Iran has sent soldiers to Syria to fight alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.
An unknown number of Iranians are fighting in Syria, the official said, citing accounts from members of the opposition Free Syrian Army, which is backed by the United States. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview a strategy session that Secretary of State John F. Kerry is to hold Wednesday with key supporters of the Syrian opposition.
The rationale for granting anonymity–a privilege that outlets are supposed to extend only rarely–is curious; it’s not clear why the government would need to say things anonymously in order “to preview a strategy session” about Syria.
Even more curious, though, is whether or not the source in question actually said this. At EA Worldview (5/22/13), Scott Lucas took a look at the briefing that produced the story, and what the State Department official actually said was this:
It is the most visible effort we have seen of Hezbollah to engage directly in the fighting in Syria as a foreign force. We understand there are also Iranians up there. That is what the Free Syrian Army commanders are telling us. I think this is an important thing to note, the direct implication of foreigners fighting on Syrian soil now for the regime.
Suggesting that the Free Syrian Army believes Iranians are in Syria–which is probably true–is not the same thing as saying “Iran has sent soldiers to Syria” to fight on Assad’s behalf. And in answering followup questions, the anonymous State Department official admits that “to be very frank, I don’t have any estimates of numbers and I don’t know that they are directly involved in the fighting.” The source also says the Iranians “could be doing a little of both advising and fighting” and that “the reports that we’re getting… are not consistent.”
But Gearan’s question at the briefing would strongly suggest that she was pushing a stronger line about Iranian involvement than the anonymous source:
Are we now, based on your earlier comments about Iranian fighters being involved, looking at a proxy war? I mean, you’re talking about arming the rebels on one side, and the Iranians are clearly arming the others and fighting on behalf of the others on the other side. Are we now basically in a war with Iran?
The source doesn’t go as far out on this issue as Gearan’s question was pushing. But it didn’t really matter. As you can see in the pages of the Washington Post, an official Iranian role in the fighting was treated almost like a fact–which might be the point of having anonymous briefings like this.
An Iranian deputy foreign minister has rejected claims about Tehran’s military presence in Syria, dismissing the allegations as a “blame game” orchestrated by the Syrian opposition groups.
“Iranian forces have never been, and are not present in Syria, and I deny this claim,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Asia-Pacific Affairs Abbas Araqchi said in Ankara on Thursday.
“The real enemies of Syria make such claims to provoke that country’s people [against Iran] and divert developments [in Syria] in the wrong direction,” said Araqchi, who is also Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman.
He emphasized that the crisis in Syria cannot be resolved through military means, adding that the unrest in the Arab country should be resolved politically. … Full article
An Israeli military commander says Tel Aviv is prepared to carry out an attack on Syria if the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad collapses.
On Wednesday, Israeli Major General Amir Eshel said the Tel Aviv regime might launch a sudden war on Syria should Damascus fall.
“We have to be ready for any scenario, at a few hours’ notice,” Eshel stated.
He also said that the Israeli regime would even prepare for a “protracted” war with a “post-Assad Syria.”
The recent Israeli threat is seen as part of the Western-backed efforts to set up the scene for a military intervention in Syria.
The Tel Aviv regime has already carried out three air strikes on Syria.
On May 5, Syria said the Israeli regime had carried out an airstrike targeting a research center in a suburb of Damascus, following heavy losses inflicted upon al-Qaeda-affiliated groups by the Syrian army. According to Syrian media reports, the strike hit the Jamraya Research Center. The Jamraya facility had been targeted in another Israeli airstrike in January.
The May 5 Israeli aggression was Tel Aviv’s second strike on Syria in three days.
Turmoil has gripped Syria for over two years, and many people, including large numbers of Syrian soldiers and security personnel, have been killed in the foreign-sponsored militancy.
Western powers and their regional allies including the Israeli regime, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are partners in supporting the militant groups in Syria.
By Michael McGehee · NYTX · May 21, 2013
On May 15, 2013 The New York Times published “Islamist Rebels Execute Pro-Government Fighters in Raqqa” under their “Watching Syria’s War” section. The page shows a grisly video of three blindfolded men being executed by apparent members of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an al Qaeda-linked group from Iraq now operating in Syria.
The first peculiar thing on the NYT page is that the foreign group and its link to al-Qaeda is not mentioned beyond the statement that, “A video posted online on Tuesday claims to show rebels from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria executing three government army officers in retaliation for recent mass killings in Baniyas and Homs said to have been committed by government forces.”
Then there is the claim that the group was “executing three government army officers,” or “Pro-Government fighters.”
The first question that emerges comes from their own admission: “We do not know the identity of the three men executed in this video.”
Then how does the “paper of record” know they were “government army officers”?
Two of the men are dressed in civilian clothing and the third man dressed in what looks to be camouflage.
What about the “judgment” the man reads before they are executed?
The NYT page doesn’t provide any translation, though it is readily available online, as with these two slightly different translations here and here. Selections from the “judgement,” reviewed below, suggest a different possible reason for their execution.
The men are never identified as soldiers, or government officers of any kind. The only reference to them is their religious sect: Nusayri/Alawite. And when the judgment is read the rebels do not attribute the crimes they are seeking revenge for to three blindfolded men, but to the Syrian government in general.
The man reading the judgement says in the first link above: “As a response from us to these crimes . . . We intend to get closer to Allah with these Nusayri (Alawite) villains…”
And in the second version: “our answer to their crimes committed, and in revenge to the Free women of Banyas and Homs . . . [is] to get closer to God Almighty, with those coward Alawites.”
Rather than looking like an execution of “fighters,” the judgment gives the impression that the men are being executed for their religious beliefs; that three Alawite men were rounded up and killed as some kind of religious offering.
Readers of The New York Times should be asking how the Times can claim the men executed were “Pro-Government Fighters,” or “government army officers,” when they themselves admit that they “do not know the identity of the three men executed in this video,” and when the “judgment” read aloud identifies the three men in civilian clothing simply by their religious sect.
Readers should also ask why, regardless of whether the men were military officers or civilians, they did not bother to mention the execution was a blatant war crime. Because considering the baseless claims and particular omissions it looks like the NYT is playing apologia for the rebels.
- New York Times, sarin and skepticism
- NYT Runs Editorial Demanding Cuts in Social Security and Medicare in News Section
- Mainstream Media in America and Britain Repeat the Same Mistakes in Covering Iran That They Made on Iraq
- What the NYT Doesn’t Say About Washington’s Syrian Peace Plan
- The New York Times on Venezuela and Honduras: A Case of Journalistic Misconduct
- NYT on Chemical Weapons and War in Syria
As the Syrian army and rebels fight for control of Qusair, it is necessary to realize why the town is strategically important and vital for Shias on both sides of the border, making it a military and media battleground.
There are far more elements surrounding the situation in Qusair than first meet the eye, RT’s Nadezhda Kevorkova reveals.
