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Ibrahim Hamidi: 3 reasons to let him go

It’s been several weeks since the Syrian journalist, Ibrahim Hamidi, Al-Hayat’s bureau chief in Damascus and a frequent contributor to The Daily Star, was arrested for allegedly publishing incorrect information.
Those familiar with the goings-on in Syria suggest the arrest is linked to occult Damascene power struggles. Perhaps, however that is irrelevant here.
What isn’t is that a journalist has been detained for doing his job, one he does quite well, with no sign that what he wrote was consciously malicious.
There are three arguments in favor of releasing Hamidi. The first pertains to the article that led to his arrest. The second is practical, and is tied to Hamidi’s being an influential voice on Syrian affairs. The third is more general, and is related to the supposed reform of the Syrian system.
The incriminating article was published in the Dec. 20 issue of Al-Hayat. In it, Hamidi reported that Syria was preparing to receive 1 million refugees in the event of a war in Iraq. The story was based on information from “high-level sources,” but it also contrasted the preparations with Syria’s official line that it would grant no international legitimacy to an American attack.
While Hamidi implied Syrian doublespeak ­ preparations for a war
Syria  officially rejects ­
his article was abundantly factual. He wrote, for
example, that last October President Bashar Assad issued instructions at a meeting of the National Progressive Front that Syria was
to organize itself to receive “hundreds of thousands
of Iraqi refugees.” The
president based this on a desire to stand by “the Iraqi state and people, not the regime and opposition.” Hamidi went on to point out that a ministerial commission under Deputy Prime Minister Naji Atri had been established to implement Assad’s instructions, and that the United Nations Development Program had been contacted for assistance. The article noted that the Syrian Red Crescent had started to set up hospitals in the border area, and that the International Committee of the Red Cross had received Syrian permission to set up a base in Deir al-Zor.
In other words Hamidi wrote a solid article, using local and international sources and citing specific government actions, which demonstrated that Syria intended to deal responsibly with a potential humanitarian crisis. The article not only illustrated Assad’s foresight, it echoed the mood in  Damascus today, where Syrian officials routinely warn that the US is ignoring the possible human toll in any Iraq conflict.
Aspects of the article
irritated some quarters
in Syria. Evidently, the mere fact of preparing
for war, and showing it,
was seen as tantamount to approving of a US military invasion. Not surprisingly, since the arrest officials have denied aspects of Hamidi’s story. How ironic that the denials came as the UN, too, has kept under wraps a study estimating the potential humanitarian cost of an Iraq war, largely for the same reasons as Syrian officials.
A second reason to release Hamidi is that, in his own way, he is among those  most responsible for a nuanced reading of Syrian politics. He is routinely cited in the Western media, and those who have benefited from his analysis can say that Hamidi, though independent, is often far more valuable an advocate of Syrian interests than many government officials.
In his work Hamidi has managed to navigate the difficult path between maintaining journalistic autonomy and explaining Syrian motivations. Such a path may be inevitable in the Syria of today, where reporters remain vulnerable. Thanks to his many contacts, Hamidi has broken noteworthy stories, while only rarely embarrassing the Syrian authorities.
It was he, for example, who in this newspaper wrote an article about the dilemma Syria faced on UN Security Council Resolution 1441. It would be shortsighted not to see how the Syrians benefited from his piece. Arab readers were better able to understand Assad’s predicament and Syria’s subsequent vote in favor of the resolution, while Western readers were given an insight into Syrian pragmatism.
A third reason to let Hamidi go is that we were promised a different kind of  Syria two years ago. In the new Syria people like Hamidi, a proactive and self-made journalist, are not supposed to be punished, but promoted. When Assad came to power, it was plain that he had no use for lifeless apparatchiks who feared merit as a criterion for advancement. Hamidi’s  arrest is their victory.
The arrest, which came soon after Assad’s visit to Britain, harmed the president, whose budding authority is a feature of the new Syria. Assad was resolute in London, an image Hamidi relayed in his article. Yet the arrest suggested dissonance in Syria’s Iraq policy: by claiming Hamidi lied on Syria’s humanitarian efforts, his jailers seemed to oppose the efforts themselves, which the president ordered.
Surely dissonance is not an image Assad wants to project as an Iraq war looms. Syria must convince the rest of the world that while it is opposed to war, it is also a serious interlocutor if war is inevitable.
Syria’s relevance is a running theme in Hamidi’s articles, and detaining him any longer does Syria no good at all.

Michael Young writes a regular column for THE DAILY STAR

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DS: 14/01/03

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