Covering Syria: The information war
By Aisling Byrne
The narrative that has been constructed by the Western mainstream media on Syria may seem to be self-evident from the scenes presented on television, but it is a narrative duplicitously promoted and coordinated so as to conceal and facilitate the regime-change project that is part of the war on Iran.
What we are seeing is a new stage of information war intentionally constructed and cast as a simplistic narrative of a struggle for human rights and democracy so as deliberately to exclude other interpretations and any geo-strategic motivation.
The narrative, as CNN puts it, is in essence this: “The vast majority of reports from the ground indicate that government forces are killing citizens in an attempt to wipe out civilians seeking [President Bashar] al-Assad’s ouster” – the aim being
precisely to elicit a heart-wrenching emotional response in Western audiences that trumps all other considerations and makes the call for Western/Gulf intervention to effect regime change.
But it is a narrative based on distortion, manipulation, lies and videotape.
In the first months, the narrative was of unarmed protesters being shot by Syrian forces. This then evolved into one of armed insurgents reluctantly “being provoked into taking up arms”, as US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton explained, to defend peaceful protesters.
It was also a narrative that from the outset, according to a recent report in Time magazine, that the US has facilitated by providing training, support and equipment to Syrian opposition “cyber-warriors”.
Reports confirmed by leading Syrian opposition leaders in April 2011 reveal that in addition to cyber-training, weapons and money from Syrian exiles, as well as from a “major Arab Gulf country” and a Lebanese political party, were being distributed to “young demonstrators”. The former head of Russian intelligence, Yevgeny Primakov, similarly noted that the Syrian conflict “started with armed revolts against the authorities, not peaceful demonstrations”.
Ironically, one of the most accurate descriptions of the sectarian conflict we are witnessing in Syria comes from an assessment by the neoconservative Brookings Institute in its March 2012 report “Assessing Options for Regime Change in Syria”, one option being for “the United States [to] fight a “clean” war … and leave the dirty work on the ground to the FSA [Free Syrian Army], perhaps even obviating a massive commitment to Iraq-style nation-building”.
“Let the Arabs do it,” echoed Israeli President Shimon Peres. “Do it yourself and the UN will support you.” This point was not lost on one leading Turkish commentator, who noted that US Senator John McCain “said that there would be no American boots on the ground in Syria. That means we Turks will have to spill our precious blood to get what McCain and others want in the States.”
In the wake of the failures at state-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, direct intervention, with all the responsibilities this would entail, would not go down well in cash-strapped Western nations. Better to get others to do the “dirty work” – pursue “regime change by civil war”.
“The United States, Europe and the Gulf states … are starving the regime in Damascus and feeding the opposition. They have sanctioned Syria … and are busy shoveling money and helping arms supplied by the Gulf get to the rebels,” Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies, wrote in Foreign Policy in June.
With regional allies prepared to do the “dirty work” of providing increasingly sophisticated weapons clearly geared for purposes other than “self-defense”, and the FSA and its jihadist allies doing the “dirty work” within Syria (their salaries paid by Saudi Arabia), the US and European nations can proffer their clean hands by limiting support to communications equipment, intelligence and humanitarian aid, and of course to providing the moral posturing required to topple the Syrian system and implant a regime hostile to Iran and friendly to Israel. Having “clean hands” enables the US, France and Britain to pose as abiding by UN standards, while at the same time flouting the UN Charter by promoting an attack on a member state.
Time magazine reported last month that the administration of US President Barack Obama “has tiptoed across an invisible line. [It] said it will not actively support the Syrian opposition in its bid to oust Assad … [but] as US officials have revealed, the administration has been providing media-technology training and support to Syrian dissidents by way of small non-profits like the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and Freedom House.
“Viral videos of alleged atrocities,” noted Time, “have made Assad one of the most reviled men on the planet, helping turn the Arab League against him and embarrassing his few remaining allies almost daily.”
It is a position that reeks of hypocrisy: as US columnist Barbara Slavin notes, “Without a UN Security Council mandate, the prospects for US military intervention in Syria are minimal … the provision of communications gear frees up others to provide weapons.”
A US official quoted by Associated Press was more frank: Washington’s equipment and medical supplies to the opposition “can now be easily augmented with weapons from other donors. Smuggling lines are smuggling lines. We use the same donkeys,” he said, pointing out that routes are in essence the same for bandages as they are for bullets.