The army’s advance to Qusair is a key strategic operation. Qusair is near Homs, which is located on the road connecting Damascus with the Mediterranean seaport. And Qusair itself is the closest town to the Lebanese border. So taking control of it allows the forces to control the Lebanese border with the Shias living on both sides. There is an important high point between Qusair and the Lebanese village Al-Qasr. The Syrian army was forced to leave this area in the fall of 2012, so locals lost their protection. Opposition fighters took over the region and tried to chase out the Shias and take control of the high point – there were severe battles here in April 2013. (I was in Lebanon’s Al-Qasr at the time – the village came under heavy fire). But the rebels lost to the fighters from the Syrian People’s Committees. They were able to hold the high point.
Had the opposition forces won over this rather small and seemingly insignificant area, there would’ve been major consequences. The war would’ve spread to Lebanon, and Hezbollah would’ve been obligated to get involved. Jihadists would’ve been able to get into Syria from Lebanon and attack Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in the Beqaa Valley.
But fighters from the Syrian People’s Committees didn’t let them do it and held the high point.
Thanks to their effort, the government forces were able to deploy troops here and start the Qusair counter-offensive on May 19.
Thirty-thousand Syrian Shias live on the Syrian side of the border (not the Alawites – the Shias). As we know, the border between Syria and Lebanon is relative – the Shias have lived here for ages. When colonial powers drew border lines between countries, they didn’t take the traditional settlement patterns of ethnic groups and communities into account. Many of the local residents have Lebanese passports.
In the fall of 2012, rebels and foreign mercenaries began to sweep Shia villages with fire. They also intimidated people and conducted ethnic cleansing operations. In mixed communities they would go into Shias’ houses telling people to get out, drew “outlaw” signs on the buildings, snipers shot at those who tried to exit these houses. If a family left a home, it was burned down. Rebels planned to drive all Shias out of the area near the border.
Opposition propaganda resources in major mass media and social networks have deployed a campaign in the Islamic world aimed at bolstering the idea that all the Shias are apostates – they are not Muslims, not native to these regions and are simply a tool that is used for proliferating Iranian policy across the Middle East. That is why jihad regards killing a Shia as noble. A number of propaganda resources that different sheikhs were using to broadcast anti-Shia sermons, were involved with the campaign.
Moreover, the mass media are thus instilling the minds of Muslims with the idea that all the Shias, including ordinary peasants, are Hezbollah militants, and Hezbollah, in its turn, is a supplement to the ‘dreadful thugs’ of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution.
Such an approach, which is used by the opposition and backed by the world’s major mass media, has a precise analogy.
The scorched-earth policy was first used in the region by the Irgun Jewish settlers in April 1948, when several Palestinian villages were wiped off the map (Deir Yassin is the most well-known). The goal was simple: the news about the massacre of 254 Palestinians – kids, women and old people would terrify all the rest so much, that they would run away voluntarily. The news about such unprecedented atrocities as, for instance, disembowelling pregnant women did strike terror into people: unarmed and unskilled in terms of war 740 thousand Palestinians fled from their home villages becoming refugees. Zionist ideologists still claim that the Palestinians are not native to Palestine and they were invited there as migrant workers, so they are either Bedouins, or nomads, or Gypsies from the Middle East who didn’t have any skills in agriculture and didn’t know how to farm.
This is also the reason that has been driving the mass-media campaign to discredit Hezbollah that has been accused of allegedly fighting against the Syrian people. Video footage and photographs of fallen Hezbollah fighters dating back to the 2006 Lebanon War have been circulated as “proof” that Hezbollah is involved in Syria and suffering losses. Back in 2006, 800 Hezbollah fighters put up resistance to the ground invasion of Lebanon by Israel, and these numbers were officially announced by the party leader Hasan Nasrallah.
I met with families that were forced to flee Syrian villages by the border. These were mostly large families who feared that their women, wives and daughters, would be raped by the opposition fighters and criminals that accompany them. Many also said that it was their strategy to intimidate the local population on purpose to have the houses vacated. Nonetheless many stayed and organized community defense volunteer squads to protect themselves from the rebel forces and mercenaries with arms in their hands.
The battle of Qusair has been of strategic importance, but not only that – Qusair is the only town, however small (with 50,000 people of population ) that had been given up by the government forces in the past – while the rest of the towns in Syria are under the government’s control. Mass-media that are telling their audience that the purpose of the battle of Qusair was “to regain control over the Mediterranean coast” and “re-deploy the government forces to Aleppo” are lying. The army is already in full control of the coast. Last Sunday, the army launched a massive offensive on all transit routes for weapons and supplies coming into the country.
As of today, Qusair is surrounded by the Syrian army, which is also in control of the downtown area. An escape corridor is being kept open for the fleeing population. The militants who fail to use it are contained in town’s quarters.
As for the losses, all the numbers cited are pure speculation and part of the propaganda attack on Syria. For example, the opposition initially reported online that they had killed “90 Hezbollah militants,” yet after a while changed the number to 30, and that’s in addition to the Syrian army’s losses of 20 soldiers reported by the army itself.
Ankara – While all options are said to be still on the table, Barack Obama is clearly backing away from any deeper involvement in Syria now that it is clear that nothing but direct intervention is going to bring down the government in Damascus. In the past few months alone the armed groups have lost thousands of men. Although the conflict will grind on for some time yet, the Syrian military is steadily closing down the insurgency.
The sponsors of this adventure are in complete disarray. Like the Syrian National Council before it, the Syrian National Coalition has imploded. Muadh al Khatib is now a voice from the margins. Ghassan Hittu is the only person in the world who is the prime minister of a committee. These people are a completely lost cause.
In the real world and not the world of delusions there is horror at the video showing a ‘rebel’ commander cutting the heart out of the body of a dead soldier and biting into it. Perhaps it was the lungs or the liver. The media seems to be uncertain but somehow getting the organ right seems to be important. Far from denying this gory act, its perpetrator owned up to it before boasting of how he had sawed the bodies of captured shabiha into pieces.
Cannibalism appears to be a first but otherwise there is not much that the psychopaths inside the armed groups have not done in Syria. Or are people who can do such things not to be called psychopaths? They are the best people, after all, to fight such a vicious conflict. The self-styled Free Syrian Army says it will hunt down the man who cut out the soldier’s heart. Good. It can also hunt down the throat-cutters and the ‘rebels’ who have cut people’s heads off. It can hunt down the men who killed public servants before flinging their bodies from the top of the post office building in Al Bab. It can hunt down their comrades in arms who deliberately target civilians with car bombs. It can hunt down the murderers of the imam and 50 worshipers in the Damascus mosque and it can hunt down all the rapists and kidnappers, including the Chechens who abducted the two bishops still being held in Aleppo while the Christian leaders of western governments look the other way. In its hunting for all the individuals who have tainted its glorious reputation, the FSA won’t have to look far because many come from its own ranks. There is no shortage of evidence. The media is awash with gory mobile phone and video footage of the handiwork of these men because they take pride in their bravery and want the world to see. These are the people Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been arming and funding to take over Syria.
