A tale of two Sleimans

The abundant Syrian media coverage of Lebanese President Michel Sleiman's visit to Syria contrasts sharply with its almost nonexistent coverage of another Sleiman, the Syrian general who was assassinated earlier this month.
bashar and sleiman
Syrian first lady Asmaa' Al Assad and Lebanese first lady Wafa Suleiman accompany their husbands on an historic visit by the Lebanese President to Syria. R.R.

DAMASCUS, August 19, 2008 (MENASSAT) - The visit of Lebanese President Michel Sleiman to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's palace on August 13 was big news in Syria. "A new era of diplomatic relations between between Syria and Lebanon," several papers headlined.

It was the first visit of a high-ranking Lebanese official to Syria since Syria was forced to end its 29-year security presence in Lebanon in 2005. Relations between the countries have been rocky at best ever since

But  if the Syrian media went all out in covering President Sleiman's visit, they were extremely tight-lipped about in its coverage of the assassination of Syrian General Mohammad Sleiman, a top adviser to President Assad.

Official confirmation of Sleiman's assassination only came on August 6, five days after his death, a reminder of the Syrian media coverage of the assassination of Hezbollah's top military commander, Imad Mighnieh, in Damascus some six months before.

Hezbollah liaison

"Suleiman is an officer in the Arab Syrian army. He was murdered in an assassination, and the investigation is still ongoing,"  was all that President Assad's media adviser, Butheina Sha'ban, had to tell the press.

The official Syrian media has said nothing of the fact that general Sleiman held vital positions militarily, overseeing Syria's arms research and development and heading Syria's army recruitment office. They also negelected to mention that Sleiman was rumored to be Syria's main liaison with Hezbollah in Lebanon, as the Arab news website Al-Bawaba reported.

Only after other Arab media outlets began to report General Sleiman's death was pressure significant enough for Sha'ban to announce the official confirmation of his death, three days after he was buried in his home town of Driekesh.

Both events illustrated the Syrian government's control over official versions of events.

Take the political salvos official media threw at the anti-Syrian Lebanese political parties during president Suleiman's visit. Syria had grown accustomed to harsh treatment by pro-Western Lebanese political parties (the so-called March 14 coalition) ever since the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

In an editorial titled, "Welcome, Lebanon," Al Thawra's editor-in-chief As'ad Abboud’s  said, "Because Lebanon is an independent sovereign country, Syria can only deal with the state of Lebanon… and will not accept claims by any Lebanese political parties that say they represent all of Lebanon.

"All false claims and accusations against Syria and Lebanon are made from faraway capitals to cover up crimes committed in the service of their foreign policy projects. Forces of corruption, domination, and oppression have tried to make Lebanon a problem for Syria."

Here Abboud is making a veiled reference to the Lebanese parliamentary majority's accusations that Syrian leadership had a hand in the 2005 assassination of Hariri.

Media attacks

Another official newspaper, Tishreen, carried an Op-Ed by editor-in-chief Issam Dari, titled "Mending relationships and a step towards the future."

"President Suleiman's visit ushers in a new beginning for both countries," Dari said, adding that the disagreements and fabricated crises aimed at keeping the two countries apart could only be resolved through Lebanese-Syrian cooperation.

Echoing Abboud's editorial, he added that the "hostile projects" of other foreign countries were driving the Syrian-Lebanese split.

In order to learn about the other general Sleiman, Syrians had to rely mostly on the foreign media.

Ironically, it was by lashing out at perceived foreign media bias surrounding the Sleiman assassination that the Syrian media eventually provided some information about the event.

Al Dunya, a Syrian private TV channel, attacked "Saudi-backed" media establishments like the anti-Syrian Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal for "turning Sleiman’s assassination into a media attack on the Syrian government."

It was only through these media attacks that the Syrians learned that general Sleiman was killed by a sniper at the Rimal Al Zahabieh resort, northwest of the town of Tartus.

Al Dunya reported, "What Saudi politics failed to achieve on the ground against the Syrian position of supporting Arab resistance, it is trying to achieve through the media. Saudi media is an official arm of Saudi government policy which seeks to block Syrian attempts at reaching Arab consensus on regional issues."

One Syrian source told TIME magazine that Sleiman's assassination could be connected to the fallout surrounding Imad Mughnieh’s killing last February. After a lengthy Syrian investigation, Arab news sources had claimed that Saudi Arabian intelligence was involved.

Several senior Syrian officers were purged from the intelligence services as a result of the investigation, fueling speculation that "these purges may have created a revenge motive for Sleiman’s assassination."

(MENASSAT correspondents in Syria contributed to this report; their names are withheld for security reasons.)