The bias in the treatment of the Syrian conflict by the mainstream media is not accidental or due to laxity on the part of the media. Rather, it is the result of the opposition groups’ exclusion of independent reporting, coupled with western governments’ financial assistance to the opposition for media production.
Imagine if a city of five million or so, say Seattle, suddenly lost its water supply. Though it is on the other side of the world, Australians would be sure to know about it within the hour. The media would be saturated with headlines of the personal plight of citizens, the response of authorities, and more – an endless torrent of coverage.
What then, are we to make of the media’s silence concerning the loss of water supply to the five million inhabitants of Damascus at Christmas? Unless you have been watching the Syrian situation, you are unlikely to be aware of it.
Just before Christmas, the main water source for Damascus, the Wadi Barada, was tainted with diesel fuel. A few days later, the take-off facility was destroyed. The area has been under the control of local insurgents and al-Qaeda-aligned groups for some time. The Syrian Army is presently attacking these groups to re-take the area and restore the water supply.
While this is only the latest example of the mainstream media’s selective treatment of the Syrian conflict, it is symptomatic of the biased narrative that has saturated western mainstream media since the conflict began in 2011.
Stephen Kinzer’s February 2016 article in the Boston Globe was probably the first chink in this narrative of the conflict in Syria. Those closer to the action, either by interest or personal connections with the region, will have already been aware for some time of the effort some parties have put into turning reporting from Syria to their own advantage.
In November 2016, for the first time in any mainstream media, an article by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent set out the basics of the Syria propaganda operation.
In essence, Cockburn says that it has been too risky for western journalists to embed with the opposition – they either got executed directly by extremist groups like ISIS, or kidnapped by moderates and traded on to the extremists for weapons or cash – then executed. Hence there is no direct independent reporting from the anti-government side, and anti-government interests are thus able to control both the news reaching the outside world and how they are portrayed in that news.
Western governments have assisted this process. The French Government, through its overseas aid agency, Canal France International provided funding to train and provide for journalists reporting on the ‘moderate’ opposition’ in Aleppo. This operation has become established as the ‘Aleppo Media Centre’.
Journalists desperate for a story are put in contact with anti-government ‘activists’. While such journalists have no way of verifying either the material they receive, or the nature of the source they receive it from, these fundamental uncertainties are rarely reflected in their reports. It is reported as if this material were confirmed fact, and then gains credence by being published in mainstream media.
The UK Government has been engaged in a similar exercise of assisting ‘moderates’ through its ‘Conflict and Stability Fund’. This Istanbul-based operation provides media production and media coaching, i.e., in the words of one source, a ‘Free Syrian Army press office’.
Others previously involved in Syrian issues appear to be no longer able to contain their disgust at the activities of their governments. Peter Ford, an ex-British Ambassador to Syria, recently went public, saying that the Foreign Office had got Syria wrong ‘every step of the way’.
This exclusive emphasis on human tragedy and the opposition has meant that coverage from the Syrian Government side, and broader analysis of the Syria situation has been pretty much absent. With a few honourable exceptions including Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, important questions have been studiously avoided in favour of ‘Assad must go’ soundbites and tales of plucky White Helmets (who appear to be another propaganda operation in their own right).
Where are the articles about Turkey’s role, for instance, or Saudi Arabia’s role, or why western governments need to finance a propaganda effort against the Syrian government? Turkey’s border has been completely porous for opposition supplies and manpower, and, until late 2015, for ISIS oil exports. Saudi Arabian and other Gulf interests have provided massive funding that has been used to pay fighters and to purchase weaponry. The availability of these resources has vastly prolonged the conflict and added to the misery of the Syrian people. Isn’t there a story in that?
During the recent siege of eastern Aleppo, the mainstream media furiously wrung its hands about the fate of civilians in eastern Aleppo, but couldn’t bring itself to use the term ‘human shield’ in relation to the rebels’ refusal to allow civilians to leave. Roger Shanahan, of the Lowy Institute skewered this issue in his article ‘What exactly did the rebel defence of east Aleppo achieve?’, but it wasn’t picked up more widely.
Where does all this leave Australia? Are Australian Ministers, their advisers and departments aware of the way the media has been manipulated by their western government partners? or do they enjoy the false security of believing their own propaganda?
In September 2016, a Coalition anti-ISIS sortie involving aircraft from USA, Australia and Denmark attacked Syrian government positions south of the ISIS-besieged city of Deir ez-Zor. The ISIS forces facing this position promptly overran this strategic position, so threatening the airport, which is Deir ez-Zor’s lifeline.
Unsurprisingly, the subsequent investigation (released on 29 November 2016) found no evidence of misconduct, but ‘a number of lessons to be learned…’. In early December, the Danes backed out discreetly, announcing that they would not be extending their aircraft contribution to the Coalition force at the end of its six-month rotation.
Australia also had aircraft involved in this bungled raid. Given the risks of further bungles, and the unpredictability of the USA’s next President, Australia might look after its own interests by discretely withdrawing its own aircraft and putting any funds saved thereby into an aid package for rebuilding Syria. I could suggest several appropriate projects.
David Menere has worked in Syria as an assistant to his archaeological spouse since the early 1990s.