This is the reality behind the false narrative spun by the media for the past two years. It has regurgitated every lie and exaggeration of ‘activists’ and the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, according to which the Syrian ‘regime’ was about to fall any minute and every atrocity was actually the work of the Syrian military. With the exception of a few reports filed recently by Robert Fisk, virtually no one in the media mainstream has reported the fighting from the perspective of the Syrian government and army. Reporters were moved across borders by the armed groups and reported only their version of events. This is like relying on reporters embedded with the US army for an accurate account of what was happening in Iraq. And, again like Iraq, the same propaganda is being repeated about chemical weapons.
Finally, reality has had to take hold. It is not the ‘regime’ or the army which is on the point of collapse but the insurgency. Only direct armed intervention is going to save it and against the successes of the Syrian army and solid Russian support for the Syrian government this is extremely unlikely. Obama is being pushed to ‘do more’ but is showing no inclination to be sucked any deeper into this mess. The others will do nothing without the US taking the lead. Germany is against involvement and Austria has said that supplying arms to the ‘rebels’, which Britain has wanted to do, when the EU embargo ends on May 31 would be a violation of international law.
This week the spotlight has been on Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his trip to Washington to discuss Syria with Barack Obama. Turkey’s role in the unfolding of the Syrian conflict has been central. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya supplied the money and arms but it was Turkey whose territory was opened up to the mobilization of armed men crossing the border to bring down the ‘regime.’ Erdogan has not stepped back an inch from the position he took against Bashar al Assad more than two years ago. The only clear case of a chemical weapons attack has been the chlorine-based compound packed into a warhead and fired at a Syrian army checkpoint at Khan al Assal, killing a number of soldiers and civilians. Erdogan, however, is maintaining that it is the Syrian army that has used chemical weapons and by doing so has crossed Obama’s ‘red line. ’ Asked shortly before he left for Washington whether he would support a no-fly zone he replied: ‘Right from the beginning we would say yes.’
Last week cars packed with more than one ton of C4 and TNT were exploded in the Hatay province border town of Reyhanli. At least 51 people were killed. The destruction was massive. The municipality building and dozens of shops were obliterated. In the aftermath, cars with Syrian number plates were smashed and Syrian refugees attacked by enraged local people. As they milled around the destruction they cursed Erdogan. The atrocity followed a pattern that is familiar to Syrians: one bomb going off and then others exploding after people had gathered around the site of the first one, maximizing the death toll.
Notwithstanding the accusations of the Turkish government that this was the work of a terrorist group collaborating with the Syrian mukhabarat (intelligence), only the armed groups or one of the governments backing them would have a clear reason for setting up this outrage. The Syrian army is rolling up the insurgency, the ‘traitors’ council’ based in Doha has imploded and the Americans and Russians are sitting down to talk. The attack was very clearly designed to pull Turkey directly into the conflict across the border.
The attack on Reyhanli came a week after Israel launched a series of savage air attacks on Syria. This was not a one-off missile strike. Two attacks in three days, lasting for hours and with massive ordinance being dropped around Damascus, suggest that the aim was to provoke a Syrian response, opening the door to a general war in which Iran could be attacked. Israel claimed that the target was a shipment of missiles bound for Hizbullah but while a research station and a military food production plant were hit there was no evidence of any missiles being destroyed. The attacks appear to have been a strategic and political failure. In the aftermath Putin gave Netanyahu a dressing down and punished him either by supplying or threatening to supply Syria with advanced S300 anti-aircraft missiles. It is a measure of Israel’s arrogance that it insisted that it would launch further attacks if necessary and would destroy the Syrian government if it dared to retaliate.
Obama is now under pressure at home to ‘do more’. In Washington the same people who called for war on Iraq are now calling for widening the conflict in Syria. Senator Bob Menendez, a strong supporter of Israel, like virtually all congressmen and women, has introduced a bill calling on the administration to supply the ‘rebels’ with arms (as if it were not already doing that covertly or through support for arms being supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar). Former New York Times editor Bill Keller supported the war on Iraq and also wants the US to arm the ‘rebels’ and ‘defend the civilians being slaughtered in their homes’ in Syria. He is not talking about the civilians who have been slaughtered by the armed groups, of course.
The Washington Post has been forced to admit that the Syrian army is winning this conflict but is still nonplussed at the unfavorable turns of events. ‘What if the US doesn’t intervene in Syria?’ it asks, before providing the answers. Syria will fracture along sectarian lines, with Jabhat al Nusra taking over the north and ‘remnants of the regime’ taking strips of the west. Sectarian warfare will spread to Iraq – as if it has not already as a consequence of US intervention – and Lebanon. Chemical weapons would be up for grabs, ‘probably forcing further interventions by Israel in order to prevent their acquisition by Hizbullah or Al Qaida’. If the US does not intervene to prevent all of this Turkey and Saudi Arabia ‘could conclude that the United States is no longer a reliable ally.’
There are other more likely answers to ‘what will happen’. This is that the Syrian army will eventually drive the surviving ‘rebels’ out of the country and Bashar will come out of this more popular than ever because he saw off the greatest challenge to the Syrian state in its history. Elections will be held in 2014 and he will be elected president with 75 per cent of the vote. This at least is what the CIA is predicting.
Erdogan came to Washington also wanting Obama to ‘do more’, but clearly the US president does not want to do much if anything more. The Turkish media reported that Obama said Assad ‘must’ go but this was not what he said. He chose his words carefully. In his press conference with Erdogan he did not say that said Assad ‘must’ go but that he ‘needs’ to go and ‘needs’ to transfer power to a transitional body. The difference is all-important. Personally, Obama will not want to end his presidency stuck in an unwinnable and unpopular war, one, furthermore, that could quickly shift from regional to global crisis. A recent Pew poll shows that the American people have had enough of wars in the Middle East and the talks between Kerry and Lavrov indicate that this time, having allowed the Geneva agreement of July, 2012, to fall flat, the US is serious about reaching a negotiated end to this crisis even if others aren’t. If there is any danger of the US position being derailed, it will mostly likely arise within the ranks of its friends and allies.
- Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.
Iraq Then, Syria Now?
During the run-up to the Iraq War, the New York Times amplified erroneous official claims about weapons of mass destruction (FAIR Action Alert, 9/8/06). Looking at the paper’s coverage of allegations of chemical weapons use by Syria, some of the same patterns are clear: an over-reliance on official sources and the downplaying of critical or skeptical analysis of the available intelligence.
In “Syria Faces New Claim on Chemical Arms” (4/19/13), the paper told readers that, according to anonymous diplomats, Britain and France had sent letters to the United Nations about “credible evidence” against Syria regarding chemical weapon use. On April 24, the Times reported that Israel had “evidence that the Syrian government repeatedly used chemical weapons last month.”
The next day (4/25/13), the Times reported that, according to an unnamed “senior official,” the White House “shares the suspicions of several of its allies that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.” The article spoke of the “mounting pressure to act against Syria,” adding, “Some analysts say they worry that if the United States waits too long, it will embolden President Bashar al-Assad.”
And then on April 26, under the headline “White House Says Syria Has Used Chemical Arms,” the Times reported:
The White House, in a letter to Congressional leaders, said the nation’s intelligence agencies assessed ”with varying degrees of confidence” that the government of President Bashar al-Assad had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale.
