Opinion

When it comes to Syria, our press is full of moralizing and propaganda, and short on analysis

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Last week The New York Times ran a big piece on Syria titled, “As Atrocities Mount in Syria, Justice Seems Out of Reach.” It asserts that Bashar al-Assad is responsible for 100s of 1000s of deaths of civilians, and that the evidence of his crimes is as strong as that at Nuremberg for Nazis.

This week the Times ran another piece putting the deaths in Syria almost completely at Assad’s doorstep. Anne Barnard writes about a level “of state brutality not seen in decades,” from which the U.S. holds itself “at arm’s length.”

It is hard to escape the sense that Western fears of Islamist terrorism have grown so intense that many are willing to tolerate any number of deaths of Arab or Muslim civilians, and any abuses of state power, in the name of fighting it.

This view of Syria seems incomplete.  We are supposed to believe from anti-Assad sources that the rebels have killed 100,000 or more armed combatants on the Assad side, yet have killed only a tiny fraction of the civilian dead.  Coincidentally the sources of the information are mostly Syrian opponents of Assad.  In the Barnard piece there is a token acknowledgement that Assad’s opponents, including jihadists, have also caused civilian deaths:

Rebels have shelled civilian neighborhoods, and the jihadists of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have deployed suicide bombers, tortured enemies and executed prisoners, often on video.

But the largest number of violations by far has been by the Syrian government and its allies, investigators say…

Put these alleged facts together and the picture is extraordinary. While every war has atrocities committed by both sides, in this case the rebels whose most effective forces are jihadists are fighting a guerrilla war while limiting the civilian casualties.

Why aren’t we discussing this? If this is the case, Al Qaeda might be the first guerrilla force in history to fight with “purity of arms”, to coin a phrase.  We give Israel weapons and they killed about two civilians for every fighter in their last war.  Al Qaeda, apparently, is much more discriminating.

The Times stories are one-sided, but underneath them there is an irreducible core of truth: the Syrian government has committed huge war crimes in a brutal civil war.  The problem is that they are whitewashing the rebels, which is just what some on the left would do if the geopolitical situation were reversed. Because on the other side you have some who think Assad is the hero.

So the answer to the question  is  that we aren’t discussing the strange notion of a benevolent rebel force of jihadis because the mainstream press is playing its usual stenographer role and because many people on the far left play their own stereotypical role of glorifying the people the mainstream demonizes.  Assad is supposed to be a victim and a hero.  It is hard to tell what Syrians truly think, and chances are, since there are 20 million of them, they think different things.

Here is the latest ORB poll, which seems to indicate the majority of Syrians dislike all armed factions, though of course it would be a different majority in each of the questions asked:

The survey reveals a majority feel that [anti-Assad] Coalition is having a negative influence on affairs inside Syria (63%). This compares with majorities feeling Daesh (85%), Nusrah (71%), the YPG [Kurds] (78%) and Western backed Syrian Democratic Forces (67%) are also having a negative influence. It is only the FSA [Free Syrian Army, anti-Assad] (43%) and Turkey (45%) who have anywhere near a majority saying they are having a positive influence.

This Foreign Affairs article on Five myths about the Syrian refugees relies on extensive interviews with refugees and finds that most were fleeing violence in general not Assad in particular.

But in the west, everyone is a moralist first and an analyst second.  That leads to all the propaganda. The natural temptation is to start ignoring the crimes of the supposed good guys. The bias is huge and it is almost impossible to investigate anything firsthand. I wonder if or when there will ever be an honest account of not just the Syrian War, but all the lies told by people on all sides.

This article I wrote last year about Syrian death tolls frames one of the issues: It is odd that the majority of recorded deaths are ostensibly armed combatants on both sides when the usual picture in the media is of a war where most of the deaths are Assad’s massacres of civilians.

This piece two years ago by the war-nerd Gary Brecher pointed out that the figures on casualties are “pure mud,” but that civilian casualty numbers are skewed by the fact that a large number of Alawites (the Shi’ite sect of which Assad is a member) have been pressed into uniform because their community is at stake.

Even Alawites who hate Assad’s clan have joined up, because when you belong to a small hill sect in a sea of Sunni sectarians, you’re in a prison situation: stick with your own or die.

