By Daniel Margrain
One of the key signs of a healthy democracy is the extent to which state and corporate media encourage genuine diversity of opinions and the ability for alternative narratives to flourish. On both counts, the mass Western media failed in relation to their coverage of the Syrian conflict. The inability to report objectively on Syria is indicative of a structural and systematic bias that permeates the media. Its highly concentrated nature has resulted in a sustained narrative of misinformation, deceptions and outright lies.
The mass media’s propaganda campaign against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began to surface during the events which led up to an intended series of planned demonstrations – the much hyped “Day of Rage” of March 4 and 5, 2011. However, at this early stage the propaganda proved to have been a failure and the planned action never materialized. Time correspondent, Rania Abouzeid conceded that the inability of the protest organizers to draw significant support for the “Day of Rage” was a reflection of the Syrian people’s support for their government and its policies.
The support for Assad had become rooted as far back as 2007 after Iranian influence in neighbouring Iraq became established and the former’s relationship with the Syrian government strengthened. It was around this time that the American’s began to switch policy from opposing Sunni Jihadist militants embodied in al-Qaeda, to opposing Iran who they regarded as the bigger threat to their wider regional objectives. In Washington this switch became known as “re-direction”. The US attempts to destabilize Syria in order to counter growing Shi-ite predominance in the region was probably best articulated by renowned investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh:
“To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shi-ite”, Hersh wrote, “the Bush administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the middle east. In Lebanon the administration has cooperated with the Saudi Arabian government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezzbollah. The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its allies in Syria. The by-product of these activities is the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam – one hostile to America and sympathetic to al-Qaeda.”
What former UK ambassador, Craig Murray, described as the active arming, funding and training of anti-Assad groups from 2007 onward, contradicts the “completely untrue narrative” that the conflict in Syria suddenly erupted and that the American’s came in to support democratic forces – a narrative that culminated in the outbreak of violent protests in the Syrian-Jordanian town of Daraa on March 17, 2011, less than two weeks after the failed “Day of Rage” protests outlined above. Echoing Murray, Professor of Economics, Michel Chossudovsky noted that the violence:
“had all the appearances of a staged event involving, in all likelihood, covert support to Islamic terrorists by Mossad and/or Western intelligence. Government sources point to the role of radical Salafist groups (supported by Israel). Other reports have pointed to the role of Saudi Arabia in financing the protest movement.”
Jeremy Salt, associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University, Ankara, wrote:
“The armed groups are well armed and well organised. Large shipments of weapons have been smuggled into Syria from Lebanon and Turkey. They include pump action shotguns, machine guns, Kalashnikovs, RPG launchers, Israeli-made hand grenades and numerous other explosives. It is not clear who is providing these weapons but someone is, and someone is paying for them.”
Reports (suppressed in the Western media) indicating that the number of policemen killed at Daraa (seven) was more than the number of demonstrators killed (four), is hardly indicative of the brutal actions of a government intent on oppressing its own people.
Time reported that unlike “the ousted pro-American leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad’s hostile foreign policy toward Israel, strident support for Palestinians and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, are in line with popular Syrian sentiment.” Assad, in other words, had legitimacy.
This was confirmed when, twelve days after the Western fomented violence at Daraa, tens of thousands of Syrians gathered at central bank square in Damascus in support of their president. The pro-government rally, which can be viewed here was wrongly portrayed in the Western media as an anti-government demonstration. The Guardian, for instance, reported the rally as a “military crackdown against civilians”.
This kind of misinformation prompted Russia and China to veto a European-backed UN security council resolution threatening sanctions against the Syrian regime “if it did not immediately halt its military crackdown against civilians”.
Members of a US Peace Council inferred that the key motivations underpinning the foreign policy objectives of Washington and its allies in relation to Syria, have nothing to do with protecting civilians, nor with democracy but is about inflaming sectarian divisions and thus political instability as the prelude to initiating regime change in the country.
Former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas confirmed in 2013 that Britain had been planning the war on Syria “two years before the Arab spring” which was to involve the organizing of an invasion of rebels into the country. “This operation goes way back. It was prepared, preconceived and planned”, he said.
