Tuesday, 7 August 2012

UPDATE: Propaganda and truth in Syria

There is a pattern connecting most reporting on the conflict in Syria. A sharp picture is painted of a despotic regime attacking its own people out of capricious, violent self-preservation. We are told the Syrian opposition are fighting for their freedom, to be free of a hated tyrant and to usher in a new democratic government that promises greater human rights for Syria.

One might disagree with Syrian President Basher al Assad’s actions this past year, but it becomes more difficult by the day to discern a clear “good” side from a “bad” side in this horrible internecine conflict. Curiously, the media insists on portraying all of the Syrian regime’s violence as simply human rights atrocities, instead of as authority clamping down on terrorists and revolutionaries.

Consider how any government would respond to an armed insurrection. These rebel groups have trudged throughout a sovereign nation-state for over 12 months, stagnating the industrial sector and absorbing government attention. Explosions have ripped apart top Syrian leaders, while widespread fighting causes hundreds of deaths each month.

The Syrian regime, as an independent secular state, considers itself authorised to do whatever is necessary to end the insurrection. If one includes the covert (but now barely veiled) assistance from foreign powers helping the Opposition then the Syrian regime understandably feels greater justification for aggressive action.

Yet if this is the case, and it is hard to tell exactly what is going on, then how do the Western powers justify supporting the Syrian rebellion? Surely if armed groups rise up in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia (as happened in 2011 and early 2012) driving those regimes to brutally clamp down killing hundreds, then for consistencies sake, Western intelligence should move against them.

But they didn’t, and geopolitics explains why. There is a greater game being played in the region in which Syria is a proxy battleground. To justify toppling the al Assad regime, an enormous propaganda machine emphasises and embellishes any terrible story emerging from the Syrian conflict zone.

And as the discerning international public consume their media an ever-worsening presentation of Syrian horror is displayed. Al Assad is portrayed as a growing monster, a powerful despot with no regard for human rights. He might be, but the reporting from Syria doesn’t necessarily support this hypothesis.

The focus seems to be on the imminent collapse of the al Assad regime. The rebels, say all the papers, have struck “significant blows” to the regime and are “gathering momentum”. With rebels pouring out of dark alleyways to visit death upon dwindling regime figures, al Assad is surely grasping at legitimacy as power falls away from him.

Indeed it was Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu who proclaimed recently that no-one believes Syrian President Bashar al Assad will keep his position. Davutoglu and other regional leaders are already preparing for a post-al Assad reality. Who that might be is as yet unknown, but even the Syrian Opposition cannot agree on a rightful successor. And if they cannot agree, then a smooth transition is out of the question.

International leaders announce weekly that Opposition fighters are quickly overwhelming Syrian government forces and closing off strategic routes. And yet, Damascus was able to position thousands of troops, drive tons of armour and fly squadrons of aircraft towards Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, a few days ago. Fighting is now isolated to some neighbourhoods of Aleppo.

Such a deployment requires a long, but direct route north through western Syria. Bringing the troops close to Homs, Hama, and Rastan (three towns that have seen heavy fighting between rebels and government forces over the past year) should have been near impossible. Such a route would surely be overrun by Opposition forces. Yet the Syrian troops managed to move past these towns with ease and launch a siege on Aleppo within hours. Clearly something is not quite right with reporting from Syria.

Of course, for many months the international media has been denied official access to Syria. They instead have to rely on snippets of camera-phone videos smuggled from Syria. When replaying these videos, the viewer is reminded that they cannot be independently verified. This is obvious, but exactly how the media justify replaying them without verification of sources is a mystery.

Videos of vicious artillery shelling and helicopter gunship strafing understandably cause international uproar. It is said al Assad has clearly lost control of his nation, using Syrian troops as death-squads instead of soldiers. Footage of massacres where children were targeted by government artillery has emerged supposedly showing how monstrous the al Assad regime really is.  

Yet only recently, alongside Arab League observers has the international media gained any real access to Syria. Inside they are finding the situation less gratuitous. The wanton destruction and wholesale murder by al Assad’s troops is not happening as expected.

Indeed, it appears many of the ‘massacres’ may not have occurred as first described. Closer inspection in Houla reveals people killed, not by artillery shelling as first explained, but by close-range small-arms fire. Reports suggest Opposition members may have committed the atrocities. Government troops may not be guilty for the massacre in Houla after all. Although it is unlikely we will ever know for sure.

Yet the propaganda depicting al Assad as a monster was released into the world’s consciousness, and the damage was done.  No one will now remember a correction of these stories, even if the New York Times issues one.

Western powers do have a strategic goal in supporting the Opposition. Removing al Assad undermines a growing Iranian hegemony in the region. To spread the idea of al Assad’s immanent collapse, Western intelligence agencies are cleverly seeding the world’s media with half-truths and exaggerated stories, alongside legitimate stories.

So if the Syrian leader is as critically threatened as the media says, why does he still maintain complete control over his armed forces? Why was he able to drive rebels out of Damascus and launch a siege on Aleppo? How then is the Syrian government still functioning, even sending regime officials abroad to attend meetings in Iraq?

Al Assad is moving quickly and violently to stamp out the insurrection. No country would find this policy alien. China uses force, Israel uses force, Thailand uses force, and even the United States during their civil war and in Iraq used force. An armed insurrection must be broken early and hard, otherwise more people die the longer it drags on.

Not every explosion captured on video is a nasty attack from Syrian government forces. Of course, horrible things are done by both sides in war, regardless of who occupies the “good” side. War is never fought by perfect angels; there is always carnage and stray bullets. Truth is the first casualty in war and Syria is not different.

If Syria can teach us one thing, it is that the more complex a conflict the greater the responsibility of news agencies to verify their sources and separate fact from fiction without recourse to sensationalism. If they fail to do this, journalists become the mouthpieces for external powers by broadcasting the conflict as propaganda would have it reported rather than how it really is.

Featured in The National Business Review: http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/propaganda-truth-and-lies-syria-wb-125065

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