The story included a source, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.), who presented the intelligence as more definitive: She “said the agencies actually expressed more certainty about the use of these weapons than the White House indicated in its letter.”
An April 27 Times report warned that there were dangers in waiting too long to respond to the charges that Syria has used chemical weapons:
If the president waits for courtroom levels of proof, what has been a few dozen deaths from chemical weapons–in a war that has claimed more than 70,000 lives–could multiply.
In following days, the accusations of chemical weapons use were presented uncritically as the premise for political stories: pondering how the White House would “respond to growing evidence that Syrian officials have used chemical weapons” (4/28/13) or noting Republican attacks on the White House following “revelations last week that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is believed to have used chemical weapons against his own people” (4/29/13).
On May 5, the Times was again weighing in on the political ramifications:
Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama now finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.
Then, on May 5 came an unusual shift: Carla Del Ponte, a member of a United Nations team investigating human rights abuses in the Syrian civil war, claimed that the UN had collected evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria–but by the rebels, not by the government.
After running a Reuters dispatch on May 6, the Times published its own piece on May 7, a report that talked about “new questions about the use of chemical weapons.” But the emphasis was clearly on rebutting the charges: The paper reported that the White House had “cast doubt on an assertion by a United Nations official that the Syrian rebels…had used the nerve agent sarin.” The piece included three U.S. sources–one named, two unnamed–who questioned the Del Ponte claims.
The article went on to reiterate that the White House was weighing other options based on “its conclusion that there was a strong likelihood that the Assad government has used chemical weapons on its citizens.”
Outside the New York Times, though, doubts about the evidence pointing to Syrian use of poison gas were evident from the very start. McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay (4/26/13) reported that one source characterized the U.S. intelligence as “tiny little data points” that were of “low to moderate” confidence.
An April 30 report from GlobalPost noted that a “spent canister” at the scene of one attack “and the symptoms displayed by the victims are inconsistent with a chemical weapon such as sarin gas.” A subsequent GlobalPost dispatch (5/5/13) reported that blood samples tested in Turkey were not turning up evidence of sarin exposure.
NBC reporter Richard Engel (5/8/13) traveled to Syria with rebel forces to examine evidence they had collected. He seemed to concur with the GlobalPost reports that the chemical exposure could very well have been from a type of tear gas.
By May 7, McClatchy was reporting that the case was looking weaker, noting that
no concrete proof has emerged, and some headline-grabbing claims have been discredited or contested. Officials worldwide now admit that no allegations rise to the level of certainty…..Existing evidence casts more doubt on claims of chemical weapons use than it does to help build a case that one or both sides of the conflict have employed them.
It is clear that the Times has promoted a storyline that treats the chemical weapons claims as more definitive than they are, and has given scant attention to subsequent revelations about the evidence.
In a recent column (5/5/13), Times public editor Margaret Sullivan argued that the paper still faces problems with its credibility based on its reporting about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction over 10 years ago. The Times “pledged more skeptical and rigorous reporting” going forward, and Sullivan argues that the Times “has taken important steps” in that direction.
But does the paper’s handling of the Syria chemical weapons stories demonstrate that the paper has learned lessons? Or is it repeating the same mistakes?
Ask the New York Times public editor to evaluate the paper’s reporting on Syria and chemical weapons.
New York Times
Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor
More than 70 countries have refused to say yes to an Arab-backed resolution against Syria at the United Nations General Assembly.
Russia, China and Iran were among the 12 countries that opposed the resolution on Wednesday.
Russia called the resolution, co-sponsored by the United States, “counterproductive and irresponsible.”
The resolution was adopted by a vote of 107-12 with 59 abstentions. Argentina, Brazil, and more than a dozen other Latin American and Caribbean countries abstained from voting.
Russian Deputy Ambassador to the UN Alexander Pankin called the resolution “very harmful and destructive,” saying it disregards “illegal actions of the armed opposition.” He also accused the resolution’s Arab sponsors of attempting to replace the Syrian government instead of trying to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria.
Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari also stated that the resolution “seeks to escalate the crisis and fuel violence in Syria.”
The non-binding resolution, which was drafted by a number of Arab states, calls for a “political transition” and refers to the foreign-backed militants in Syria as “effective representative interlocutors” needed for the transition.
The Syria crisis began in March 2011, and many people, including large numbers of soldiers and security personnel, have been killed in the violence.
The Syrian government says that the chaos is being orchestrated from outside the country, and there are reports that a very large number of the militants are foreign nationals.
Damascus says the West and its regional allies, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, are supporting the militants.
In an interview recently broadcast on Turkish television, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that if the militants take power in Syria, they could destabilize the entire Middle East region for decades.
“If the unrest in Syria leads to the partitioning of the country, or if the terrorist forces take control… the situation will inevitably spill over into neighboring countries and create a domino effect throughout the Middle East and beyond,” he stated.
Some human rights groups, especially Amnesty International, seem to have forgotten an important human right: peace. A petition has been launched to remind them.
These organizations are not the warmongers. They do tremendously great work addressing some of the symptoms of warmaking, including imprisonment and torture. But, because they avoid taking any position on war, and because of an apparent bias in favor of U.S. military intervention, they sometimes find themselves effectively promoting war and all the horrors that come with it. At Nuremberg to initiate a war of aggression was called the supreme international crime “encompassing the evil of the whole.” Yet human rights groups are often on the wrong side of the fundamental question of war.
Amnesty International (AI) promoted the babies-taken-from-incubators hoax that helped launch the 1991 war on Iraq. AI has upheld the pretense that the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan is about women’s rights. And now Amnesty International is highlighting warmaking in Syria’s civil war by one side only:
“Our team of researchers on the ground found evidence that government forces bombed entire neighborhoods and targeted residential areas with long-range surface-to-surface missiles,” said an AI fundraising email on April 29th that made no mention of abuses committed by Syrian rebels supported by the U.S. and its allies.
This one-sided treatment by a group supposedly dedicated to all humans fuels the fires of a wider war from which the people of Syria can only suffer.
The email continued: “Amnesty has a strong track record of using our on-the-ground findings to pressure governments and the United Nations Security Council to hold those responsible for the slaughter of civilians accountable.”
Does it? When the United States kills civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya, AI’s silence has often been deafening. Shouldn’t a human rights group press for an end to the killing of all humans by all parties?
While many good individuals who work for human rights groups like AI oppose wars, these organizations officially ignore President Eisenhower’s warning and a half-century of evidence regarding the power of the military industrial complex — and they ignore the criminality of war under the U.S. Constitution, the U.N. Charter, the Kellogg-Briand Pact and other laws.
These groups accept the existence of war (when not encouraging it) and then focus on specific crimes and abuses within the larger war-making enterprise. They promote the idea that human rights are governed by two sets of laws, one in peace and another weaker set in war. Voices for the human right to peace are missing and badly needed, as “humanitarianism” and “the right to protect” are used as excuses for war and intervention.
