Issue No.1163, 5 September, 2013      04-09-2013 03:15PM ET

The guardian of What?

Even the more liberal elements in the Western media have been keeping up the irresponsible drum beat for war on Syria, writes Jeremy Salt

The guardian of What?
A Syrian man mourns over a dead body after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, in Douma town, Damascus, 21 August. Doctors Without Borders said three hospitals it supports had reported receiving about 3,600 patients showing “neurotoxic symptoms” of which number 355 had died (photo: AP)
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If there is any comfort in how the British newspaper The Guardian has been reporting the Middle East, especially Libya and Syria, it is that many of its readers, judging from their remarks in its “Comment is Free” section, do not appear to believe or trust it.

The Guardian sells itself as the global beacon of liberal opinion. It is liberal on social issues and alongside the chatterers, it has some excellent political correspondents and commentators, notably Gary Younge and Seamas Milne. As liberals themselves, its readers around the world must think they are on safe ground when quoting from The Guardian but if so, where the Middle East is concerned, they are deluding themselves.

Throughout the crisis in Syria The Guardian has been not so much reporting the conflict as running a propaganda campaign against the government in Damascus, to the benefit of the armed Islamist groups and the outside governments sponsoring them. The wellsprings of its “reporting” have been the unsubstantiated claims of “activists”, no matter how wild and improbable. Without any evidence, the paper is now accusing the Syrian government of being responsible for the alleged nerve gas/chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta district around Damascus. The far greater likelihood that the armed groups were responsible for this atrocity scarcely rates a mention.

Building on the unsubstantiated claim that it was the Syrian military, journalist Martin Chulov argues in favour of another one, that it was the brother of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Maher, who was personally responsible for the attack (the same accusation is being made by the Israeli intelligence propaganda outlet Debkafile, from which Chulov may well have taken his lead). This is how propaganda works. Once set in motion it just needs a push to keep it rolling.

Buttressing the paper’s editorial and reports, journalist Fawaz Gerges is given space to claim that it is up to the Syrian government to prove that it was not responsible for this atrocity. This is nonsense: if the Syrian government was not responsible for this atrocity, how can it prove what it did not do, especially when anything it says will be dismissed out of hand by the mainstream media and the governments arming, financing and training the “rebels”?

The onus of proof lies on those making the accusations, and so far neither The Guardian, nor the anti-Assad campaigning journalist Kim Sengupta of the UK newspaper The Independent (where correspondent Robert Fisk has provided balance with reports giving the perspective of the Syrian government), nor UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, nor anyone else making this accusation has produced a scrap of evidence that this attack was carried out by the Syrian military.

The probability points in the direction of the armed groups. The “rebels” are known to have acquired stocks of sarin gas. They used a chemical weapons compound in a home-made missile attack on a military outpost at Khan Al-Assal in March this year that killed dozens of soldiers and civilians. In May, Carla del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said that investigators had evidence that the “rebels” had used sarin gas. Also in May, Turkish police seized sarin gas along with handguns, grenades, ammunition and unspecified documents from apartments where rebel Al-Nusra Front members were living in Adana and Mersin. Early in June, the Syrian military seized two barrels of sarin gas from a “rebel” hideout in Hama.

On top of all this, the armed groups have filmed themselves experimenting with chemical weapons on rabbits. As they have slaughtered thousands of civilians in the most barbaric fashion, there is no argument that moral considerations would prevent them from taking this further atrocious step — and it is they who have every reason to take it. They are being ground down across the country, and at this stage only direct military intervention is going to save them and save their project to destroy the Syrian government.

It is a measure of the desperation of their outside sponsors that Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, was recently in Moscow with an offer from his government to buy $15 billion worth of Russian arms if Russia would allow the passage of a UN Security Council resolution authorising a military attack on Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin said no, and what a coincidence it is that a short time later there is a mass atrocity that gives the Western-led collective the pretext it wants to attack Syria without a UN Security Council resolution behind it.

Clearing positions held by the armed groups a few days after the apparent nerve gas/chemical weapons attack, Syrian soldiers found stocks of chemicals, gas masks, syringes and anti-neurotoxin drugs in tunnels at Jobar, one of the three districts on the outskirts of Damascus, along with Ain Tarma and Zamalka, targeted in the attack. Several soldiers were taken to hospital in critical condition. The official Syrian news agency’s English-language news site (SANA) ran photos of cylinders of chemicals and other materials, including syringes, produced by the “Qatar-German Company for Pharmaceutical Industries”. While no company of this name exists, there is a company called Qatar-German Medical Devices, whose QG logo can be seen on a box found in the tunnel marked “Flow I.V. Cannula”.

The army also found a basement stocked with quantities of chemical agents manufactured in Saudi Arabia and a number of European countries. The material included equipment for making chemical weapons and anti-neurotoxins in case the armed men poisoned themselves.