Regime change/Ghouta & Houla
Given the context described, it comes as no surprise that much of UK journalism had decided that the Wests current official enemy was responsible for the chemical attacks in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013, the year Dumas made his announcement. On September 16 of that year, the UN published the evidence in its report on “the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta area”. The UN did not blame the Syrian president, Assad, for the attack, but instead expressed “grave doubts” that the Syrian government was responsible.
Just one day after the attacks, a Guardian leader claimed there was not “much doubt” who was to blame, as it simultaneously assailed its readers with commentary on the West’s “responsibility to protect” (see below). The media’s response to the May 2012 massacre in Houla, similarly reported the Assad government as having been mainly responsible for the deaths.
On June 27, 2012, a UN Commission of Inquiry delivered its report on the Houla massacre by concluding that they were unable to determine the identity of the perpetrators. However, the gruesome nature of many of the deaths pointed to the kinds of atrocities typical of Al Qaida and their affiliates in the Anbar province of Iraq. Nevertheless, the clear intention of the media was to attempt to cast Syria into the ‘civil war’ of the Wests making. The propaganda offensive continued two months later when Barack Obama announced his “red line.”
On cue, on April, 2013, the White House claimed that US intelligence assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that “the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin”. This was flatly contradicted by former Swiss attorney-general Carla Del Ponte on May 6, 2013. Speaking for the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria, Del Ponte said, “We have no indication at all that the Syrian government have used chemical weapons.”
September 16, 2013 UN report
Seemingly undeterred, Washington continued with the accusations following the chemical attacks in Ghouta over three months later, long before the UN published the conclusions in its September 16, 2013 report. The reports findings were cautious in terms of blaming the Assad regime for the attack. Nevertheless, as far as the U.S administration was concerned, Assad had crossed the ‘red line’ and was pronounced ‘guilty’. As a result, the U.S president announced on television that he was going to respond with a ‘targeted’ military strike on Syria, despite widespread public opposition to any such attack.
In response to the opposition to mission creep and war, the BBC produced the now infamous documentary, Saving Syria’s Children, arguably the most overt piece of war propaganda ever made. Sequences filmed by BBC personnel and others at Atareb Hospital, Aleppo on 26 August 2013 that purported to show the aftermath of an incendiary bomb attack on a school in Urm Al-Kubra were, in the words of journalist Robert Stuart, “largely, if not entirely, staged.” Broadcast on the day the House of Commons was due to vote for military action in Syria, the documentary was clearly intended to influence the vote which the Cameron government ultimately lost. Stuart’s brilliant and meticulous analytical demolition of the documentary is discussed here.
Qatari government report
Yet another cynical piece of anti-Assad propaganda that passed the corporate mainstream media class by, was the BBCs distorted interpretation of a report commissioned by the Qatari government which claimed that the Syrian government had “systematically tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees since the start of the uprising.” Craig Murray, described the BBCs presentation of the report as “a disgrace” that again, was clearly intended to influence public opinion in favour of war. The media war-drive was averted after Obama agreed to a Russian proposal at the UN to dismantle Syria’s capability for making chemical weapons after having been exposed for his deceptions.
Based on interviews with US intelligence and military insiders, Seymour Hersh, the journalist who revealed the role the United States played in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, asserted that Obama deceived the world in making a cynical case for war. This claim was supported in April, 2016, by former CIA analyst, Ray McGovern, who argued that the Turkish government, at the behest of Washington, engineered the chemical attacks in Ghouta in order to draw the United States into Syria. McGovern stressed that one of the Turkish journalists who exposed Turkey’s involvement in the alleged false flag attack has (as part of president Erdogan’s crackdown on independent journalism), been imprisoned and charged with treason.