And while various Western governments are helping “document crimes” committed by Syrian forces, these same governments have refused to investigate their own killings of civilians in attacks by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Libya. NATO “created its own definition for ‘confirmed’ deaths: only a death that NATO itself investigated and corroborated could be called confirmed”, enabling the alliance to conclude: “We have no confirmed reports of civilian casualties.”
Britain was the only country involved in the bombings to conduct its own inquiry. Its report accepted “that coalition forces did their best to prevent and minimize civilian casualties … We commend them for this approach.”
For every tragic story like journalist Marie Colvin’s final dispatch before she was killed while embedded for British media with the FSA (“In Babr Amr. Sickening. Cannot understand how the world can stand by. Watched a baby die today. Shrapnel: doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until he stopped. Feeling Helpless”), there are other similar tragedies, committed by the insurgents, that are rarely reported in the mainstream Western press.
You won’t read in the mainstream press of foreign jihadists increasingly pouring into Syria to fight their holy war; you won’t read that some ultraconservative Salafi sheikhs in Saudi Arabia are running their own military network inside Syria; you won’t read how Assad’s support during the 14-month crisis has if anything increased in light of the insecurity gripping the country; you won’t read comments like those of the Lebanese Christian Maronite patriarch who said that while “Syria, like other countries, needs reforms which the people are demanding … the closest thing to democracy [in the Arab world] is Syria”.
You won’t read how the head of the opposition in Turkey, a former ambassador to Washington, Faruk Logoglu, has said that what Turkey is doing hosting armed FSA fighters and allowing them to carry out attacks in Syria is “is against all international norms; against all neighborly relations … It is a basic rule that countries must respect the sovereignty of others.”
You won’t read how armed insurgents used the Arab League observer mission’s ceasefire to “reinforce themselves and bring supplies from Lebanon, knowing the regime would be limited in its ability to obstruct them at that time”, or how they have used the Kofi Annan plan to prepare for larger attacks.
While we have seen extensive demonization of Assad, his wife and family, with the president depicted recently in the British press bathing in blood, you won’t read articles demonizing the Saudi or Qatari regimes, or highlighting the hundreds of millions of dollars they have poured into political parties and groups, particularly Salafists, across the region in their “counter-revolution” against change; or the recent declaration by the official Saudi Mufti for all churches in the Arabian Peninsula to be demolished (which was not covered by a single Western mainstream news outlet); or as a senior Sunni political figure told me recently, the more than 23,000 detainees in Saudi prisons, a majority of whom (a recent report notes 90%) have degrees (to be fair, Chatham House did comment on this in a recent report that this “is indicative of the prevalence of a university education”).
You won’t read how Saudi Arabia and Qatar have bullied satellite hosting channels in the region to stop broadcasting “pro-regime” public and private Syrian television channels; or that the Syrian opposition has set up 10 satellite channels, all with an Islamist orientation and which take a strong sectarian line – calling on the FSA to “kill Iran’s mice” and “the rats of the Lebanese devil’s party” (Hezbollah); or how Russia has been attempting to facilitate a political process of reconciliation with the internal opposition since the onset of the crisis.
There is clear duplicity in the deliberate unwillingness of the Western mainstream media to acknowledge the nature of those who are the West’s allies in the regime-change project – particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar – and the danger they pose in the region through their arming and firing up of jihadist Salafist groups in Syria and across the region. Rare are articles in the mainstream Western press that highlight this hypocrisy.
A critical piece in the British press by Peter Oborne, The Daily Telegraph’s chief political correspondent, was an exception: “Washington never ceases to complain about the connection between the Pakistani intelligence services and the Taliban. But we never hear a whisper of concern about the connection between Saudi intelligence and Salafi movements across the Middle East, of which al-Qaeda is the best-known offshoot.”
The essential components of what we do see daily in the Western press have changed little during the conflict: in effect, all violence and terror are apportioned to one side only – the Syrian government and its purported “ghostly shadowy” shabiha forces.
