Syria the Maligned

The Syrian War Was as Much About Propaganda as Militias on the Ground 
It’s difficult to choose what is worse: President Donald Trump’s apparent ignorance – let’s give him the benefit of the doubt – or the typical American mainstream media’s Middle East bias, influenced permanently by concerns for Israel’s interests. 

After blasting the Asad regime in Syria for perpetrating crimes against its own people, continually failing to distinguish between actual rebels and Islamist fighters (fighting for quite different outcomes), in an  editorial dated July 20, The New York Times warns that countless mistakes made by the Trump Administration could trigger a war with Iran. That is a rather rational, even well-balanced, concern, which contrasts with the famous New York newspaper’s stance on Syria typified by editorials such as this one

Misinformation and Syria 
America’s recent wars have made rather abundant use of misinformation, if not outright lies, by exercising a kind of media hegemony, which has presented a narrative to secure public support for action. The American government and media machine did the same for Iraq, of course. But, then there was a greater sense of urgency and, more importantly, with US 'boots on the ground,' legitimacy. America and its allies would in Syria, it was suggested, intervene to stop a dictator in the middle of an ongoing internal conflict, rather than themselves provoking one, as happened in March 2003. 

In Iraq, the U.S. military lubricated its mission for public consumption through the intensive use of so-called embedded journalists. They would report the action as experienced by the soldiers, unfiltered and live. It helped create a sense of identification, sympathy and appreciation for the courage of the troops. Yet those who control the ‘production’ can also create the information, to suit their needs. There then was, especially in the first few weeks or months of the Iraq war, much ado about misinformation. The media and journalists became necessary ‘weaponry’ at the service of invading armies. The armies would serve as the means to export the ‘democracy’ demanded by the 43d President George W Bush, while the journalists would deliver the necessary consensus such that the U.S government, and those of its allies, could better lead its 21st century interpretation of a crusade. 

Australian political economist Tim Anderson, has analyzed the much more recent Syrian case in detail in his essay, "The dirty war against Syria” (published, 2016). Anderson makes an important point about the recent war in Syria, (one that "Newnations" which has covered it throughout, has often emphasized). The media generally has variously presented the Syrian conflict as a civil war, or a popular uprising which is only partly true. Framing the conflict in such a way, has allowed the various powers involved to pursue regime change under – at first sight – hidden or false pretenses. The same media-government alliance has done this repeatedly in the Middle East and North Africa region over the last fifteen years, of course. Anderson has essentially accused the mainstream media (especially the liberal media), the most noteworthy examples of which might be The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian of having produced little more than propaganda. 

The United States has never stopped pursuing the goal of reshaping the Middle East, using 'it's clout' to favor its main regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Syria continues to offer a chance to please both simultaneously, with one war. The idea of disintegrating Syria into several ethnic states - divide and conquer - was perhaps the best-case scenario where Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh were concerned. The governments in these three capitals have encouraged an asymmetrical conflict engaging guerrilla warfare and 'ad hoc' or mercenary armies. Tim Anderson says that the rebel groups have used a manipulative narrative (see 'the White Helmets', chemical weapon allegations, refugees, etc.). But he correctly puts more blame on the "New York Times" or "The Guardian", for having forsaken their own duty to offer context and to employ a more critical, less superficial eye – disappointing, since both are renowned quality newspapers, usually reliable. 

[Not all western media failed in this way The 'i' successor to "the Independent" a UK newspaper, with excellent mid-east coverage, revealed after the long siege and the eventual capture of that large area of Aleppo occupied by rebels (mostly Al Qaeda's local organisation, Al Nusra), that throughout the siege, the regular TV and ‘still’ clips of bombing destruction were selected and ‘copy’ supplied each day, to the world media, from within the embattled city, by the rebels. Western and other Scribblers and Snappers, were not allowed by the rebels, inside the city. This ‘contaminated’ source was the only way that they could report to their worldwide TV and Press employers! Who knew and why didn’t they make it clear?

Notably there were also loud international calls that Syrians, from Asad downwards, and perhaps their Russian allies, should be hauled off to the International Criminal court over the civilian deaths and destruction in Aleppo, whilst ejecting these al Qaeda rebels. This predictably was not repeated nor even hinted at, when US-backed Kurds and other Iraqi army fighters were about the similar bloody business of ejecting ISIS forces from Mosul, aided by US and allied specialforces and airpower, with fearful civilian casualties. The same applies to US backed Kurds, besieging Raqqah in Syria with supporting US and Allied air strikes inevitably killing many civilians in that city. Simple double standards of course, not untypical of the ‘news management,’ that featured during so much of the war. 

