Many agendas at work
The distorted Western media coverage of the conflict in Syria has been just one example of the many interests at work in the country, writes Richard Lightbown in London
Click to view caption|
A fire burns after a shelling at Juret Al-Shayah, Homs; Turkish soldiers in a military vehicle patrol on the Turkish-Syrian border in the town of Reyhanli in Hatay province, southern Turkey; buildings destroyed during clashes between Syrian rebel fighters and government forces in Al-Qusour neighbourhood in Homs
Much has been written about the barbarous massacre in the Syrian administrative area of Al-Houla on 25 May 2012, in which 108 persons are known to have died including 49 children. In the absence of a definitive report from the UN observer mission, we are left with media and cyber speculation, much of which does not stand scrutiny.
The BBC is arguably the worst offender, having published a photograph submitted by an anonymous source which it was claimed depicted bodies from the massacre. The photograph was in fact taken by Marco Di Lauro in Iraq in 2003. The BBC claims to have followed its checking process on the photograph, which yielded some information pointing to its veracity. This is simply not tenable. The bodies are all numbered, and in the bottom of the picture can be seen consecutive numbering in Arab numerals from 382 to 386.
The death toll at Al-Houla was 108, and anyone with a limited knowledge of Arabic and a remote understanding of the story would have been able to appreciate that there is something wrong with the claims made for this picture. Journalist Keith Harmon Snow rebuts any suggestion that the misinformation happened by accident: "the BBC just doesn't do that. They don't pull down photos from an activist and post them without everything they do in fact being checked. This is propaganda, no mistake, no accident."
In apologising for this monumental "error" BBC journalist Chris Hamilton wrote on the BBC editor's blog that "such mistakes are very rare." But even this claim was refuted only two days later when gross negligence gave way to farce and BBC News, intending to post the logo of the UN Security Council as background filler, filmed instead a logo of the fictional UN Space Command that originated in a commercial video game set in the 22nd century.
Much of the mainstream media in the UK favoured the BBC's slant. Nine days after the massacre a report in the Telegraph newspaper claimed that the crime had been perpetuated by the "pro-Assad thugs" from the Shabiha militia who had "slit the throats of anyone they came across." The report, written in London and Beirut, said that a survivor had identified the Shabiha because they were wearing white trainers.
Two points in this story later discredited the fabrication. White trainers, of course, are standard youth culture the world over, and video footage published on 10 June by the Telegraph itself showed that they are widely used by Syrian rebels. The throat-slitting has now been generally rejected as an embellishment to the story, and the allegations were refuted later in the week by journalist Mary Dejevsky in the Independent newspaper and Jon Williams on the BBC blog. Dejevsky said that the victims had been killed when gunmen sprayed gunfire indiscriminately into their homes, while Williams said that Western officials had refuted the story to him while in Damascus.
The calumny appears to have been started by Herv≥© Ladsous, the United Nations under-secretary for peacekeeping operations, who according to the Reuters news agency on 29 May accused the Shabihas of killing "the victims with knife wounds". On 8 June, Reuters correspondent Erika Solomon again reported him as saying that Syrian government troops or militias were probably responsible, despite the fact that UN observers under his authority had still not been able to ascertain the truth. Head of the UN observer mission (UNSMIS) in Syria, Major General Robert Mood, was more circumspect than his superior when he said that "whatever I learned on the ground in Syria... is that I should not jump to conclusions."
Without a definitive assessment of the crime a cautionary comment from the UK newspaper The Sunday Telegraph provided a timely warning to the unwary: "Damascus has long accused activist groups of exaggerating and falsifying accounts to draw international attention to their plight, a charge that independent observers say has sometimes been justified." The BBC's use of the Iraqi photograph vindicates this allegation, and BBC World News editor Jon Williams acknowledged the problem. "Those opposed to president Al-Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as 'brilliant'. But he also likened it to so-called 'psy-ops', or brainwashing techniques used by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true," he said.