Nobody knows how many Alawites have died because we don’t know how many of anyone have died, but it is a huge number. And maybe most are soldiers and so wouldn’t be counted as the sympathetic civilian victims.  But they are fighting and dying in very large numbers because if they lose the Alawites are dead. Therefore, even if one took the claims that “most” civilian dead are killed by the Assad government as unquestionably true, it is disingenuous to see the morality of the war solely in those terms.  The implication of the most-civilians-were-killed-by-Assad argument is that dead Alawites who take up arms to prevent their own genocide don’t count. Once they pick up a weapon to fight against the rebels who might well ethnically cleanse their group, they become faceless members of Assad’s regime (which Barnard’s sources tacitly compare to Hitler, or at least the “mix of fascism and anti-Semitism in World War II”) and their deaths are treated as having the same moral significance as the deaths of Nazi stormtroopers.

At this point I want to quote someone who has actually been to Syria, speaking to the Real News:

I don’t deny the Syrian government is killing people. I’ve seen the results of their bombings. They bomb everything. It’s an overwhelming indiscriminate level of violence against opposition areas. But this is a two-sided war, a multi-sided war in fact. I have been saying this is a two-sided war.

[T]he charts saying the government is responsible for 95% of all civilian deaths shouldn’t be believed. The opposition has killed around 100,000 pro-government fighters. If the government has killed 95% of the civilians, then that means the side of the war that has al Qaeda in it has almost exclusively killed government forces, which would make it the noblest fighting force in history. I don’t whitewash the government’s atrocities. I have said something that’s obvious – there are many sides fighting and many sides killing civilians.

The quote comes from Rania Khalek, the journalist often described in certain circles as an Assad apologist, which should give one some indication of the level of discussion on Syria within the US.  My analysis of al Qaeda’s purity of arms sounds so much like hers because the point is obvious, or it would be if the mainstream press didn’t write their stories in a way that seems designed to conceal just how strange their storyline is.

There are other counter-examples to the propaganda in the mainstream press.

A year ago in Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch also questioned the numbers of civilian deaths on Assad’s side. He said that Hillary Clinton’s claim that the Syrian government had killed “250,000 of its own people” was not supported by evidence. And that while human rights groups broadly agreed that Assad had killed more civilians than “armed rebel and extremist groups,” there weren’t enough figures from the pro-government side to make that claim reliable.

The Syrian government has not given official death figures to the U.N. in more than two-and-a-half years. Virtually no pro-regime organizations provide detailed accounts of the war dead, leaving it to a network of independent or largely opposition Syrian activists and human rights groups to collect data on the conflict. But their figures are incomplete and sometimes contradictory…

[Rami] Abdulrahman, an exiled Syrian clothes salesman who runs SOHR [Syrian Observatory for Human Rights] out of his home in Coventry, England, said he lost faith in the U.N.’s counting enterprise. He felt some of the other Syrian monitoring groups were biased, and downplayed or ignored atrocities committed against certain groups, like Alawites, which are linked by ethnicity and religion to Assad’s regime.

“I don’t trust anyone,” Abdulrahman told FP in a telephone interview.

Abdulrahman agrees with other Syrian monitors that Damascus, which has enjoyed air superiority over the armed opposition since the war’s start, has inflicted the vast majority of civilian casualties. He claims Assad’s forces have killed 75 percent of civilians since the conflict began in March 2011.

But he maintains that most of Syria’s dead were combatants, not civilians.

Lately Richard Beck in n+1 published a  balanced piece arguing that the response required for the Syrian catastrophe “at this late, desperate stage is neither anti-Assad nor anti-ISIS nor even anti-imperialist — it is antiwar.” His conclusion is correct. Anti imperialism is not enough if you aren’t antiwar. The pro Assad and also the pro rebel groups on the left are all advocating war.

Beck is hard on the idea of US intervention and gets it right that we consider ourselves noninterventionists if we haven’t invaded.

Over the past fifteen years, debates over Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have steadily moved the discursive goalposts, such that “non-interventionist” now means “anything short of a full-scale occupation.” That’s the only sense in which one can say the US hasn’t carried out military intervention in the Syrian war. In 2011, Hillary Clinton objected to and undermined peace talks that didn’t include Assad’s removal as a condition. The CIA has assisted rebels with training, arms, ammunition, and supply routes along the Turkish border.

But that judgment still isn’t harsh enough.  Beck contradicts himself.  Yes, the war would occur without us; but the truth is that without outside help on both sides it would have ended faster. And who is to say that an Assad victory would be worse than a rebel victory?