Amnesty International opposes imprisonment without trial and other abuses unless they adhere to the “laws of war,” which is why AI is not opposing the outrageous charges leveled against Bradley Manning. Killing is opposed unless it adheres to the “laws of war.” Under this standard, we pretend not to know whether blowing families up with drones is legal or not as long as the memos purporting to legalize it are kept hidden.
Groups like Amnesty oppose particular weapons, including the development of fully autonomous weapons (drones that fly themselves). No one in their right mind would oppose that step. But surely the human right not to be blown up does not vanish if the button is pushed by a person instead of an autonomous robot. Other organizations are pushing to ban all weaponized drones from the world.
Human rights groups should join the peace movement in targeting war and militarism itself, rather than just some of its symptoms. Amnesty International and all groups favoring human rights should be asked to oppose a U.S. escalation of war on Syria.
The Middle East is treading water these days. Two years of rhetoric about ousting dictators, revolution, freedom, honor, dignity, and democracy – without result – has people on edge, their disillusionment now demanding an outlet.
There are no outlets though. Sensing the fast-growing disenchantment with undelivered promises, even the “bright new leaders” are tightening the reins and demanding compliance.
These new heads of state simply can’t deliver the goods for one main reason: they are just as caught up in global and regional power contests as were their predecessors. Nothing has changed with these uprisings – nothing.
Except now the stakes are higher than before. A recession-bound West, the fast-rising BRICS and their respective regional allies are locked in a competition to consolidate power and influence in this important region before it finds its bearings.
The relatively new influencers on the Arab scene like Qatar and Turkey have recognized this as a unique opportunity to slip into region-wide leadership roles. For the entrenched old hands – Washington, Riyadh, Paris, London – a race is on to prevent the region from shrugging off their decades-long dominance and embracing the anti-imperialism of the Resistance Axis.
The result has been an onslaught of interventions. Every tool in the arsenal has come out to play. Money, espionage, propaganda, weapons, assassination and that old colonial trick: divide-and-rule.
The main game is still the old battle of the blocs, Iran versus the United States, with everyone else filing in line behind their team. There have been a few surprises thrown into the mix: the newcomers like Turkey and Qatar have moved over to the US side; the BRICS, however, have lent their considerable clout to team Iran. Iraq has moved behind the latter formation and Hamas still doesn’t know where to stand so it straddles the two.
This is not a game for the faint-hearted, and it permeates every major social, economic, and political decision in the region today. Want a new electrical plant outside Cairo, Beirut, or Kirkuk? Good luck choosing a national supplier who doesn’t offend. IMF loan? Allowing over-flights or passage for ships? Inking a trade deal? Formulating a new constitution? Scheduling a football match?
Mideast states are now paralyzed and polarized over such things, and governance has come to a standstill. But in this paralysis lies a dangerous volatility: a backlash in the brewing, a pressure cooker about to blow.
The Backlash Against Neo-Islamists
After decades of oppression and marginalization by pro-West, secular dictatorships, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) and similar Islamist parties have catapulted to power and prominence in several states. Quite counter-intuitively, however, these Islamist governments appear to have lined up behind the US bloc, eager to please, or at least placate, the very powers that colluded in their oppression.
It is an unnatural marriage, and the longer this union endures, the more estranged Islamist parties will become from their domestic constituencies – in much the same way as their autocratic predecessors.
There is volatility in this balancing act between the two blocs, as groups like Hamas have come to discover. But for the new Islamist powerhouses in “post-revolution” states, yet another volatile contest is being played out to their detriment, this time on an entirely regional level: Qatar versus Saudi Arabia – or Sunni versus Sunni.
For years the Ikhwanists have been backed by the Qatari arrivistes, who are a thorn in the side of the other, larger Wahhabi state in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, for their own part, are throwing dollars and clout behind Salafists in all the countries where they intend to counter the influence of the Ikhwan and similar parties.
But Qatar and Saudi Arabia are now aggressively exporting their very personal competition to other Arab states – Libya, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Palestine – creating what I believe will evolve into a ferocious backlash among local populations, even as they reap the rewards of direct financial investment from these two Gulf states.
This competition has drawn in others like the UAE, Jordan, and Kuwait, appalled at the Qatari push to Ikhwanize the region. And it has turned the Arab League positively cannibalistic, devouring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states like Libya, Syria, and Palestine that it once pledged to protect.
Qatar finds support from AKP-led Turkey in this fight, but the two are a cause for concern in the United States, which secretly suspects that Ikhwanists are harder to control than Saudi-backed Salafists. Much of this fear is because that lynchpin of all US foreign policy calculations, the state of Israel, borders Ikhwan-heavy Egypt, Gaza, and Jordan – none of which have yet sufficiently proven their loyalty to the idea of Israel’s regional hegemony.
But the biggest victim of the Saudi-Qatari competition to influence the direction of political Sunnism is likely to be political Islam itself.
The rise of political Islam – once an inevitable byproduct of democratization – arrived too hard, too fast; too aggressively championed, organized, and weaponized by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Now, not only have the mentors lost credibility and support, but so have many of their political protégés in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Palestine.
Volatility? We haven’t even started.
What yesterday’s global powerbrokers seek from the incoming class of political Islamists is the maintenance of the status quo, including, among other things, embracing Israel and rejecting Iran. But an open pledge of allegiance to Israel is impossible for the Ikhwan and similar parties – their very legitimacy comes in part from denouncing the legitimacy of the Zionist experiment in Palestine.
Nothing tested their limits as dangerously as last November’s eight days of rocket-volley between Gaza and Israel. Each passing day drove home the fact that, despite their standard rhetoric to domestic and regional constituencies, Islamist heads of state in Turkey, Egypt, and Qatar were rendered paralyzed – and mute – as the Israeli army pounded Gaza.
Instead, it was firepower, training and strategic planning by Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria that propped up defiant Palestinians through those dark hours. The unexpected arsenal of rockets that countered Israeli aggression came from Hamas’ Qassam Brigades, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other smaller resistance groups, who became the heroes of that conflict.
Not one missile, bullet, or slogan came from the three new Qatari, Turkish, and Egyptian “Sunni kings” vying for power on the coattails of the Arab uprisings.
Had the battle gone on for another week or two, the entire Middle East might have been reconfigured in its aftermath. Never have the Israelis so quickly signed a ceasefire agreement.
The global battle of the blocs and the inter-regional Sunni power struggle crossed paths in that Gaza battle. In it, the US bloc and political Islam exposed their vulnerabilities. Both groups are currently upholding – against a tidal wave of popular sentiment – systems, values, and institutions that were supposed to be swept away by honor-and-dignity revolts. Any incident that highlights this fact can serve as a springboard for a backlash against the interests of the West and its Islamist allies in the region.
The Backlash Against Sectarianism
Shia versus Sunni. Christianity versus Islam. Vilifying the “other” is common in conflict, especially when there exists some historic animosity or tension between sects, nationalities, and communities.
But since the onset of the Arab uprisings there has been a concerted effort to escalate the Shia-Sunni divide and link it wholesale to an Iranian-Arab one.