This is not to suppose that Syrian government reports can be considered to be any more reliable. In the complexities and deceits of the Syrian conflict an old adage serves well: do not believe anything you hear and only believe half of what you see. Williams went on to point out that it is also important that journalists report what they don't know, not merely what they do. Yet, this sound advice does not appear to have been widely followed.
Coherent Stories: One of the few reporters actually at Al-Houla was Alex Thomson, reporting for both the UK's Channel 4 News and CNN. His attempts to piece together a coherent story were inconsistent. On 27 May he wrote on the Channel 4 blog that Martin Griffiths from the UN mission in Syria had corroborated a story from two different sources that Friday prayers had been followed by a sustained artillery barrage for two hours, after which Shabiha attacks began, with the killings occurring between 15.00 on Friday and 01.00“ê"02.00 on Saturday.
On the following day, while filming with CNN, he asserted that it was "impossible to verify what happened in this town" since there were no eyewitnesses and no civilians. Filming the army, which at times was under fire, he said the soldiers were "very scared" and not in complete control. One soldier was hit while the film crew was present. Speculating on why this area was, as he called it, "a ghost town", and comparing it to a nearby rebel-held area where civilians had remained, he asked "why do people flee the area held by the army but remain in the rebel held zone?"
The answer which eluded him may simply have been that the area the civilians had fled from was an active combat zone. As his footage clearly showed, the area filmed could not correctly be described as "held by the army".
It could also be noted that on 7 June Thomson himself nearly became cannon fodder when four men he identified as belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) lured him into a free-fire zone in the hope that government forces would collect some bad publicity by killing him. A human-rights lawyer who had been with the Arab League observer mission nearly suffered a similar fate in Syria earlier in the year. Thomson observed that "bad journos are bad for Damascus." General Mood told journalists that there are many agendas at work in Syria, both stated and unstated. In such an environment where unarmed UN observers are now also coming under attack, it may be appropriate to consider how "bad for Damascus" (and good for someone else's agenda) a dead UN observer might be.
Despite the fact that a journalist in Al-Houla was unable to clarify who had in fact committed the massacres, the NGO Amnesty International had no compunction on 28 May in blaming "Syrian forces" for the atrocity without providing any justification. Amnesty's investigators at the time were working 100km away in Idlib and Aleppo, but the NGO confidently made its claim only three days after the event, and it has stuck with the story since.
In contrast, UNSMIS, whose mission is to verify and report facts on the ground, had immediately sent investigators to the area to gather facts and interview local people, from whom it received conflicting accounts. On 15 June, three weeks after the event, Mood could still only tell journalists that the circumstances remained unclear. Unlike the general, Amnesty is not averse to jumping to conclusions.
Amnesty's report on June, entitled Deadly Reprisals, also blames Syrian government forces for the massacre. It cites a Reuters report as its source. However, the news agency is not accurately referenced. Reuters quoted UN monitors as saying only that the evidence "appears" to contradict the government's denial of responsibility, while UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville is not quoted as attributing responsibility.
It could be noted that, according to Amnesty, its senior advisor, Donatella Rovera, spent several weeks in northern Syria without permission in order to investigate human rights violations. Jerry Dandridge (a pseudonym) writing in SyriaNews on 16 June questioned how she was able to do this for so long a period without attracting the attention of the Syrian intelligence services, alleging that UN staff had reported that she never in fact left to conduct field work.
Amnesty has not been alone in rushing to judgement. The US State Department took the same line the following day, with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland telling reporters that "this morning we called in Syrian charg≥© d'affaires Zuheir Jabbour and informed him that he is no longer welcome in the US and gave him 72 hours to depart. We took this action in response to the massacre in the village of Al-Houla, an absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable massacre against innocent children and woman shot at point blank range by regime thugs, the Shabiha, and aided and abetted by the Iranians, who were actually bragging about it over the weekend."