Arms company profits
The prospect of a lengthy war against Syria provided a boost to the profits of the arms and weapons companies while simultaneously reining in Russian and Iranian influence in the region. According to Charles Glass, in order to help achieve this, U.S tax payers’ money “has been used to fund terrorist groups from the very beginning.” The author, journalist and film-maker proffered the U.S rationale for this course of action:
“Iran is president Assad’s only ally in the region, and Assad is the only client state of Russia in the entire Arab war. Remember, there are only twenty-two members of the Arab League, twenty-one of whom are client American states, and Russia wasn’t going to give the one that remains [ie Syria] up. So from the point of view of the U.S, they want to have all twenty-two.”
“Moreover, they want the Syrian army to be U.S trained, and they want a Qatari pipeline to go through Syria. They want to dominate the whole region and Syria is the missing piece. In addition to which, because Syria supported Hezzbollah in Lebanon, which the Israeli’s have never forgiven them for, they wanted to break the bridge with Tehran. For the outside powers, it’s never been about human rights and democracy inside Syria (emphasis added). That’s not the issue. The issue has always been about Assad’s relationship with Iran.”
Glass’s assertions, which are supported by Craig Murray, have been corroborated by Wikileak cables. But regime change that invokes the imposition of an anti-Russian leader within the power structures of the Syrian state, cannot be achieved without the aid of ISIS on the ground who have gained access to weapons exported by the UK to the Middle East in the wake of the 2003 US-led Iraq invasion.
However, gaining access to weapons is not possible without access to money to purchase them. The main source of ISIS funds is from the sale of oil from nearly a dozen oil fields in northern Iraq and Syria’s Raqqa province. It then passes through Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdistan region. In September 2014, in a briefing to the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee, EU Ambassador to Iraq, Jana Hybaskova, conceded that some European countries have purchased crude from ISIS from the areas in northern Iraq and Syria they have captured. This is all part of the West’s strategy to wreck the relatively secular and stable nature of Syrian civic society.
Black market oil/Arab allies funding ISIS
In 2012, a Pentagon document obtained by Judicial Watch spelled out the fact that the Wests supported terrorist opposition – who have burned down churches and massacred the world’s oldest Christian communities – “are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” Two years later (2014), David Cohen, US Treasury under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, claimed that middlemen from Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdistan region buy black market oil from ISIS that earns the terror group some $1 million a day.
If Western governments were serious about obliterating the existential threat they claim ISIS represents, they would not have aligned themselves with 70,000 unidentified ‘moderates’ who, as Patrick Cockburn contends “are weak or barely exist”. On the contrary, they would have aligned themselves with the forces on the ground that are resisting ISIS most effectively. These groups are the Syrian Kurds, the Syrian National Army, Hezzbollah and Iran – all of whom were, and to some extent still are, being backed by Russian air power.
Nafeez Ahmed notes that in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2014, General Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by Senator Lindsay Graham whether he knew of “any major Arab ally that embraces ISIL”? Dempsey replied: “I know major Arab allies who fund them.” In other words, the most senior US military official at the time had confirmed that ISIS were being funded by the very same “major Arab allies” that had just joined the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. Dempsey’s testimony is consistent with information contained within a leaked US State Department memo, dated 17 August 2014, which states that:
“We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis and other radical groups in the region.”
The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Doctrine
The following year (September 28, 2015), in a speech to the U.N General Assembly in New York, Barack Obama alluded to the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) doctrine as the justification for Assad’s overthrow and, in the name of democracy, the bombing of Syrian cities. Earlier that day at the British Labour Party Conference in Brighton, England, the neocon fanatic, Hilary Benn, was more explicit by actually citing the R2P doctrine by name as the justification to attack Syria.
Formulated at the 2005 UN World Summit, the version of R2P currently in vogue and proposed by the [Gareth] Evans Commission, authorises “regional or sub-regional organisations” such as NATO to determine their “area of jurisdiction” and to act in cases where “the Security Council rejects a proposal or fails to deal with it in a reasonable time”.
Often used as a justification to protect suffering populations, in reality the R2P doctrine has been used to overthrow a series of sovereign states, most recently in Libya. The version of R2P formulated at the UN World Summit will, in all probability, be used in an attempt to legally justify the dismembering of Syria. The use of the R2P doctrine in Iraq set a precedent whereby Western powers have been able to circumvent the consensus view of what constitutes illegality among the world’s leading international lawyers.