The discovery of this material was followed by the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) statement that three of the hospitals it supports in the Damascus governorate had received 3,600 patients displaying neuro-toxic symptoms in three hours on the morning of 21 August, of which number 355 had died. While MSF could not say who was responsible for this atrocity, its statement highlighted the complete improbability of the Syrian government carrying out a mass chemical weapons/nerve gas attack on civilians in suburbs only a few kilometres from the centre of Damascus, shortly after the arrival of UN chemical weapons inspectors and indeed only several kilometres from where they were staying, killing or wounding thousands and filling its own hospitals with the victims. At face value the accusation is ludicrous, yet such is the propaganda whipped up against the Syrian government over the past three years that some people will believe it to be capable of anything.

Not only do the armed groups, their backers and the media salesmen of their pitch, including The Guardian, want the world to believe that the Syrian government was responsible for this atrocity, they also want the world to believe that Al-Assad is stupid, indeed so stupid that he would have ordered this attack within three days of the arrival of the UN chemical weapons inspectors. This canard is reminiscent of the accusation that the Syrian government arranged the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005. The killing was a master stroke used as a lever to get the remaining Syrian troops out of Lebanon and to blacken Syria’s name internationally.

By the time all the four suspects had been freed and Syria had been cleared by the UN tribunal of any responsibility, the media had moved on. It is now a long time since this has shown any interest in who killed Al-Hariri. Like in the Al-Hariri killing, the first question to be asked in the wake of this latest atrocity is “who benefits?” In both cases, the answers are clear: in the first, Israel, the US and their proxies in Lebanon; in the second, the armed groups and the outside governments supporting them, including, of course, Israel, which is now leading the charge for a direct military attack on Syria.

By disseminating the deceit and lies put out by Libyan and then Syrian “rebels” and “activists”, the Qatari news channel Al-Jazeera ruined its reputation. The Guardian has now run the same line as this mouthpiece of the government of Qatar, yet it remains protected by its mystique as a beacon of liberal opinion. Many of its readers are clearly confused when all they have to do is see that the emperor has no clothes: far from being the guardian of liberal opinion, this newspaper is the guardian of Western, Gulf and Israeli interests in the Middle East against Iran, Syria and Hizbullah.

Its correspondents are still writing seriously and positively about a Palestinian “peace process” that is a grotesque sham. Israel is playing with the Palestinians, as a cat plays with a mouse. It has Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in its pocket, and by abandoning Syria and embracing former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and the deposed ruler of Qatar, Hamas politicians Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal have found themselves without any backers. Not since its foundation has Israel enjoyed such a good run. If only the governments in Tehran and Damascus could be destroyed and Hizbullah extinguished life would be perfect.

The Guardian has never even attempted to provide balanced coverage of what is going on in Syria. There has been no counterweight — no antidote — to the anti-Assad and pro-rebel reporting and comment of journalists Ian Black and Martin Chulov. The techniques will be familiar to all but the most inert readers. The paper runs headlines which are not justified in the text. The claims of “activists” are given prominence and the claims of the Syrian government minimised, without there ever being any doubt about what The Guardian wants its readers to believe.

It has downplayed or ignored the evidence of terrible atrocities by the armed groups, such as the massacres this August of hundreds of villagers in the Lattakia governorate, of more than 100 people in Khan Al-Assal, and of the massacre by Al-Nusra Front of an estimated 450 Kurdish women and children around the Syrian-Turkish border town of Tal Abyad. It has printed the wildest claims without any attempt to substantiate them, such as the allegation by a London-based “activist” that the Syrian government was packing detainees into shipping containers and dumping them at sea.

It has allowed “activists” to shift the blame for car and suicide bombings on to the government, even when it is government institutions that have been bombed and government employees who have been the victims. It has expected its readers to believe that the Syrian government is exploding bombs in densely populated residential areas in the middle of its own cities. It relies on the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, when it must know that this is a completely tainted source. The only explanation for this can be that this one-man band is saying what The Guardian wants to hear and what it wants its readers to believe.

The strategy of the armed groups has been to destroy infrastructure and terrorise the civilian population. This they have largely succeeded in doing. Syrians are pouring out of the country to get away from them. In the name of a twisted pseudo-revolution, these armed men are supported by a collective of foreign governments. The line of the moment, following the alleged chemical weapon/nerve gas attack, is that “all red lines have been crossed,” when these governments crossed all red lines in international law long ago by financing and arming groups such as the brigades of the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra Front.

International law prohibits armed intervention in other countries and the use of mercenaries. International law forbids the application of economic sanctions against member states of the UN, yet in all these categories the collective bent on the destruction of the Syrian government has shown complete contempt for international law. Of course this is merely standard procedure. International law is for other people, not the “international community” as represented by the UK, France and the US, and nowhere have they treated international law with more contempt than in the Middle East.

These governments are making the most strenuous efforts in the history of the modern Middle East to destroy an Arab government. The reason has been clear from the beginning: Syria is Iran’s strongest regional ally and is being targeted as a second best option to targeting Iran itself. The takfiris inside Syria, demeaning Islam with their shouts of Allahu Akbar every time they cut a throat, are doing the work of governments that have done nothing but damage to the Middle East for the past century.

