The day Syria came to Doha

Whatever the agenda of Al Jazeera as it pertains to the Syrian crisis, one thing is for certain, there was no agenda in Fahad’s tears, nor in the embraces of his colleagues.

Events in Syria this week took a dramatic twist with the explosion of a bomb which ripped through one of the most secure buildings in Damascus killing four of Bashar al Assad’s closest security advisors.

This article is not about that, but the extraordinary scenes that I was fortunate enough to witness at the beating heart of Qatar’s soft power in the region, Al Jazeera, as the course of the day’s events unfolded.

The day of the bombing, I spent much of the day at Al Jazeera Arabic in my capacity as a military and strategic analyst for my Institute, having been asked to provide analysis and comment on the rapidly changing military events that were taking place as the rebels made their push for Damascus. A busy, but otherwise not unusual day, given the severity of events. I prepared for the usual commentary lines discussing prospects for intervention, UN Security Council resolutions and whether the rebels could hold their recent gains.

Then came the bomb, and everything changed. The station went into overdrive, with journalists and producers taking to the phones desperately trying to confirm what had happened. Information and rumours were rife and seemingly nothing could be verified, confusion was the order of the day. But all of a sudden the confirmed news of the death of Assad’s brother in law Assaf Shawkat filtered through.

What followed were remarkable scenes; the Syrians in the news room erupted in joy. Shouts and cheers spread across the room, people jumped out of their seats and ran to each other embracing so tightly that one might confuse them for family or long lost lovers.

One production assistant, Fahad, a resident of Idlib whose cousins had been detained and tortured for months by the Assad regime collapsed into the chair next to me and burst into uncontrollable tears. The pain of 18 months of death and suffering was it seems, too much for him to bear. The tears I can only assume were a mixture of both grief and joy, which my very British pats on the back did nothing to assuage. His colleagues helped him up, only for his legs once again to give way underneath him, as he fell hysterical at my feet.

It is hard to forget the sight of these few men and women and their reactions, indeed something in the air changed that day. A sense perhaps that finally their country might see freedom after months of struggle, bloodshed and hard work to bring the stories out of Syria to ensure that the world had the chance to hear and see what was happening.

Al Jazeera often gets blamed for agendaizing the Arab revolutions; imparting its stamp on the political affairs of other nations and twisting their direction in the shape of Qatar’s wants and needs. This may be true; it may not be true, but whatever the agenda of Al Jazeera as it pertains to the Syrian crisis, one thing is for certain, there was no agenda in Fahad’s tears, nor in the embraces of his colleagues.

In a previous column I wrote that, ‘the Arab Spring will not come to Doha’. I was wrong, because for a brief few moments I saw the same passion, energy and emotion that lights the streets of Homs, Hama and Deir az Zour, and the joy that spread across swathes of Syria when some of their most hated oppressors met their untimely end. The pictures on the streets of Idlib were replicated inside the studio, the news was it seemed being made as much in Al Jazeera as it was in Syria itself.

If the scenes which greeted the departure of Assaf Shawkat were anything to go by, I cannot even begin to imagine the scenes when Assad finally, after so much bloodshed and pain, is relieved of his position and allows Syria once again to be free.

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About the author

Michael Stephens is a Researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Qatar, follow him on Twitter @MStephensGulf