The Caroline Principle
The rejection of the consensus view of the world’s leading international lawyers, was outlined in a memorandum where the concept of the Caroline Principle was developed. A key part of the memorandum states:
“It must be right that states are able to act in self-defence in circumstances where there is evidence of further imminent attacks by terrorist groups, even if there is no specific evidence of where such an attack will take place or of the precise nature of the attack” (emphasis added).
In other words, the re-framing of international law based, as one administration official put it – on “pre-emptive retaliation” – means that the West can make any decision to attack a potential adversary without evidence of any wrongdoing. During a January 11, 2017 speech, the English and Welsh Attorney General (AG) outlined the legal position on the UK’s use of drones stating that it was dependent on a subjective interpretation of “pre-emptive”, specifically on the word, “imminent”.
According to Craig Murray, during the time of the Iraq war in 2003, the entire UK legal department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised Jack Straw that it would be illegal for the UK to attack Iraq. In response, Straw was said to have done two things. First, he allegedly asked the Attorney General to sack the person the AG appointed – ie the chief Foreign office legal adviser, Michael Woods, who advised Straw about the illegality of going to war with Iraq.
Secondly, having failed in his attempt to get Woods sacked, Murray alleges that Straw sent the AG for England and Wales, Lord Goldsmith, to the US to consult with G.W Bush’s legal advisers, ostensibly in order to clarify the legal position. The consultation resulted in Goldsmith changing his view from one where he argued the war was illegal to one of legality.
Murray contends that Straw realized that he could no longer depend on the FCOs legal advise to justify war. So, after Woods subsequently left the FCO voluntarily, Straw appointed, for the first time ever, a new chief legal adviser who originated from outside the FCO. This outsider was the international lawyer who developed the Caroline Principle, Daniel Bethlehem.
Prior to his role as legal adviser to the FCO, Bethlehem was legal adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu and had represented Israel before the Mitchell Inquiry into violence against the people of Gaza, arguing that Israel’s actions could be sanctioned on the basis of self-defense using the reconfigured “imminent threat” definition as justification.
Bethlehem also supplied the Government of Israel with a Legal Opinion that the vast Wall they were building in illegally occupied land, surrounding and isolating all the major Palestinian communities and turning them into large prisons, was also legal.
When on January 11, 2017, the AG gave his speech in which he made public the legal advise of Daniel Bethlehem, none of the British media made any critique of it at all. Not a single media outlet inquired about the background of Daniel Bethlehem, his development of the Caroline Principle and the R2P doctrine that underpins it. This doctrine, it is to be recalled, is used to legitimize drone strikes without due legal process and was used as the legal basis for the Iraq war. But arguably, most significant of all in the context of this article, is the mass media have failed in their duty to critique Bethlehem’s possible role as part of the Wests broader strategy to dismember Syria.
Israel & energy independence
This broader strategy involves the granting of oil exploration rights inside Syria, by Israel, in the occupied Golan Heights, to the multinational corporation, Genie Energy. Major shareholders of the company – which also has interests in shale gas in the United States and shale oil in Israel – include Rupert Murdoch and Lord Jacob Rothschild. Other players involved include the Israeli subsidiary, Afek Oil and Gas, American Shale, French Total and BP.
Thus, there exists a broad and powerful nexus of US, British, French and Israeli interests at the forefront of pushing for the break-up of Syria and the control of what is believed to be potentially vast untapped oil and gas resources in the country.
Against this are the competing agendas of the various belligerent gas-exporting foreign factions, that according to Orstein and Romer, have interests in one of the two gas pipeline projects that seek to cross Syrian territory to deliver either Qatari or Iranian gas to Europe. As Orenstein explained:
“In 2009, Qatar proposed to build a pipeline to send its gas northwest via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria to Turkey… However, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to sign the plan; Russia, which did not want to see its position in European gas markets undermined, put him under intense pressure not to”.