At its worst, the media initially thought they were faced with a Saddam Hussein monster, so ‘a black and white’ situation. It took time for the complexities to be better understood by non- specialist journo’s. It was seldom mentioned that Syria was the most liberal of any nation in the Arab League, in terms of tolerating other faiths and quite alone in guaranteeing ‘freedom of worship.’ Apart from its Alawite Shi’ite population always smaller than their Syrian Sunni fellow citizens, all kinds of Islamic sects- Sufi, Ismaili, Druses and more, co-existed not only with the two giant sects, but also with a variety of Christians:- Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Copts, Roman Catholic, Protestants and more, even an ancient community of Jews (although understandably, not many remained after the Arab-Israeli war) - this level of religious tolerance was and is unheard of, elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. 

Anderson suggests that the problem is not just that the various al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, ISIS and the like, perpetrated atrocities. Rather, in the context of informing the public and truth, it’s that the media has acted as a megaphone for the very narrative that such groups (which we can safely describe as terrorists) produced, while always showing disdain – or the critical sense one wished the NY Times etc. would have shown toward the ‘rebel’ accounts – for the Syrian government and its allies’ representation. Thus, the government of Bashar al-Asad, was the target of an intense manipulation game by the Obama administration. It was hoped (and many Americans fed up with their government producing multiple real-life remakes of David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ voted for him), that Donald Trump would stay ‘the hell’ away from Syria. Instead, it took but 48 hours for Trump to go from having 'no interest in removing Asad', to accusing him of using chemical weapons and launching an attack against a Syrian air force base, to punish him, from threats to possible chemical attacks (in the event cruise missiles). The US accusations and the media’s related accounts, therefore, lacked substance, serving the goal of justifying or enabling an outright invasion of Syria, if Washington was so inclined. Of course, in this the media’s role was essential- and it was there. 

All the major international papers, echoing the New York Times, attributed responsibility for the use of chemical weapons to the Asad government with Russia turning its cheek. Not one mainstream organ questioned, much less challenged, the Asad – sarin gas link, despite evidence from previous cases such as Ghouta in August 2013, that it might be better to look for the culprits elsewhere. In some cases, the media has accused the Asad government of committing attacks on civilians that had been, in fact, the handiwork of some of the rebel factions. First class western journalists, such as "The Independent’s" Robert Fisk, challenged accusations that Syrian government troops were responsible for the Daraya massacre. Alex Thompson for Channel 4 News had pointed questions about Syrian government troops involvement, in the Aqrab massacre. The rest and bulk of the media has preferred to use a knee-jerk approach. Such was the case with the chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun, which MIT Science Professor Ted Postol questioned on a purely scientific basis. 

Few major news outlets noted how former British ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, questioned an Amnesty International report accusing the Asad government of carrying out mass torture and killings at Saydnaya prison. Ford noted that no reporter had ever been to Saydnaya, whereas he had, when he was British Ambassador to Damascus. Ford said he went several times. He didn’t see the jail, but saw the building, which has no chance of accommodating 10 to 20,000 prisoners all together. It could accommodate a maximum of a 1,000. In short, the reports that the U.S. authorities, media and even the international humanitarian organizations, have used allegations to substantiate a misleading version of the facts, to suit a 'regime change' agenda. (No one is likely to believe that ANY of the mid-eastern authoritarian governments do not use torture in interrogation and Syria is no different in that respect. Indeed the US for a period subcontracted to them, as to others in the region, one of their several infamous ‘black’ destinations, for interrogating ‘renditioned’ prisoners). 

Ignoring Seymour Hersh 
But, perhaps the most egregious example of media manipulation, or in this case ‘cherry- picking’, involves veteran US journalist Seymour M. Hersh. Sy Hersh, was once a leading voice for the New York Times, when he reported atrocities from the war in Vietnam. Perhaps, because Vietnam did not have sensitive neighbours with enormous political clout in Washington - through such lobbies as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Hersh exposed the futile and violent nature of America’s involvement, which surely contributed to encouraging the anti-war movement in the U.S. itself. 

Instead, when it comes to the Middle East, the mainstream media has tried to make the case for more, instead of less war. The German ‘Die Welt’ was the only noted media organ in the West which published Hersh’s article, which clearly exposed the dubiety of the American-led campaign to inculpate Assad, for the use of chemical weapons at Khan Sheikhoun on April 4. The lies, as they appear to be, served as a pretext for launching American missiles on the Syrian base of Al Shayrat on April 6, even if President Trump had been made aware of ‘problems’ with the rebels’ version of the ‘facts’. 