Any violence committed by the “peaceful protesters” and the Free Syrian Army is purely for defensive purposes – all of which comes straight out of the color-revolution/regime-change text book; daily figures for those killed are based almost exclusively on “reports by activists and YouTube footage” (unverifiable, it is claimed, because the Syrian government does not allow free movement of journalists) and are described simply as “people” – dead insurgents do not appear; Al-Qaeda-type jihadist groups are played down (reports in leading media outlets like The Guardian continue to question whether they exist at all); and any weapons or equipment supplied to the “opposition” is, according to Saudi leaders, to help Syrians “defend themselves”.
Embedding journalists on their side is an asset that the FSA, activists and their Western and regional partners have clearly learned from the experience of the US Army in the wake of its attacks on Fallujah in 2004. A US Army intelligence analysis leaked by WikiLeaks revealed that “in the military’s opinion, the Western press are part of the US’s propaganda operation. This process was facilitated by the embedding of Western reporters in US military units”. In their second attack on Fallujah in November 2004, the US Army “got many reporters … to embed with US troops, so that they could act, as the intelligence report calls for, as the propaganda arm of US forces”.
The fundamental pillar of this Western narrative relies almost exclusively on claims and “evidence” provided by “activists” and opposition-affiliated groups, particularly the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Are we seriously to believe that this outfit, reportedly run from Coventry by a man who, according to Reuters, part-time runs a clothes shop with his wife, then “sits with a laptop and phones and pieces together accounts of conflict and rights abuses before uploading news to the Internet”, is the primary source of daily casualty statistics on the 14-month Syrian conflict – the key geo-strategic conflict of the time?
It is clearly the front office of a large-scale (dis)information project – when Russian diplomats asked to meet with the organization, they were refused. Senior political figures in the region have told me, as other reports indicate, that the Observatory is in fact funded from a Dubai-based slush fund and is a key component of the regime-change project.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that it was in the opposition’s interest “to provoke a humanitarian catastrophe, to get a pretext to demand external interference”, so it is not surprising that analysis of the Observatory’s figures, including claims of “massacres”, consistently show a significant inflation in numbers of casualties, sometimes wildly so.
As Al-Jazeera journalist Nir Rosen, who spent some months embedded with the Free Syria Army, explained: “Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many … reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described … as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes.”
Analysis I did of what was reported to be the “deadliest day of the nine-month uprising” (December 20, 2011), with the “organized massacre” of a “mass defection” of army deserters widely reported by the international press, and opposition Syrian National Council claims of areas “exposed to large-scale genocide”, showed that figures differed so significantly (between 10 and 163 armed insurgents, nine to 111 unarmed civilians and zero to 97 government forces), that the “truth” was impossible to establish. Similarly, analysis of The Guardian’s data blog on casualties as of December 2011, based solely on press reports largely from opposition sources, contained basic inaccuracies and made no reference to any killings of armed insurgents during the entire 10-month period.
So the Observatory and “activists” provide doctored figures, the Western media report these figures uncritically, and the UN provides reports on the basis of opposition and activist sources alone. The December 2011 UN Human Rights Commissioner’s report was based solely on interviews with 233 alleged “army defectors”; similarly, the first UN report to accuse the Syrian government of crimes against humanity was based on 369 interviews with “victims and witnesses”. The spokesman for the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights explained that while “getting evidence from victims and defectors – some who corroborated specific names”, the UN “is not in a position to cross-check names and will never be in a position to do that … The lists are clear – the question is whether we can fully endorse their accuracy.”
British public-service broadcaster Channel 4 has championed the cause of Syrian “video journalists” who it claims are leading a “Syrian media revolution”. The channel’s foreign-affairs correspondent Jonathan Miller wrote: “Each report is datelined; exact location and date, [which] doesn’t in itself necessarily authenticate the report, but combined with other reports from other districts of the same attack filmed from a different location, the reports have the effect of corroborating each other.” The channel even made a documentary of activists exaggerating the “truth” – “even if it means embellishing events”.
During the early months of the Syrian conflict, activists like the now-notorious Danny and Khaled Abou Salah were regularly interviewed in the Western media – that is until footage found by the Syrian army in Homs after the attack on insurgents showed them, among other things, preparing child “victims” for interviews and until their “witness statements” lost all credibility. The New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar, reporting from Beirut, almost exclusively bases his reports on “activists speaking by Skype” and “video posted on YouTube”.
