Reporting on the Syrian conflict by Australia’s media is practically non-existent. Only when events impinge directly on Australia, or involve a major incident, do they gain local coverage. Overseas mainstream reporting is little better. Where does the distinction lie between disinterest and self-censorship?
Rely on the mainstream media in Australia and you would be forgiven for concluding that the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve is the only force attacking ISIS in Syria. It’s true that the US-supported Kurds have cleared ISIS from much of northeast Syria, but apart from the sieges at Menbij and Raqqa, it’s been a heavily hyped action in sparsely populated areas.
So — what events aren’t being covered? Basically, most things that don’t involve the USA. In recent months, and after restoring Aleppo’s water supply (were you aware ISIS had turned it off?), the Syrian Army has cleared ISIS from large areas of densely populated farmland along the southern bank of the Euphrates and advanced to Resafa, an ancient town south of Raqqa.
This action is significant because it is denying ISIS territory, communication routes and resources, including gas and oil wells. The ultimate objective is to continue south-east another 100 km or so, to lift the siege of Deir al-Zor, the largest town in eastern Syria, which has been surrounded by ISIS since May 2015. Its garrison and 100,000-odd civilians have been kept supplied by air-drops, but are under increasing pressure as ISIS fighters forced out of Raqqa try desperately to capture Deir al-Zor for their new capital. Surely 100,000 people at risk of an ISIS massacre is newsworthy, even in comparison with State-of-Origin injury reports.
Relying on the mainstream media would also lead you to conclude that ISIS is the only extreme jihadist group fighting in Syria. There is rarely a mention by the USA, or anyone else, of the other major jihadist group, the al-Qaeda-franchised Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an amalgamation of the Nusra Front and several other salafist jihadi factions. One might think that for the USA, the nation that suffered the 9/11 attack, al-Qaeda links would be a fundamental concern, and demanding of the strongest action. After all, what were the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq claimed to be about?
More likely, it’s a case of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. For the last decade, the USA has made no secret of its desire to remove the Assad government, and has resourced both military and media activities to achieve this. The CIA has been assisting various ‘moderate’ jihadi groups to combat the pro-Assad forces, but the vetting process is risible, and the groups mix and morph constantly, so that even the most extreme factions benefit from CIA largess. For its part, al-Qaeda/HTS made a point of keeping a lower profile, using local groups and Opposition-aligned first responders like the White Helmets as fronts.
Then there are the activities of Israel around the Golan Heights. HTS has held areas of land adjacent to the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan since 2014. The Syrian army regularly attacks these rebel positions. On the pretext that mortar rounds from this fighting have landed in the Israeli-held area, Israeli jets regularly attack the Syrian Army positions, and HTS invariably is poised to take advantage of these air strikes. That bastion of conservative capitalism, the Wall Street Journal recently reported on this and on assistance including salaries and weapons supplied by the Israelis to the jihadis, but the Australian media hasn’t caught up yet.
Even where the USA is directly involved, reporting in Australia is at best coy, and usually non-existent. On Syria’s southeast border (with Jordan), the USA has established a base just inside Syrian territory at al-Tanf, ostensibly to train local tribesmen to combat ISIS.
In reality, the purpose of this base was to support a thrust northward to join with the Kurdish forces near the Euphrates River. This would cut Syria in two, block the Syrian Army from its advance towards Deir al-Zor, and pave the way for the longer-term partition/Balkanisation of Syria. The Syrian Army and Iranian paramilitary forces were able to out-manoeuvre the US-backed groups, cutting them off by making a dash to the Syria-Iraq border. It is worth noting that Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi forces cooperated in this exercise to foil US plans.
US frustration at being shut in at al-Tanf likely led to the downing of a Syrian Air Force Su-22 near Resafa on 18 June, an action that was, for once, promptly reported in local media. It would appear that the USA wanted to send a message that, although its ground forces might be restricted, it still could exercise air superiority. This bluff was also called when the Russians announced that they would no longer use the deconfliction network to recognise the presence of US aircraft — all aircraft would be tracked by target acquisition radar. For once, this was widely reported, along with the Australian Government’s announcement that it would cease air operations over Syria until appropriate deconfliction procedures were re-established.
These three examples illustrate the extent of what isn’t covered in our local media. To them we could add other issues such as the Turkish occupation of part of northern Syria, the infighting between jihadi groups in the rebel ‘capital’ of Idlib, and the ongoing fighting between the Government and various jihadi factions around Dara’a. Then of course there is the additional layer of what’s going on between the various sponsors of anti-government forces in Syria — Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but that’s for another day.
More broadly, there is the issue of what the USA’s objectives are in Syria. While the USA has its tactics honed, observers are increasingly asking whether there is an agreed underlying strategy, or whether President Trump and his advisers are developing policy on the run. The latter possibility would not bode well for an Australian Government that slavishly follows the USA. Unfortunately, if the past is any guide, Australia’s domestic media will at best note events in Syria in passing, and never pause to look more closely or ask questions that might illuminate the thinking behind the Australian Government’s position.
Even internationally, the outlook for a healthy media is not bright. In a concerning development, Seymour Hersh, the exposer of My Lai and Abu Ghraib, has again had to change publishers.
His thoroughly researched pieces on the USA’s foreign involvements appeared in the New Yorker for many years. However, a Hersh article showing that the Obama Administration knew that Usama bin Laden was living under the protection of Pakistani intelligence long before the raid on Abbotabad proved too sensitive for the New Yorker. Hersh’s articles moved to the London Review of Books two years ago.
Now, the LRB has declined to publish his latest piece, that concerns the response of President Trump to the alleged gas attack at Khan Shaykhun in April 2017. Fortunately, the article has been picked up by Welt am Sonntag (‘Trump’s Red Line’). The reason the LRB cited was its concern that the magazine would be vulnerable to criticism for seeming to take the view of the Syrian and Russian governments when it came to the April 4th bombing in Khan Sheikhoun. That a respected journal such as the LRB would feel obliged to self-censor in this way is surely an indictment of the increasingly polarized nature of public discourse in the West.
As I was finishing writing this, the Fairfax website uploaded an item ‘US says it appears Syria planning another chemical weapons attack’, in which the White House threatened that Syria would ‘pay a heavy price’ if another gas attack took place. We could be already playing out the scenario in the final words of Hersh’s article, where he quotes a senior adviser to the US intelligence community:
“The issue is, what if there’s another false flag sarin attack credited to hated Syria? Trump has upped the ante and painted himself into a corner with his decision to bomb. And do not think these guys are not planning the next faked attack. Trump will have no choice but to bomb again, and harder. He’s incapable of saying he made a mistake.”
David Menere has worked in Syria as an assistant to his archaeological spouse since the early 1990s.