Beck makes much of the reports of torture by Assad forces. But even this emphasis lets the US off the hook in some ways, paradoxically.  Mainstream liberals simply aren’t that upset any more by bombings of civilians by our side, but torture upsets them in part because Republicans favor it.  It’s an easy way to whittle down the antiwar position to something partisan.

American liberals are currently immersed in a form of narcissistic  madness. Stealing emails is intervention, we are told. But sending billions of dollars of weapons to rebels trying to overthrow a government isn’t.  That seems to be Barnard’s position. Because we haven’t actually invaded or engaged in a full scale bombing campaign against Assad, but have kept the conflict “at arm’s length,” we haven’t intervened.  She isn’t the only one.  American liberals are willing to talk all day long about the threat to our democracy poised by Russians stealing embarrassing emails (some of them quite revealing about attitudes on US foreign policy), but getting them to care about the death and destruction Obama’s policies have caused in the Middle East is like pulling teeth. They might start caring if Trump can be blamed, but in light of the recent cruise missile attack and the continued lack of interest in Yemen this seems doubtful.

An honest account of the Syrian war would still make Assad look like the war criminal he is, but the badness of our side and the complexity of the war is ignored in favor of one-sided moralizing with us as the good guys who haven’t intervened enough. Indeed, some liberals in the press prefer Trump to Obama in Syria. Some liberals love bombing.

David Bromwich in the New York Review of Books is another exception to the prevailing narcissism. He points out the inconclusive nature of the evidence linking Assad to the recent chemical attack, and captures the Syrian War perfectly: both sides are awful and which side a Syrian would hate more probably depends on which side has killed his or her family members.

A Reuters story by Anthony Deutsch several weeks after the third incident summarized the conclusion by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that banned weapons had indeed been used; the same story revealed the uncertainty of the investigating body concerning which side had used the weapons. Deutsch spoke of “a growing body of evidence that the Islamic State group has obtained, and is using, chemical weapons in both Iraq and Syria.” These indications have scarcely been mentioned in recent US reporting on Syria. The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have had them in mind when, in his initial response to the recent incident, he said that there are “continuing questions…about who is responsible for these horrible attacks.”

None of this affects what Americans should think of Bashar al-Assad. Before the war began, Assad was one more regional despot like Saddam Hussein and Muamar Qaddafi, who, though oppressive and illiberal, posed little international threat. In the civil war, Assad and his allies, Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, have committed atrocities and inflicted suffering on the Syrian population on a scale that can never be atoned for. His enemies—ISIS, Al-Nusra (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), and various proxy warriors bankrolled by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia— have often done the same. Which of these parties you hate the most, if you are Syrian, may depend on which has killed the largest numbers of your family.

He also mocks the American support for intervention.

Now, more than five years into this intractable conflict, is it plausible that the United States can alleviate the sufferings caused by Assad—and by his enemies, too—with a full-scale military attempt to overthrow the government of Syria? The American establishment seems to have answered almost overnight with an automatic yes.

Bromwich is just a bit too easy on the Democrats. He says they have yielded the foreign policy debate to Republicans like John McCain, Lindsey Graham and their “understudy Tom Cotton.” Whereas, “Democrats have more to say about Obamacare and abortion and trans bathrooms than they do about Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Russia.”

If only that were the case. Some Democrats are straightforward warmongers just like the Republicans.

Getting back to the New York Times piece with which I began: Yes, Assad is a war criminal. And it seems unlikely that he will face justice.

But who exactly are Americans to be talking about justice?  We helped keep the war going for years and yet we act like nothing that has happened is in any way our fault, except that we should have bombed more.  And none of the American moralists seem to care about what we are helping the Saudis do in Yemen or what we did to Libya after another of our noble humanitarian interventions.

The word justice is not something we should be talking very loudly about. But we do it anyway: because we have the power to squash people like bugs and we are not held to account for it.

I am going to finish by making three comparisons of Syria to Israel and Gaza.  The comparisons have nothing to do with which side you think is right or wrong–they are just a way of illustrating how mainstream Americans tend to think about these conflicts, as expressed in the press.

Consider that phrase “the largest violations by far” have been committed by the Syrian government.  In the Second Intifada “most” of the civilians killed were Palestinians killed by the Israelis. “Most” in that case meant over 2000 Palestinian civilians vs roughly 750 Israeli civilians, or approximately 75 percent Palestinian, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

But of course in American coverage, the Israeli civilian deaths loomed very large, because of the U.S. moralism against the Palestinians. The minority became the majority in terms of coverage. A genuinely balanced news organization would have given a lot of coverage to both sides. And today in Syria, the moralism assures that there is no balance re deaths on the Assad side.

