An episode of The Opposite Direction, Al-Jazeera’s flagship live discussion programme, caught the attention of Western commentators this week for apparently backing Israel’s military tactics over those used by Syrian armies.
Faisal Al-Qaseem, the channel’s star journalist, contrasted the Jewish state’s “humanity” in trying to avoid civilian casualties during armed conflict to the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians by the Syrians.
“Why don’t [the Syrians] learn from the Israeli army, which tries, through great efforts, to avoid shelling areas populated by civilians in Lebanon and Palestine?” he asked.
Colonial French rule in Syria in the first half of the 20th century, he continued, can be compared to Israel’s treatment of its opponents.
“Neither the Israelis nor the French killed their people,” he claimed, before demanding of a guest: “Please tell me how many of their people did the French army kill.”
Impressed, veteran Middle East correspondent Tom Gross asked when Western news outlets “will be as honest” as Mr Al-Qaseem.
But context is all.
Al-Jazeera is funded and editorially controlled by the Emir of Qatar, the financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood and large contingents of jihadis in Syria.
So crude has the station’s anti-Assad propaganda become in recent years that dozens of its staff, despite being largely made up of Brotherhood supporters, have resigned in disgust.
By praising Israel, Mr Al-Qaseem’s motive, one suspects, was to denigrate the Syrian regime by comparing it unfavourably even to hated Israel. After all, last year, Al-Jazeera aired a call by its resident quack, Youseff Al-Qaradawi, for genocide against the Shia — on the basis that they are “even more infidel” than the Jews.
That Mr Al-Qaseem was dancing to his paymaster’s tune is obvious from his history of anti-Israeli rhetoric. On the same programme in 2004, he offered a largely glowing assessment of Osama bin Laden, but faulted his failure to attack Israel. “Where is his struggle, his jihad against Israel? Why are we not seeing it?”, he asked.
Seeing through Mr Al-Qaseem’s shenanigans should have been easy, especially given his comments on the “benign” French occupation.
During the 1925 Syrian revolt alone, French troops killed an estimated 6,000 rebels, hung mutilated corpses in squares throughout Syria and displaced over 100,000 civilians.
The population of Syria at the time was 3 million compared to 23 million today, meaning that the French were, if anything, proportionately at least as murderous as the Assad regime
Do we really want to champion such a comparison with Israel? Instead, we should perhaps reflect on how the enemy’s enemy is not always a friend.
John R Bradley is the author of four books on the Middle East