Defections – the equivalent of UFO sightings in Syria
A few days ago, late night followers of the Twitter hashtag #Syria were treated to what has become a weekly ritual; rumors and reports appeared online on the defection of Syria’s Vice President, Farooq Al-Sharaa, a man who supposedly spent the last few months under house arrest. As the night wore on, Al-Shara was reported to be in Beirut, then in Amman, then in Oman. A Free Syrian Army spokesperson grandly announced the VP’s defection. Al-Arabiya carried the story as certain 100% fact. Much rejoicing ensued on the Twitterverse, and Twitter users who had supposedly predicted the defection were feted way into the early Ramadan hours.
But as morning came, no videos appeared of Al-Shara. No statements, no Vice Presidential spokesperson speaking on his behalf. Nothing whatsoever to prove conclusively that he had left the sinking ship of the SS Bashar. The only “proof” offered up was the weak observation that while the Free Syrian Army hadn’t produced Al-Shara, neither had the regime.
Which is like telling a person who’s skeptical of UFOs that they must exist since the American government won’t open up Area-51 to tourists. The amateurish handling of Farooq Al-Shara’s defection did more to damage the perceived credibility of the opposition’s news sources, than any damage his actual defection might have done to the regime.
Why is Farooq Al-Shara so important, and why is his defection such an obsession with people who follow Syria’s news? Appart from the obvious fact that he is one of the country’s two Vice Presidents, Al-Shara is the highest ranking Sunni in the regime. He is also a native of Dar’a, the cradle of the Syrian Revolution. His defection, had it happened earlier on, would have unmistakably exposed the regime for what it always was; little more than a sectarian militia, devoid of functioning institutions and like a one celled organism, concerned only with its continued existence.
Which is why reports on Farooq-Shara-Defections (FSDs) have been so widely disseminated and watched for over the past year and a half. And like UFO sightings, the fact that the reports turn out to be false does nothing to dampen the hopes of the (FSD) believers, or make them any more skeptical or cautious when the next inevitable rumor surfaces. Like UFO watchers, all it takes is just one report to be true for their beliefs to be validated incontestably.
But contrary to the world shattering consequences the irrefutable proof UFOs will have, under present circumstances the impact of Al-Shara’s defection (were it to ever happen) has now become so low as to be almost trivial. Just look at the manner in which the most recent political defections have happened; a high ranking politician run away in the middle of the night, totally dependent on a network of activists and FSA soldiers to smuggle them through a series of safe houses to the border of some foreign country. The defectors take little more than a suitcase with them, and bring nobody but their closest family. Once safely in Jordan or Qatar, their revelations on the inner workings of the regime prove to be very underwhelming.
By the time they reach the point of actually defecting, the politicians who do so are totally devoid of influence and power, and have to rely completely on the patronage of external parties. The manner in which these individuals have defected, not as grand movers and moulders of history, but that of fugitives on the run, illustrates how little real ability they have left at that point. It is no exaggeration to say that the commander of a Free Syrian Army unit on the ground has more influence and power to shape events than all the recent defections put together.
In Roman history, when Brutus turned on Caesar, it was mortally fatal for the latter. But when Enobarbus deserted Mark Antony, it was like…eh, shrug, so what. From what has been seen of past defections, it is hard to argue against the idea that defectors had become so irrelevant inside the regime, that keeping tabs on them just wasn’t worth the regime’s already overstretched resources.
But even worse than the inevitable anti-climax of an actual FSD, is the way the latest rumors and reports were handled. First, the world was assured by activists that he was outside of Syria. Then, activists claimed that he was still inside the country but in safe hands. Then we were told that proof of his defection couldn’t be provided yet, as it would make his escape harder, as if the regime didn’t have people watching Al-Arabiya or were clueless on who and what to follow on Twitter. The regression in the scope of claims was depressingly predictable.
One couldn’t help comparing propagators of FSD rumors to that of people who claim to have seen a UFO; the initial grand claims that promised so much, turn out to be just insubstantial vapor, with only the existence of Area-51 (“we haven’t proven we got him, but the regime hasn’t proven they have him either!”) to sustain the believers until the next rumor or so called sighting.
If Farooq Shara had indeed deserted the regime, it begs the question as to why his defection was made public before he could be safely spirited out of the country. What purpose does it serve to announce ANY defection, no matter how vague the specifics, until the subject is completely out of the reach of the regime’s retribution. And why, after eighteen months, do defectors still need to be so circumspect, their defections using up time and resources that better befit a commando operation? It means that even after all this time, the regime has more power to hurt those who turn on it, than the defectors do to harm the entity they used to work for. We have seen many political Enobarbus’, we have yet to see one Brutus. A young teenage conscript leaving his unit out of a deep sense of injustice at what he is being ordered to do, is worth a hundred politicians sitting in five star hotels and doing the rounds of media news shows.