With the loss of its dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, Washington wasted no time in formulating a divide-and-rule strategy to preserve its regional interests. The US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) for the Middle East jump-started the task by initiating a secret exercise to divide Arabs and Iranians in March 2011.
Gulf-backed media channels dove headfirst into exaggerating the threat from Iran, while hardline clerics issued increasingly belligerent fatwas against the Shia. Against this backdrop, Shia civilians began to be targeted with violence throughout the region – with very little outcry or objection from the international community, so successfully have they been conflated with a “threatening” Iran and Hezbollah.
But as Christians began to be targeted, assaulted, and killed in Egypt and Syria, the issue of sectarianism exploded beyond the old, more common storylines, and has made avoidance of this subject impossible.
Dragging the sordid issue of sectarianism – which is invariably accompanied by extremism – into the light has had an interesting effect on regional discourse: most Arabs don’t want to be part of it in much the same way they rejected al-Qaeda a decade ago.
A recent Pew Research Center poll of Muslims worldwide reveals, among other things, that 85 percent of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa view religious freedom for people of other faiths to be “a good thing.” A majority of Muslims are “somewhat or very concerned” about Islamic religious extremism, while a minority of Muslims view Shia-Sunni tensions to be a problem at all. The poll indicates that religious strife remains a major cause for concern among Muslims in many MENA states, and that perceived hostilities between Muslims and Christians are on the high side in Egypt, but low in Lebanon, another country that has experienced these hostilities.
But even as sectarian tensions flare in various countries, the headlines do not tell the whole story. Many Arabs are rejecting these divisions, some of which is attributable to the shocking new level of violence now associated with sectarianism:
From Egypt to Kuwait, Bahrain to Syria, young Arabs are hearing – many for the first time – about women being raped because of their sect; about the cutting of heads, the hacking of limbs, the burning of bodies. This is not yesterday’s segregation of sects; this is the stuff of horror movies and genocidal sprees.
The backlash here has already begun. As violent sectarianism rises, so too does the realization that there is another discourse on the rise besides Shia versus Sunni or Muslim versus Christian.
Simply put, there is a new paradigm forming in the region that didn’t exist when it was just Iraq suffering the consequences of violent sectarian carnage: Today, throughout the Middle East, “sectarian” Shia, Sunni, Muslims, and Christians are increasingly facing down “anti-sectarian” Shia, Sunni, Muslims, and Christians. The re-framing of this issue is crucial in undermining sectarian strife. It offers millions an alternative communal identity to the one that always forces them to “defend sect first.”
Interestingly, one communal identity they are tending to embrace is a national identity, i.e., “I am Bahraini, not Shia or Sunni.”
In Bahrain, despite efforts to paint a two-year popular uprising as an “Iranian project” pitting the majority Shia population against a minority Sunni government, Bahrainis hoist their national flag at every opportunity to defy the negative sectarian characterizations of their “national” democratization project.
In Lebanon, where sectarianism is boiling in reaction to events in neighboring Syria, each incident has so far been thwarted by inter-sect efforts on a national level, and a growing desire among the population to empower the “national” army.
In Syria, widespread revulsion against what has to be the most violent manifestation of sectarianism in the region has morphed into a new language to define the conflict there: Instead of being pro or anti-government/opposition, many Syrians are now underlining their allegiance to Syria first. Despite the international media’s partiality toward framing the Syrian conflict as a sectarian one, many pro-government and pro-opposition figures tend to reject this characterization outright. This is certainly notable among pro-government Syrians, many of whom have undergone a hasty conversion from political apathy to intense nationalism in a short time, and who reject being defined as “pro-Assad.”
“It is too limiting,” says one staunchly secular Syrian about that definition. “This is about my country and keeping it whole – it is not about a person or a government,” says another, an observant Sunni who backs her national army’s efforts to weed out mostly Islamist rebels.
The irony is that the very “sectarianism” encouraged by competing Islamists and their allies in pursuit of political objectives in the region may have spawned the backlash to hasten their demise. Nationalism has long been the enemy of political Islam in the Middle East, and nationalism can once more bury it.
Throughout the Arab world, minority sects and non-sectarian groups are being thrust together to protect against the more zealous elements of political Islam, giving form to important civil coalitions that will form the backbone of new grassroots opposition movements in these countries – previously a position held almost exclusively by Islamists.
The backlashes are here, now. They will target all the interventionists clinging on to the status quo, and those keeping progress at bay. They may grow incrementally and tentatively – or they may explode onto a national or regional stage one fine day. “More of the same” will only hasten their arrival.
And it’s okay. These “backlashes” will be the revolutions you thought we already had.
Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.
“On the latest Israeli aggression on Syria:
Unfortunately, the Israelis talked of their “enemy’s enemy” and “friend’s friend”. Isn’t the Israeli enemy the benchmark? Isn’t this rudimentary? This is part of our Islamic lexicon.
Of course there were objectives behind Israel’s attacks which it sought to realize. I want to define this reality so I can discuss the nature of the [Syrian] response and so that we can understand it.
One of its objectives, especially over the past two years— its objective and that of others— is to remove Syria from the military equation in the struggle with Zionist enemy. First of all, Syria hasn’t made a peace agreement with Israel as other Arab states have. Although there is a hudna (truce), everyone knows—the enemy knows this more than friends do—what Syria offered resistance movements for tens of years now and especially over the past few years, particularly the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movements. If the day comes when our brothers in the Palestinian resistance will declare on their pulpits what they used to admit in private meetings, they will say that no Arab regime has offered us what the regime of Bashar al-Assad offered us.
The Israeli knows that one of the most important sources of strength for the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine is Syria. This is why they want to remove Syria from the [military] equation and they want to besiege the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine. What this siege means is that any material or moral or military support from whoever supports the resistance must end. The Israelis said they won’t allow the transfer of any weapons which could upset the balance of power with the resistance into Lebanon. Now they are saying they will prevent the resistance’s military capability from growing, meaning we won’t even allow you to increase the weapons you currently have. So they struck Damascus and its environs, in order to tell Syria—and we should read this part carefully so we understand the nature and scope of the Syrian response—that the continuation of support for the resistance and the transfer of capabilities will spell the demise of the regime and a declaration of war on Syria. Therefore, the real objective behind the latest attacks is the subjugation of Syria and breaking the will of its leadership, army and people and to permanently remove it from the resistance equation.
By the way, everything you heard in the media about 200, 300 and 400 [Syrian army] martyrs, is all lies. Unfortunately, we heard on [Arab] cable tv takbeer [cries of Allahu Akbar] and jubilation, because Israeli planes were bombing Syrian facilities or locations or bases. This is very sad. According to the reliable information I have, those killed were 4 or 5 martyrs from the Syrian army who were guarding these places.
So these were their objectives. How should one respond? First of all, one must thwart the aims of the aggression. This is the minimum response for resistance and mumana’a movements, and if possible, to turn the magic on the magician. And this is what the Syrian leadership did. There are some well-meaning people who want Syria to bomb occupied Palestine for reasons related to morale, and some hateful people who want it to bomb occupied Palestine so that war can break out between Israel and Syria and let all hell to break loose.