Described as “the most horrific video” yet by Britain’s Daily Mail, a YouTube clip of an opposition member being “buried alive” was found most likely to be fake. Perhaps more telling than the use of the actual photo by the British Broadcasting Corp of hundreds of body bags from Iraq in 2003 that was used for the story of the al-Houla massacre three weeks ago was the caption beneath the photo: “Photo from Activist. This image – which cannot be independently verified – is believed to show bodies of children in Houla awaiting funeral.”
Nevertheless, activist-supplied videos and statements continue to provide the basis for unquestioned reports in the mainstream press: in the wake of the Houla massacre, for example, The Guardian ran a front-page story – “among the most important of the testimonies” from an army defector reportedly on leave at the time. From his house 300 meters away, the man saw and heard the massacre, despite there being persistent shelling at the time. He claimed to have seen men “he knew to be shabiha “riding into Taldous village in cars, motorbikes and army trucks, shouting: ‘Shabiha forever, for your eyes, Assad.'”
This is not to argue that Syrian security forces and some supporters of the Syrian government have not committed abuses and killings; they have admitted this to be the case. “Don’t put me in a position of defending brutality and knifing people,” former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said about Syria recently. “Frankly that is not the issue. We do know these things happened, and they are horrible. They also happened on a much larger scale in many other countries in which we have not intervened.”
What we are witnessing is a new generation of warfare – an information war where, by using what is in effect propaganda, the aim is to construct a consensual consciousness to provide overwhelming public support for regime change.
Not to be outdone by Senator McCain (described by a leading US foreign-policy magazine as one of the “three amigos … who have rarely found a country they didn’t want to bomb or invade”), The Guardian itself noted in March: “If you think Guardian readers are a peace-loving bunch, think again. In an online poll, more than 83% [13,200 votes] have so far backed John McCain’s call to launch air strikes against Syria.”
While The Guardian describes the so-called shabihain what appears to be a piece of pure propaganda – “according to demonstrators” it interviewed – as “large lines of plain-clothed or khaki-clad men and boys armed with submachine-guns” who appear “awaiting an excuse to intervene” and who fire on protesters, a senior European diplomat based in the region told me that it is not in fact clear who the shabiha are, or whether they actually exist.
The diplomat told me of an instance when the UN monitors were filmed by activists as they were inspecting an insurgent-blocked subsidiary road; they later saw footage of themselves at the same ditch on the international news spliced in such a way as to make it appear that there had been bodies in an excavated area and that the UN monitors were watching bodies being removed, whereas in fact it was no more than a ditch across a road that they had been filming.
Human rights are a fundamental component of this information war that is a cover for regime change. By in effect taking a one-sided approach to events in Syria, leading human-rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are, willingly or unwillingly, being used as an integral part of this information war on Syria.
Despite publishing the odd report on abuses, torture and killings perpetrated by the insurgents, they cast the conflict in Syria as a simple one-sided case of aggressors and victims, lamenting, along the lines of John Bolton and McCain, “Why is the world doing nothing?” Amnesty International’s Eyes on Syria site, for example, exclusively documents “the scale of torture and ill-treatment by security forces, army and pro-government armed gangs”, harassment of “pro-reform” Syrians, and deaths in government custody.
A notable exception has been the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has continually criticized the militarization of humanitarian assistance. When former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the creation of “humanitarian corridors”, the ICRC publicly criticized a move that would inevitably involve the deployment of armed forces to enforce the zones.
The use of propaganda as a tool in war is an old one. During World War I, in the wake of British propaganda of “babies [with] their hands cut off … impaled on bayonets … loudly spoken of in buses and public places … paraded, not as an isolated instance of an atrocity, but as … a common practice”, a member of Parliament wrote: “In Parliament there was the usual evasion … the only evidence given was ‘seen by witnesses’.”
What we see now in coverage of Syria has echoes of 2003 – Western governments and the Western media accept at face value the claims of exiles living in the West. Paul Pillar, a former official of the US Central Intelligence Agency now at Georgetown University in Washington, notes that the neocon case for arming the Syrian opposition “is a continuation of the same patterns of neoconservative thinking that led to [president George W] Bush’s war [on Iraq]. There is the same wishful thinking substituting for careful analysis about consequences.”
