebanon” and preventing Iranian planes with “humanitarian supplies” from using its airspace.[10] Accompanying the article were the comments of an “ordinary” Syrian citizen, accusing the Saudi government of sponsoring al-Qaeda to murder Shiites in Iraq, colluding with Israel over the Iranian nuclear issue, and encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood to resume its “terrorist war” against the Syrian people.[11]

A Cham Press article published the same day accused the Saudis of paying Khaddam $80 million “to fabricate lies against his homeland and his people.”[12] The article, which contrasted Saudi backstabbing with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's support for Syria, was accompanied by the cartoon at left (the caption reads, “Aren't you ashamed O Arabs? Venezuela pulls its ambassador and you sit there and watch?”).

The following day, another Cham Press article expanded on the alleged conspiracy by “the kingdom of dust” (mamlakat al-habaa'). As with most of the regime's anti-Saudi propaganda, the article implied that King Abdullah himself is unaware of the anti-Syrian plot being hatched in his midst. The “spearhead” of this conspiracy is Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who is said to be part of an American-Israeli project to sideline Abdullah and his “[Arab] nationalist leanings,” while the “coordinator” is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who is accused of meeting with Khaddam, Rifaat Assad (Bashar's estranged uncle), and other exiled dissidents during a trip to Europe in August (the Cham Press web site later displayed the cover of a new book on Prince Bandar, with a link to a short review in Arabic that blasted the prince as the “illegitimate son of a maid”[13] ). The article was accompanied by the cartoon at right (the caption on the bloated belly of the Gulf Arab reads: “political congestion”).[14]

The same article quotes an anonymous “Western expert,” who explains the “Bedouin thinking” behind Saudi policy. The Saudis, he contends, were bent on ousting Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and bolstering the power of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in a conspiracy to “grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees [in Lebanon] and sign a peace treaty with Israel.” When Syria and Hezbollah stood in the way of these plans, he explained (while careful to note that it was the Israelis who killed Hariri), the Saudis enlisted Khaddam.

Although Assad doesn't have a Saudi Khaddam (or, for that matter, $80 million to easily spare), his Internet media outlets have given extensive coverage to the establishment in August of a Saudi opposition party by Talal Muhammad al-Rashid, whose family ruled the Hael region (in Najd) of the Arabian Peninsula in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before it was taken over by the Saud family. From Paris, the group called for a revolution against the Saudi royal family to “introduce democracy” and announced that a TV station and newspaper would be launched from Europe within months to spread this message.[15]

The same story was highlighted again by Syria News weeks later.[16] Al-Rashid was quoted as accusing the Saudi ruling family of “conspiring against the Palestinian cause,” and “us[ing] financial supports as a cover for its conspiracy against the project for Arab unity.”[17]

To a lesser degree, both media outlets also disparaged Egypt, Jordan and other pro-American Arab governments, highlighting Syria as the only authentic and steadfast supporter of “resistance” to Israel, and (implicitly) justifying its alliance with non-Arab Iran. One report said that Israel and six Arab countries (including Jordan and Egypt) were involved in joint military training.[18] It was complemented by a cartoon [at right] depicting Arabs bundled in pants painted with the American flag, with a caption reading “Arab unity.”

Another article appeared after a ship carrying air-defense radar systems was intercepted by Cyprus and prevented from reaching Syria. The article accused the Egyptians of tipping Interpol about the ship, and repeated much of the same kind of criticism as the one directed against Saudi for not allowing planes carrying “aid” from using its airspace.[19]

Oddly, Cham Press had run a piece just four days earlier on the visit of deputy Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad to Egypt, which highlighted President Hosni Mubarak calling Syria “a sisterly state despite some public statements” and Mekdad calling Syrian-Egyptian relations “strategic.” [20]

This schizophrenia is also evident in the regime-controlled Internet media's coverage of Saudi Arabia. In mid-September, Cham Press ran a story on Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal's trip to Jedda for a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), entitled “Beginning of an entente in Saudi-Syrian relations.” It cited sources close to the information minister as claiming that Bilal met with Saudi “leaders,” who are expected to “seriously change their dealings with the Syrian file and stop the organized campaigns against the Syrian administration and highlighting opposition figures trying to create waves inside Syria.”[21] Similarly, Syria News reported a “relative improvement” in relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia.[22]

A September 20 Cham Press article accused “Jordanian, Egyptian, and Saudi” intelligence services of being very active in Lebanon, having set up intelligence centers in Sidon, the Beqaa, Beirut and the north, and having placed its agents in the offices of Hariri's Future Party. The Jordanians got the worst rap in the article, which accused them of “rehabilitating” the militia of Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces (LF).[23]