The first [Syrian] response: You Israelis are saying that the aim behind your aggression was to prevent the resistance’s military capability from growing, so the first response is that if you consider Syria to be a weapons’ conduit for the resistance then know that Syria will continue supplying the resistance with weapons. This is a huge strategic decision. More than this, if you are claiming that the aim behind your aggression was to prevent the resistance’s military capability from growing, then Syria will provide the resistance with game-changing weapons that it did not possess before. This means upsetting the balance of power.
Show me one Arab regime which would dare to openly supply the Palestinian resistance with so much as a rifle, let alone a game-changing rocket. And then we have a leadership which was bombed just two days ago which says I want to give them weapons they don’t even have. This is Syria’s strategic response, and it is much more significant than firing a rocket or launching an attack on occupied Palestine.
The second strategic response, which is no less important or dangerous, is to open the Golan front—opening the door to the popular resistance on the Golan front. In this war you have launched on Syria, the threat has been turned into an opportunity.
Let us set the third response aside for now. To go back to the first response, we the resistance in Lebanon announce that we are ready to receive any sophisticated weaponry even if it is game-changing and we are ready to protect this weaponry and use it to defend our people, country and sanctities.
As for the second response, just as Syria stood by the Lebanese people and supported its popular resistance materially and morally until this resistance was able to liberate South Lebanon, we in the Lebanese resistance declare that we will stand by the popular Syrian resistance and offer it our material and moral support, as well as cooperation and coordination, in order to liberate the Syrian Golan.
[Chuckling] The third response is a huge deal so we won’t discuss it now.
All the latest events and responses and positions taken by the Syrian leadership suggest that it is a leadership with nerves of steel, that it is a very wise leadership which is managing the battle with the Israelis with a strategic mind and not in an emotional or impassioned manner. This is how the resistance and mumana’a axis has foiled all schemes in the region since the 1990s.
Whoever wants to retrieve Jerusalem, whoever wants to achieve Palestinian rights and realize Palestinian aspirations, should know that this won’t be achieved in the Arab league or the UN or the Organization for Islamic Cooperation or anywhere else. The only choice has always been resistance and remains so.
Oh Palestinian and Arab people who reject Israeli hegemony, you will not find anyone to stand by your side except he who has stood by your side for tens of years. Protect those who stood by you, protect the sources of strength in your axis. Any serious effort to find a political solution in Syria which refuses to allow Syria to fall into the hands of the US, Israel and the takfiris is effectively the battle for Palestine, the battle for Quds, the battle for the Aqsa mosque.”
- VIDEO | Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (Full Speech English Voice-Over) – May 9, 2013 (occupiedpalestine.wordpress.com)
News Unspun | May 8, 2013
The Syrian conflict has been accompanied by a distinct media narrative. Within this narrative – which poses a binary division between the forces engaged in the conflict, identifying the players as good (the rebels, who must receive ‘our’ support) and bad (the government) – the role the West must play is that of potential saviour, whose aim is to cautiously observe the conflict so that it may intervene to ‘fix’ the situation, as The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall put it:
So what can Obama do? As Vladimir Putin was expected to make plain to John Kerry in Moscow on Tuesday, he cannot count on Russian (or, therefore, Chinese or UN security council) support to fix Syria.
This sentiment, that the West can put right the Syrian situation, is inherent to most reporting of the conflict. The BBC recently reported that ‘the pressure to act has intensified in recent days after emerging evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons such as the nerve gas sarin’. This statement presents the existence of a ‘pressure to act’ as a given, though the source of such pressure is unidentified. From where is this pressure emerging? As a BBC report points out, public opinion in France, the UK, the US, and Germany is by majority opposed to the possibility of intervention in the conflict through sending arms and military supplies to the Syrian opposition. The BBC is not then speaking on behalf of the public majority. Pressure towards military intervention, to some extent considered a desirable option by the UK government (if it can ‘achieve the result [they] want’, as Cameron put it in an interview with Nick Robinson), is, however, increasingly mounting within the media itself.
Chemical Weapons ‘Evidence’
It is also important to note that the ‘emerging evidence’ referred to above is not conclusive despite the wording of this report. The BBC reported again on Monday 6 May that ‘Western powers have said their own investigations have found evidence that government forces have used chemical weapons’. Again, this is simply not the case. ‘Western powers’, regardless of their true intentions, have in fact been very cautious in public about how precisely they present their claims, underscoring the lack of conclusive evidence they have found and that there exists the possibility that chemical weapons had been used by the Syrian government. This misrepresentation by the BBC emerges in a context in which the use of chemical weapons has been signified by the UK and US as the point at which they may become militarily involved in the Syrian conflict. As such these details, so easily misrepresented by the BBC, are of high consequence.
(There are other examples of BBC reports dangerously getting important facts wrong about such issues: just over a year ago, for example, a BBC news report stated that the ‘International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report with new evidence showing Iran was secretly working towards obtaining a nuclear weapon’ – in this case the report said no such thing.)
Journalists Pushing for Intervention
In recent reports, certain BBC journalists have appeared more hawkish than government officials themselves. Take for example a question put to Cameron by the BBC’s Nick Robinson:
Do you ever fear that a terrible thing is happening in our world and that Western leaders cannot or will not act because of a fear of another Iraq?
Cameron responded with ‘I do worry about that’, before clarifying that what he has concluded from the ‘Iraq lesson’ is that the UK should only enter into conflicts it can win, that ‘the ability is there’. This is at a far remove from the implication of Robinson’s question that past ‘mistakes’ might prevent the West from playing a righteous humanitarian role. Yet Robinson’s leading question provides the basis for the seemingly unambiguous headline: ‘Cameron fears Iraq effect holding West back in Syria’.
There is a prevailing trend of journalists taking up the position of presenting the case for military intervention in Syria and proactively pushing government representatives to commit to intentions for military action. On the Andrew Marr show on 5 May Jeremy Vine asked Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond a number of questions which demonstrated this pressure by the media for the UK to become involved in the Syrian conflict. When Hammond appeared cautious regarding the prospect of military intervention, stating that the UK would need to engage in discussion with the UK’s ‘allies and partners’, Vine admonished, ‘you’re talking about having a series of meetings’. Another brief exchange emphasises Vine’s apparent desire to see the UK intervene:
Phillip Hammond: ‘Frankly that [the potential use of chemical weapons] is not what’s delivering the tally of 70,000 that have been killed… the majority of these people have been killed by conventional weapons’.
Jeremy Vine: ‘More reason to do something then…’
These comments reflect the consistency of BBC reporting which seems aimed towards creating a case for war. When Carla Del Ponte, of the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told reporters that there were ‘strong, concrete suspicions’ that the rebels – perhaps not as virtuous as would be convenient for States considering providing military support – may have used chemical weapons, the tone of BBC reporting did not suggest that the pressure for military action should be alleviated.