Next, consider Gaza 2014. The civilian death toll was around 1400 for the Palestinians and 6 for the Israelis– figures from B’Tselem. That’s a roughly 200 to 1 ratio. In the Second Intifada you could say both sides were traumatized.  In Gaza 2014 it was a one sided massacre. Was it covered that way in the NY Times? Of course not. They leaned over backwards to tell the Israeli side. Even though the Syria criterion — “Most of the civilian deaths” — would have meant focusing solely on Israel as the perpetrator.

My third example is imaginary. Suppose that countries X, Y, and Z gave billions of dollars of weapons to Hamas, and simultaneously in some fashion thousands of ISIS fighters managed to sneak through Jordan into the West Bank and capture some Palestinian towns. The Israelis violently suppressed some nonviolent Palestinian demonstrations and as a result a war began. That war drags on for five years. Tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers die, because the weapons supplied to the rebels are very effective.  Many thousands of Israeli civilians die in rocket barrages and other attacks. ISIS turns out to be so powerful the U.S. bombs them to prevent Israel from toppling. The U.S. also decides to bomb Alepp–I mean, Gaza.

So ask yourself the following questions:

1.  How would Israeli warplanes  treat the West Bank and Gaza under these conditions?  (Hint–how did they treat Gaza under vastly less serious circumstances in real life?)

2.  How would Israeli soldiers treat Palestinian civilians?

3.  How would Israel treat its own citizens suspected of sympathy for its enemies?

4.  And given that “the largest number of violations by far” would be committed by the Israelis under these extreme conditions, how would the New York Times cover the conflict?  Would they focus almost exclusively on Israeli crimes? Would they rely almost entirely on Palestinians who want to topple the Israeli government as their sources?   And would they say that countries X, Y, and Z had kept the conflict at arm’s length, because all they had done was supply billions of dollars of weapons to Palestinians who were then able to keep the war going for five years and nearly topple the government, to the point where the U.S. had to intervene? For that matter, how would Israel react to countries X, Y, and Z?  Would the New York Times support that reaction by Israel?

Of course my scenario belongs to some parallel universe, but it does illustrate the sort of bias that permeates the American press because it describes the Syrian War with the names of the factions changed.  Same relative death tolls. Same brutality. But different names. And in that case as we all know, the U.S. and The New York Times would be completely on the “Assad” side: Israel.

It shouldn’t matter which side you favor in the real Syrian war or the Palestinian conflict so far as the news coverage is concerned.  What one wants from a news organization is fair reporting of what is actually occurring; and if we can’t know for sure, then state that as well.  We don’t get this.  We get a mixture of facts and moralizing and propaganda from people who actually seem to think you can pump billions of dollars into arming rebels and not be partly responsible for what happens.

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thanks donald. i have been appalled with the mainstream press over syria. it’s been disgraceful, especially lately with all the neocons fluffing their war feathers. horrid.

The US have been trying to regime change Syria for many years…….. “Robert Ford was US Ambassador to Syria when the revolt against Syrian president Assad was launched. He not only was a chief architect of regime change in Syria, but actively worked with rebels to aid their overthrow of the Syrian government. Ford assured us that those taking up arms to overthrow the Syrian government were simply moderates and democrats seeking to change Syria’s… Read more »

… While every war has atrocities committed by both sides, in this case the rebels whose most effective forces are jihadists are fighting a guerrilla war while limiting the civilian casualties. Why aren’t we discussing this? If this is the case, Al Qaeda might be the first guerrilla force in history to fight with “purity of arms”, to coin a phrase. We give Israel weapons and they killed about two civilians for every fighter in… Read more »

DONALD JOHNSON- “Anti imperialism is not enough if you aren’t antiwar. The pro Assad and also the pro rebel groups on the left are all advocating war.” What an outrageous distortion of reality! I am anti-imperialist and anti-war. The only way to end the war is to get the empire to cease its warmongering! Are you suggesting that people under armed attack from imperial proxy forces (not “rebels”) not defend themselves? Take off your blinders… Read more »

Ben Norton offers a public service on Alternet: “Pundits Who Helped Sell NATO’s Destruction of Libya Push for Trump to Lead Syria Regime Change Human slaves are now being sold in Libya, after NATO regime change. The pundits who backed it now have their sights on Syria. … A coalition of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists helped sell NATO’s war to the public, in the lead-up to and during the intervention in 2011. Since then, many… Read more »