Russia’s Gazprom sells 80 per cent of its gas to Europe. So in 2010, Russia put its weight behind “an alternative Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline that would pump Iranian gas from the same field out via Syrian ports such as Latakia and under the Mediterranean.” The project would allow Moscow “to control gas imports to Europe from Iran, the Caspian Sea region, and Central Asia.”
Up to this point, US policy toward Assad had been ambivalent – the intention being that “jaw-jaw” rather than “war-war” would more likely pry Assad away from Iran, thus opening up the Syrian economy to US investors, and aligning the Assad government with US-Israeli regional designs. But the signing in July, 2011, of a $10 billion Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline deal put an end to the U.S ‘softly-softly’ approach.
The rebel-terrorist factions whose violence had been fomented by the Western imperial axis at Daraa in March 2011 had, by the end of that year, seen their levels of covert assistance increase substantially. The purpose of this increase in support, was to elicit the “collapse” of the Assad government. This kind of ‘war of attrition’strategy of supporting Islamist terrorists, was intended to draw Russia into Syria in the same way the Carter government in 1979 had supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan in order to draw the Soviet Union, as it was then, into that country as the prelude to its collapse.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, major defense contractors Raytheon, Oshkosh, and Lockheed Martin assured investors that they stood to gain from the escalating conflicts in the Middle East. Lockheed Martin Executive Vice President Bruce Tanner said his company will see “indirect benefits” from the war in Syria. In addition, a deal that authorized $607 billion in defense spending brokered by the U.S Congress, was described as a “treat” for the industry. What better way to benefit from this ‘treat’ than for the major powers to secure the hydrocarbon potential of Syria’s offshore resources with the aim of reducing European dependence on Russian gas and boosting the potential for energy independence?
Pushing hard for war
None of the above would have been possible without one of the most concerted media propaganda offensives since the Iraq invasion. At the forefront of this offensive has been the Murdoch printed press with the rest of the pack not far behind. According to the Pew Research Journalism Project, “the No. 1 message” on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and Al Jazeera, is that “the U.S. should “get involved” in the conflict in Syria”. But involvement requires a semblance of public consent and this is often achieved as the result of a singularly defining propaganda image or event.
In terms of the first Gulf conflict, the event in question was the infamous nurse Nayirah affair. In relation to the 2003 Iraq invasion, it was the WMD debacle, and in Libya in 2011 it was the false claims of rape said to have been committed by Libyan government troops. Aside from Saving Syria’s Children, the defining propaganda event in relation to Syria is probably the image of a small boy, Omran Daqneesh, photographed covered in dust sitting on a chair which brought a CNN anchor to tears.
But this incident is one of many. From the media’s use of the term “barrel bombs”, the glorification of White Helmets (who have been exposed as terrorist-enabler’s) – through to the ‘weaponizing’ of children exemplified by the exploitation of seven year old Bana Alabed by an individual whose on-line activities suggest complicity in a criminal disinformation campaign – the propaganda during this latest conflict has arguably been more sophisticated and far-reaching than at any time since WW1.
A major factor in the mass media’s hidden agenda in the selling of fake narratives to large swaths of the public, has been their ability to portray themselves as legitimate and reputable news organisations. During the conflict, Channel 4 News, CNN and Al-Jazeera have all reported overt, and often crude, false anti-Syrian propaganda as a replacement for objective reportage. The latter, for example, produced what was clearly a piece of absurd theatre in which the news anchor struggled not to laugh out loud live on air. This was reminiscent of CNNs interview with the fake “Danny”- clearly a Western-funded propagandist and Islamist extremist enabler.
More broadly, evidence points to the existence of a complex interwoven web that connects the various government departments, NGOs, opposition groups and activists with the corporate media who facilitate and amplify this kind of propaganda. The evidence, outlined by Barbara McKenzie, is compelling:
“The role played by the British Foreign Office and other government departments in the unremitting propaganda against the Syrian government is unquestionable. The British government is determinedly pursuing its policy of regime change in Syria, and sees gaining public acceptance of that policy through propaganda that demonises the Syrian government and glorifies the armed opposition as essential to achieving that goal.”