Analysis of Attacks on Syria: Real and Imagined
Taking the case a step further, Jonathan Marcus, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, discussed the various ways in which the US could attack Syria. His assessment reads more like a military strategy report than an analysis of events for a news provider. Surgical airstrikes, Marcus said, ‘could be carried out by cruise missiles launched from aircraft well outside Syrian airspace or from warships or submarines in the Mediterranean’, while a wider air campaign, ‘might have to be preceded by a significant effort to destroy missiles, associated radars and command systems and might well involve losses’. Why it is in the public interest that such analysis is brought to us by journalists is unclear. Through Marcus’s piece, which is nothing more than speculation of military strategy on an as yet non-existent, illegal military intervention, the idea of an attack on Syria from outside is normalised further.
The reporting on the air strikes that Israel has carried out on Syria also reveals how normalised warfare has become in BBC reporting, with very little discussion of casualties or of the chaos inflicted on the people who were bombed. What was important, in this story, it seems, is that Israel was protecting itself from weapons that were supposedly being transported. This is summed up in the BBC’s Q&A page on the Israeli airstrikes: in answer to the question ‘Why would Israel attack?’ we are told that ‘the statements from unnamed officials suggest Israel’s actions are defensive.’ If the Syrian government had, for example, attacked the Israeli air force within Israel, to prevent airstrikes on its own territory, it is extremely unlikely that this would be overwhelmingly reported as an act of defence. Yet when Israel bombs another country, BBC journalists and editors happily report such actions as ‘defensive’ measures.
Jonathan Marcus writes that Israel’s airstrikes are ‘designed to send a powerful signal’ (the headline: ‘Israeli air strikes: A warning to Syria’s Assad’). It is worth at this point noting that following the last Israel attack on Syria, in early 2013, Marcus also wrote that this was ‘in one sense pre-emptive, but also a warning’. It was also portrayed as a ‘signal’. That such attacks are continuously reported as warnings and signals, as seemingly rational, and therefore it seems permissible, actions, goes further to normalise them. We might wonder how many attacks Israel would have to inflict on another country before Jonathan Marcus stops referring to the attacks as ‘signals’ and ‘warnings’?
In their seeming urgency to present a case for war, BBC reporters have neglected factual accuracy of reported events. Scepticism towards the unsupported claims of Western governments, insistence upon proof, is also lacking. We are presented with a simplified narrative, of ‘good versus evil’, in which the possibility of misconduct on both sides of the conflict is considered improbable. This style of reporting very much takes its lead from the positions of Western governments. Whitehouse spokesman Jay Carney outlined the position of the US: ‘We are highly sceptical of suggestions that the opposition could have or did use chemical weapons. We find it highly likely that any chemical weapon use that has taken place in Syria was done by the Assad regime, and that remains our position’. The supposed instincts of the US or UK government, despite the inconclusive nature of the evidence, as to the righteousness of the Syrian rebels is not proof of the reality and should not be considered by journalists as such.
On page A12 of the May 8, 2013 edition of The New York Times is Steven Lee Myers and Rick Gladstone’s article “U.S. and Russia Plan Conference Aimed at Ending Syrian War,” which opens by stating that, “Russia and the United States announced on Tuesday that they would seek to convene an international conference within weeks aimed at ending the civil war in Syria, jointly intensifying their diplomatic pressure on the combatants to peacefully settle a conflict that has taken more than 70,000 lives and left millions displaced and desperate.” This is a most welcoming turn of events, especially for the people of Syria who have taken the brunt of the civil war, and hopefully the conference bears fruit quickly.
But—and there is one of these stubborn conjunctions—it is important for the purpose of history to note that for two years now the United States has blocked any peaceful resolution, and has instead pushed the conflict further and deeper into violence and war.
It is Russia who has long pushed for a political reconciliation.
In October 2011 RIA Novosti reported that “Moscow calls on the UN Security Council to continue the search for a balanced approach toward the political crisis in Syria based on a draft resolution prepared by Russia and China, Russia’s envoy to the UN said,” with the phrase “balanced” being a jab at how Washington and its allies have put all the requirements on the Syrian government to end violence, and not the rebel forces whom they have been backing.
Writing in December of 2011, Egypt Independent reported that, “Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on Monday emphasized the need for dialogue and reconciliation in Syria.”
Even in December of 2012 Voice of America reported that, “Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has echoed a call from an international peace envoy to resolve Syria’s civil war through a government-backed national dialogue and political process.”
The New York Times also reported on Russian efforts that same month when they informed readers that, “Moscow has made a muscular push for a political solution in recent days.”
While it is inaccurate to imply that Russia’s search for “a political solution” was “in recent days,” it is more disturbing that phrases like “muscular push” are used to describe such an effort, while the “paper of record” has routinely tried to make a case for war (see here and here).
A month ago today (May 8, 2013) the Syrian rebels detonated a car bomb near a school in Damascus, killing 14, and wounding dozens of others. According to Reuters, “State television said the explosion had occurred near a school in Sabaa Bahrat, a heavily populated area that also houses the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry. It said 53 people were wounded.”
Washington failed to condemn the act of terror.
Likewise when Daily Mail ran an article last December with this headline: “Syria rebels ‘beheaded a Christian and fed him to the dogs’ as fears grow over Islamist atrocities.” Apparently there is no “red line” for the rebels to cross.
And there are dozens and dozens of similar incidents. Not once has Washington put pressure on the rebels to stop their senseless violence, or argued for an international force to intervene and defend the Syrian people from the terrorists. Nor have Western establishment pundits like Bill Keller argued for such things. And even though al Qaeda is active in the country, beheading so-called infidels, or that the Syrian rebels are likely using chemical weapons, Washington and its media parrots have instead favored escalation. Just over a week ago The New York Times reported that “The White House is once again considering supplying weapons to Syria’s armed opposition.” This comes after the car bombing across the street from a children’s school.
And now Washington wants peace, as Myers and Gladstone tell us that “The announcement appeared to signal a strong desire by both countries to halt what has been a dangerous escalation in the conflict.”
Perhaps it has become clear that the rebels cannot win this war on their own, and the only reasonable way Bashar Assad will be brought down is another U.S. war which will elevate the jihadis into power. Perhaps President Obama is imagining one of these rebel jihadis attacking an American embassy in Damascus, and the Republicans foaming at the mouth for another politicized inquiry into how such an attack could happen, as they currently are over the embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya last year.
Whatever the reasons for the turnaround it is gladly welcomed. The people of Syria deserve a rescue from the terror Washington, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others, have unleashed on them. Though we should remain sober and note that the “conflict that has taken more than 70,000 lives and left millions displaced and desperate” is largely of Washington’s doings, and could have been avoided years ago if Uncle Sam followed the lead of Moscow and Bejing, both of whom had the “strong desire . . . to halt what has been a dangerous escalation in the conflict.”
We should also recall that The New York Times derided Russia for their “strong desire” and even went so far as to equate it with “effectively toss[ing] a life preserver to President Bashar al-Assad, seemingly unwilling to see a pivotal ally and once stalwart member of the socialist bloc sink beneath the waves of the Arab Spring.” Russia was just as clear then as they are now: they did not want to go along with efforts that would worsen the situation, but now that the situation has gotten considerably worse, and Washington is warming to the idea of a political solution, now The New York Times is presenting this as a positive development.