Charged with defining the future of warfare, the US deputy chief of staff for intelligence in 1997 defined this “conflict between information masters and information victims … We are already masters of information warfare … we write the script,” he wrote. “Societies that … cannot manage the flow of information simply will not be competitive … Emotions, rather than strategy, will set the terms of struggles.” Against such an onslaught, there is little the Syrian government can do to defend itself – Assad has already said that Syria cannot win the media war with the West.
As Syria tips into the next more violent stage of sectarian war, with the SNC/FSA and their foreign backers increasing the ante with possible supplies if heavy weapons by the US, leading to more violent attacks, and the Syrian government (with its Republican Guard and the Syrian Army’s powerful 4th Division still held in reserve) cracking down on “all armed groups”, we should expect to see the “crusaders” in the mainstream media follow suit with their onslaught on Syrian government “atrocities” – massacres, use of children as human shields, claims of the imminent collapse of the Syrian government, etc.
But we would do well to acknowledge that there are two competing narratives out there. The BBC acknowledged recently that while “video filed by the opposition … may provide some insight into the story on the ground … stories are never black and white – [they are] often shades of grey”, and Channel 4’s Alex Thomson’s near escape after being set up by the Free Syria Army prompted him to say: “Do not for one moment believe that my experience with the rebels in al-Qusair was a one-off.” It makes you wonder, he wrote, “who else has had this experience when attempting to find out what is going on in rebel-held Syria”. The narrative, however, complete with myths, has established a virtual reality that is now set in stone.
Sixteen months into the conflict, it is too little, too late to acknowledge that there are “shades of grey” at play in the Syrian context: for 16 months, The Guardian, Channel 4, the BBC and others have presented the conflict, using largely spurious “evidence”, in exactly the black-and-white terms that increasingly people are now questioning. Peter Oborne, writing some months ago in The Daily Telegraph, warned that by presenting the conflict as a struggle between the regime and “the people”, British Prime Minister David Cameron is either “poorly briefed or he is coming dangerously close to a calculated deception of the British public”.
The Takfiri jihadists and their backers have been allowed to define and dominate the crisis. The crisis is now symbolized by car bombings, assassinations, mutilations and atrocities. This empowering of the extreme end of the opposition spectrum – albeit a minority – has in effect silenced and pushed to the sidelines the middle ground – that is, most of the internal opposition. One key internal opposition leader recently told Conflicts Forum that, like other leaders, he has had close relatives assassinated by the Salafists. The internal opposition has acknowledged the stark choice between two undesirables – either a dialogue that currently is not realizable, or the downfall of Syria, as Al-Akhbar, one of the leading independent newspapers in the region, recently reported.
With weapons of war, words and ideology, the self-appointed “Friends of Syria” have done everything they can to tiptoe around the UNSC and to undercut all attempts at an intra-Syrian political dialogue and a negotiated end to the conflict, of which the Annan mission is the latest attempt. The West/Saudi/Qatari “dirty war” on Syria applies as much to its (dis)information campaign as it does to getting others to fight and kill for them.
As was no doubt the intention, Clinton’s “spin” that Russia was supplying attack helicopters to Syria went a long way – the US Congress, the British government and the mainstream media all fell into line calling for action. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote to the US defense secretary calling the Russian state arms firm “an enabler of mass murder in Syria”, and Cobra, the British government’s emergency security committee, met several times.
It turned out, however, that what the New York Times described as “the Obama administration’s sharpest criticism yet of Russia’s support for the Syrian government” was, according to a senior Defense Department official, “a little spin” put on the story by Clinton so as “to put the Russians in a difficult position”. It was three helicopters of “marginal use militarily”, explained the Times, returning from routine servicing in Russia.
For their part, the mainstream media bear some responsibility for the slide toward sectarian war in Syria, the victims of which, as always, are civilians. The media’s conceptualization of victims and oppressors has in effect eliminated the space for negotiation. Lavrov has warned: “Either we gather everyone with influence at the negotiating table or once again we depart into ideology, where it is declared shamelessly that everything is the fault of the regime, while everyone else are angels and therefore the regime should be changed.
“The way the Syrian crisis is resolved”, he advised, “will play an important role in the world tomorrow; whether the world will be based on the UN Charter, or a place where might makes right.”
Aisling Byrne is projects coordinator with Conflicts Forum and is based in Beirut.
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