The prime losers are the Syrian people. About 100,000 have been killed in this conflict, and much of their country’s infrastructure has been deliberately torn to shreds. The chief regional beneficiaries are Israel and Saudi Arabia, holding hands under the table. The destruction of the Syrian government would be an unparalleled strategic triumph for Israel and the West, which is why Russia and China have not budged in their position that it is the Syrian people who must decide their own future and not outside governments and armed gangs and why Russia in particular will be planning its riposte should US President Barack Obama be talked into launching a Cruise missile strike.

The Guardian’s propaganda cover for the Syrian “rebels” follows its support for the Libyan “rebels” against another Arab leader, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The protest movement in Benghazi was seized upon by Britain, France and the US as an opportunity to intervene and destroy the government in Tripoli. There was no countrywide movement against Gaddafi, and the “rebels” could not have advanced a yard beyond the city limits of Benghazi without the cover of NATO missiles. Gaddafi was brought down after a seven-month blitz by the air forces of three of the most powerful militaries in the world and eventually murdered after several previous attempts to murder him by missile strike had failed, while killing members of his family.

Thousands of innocent Libyans were killed during this prolonged aerial assault. This neo-imperialist adventure was fully underwritten by the mainstream media. None of the war crimes committed by NATO forces or “rebels” on the ground had the same impact on editorials and “reporting” as the claims that the Libyan leader was bombing his own people from the air, using African mercenaries and distributing viagra to his troops. These sensational allegations were later shown to be lies, but by this time they had served their purpose in setting up Gaddafi as someone who deserved to be killed (rather than put on trial, embarrassing in the process former UK prime minister Tony and French president Nicolas Sarkozy and others who had benefited from Libyan money and oil concessions).

With Libya out of the way, the same Western governments and the same mainstream media flapped like vultures on to Syria and another supposed dictator, leaving the Libyans to clean up the mess they had created as best as they could.

Having shed the shackles of balanced journalism in Libya and Syria, The Guardian is now defending media ethics and responsibility in the Edward Snowden-Glenn Greenwald affair. Greenwald has been revealing secrets from US whistleblower Snowden’s store of official documents. David Miranda, his partner, was detained for nine hours by British intelligence while in transit through London. If the purpose was to shut Greenwald up by putting pressure on his relationship, his scarcely repressed fury is an indication that it will not work. Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, had been having private conversations with British intelligence and only decided to take action, by destroying material the paper had on hard drives, when threatened with legal action. This was a significant exercise of the power of the surveillance state which had to be challenged, but how much more significant is media support for mass death and destruction delivered to Syria by  groups of men financed, armed and trained by outside governments?

The Guardian does not actually call for war. It leaves that to other people. It merely sets the stage. It runs an editorial based on the assumption that the chemical weapons attack was the work of the Syrian government. The possibility that the armed groups might have done it is not even taken into account. It observes that “choosing between bad options is even more complex [supporting armed groups responsible for one atrocity after another is obviously not considered a bad option]… This paper has resisted the calls for military intervention in Syria [as if there is not already military intervention in Syria]… but we do appear to be coming ever closer to a tipping point with difficult judgments ahead.” Without calling for war itself, this beacon of liberal opinion then quotes with approval the arch-conservative Hague, who talks of civilised values while pushing for a war that would bury them in further mounds of bodies.

Behind the mask of asinine geniality, Hague is a warmonger. He has wanted “intervention” in Syria — a war kicked off with the declaration of a no-fly zone and now possibly a Cruise missile strike — for years, and now he sees it within his grasp. The Guardian should have been on to his smiling duplicity and doublespeak like a terrier on to a rat. Instead, it is joining the chorus line for war. That is the reality behind its own doublespeak.

The Syrian government agreed to allow UN inspectors into the districts targeted in the apparent nerve gas/chemical weapons attack, but as soon they approached these districts, they were shot at by snipers. If it can be proven that it is the armed groups that carried out this attack, it is a safe bet that we will hear no more talk of red lines being crossed. Obama said he would not take a decision until he had proof, but now we are being told by an unnamed US official that the on the spot inquiry is too little and, not even a week after the event, too late. The British media is still talking of a military attack being launched within days.

The US media is much more reserved: after all, their country is being pushed into the front line by governments that would never have the guts to attack by themselves but will only run in from behind once the US takes the lead. Obama is still holding back, and he has the intelligence and sense not to fall for this even if, unfortunately, not necessarily the strength of character to resist the pressure being applied to him. Britain, France and Israel want to strike now, while the propaganda is running hot and strong and before the UN inspectors ruin their rush to war by concluding that the attack around Damascus either was or might have been the work of the armed groups.

This will not be Libya. This never was Libya. This will not begin and end with a few Cruise missiles fired at Syria from warships in the eastern Mediterranean. This may well spark a major war involving Turkey, Iran, Israel, Hizbullah and Russia for which those pushing for war must be held responsible right now and not just afterwards. If the decision is taken The Guardian will wring its hands about the horrors of war, but it will still justify it on humanitarian grounds and the “responsibility to protect”. Amidst the smoke and carnage, the question of who fired the chemical weapons around Damascus will soon be forgotten.

 

The writer is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.

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