In what Reuters described as a "coordinated move", France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia and Bulgaria also expelled Syrian envoys on 29 May. At least six of the countries taking diplomatic action had also been involved in the bombing of Libya, which had been conducted outside the UN Security Council mandate.
The involvement of France is particularly ironic. President Fran≥żois Hollande has only recently taken office, and one of his first actions was to announce the withdrawal of French forces from NATO operations in Afghanistan by October 2012. (France would still provide finance and equipment towards operations in that country). Yet, on 29 May he also announced that France would be hosting the next meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group in Paris. France, it appears, has a revolving door policy on military intervention. It also has a shady colonial history in Syria, which has not been forgotten in that country.
In July 1920 at Maysaloun in Syria, French ground forces and aircraft annihilated Syrian cavalrymen fighting for self-determination and left their bodies to rot. An eyewitness recalled that "it was all over in hours, and the French killed almost everyone they found." The Syrian minister of defence, who had led the cavalry, was tied up and executed by Senegalese troops after French Algerians had refused to shoot a fellow Muslim. Few people in France are talking about this legacy at the present time. Maysaloun is also familiar with war: in 1967, it was shelled by Israeli tanks, and it was shelled again by the USS New Jersey in 1982.
UNSAVOURY BEDFELLOWS: Amnesty International is joining with unsavoury bedfellows in making wild allegations in its human rights reports that could have disastrous repercussions for civilians in Syria. Perhaps this is because little has changed since 2002, when Francis A. Boyle, a professor of international law and former board member of Amnesty USA, said that the organisation had been penetrated by British and possibly also American intelligence agents.
In consequence, it is relevant to consider here the recent appointment of Suzanne Nossel as executive director of Amnesty USA. As journalist Jerry Dandridge reported, Nossel had previously been employed by the US State Department, where she had been deputy assistant secretary for international organisations and had, as Dandridge put it, been "involved in a leading role in the subversive US foreign policy regarding Libya, Iran, Syria and the Ivory Coast".
Amnesty's complicity continued with a press release on 14 June referring to the UN secretary-general's report on children and armed conflict, which began by correctly quoting his report that Syrian "government forces were responsible for 'killing and maiming, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment' of children as young as nine years old." However the NGO chose not to reveal that in Paragraph 124 of the same report it said that "the United Nations has received some credible allegations of the recruitment and use of children by the armed opposition, including the FSA and other armed groups."
On page 62 of its Deadly Reprisals report, Amnesty called on the UN Security Council to impose an immediate arms embargo on the Syrian government, but in line with US administration policy it made no such call for an embargo on arms shipments to rebel forces.
A further undated call for action by Amnesty UK was released sometime after the Al-Houla massacre. This criticised Russia for supplying arms to the Syrian government after it had supported UN Security Council Resolution 2042 calling for the full implementation of the Annan plan in Syria.
On 12 June, Clinton enlarged upon this call in a speech at the US Brookings Institute, saying, "we have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria.[“ê¶] We are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."
The following day the New York Times reported that US administration officials had admitted that these were probably helicopters Syria had sent to Russia for routine repairs some months previously. A senior US Defense Department official admitted that the secretary of state had "put a little spin on it to put the Russians in a difficult position". In fact, it seems that Clinton was actually hinting that Annan's mission may be "difficult to extend", when its mandate is due at the Security Council in mid-July. This would give the US and its allies greater opportunities to manoeuvre for military intervention in Syria.
A spokesman for the Russian organisation Rosoboronexport, a state-owned monopoly which handles virtually all Russian weapons exports, said the contracts did not violate United Nations sanctions. He added that the company was sending "no extraordinary supplies, nor speeding up contracts, and it was sending no additional shipments."
In the same New York Times article, Andrew J. Tabler of the pro-Israeli think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) accused the Syrian regime of using air power against its own civilians. This unsubstantiated allegation was used to raise the spectre of foreign intervention and the institution of "no-fly zones" in Syria. The article had previously referred to an unauthenticated video filmed near Aleppo in May, showing a helicopter and what may have been missile smoke. Apart from this tenuous evidence, there is nothing to back up Tabler's reckless assertion.