One would have expected the NY Times and a suite of other outlets from the BBC to CNN, to interview Hersh or ask for more details, at the very least. Why not? Instead, the day after Hersh's article was published (26 June) Trump and Macron had a phone call, ‘doubling down’ on the lies or, if you prefer, the polluted truth. During the call, the two presidents, representing no less than the ‘greatest’ democracy on earth and the country whose philosophers inspired it, discussed the need to stay alert. Indeed, Trump said that the United States had intercepted preparations for another horrible chemical attack by Asad against his own people. If proven, said Macron, France would have acted alone with air raids and bombings of its own, ‘a la Sarkozy en Libye’. Macron and Trump, it seems, essentially resolved not to waste the opportunity to blame the Damascus regime for any atrocity and to offer a determined military response. The United States’ ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, a warmonger in the best Samantha Power and John R. Bolton traditions, stated that any further chemical attack against the Syrian population would be blamed on Asad, as well as Russia and Iran which "are helping him in killing his people". 

Syria Is Just the Latest Victim of the Regime Change Exercise 
This is just one of the many examples of how Syria is the latest, but perhaps the most intense, target of strategies that since the beginning of the 21st century, have been used to facilitate the destruction of countries ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq and from Libya to Syria. It rather raises Sahara desert-size questions about the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ itself. 

Consider, that this so-called ‘spontaneous’ quest for democracy and revolt against authoritarian regimes has created more than anything else, misery, hunger, destabilization and migratory flows of millions. In Syria, had the rebels been successful in overthrowing Asad, it would have broken up Syria into statelets, opening the path for its neighbors to feast on the remains like vultures. Like Leporello’s ‘catalogue’ of conquests in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’, Syria was simply the next country to add to an invasion list that featured Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Lebanon (2006), Libya (2011) all the while machinating pretexts to neutralize or terminate Iranian influence in the region. 

The Obama administration, for all its Nobel Peace Prize and politically correct righteousness, continued with Bush's plan for a 'new Middle East'. Only, this time, the U.S. government employed new techniques, which stressed a more psychological approach at home, thanks to a supine media and armed (the U.S. along with regional and NATO allies certainly saw to this, along with Saudi and Qatari sponsors) 'jihadist' fighters on the ground. Now, as for the United States, the CIA recently said it would end its program of support for Syrian rebels, in the fight against President Bashar al-Asad. 

Still, Israel might have something to say about that. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu revealed that should Israel catch Iran transferring weapons to Hezbollah, in areas located near the Syrian-Israeli border, it would launch military action in Syria, particularly around areas of de-escalation such as the provinces of Deraa, Sweida and Quneitra. 
Netanyahu, has been if nothing else, consistent. He declared his opposition to the U.S. – Russia ceasefire agreement during the G20 in Hamburg (in force since July 9). This, said Bibi, would consolidate Iran's presence in the area. And moreover, it would force Israel to stop any operation in southern Syria. 

This does not bode well for the longevity of the ceasefire. The war may move or expand into Lebanon. During the recent White House visit by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri -the very same who led a campaign to oust Syria from Lebanon in 2005, following the assassination of former PM Rafiq Hariri - Trump thundered that Lebanon is on the frontline to fight Hezbollah. (Trump is apparently unaware that Hezbollah is head of a coalition that constitutes half of the Lebanese parliament and that the President of Lebanon, Gen. Aoun, has its backing). 

Still unfettered, Trump 'toed the Netanyahu line' to the letter. He stressed that Hezbollah is a "threat" to the entire Middle East. He also noted his disapproval of Asad. It remains to be seen how long Trump can keep his hands off Syria and how the media will play what is shaping up as a continuation of the Syrian war, into Lebanon. Will they let Asad off the hook temporarily, as in 2005-2006, to concentrate on Hezbollah - drawing out Iran by scrapping the 5+1 nuclear agreement? All the indications are that Trump has opted to line up against the Shi'ites in the 1400 year long Islamic conflict with (his major armaments customers) the Wahhabi Sunni of the Kingdom and the Gulf, and that they in turn, let it be whispered, no doubt are dealing through 'backchannels' with Israel. 

Such a scenario with a reshuffled line-up has more chances of surviving, now ISIS and al Qaeda are largely defeated in Syria and Iraq, than actual conventional peace, since the Wahhabi sponsored rebels, many of whom were jihadists and not themselves Syrian, failed to overthrow the Syrian government, with its own powerful allies. 

Alessandro Bruno