Israeli Says Syrian Media Misreported Exile's Views

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A public relations controversy erupted Saturday after a leading Israeli newspaper published comments from a brief interview with the leader of Syria's main exile opposition group.

The news media outlets of the Syrian government, and its ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, reported that the opposition leader had declared that Israel had "nothing to fear" from a rebel-led Syrian government. Moreover, the reports said, the opposition was working with other countries to keep Syria's chemical weapons away from Hezbollah, which he called a "son of the devil."

But the opposition leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, never said any of that, according to the article in the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, and its author, a prominent Israeli defense expert, Ronen Bergman.

Sheik Khatib was quoted in the article reiterating the opposition's promise to keep Syria's chemical arsenal out of "the hands of unauthorized elements," and it was the international community, he said, not Israel, that had "nothing to fear."

When Sheik Khatib realized that Mr. Bergman was an Israeli -- after glancing at his business card -- he abruptly ended the conversation, Mr. Bergman said in a Skype interview, repeating what he had written.

The original article was published only in Hebrew -- and only in print -- so it was the Arabic and English versions put out by the Syrian government and Hezbollah that raced around the Internet on Saturday, provoking outrage from government supporters and opponents at Sheik Khatib, who posted a message on his Facebook page denying that he had given the interview.

Yet the episode appeared to have been more than a simple misunderstanding. Syria's conflict is not only a shooting war but also a propaganda war. Pro-government media apparently could not resist the chance to bolster their contention that the rebellion had been promoted by Israel and the West to punish Syria and its president, President Bashar al-Assad, for taking uncompromising positions against Israel.

"Unfortunately, the original text was less exciting," Mr. Bergman said. "I would be happy if he would say something like, 'Yes, we will make peace with Israel' -- then I would get the front page." As it was, the article elicited little reaction in Israel.

But misrepresentation of the article suggested that it hit a nerve on one issue. An unnamed opposition member, not Sheik Khatib, called Hezbollah "sons of the devil," according to Mr. Bergman, and said the rebel coalition was working with other countries to ensure that "not one piece of military equipment, not chemical weapons and not any other item, will pass into their hands."

Syria is Hezbollah's main conduit for arms, and Hezbollah has backed Mr. Assad's bloody crackdown at great cost to its popularity in the wider Arab world.

Although Mr. Bergman said the opposition member was offering his own opinion and not presenting official policy, his comments bolstered the widely held view that a rebel-led government might halt the shipment of Iranian arms through Syria to Hezbollah. Hezbollah, a Shiite group and political party, is also concerned about the rise within the rebel movement of extremist Sunni jihadists who view Shiites as apostates.

The misleading reports appeared to be an attempt to further divide the opposition. Sheik Khatib found himself fending off critics from within the anti-Assad movement who objected to his even speaking with an Israeli reporter, though by all accounts he did not initially realize that Mr. Bergman was an Israeli.

It was the second time in a month that Sheik Khatib found himself on the defensive. He recently proposed talks with members of Mr. Assad's government, but had not built political support for the proposal.

On Friday, Syria's information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, gave the first official response to the proposal, saying that the government would negotiate with any opposition members who agreed to lay down their arms.

On Saturday, Mr. Assad named new cabinet ministers for oil, finance, social affairs, labor, housing, public works and agriculture, as Syria faces growing economic problems and shortages of electricity, fuel and bread.

Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem. Hania Mourtada contributed reporting from Beirut.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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