WINEP's executive director also wrote an analysis of the Syrian conflict on 8 June. This considered a range of scenarios entirely from the perspective of the US interests and to a certain extent also those of Israel. At no stage did the article consider what might be the best outcome for the Syrian people, who apparently are merely pawns in the great game of American foreign policy.
US journalist Joshua Landis wrote in the US magazine Foreign Policy the previous day that the US should stay out of Syria, citing the huge financial cost of sorting out the mess afterwards and America's poor track record in improving nations by conquest. This article too only saw policies through the blinkers of US interests. At no time was the UN mentioned, and the possibility was never considered that the US might lean on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two Arab countries doing most to destabilise Syria, in order to slow down or even eliminate malignant outside influence. Nor was it mentioned that the CIA and the State Department were already working with these two countries and others, including Turkey, to further the activities of the Free Syrian Army.
On 15 June, BBC News cited unnamed "foreign policy analysts" in support of its claim that the Syrian government had placed orders worth $3.5 billion for "hardware" (presumably armaments) with Russia. No time frame was given for this statement, which contrasts with SIPRI's data for 2011 showing that Syria's total military expenditure for the year was $2.4 billion. To put this into perspective, one should note that for the same year other regional military expenditures included Saudi Arabia ($48.5 billion), Turkey ($17.8 billion), Israel ($16.4 billion), Iraq ($5.8 billion), Kuwait ($5.6 billion), and Oman and Egypt (both slightly less than $4.3 billion). Figures are not available for Iran, Qatar, UAE and Yemen.
Syria's total expenditure was thus a mere 2.8 per cent of SIPRI's estimate for the entire Middle East region (which does not include Turkey). In contrast, Saudi Arabia, which is supplying arms and finance to the Syrian rebels, accounts for almost 40 per cent of all Middle East military expenditures, although this attracts very little concern from the Western media.
There is also little concern, and no complaints from either Clinton or Amnesty International, about the weaponry being supplied to the rebels. Jordanian professor Ibrahim Alloush told Reuters in February that arms shipments were crossing the borders from Lebanon and Turkey into Syria. He considered the eventual goal of the suppliers was to install a puppet regime in Damascus that would be subservient to Washington and NATO.
Confirmation of arms smuggling appears to have come on 27 April, when the Lebanese navy intercepted the Lutfallah II vessel and impounded three containers allegedly carrying machine guns and heavy weapons thought to be destined for Syrian rebels groups.
There have been conflicting reports concerning the impending supply of heavy weapons, which would represent a significant escalation to the conflict. On 13 June, journalist Nermeen Shaikh wrote on Democracy Now! that Turkey had supplied anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air missiles with the approval of the US which "did not take part directly in the weapons transfer". Two days later, the UK Telegraph reported that the FSA had denied the claims, although their representatives had prepared a "targeted list" of heavy weaponry which they intended to present to US officials in the coming two weeks.
The weapons would be supplied by Libya and paid for by Saudi Arabia and Qatari government funds, along with private donations. It appears that the US has control over this shipment, and therefore considerable control over the conflict in Syria, even though it is not supplying or financing such deals.
GOOD AND EVIL: The civil war in Syria has been portrayed by many reports as a fight of good against evil and a straightforward struggle for democracy and freedom against tyranny. That indeed is how it started in Deraa in March 2011, and the tyrannical excesses of the regime are well documented. A report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was published on 24 May 2012 containing a long and varied list of abuses. The report mentions lethal force being used against anti-government demonstrations, collective punishment, unlawful killings, precise shelling and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, sniping from rooftops, house-to-house searches, often associated with extra-judicial killings, prisoners and the wounded being killed after capture, entire families executed in their homes, arbitrary arrest and torture, children killed, often by snipers, the detention of children of the age of 10, the willful denial of medical care to children injured under torture, schools attacked and burnt down and summary executions. The struggle for freedom and human rights in Syria is without doubt a just one.