Syria's anti-Saudi propaganda reached new heights after King Abdullah and Prince Sultan reportedly hosted Abdul Halim Khaddam in October. An “opinion” piece in Cham Press, entitled “Israeli-Saudi relations: from Adnan Khashoggi to King Abdullah, through Prince Bandar . . .,” broke all the taboos, most notably by attacking Abdullah for the first time, and concluded as follows:

Are these types fit – morally, politically, dogmatically – to be custodians of the holy places of the Hejaz? Do Muslims feel that the two shrines are safe when they are “captives” in the hands of the likes of Bandar bin Sultan and Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz and Saud al-Faisal, and their little boys such as Adnan Khashoggi?! If the answer is “no” then the question becomes, when will these “sacred places” return to their people, and how?[24]

If Assad's Internet sludge campaign was intended to pressure the Saudis into a truce, it was a failure. Perhaps it was too reminiscent of the years before Hafez Assad's seizure of power in 1970, when the late Syrian President Salah Jadid launched propaganda attacks against the Saudis. The reaction then was not what the Baathist regime had hoped – the Saudis nullified trade agreements and rendered financial assistance to opposition elements in Syria.[25]


Hypertext links to publication names (e.g. Cham Press) are directed to the urls of the articles in question.

  [1] Most informed observers speculated that the envoy was Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, but the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyasah reported (6 September 2006) that the envoy was none other than Asef Shawkat.
  [2] Al-Siyasah, 21 August 2006. Unnamed Saudi sources told Elaph that the delegate was allowed to meet only with low-ranking officials, who told him that Assad had reneged on unspecified promises to the Saudi monarch. Elaph, 5 September 2006.
  [3] Jamalo previously worked as Al-Jazeera's agent and production contractor in Syria (until he was fired in 2002) and as a correspondent for Abu Dhabi TV.
  [4] Of all people!? Syria Today, January 2006.
  [5] Amarji-A Heretic's Blog, 9 March 2006. A dossier published on a pro-Khaddam website details alleged business deals, monopolies, and other shady transactions that Hamsho ran on behalf of Maher Assad. They included telecommunications and satellite deals. For instance, Hamsho was the exclusive agent of the Abu Dhabi “al-Thuraya” satellite mobile services company. :
  [6] Levant News (online), 8 March 2006.
  [7] Transparent Syria, 27 April 2006.
  [8] Al-Siyasah, 6 September 2006.
  [9] Cham Press, 27 August 2006.
  [10] Syria News, 4 September 2006.
  [11] Syria News, 4 September 2006.
  [12] Cham Press, 4 September 2006. This article has been pulled from the site.
  [13] Cham Press, 18 September 2006.
  [14] Cham Press, 5 September 2006. This article has been pulled from the site.
  [15] Cham Press, 11 August 2006.
  [16] Syria News, 14 September 2006.
  [17] Other breaches of the etiquette were evident in an article airing gossip about alleged infighting among the Saudi princes over inheritance money. Cham Press, 5 September 2006. The article was titled, “the series of scandals in the kingdom of dust . . . fights over property and billions of dollars.”
  [18] Cham Press, 5 September 2006.
  [19] Cham Press, 8 September 2006. Another article accused the Saudis of preventing 120 Syrian trucks carrying tomatoes from entering Saudi Arabia, and claimed that the drivers were treated badly [Cham Press, 4 September 2006]. This was likely payback for alarabiya.net which ran stories about how Saudi tourists fleeing Lebanon through Syria were abused and robbed (and forced to pay ridiculously high fees and bribes at the border), even beaten and incarcerated, by Syrian customs and security agents.
  [20] Cham Press, 4 September 2006.
  [21] Cham Press, 15 September 2006.
  [22] Syria News, 14 September 2006. The article was quick to add that “Saudi Arabia [still] holds against Syria its cooperation with Iran but does not offer any alternative that could safeguard Arab interests.”
  [23] Cham Press, 20 September 2006. The article claimed that members of the LF who were wanted by the Syrians during their occupation of Lebanon had been in hiding in Jordan, where they were given military training. The report also said that Jumblatt's second in command, Marwan Hamade, had received a military shipment from Israel.
  [24] Cham Press, 21 October 2006. Another article that appeared the same day said in the headline, “the kingdom of dust, with its rulers, the ignoramuses of the house of Saud, returns to its dirty game.” Cham Press, 21 October 2006.
  [25] Joseph Mann, “The Syrian Neo-Ba'th Regime and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 1966-70,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 42, No. 5, September 2006, pp.761-776.


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