However, regrettably anti-government armed groups are also cited in the same report for acts of criminal violence and terror. These groups are being supplied and equipped by external agents such as the Friends of Syria, while there is collusion by much of the Western media to ignore their crimes, and in the case of Amnesty International, to cover them up. Although nowhere near as extensive as the government abuses mentioned by the UNHCHR, the list of activities cited in the same publication is long and horrific. The report mentions extra-judicial executions of members of the army and security forces, suspected informers and/or collaborators captured by anti-government armed groups, military tribunals and makeshift prisons, the use of improvised explosive devices including nail bombs, the use of landmines and torture, including breaking bones, which in some cases has led to death, the abduction of civilians and members of the government forces, and the use of children as medical porters, messengers, cooks and for cross-border smuggling activities. There have been four instances of child smugglers being injured by sniper fire.
The armed opposition is also characterised by fundamentalist elements with links to Al-Qaeda and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The latter is the best funded and best organised element in the opposition, and it has been opposed to the secularist ruling Syrian Baath Party since it came to power in 1963. In the late 1970s, some of the Brothers took up arms and mounted a violent campaign against the Syrian regime. In an uprising in 1982 they took the city of Hama, where they murdered the families of government workers and policemen and beheaded schoolteachers who taught secular education. The government crushed the uprising with "great savagery," according to UK journalist Robert Fisk, who was an eye-witness to some of the events.
After its defeat in Hama, the Brotherhood was banned in Syria, and membership was punishable by death. A government employee explained to Fisk that the regime had tried to negotiate with the Brothers, but that they would not compromise. Had it not crushed the rebellion, the state could have witnessed Islamic fundamentalism on the lines of what happened in Algeria.
Syria has been the only country in the Middle East to have suppressed fundamentalism. UK writer Patrick Seale has explained how the Syrian revolution has now been joined by large numbers of armed Islamic extremists from neighbouring countries, and also countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tunisia. Some from Iraq have been replicating the gross acts of terror committed there. Seale asked "does the US want to be on the side of Al-Qaeda?" To which the answer appears to be an emphatic yes, since there is no reason to suppose that after Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya the powerbrokers in Washington are not fully aware of exactly whom they are dealing with.
Meanwhile, Alexei Pushkov, chair of the Russian Duma's international affairs committee, told the Voice of Russia radio station on 15 June that he could hardly see a situation where democracy could be established in Syria with the help of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. However, if Syria explodes there could be 100,000 victims, he said. Seale also recalled on Democracy Now! that the US-led invasion of Iraq had resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being killed and millions being displaced.
Russia was ready to try to influence the Al-Assad regime, Pushkov said, and he appealed to the West to influence the insurgents in order to prevent a bloodbath. He added that the Russian interest was not about business, since Syria did not play a huge role in Russian foreign trade. Syria was rather a serious example of the Russian desire to fight for international law, he added.
As fanatics, neo-colonialists and their conspirators now try to manoeuvre towards armed intervention in Syria, we should consider carefully the words of Seale. "The United States," he has said, "is playing a high-risk strategy, and it doesn't matter how we classify it, since it is an extremely dangerous situation for everyone." If we remember to take into account those countries that could be affected by disrupted oil supplies following war with Iran, the list of affected states is a long one, including Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, the Gulf states, the US, Europe, Israel and China.
But above all it is the people of Syria who face the prospect of a horrible fate in order to satisfy the callous self-interest of outside actors. With so much at stake, international leaders should feel compelled to find a peaceful solution to this crisis. For ordinary people, it may seem that Syria's misery is irredeemable, and that control and responsibility in this great game are far beyond us. So they might be. But that does not absolve us from placidly accepting the lies and deceptions that we are being fed by friend and foe alike. Knowledge is power, and it is our responsibility to seek the truth and not believe the lies, so that at least we are not complicit by approving the evil designs that feed the egos of our political leaders.