Thursday, 15 December 2016

Two British journalists that question the mainstream narrative on Syria


Why is it ok to bomb Mosul but not Aleppo?
Assad and his allies have carried out war crimes. But so have the rebels

Peter Oborne



5 November, 2016

For the past few weeks, British news-papers have been informing their readers about two contrasting battles in the killing grounds of the Middle East. One is Mosul, in northern Iraq, where western reporters are accompanying an army of liberation as it frees a joyful population from terrorist control. The other concerns Aleppo, just a few hundred miles to the west. This, apparently, is the exact opposite. Here, a murderous dictator, hellbent on destruction, is waging war on his own people.

Both these narratives contain strong elements of truth. There is no question that President Assad and his Russian allies have committed war crimes, and we can all agree that Mosul will be far better off without Isis. Nevertheless, the situations in Mosul and Aleppo are fundamentally identical. In both cases, forces loyal to an internationally recognised government are attacking well-populated cities, with the aid of foreign air power. These cities are under the control of armed groups or terrorists, who are holding a proportion of their population hostage.




In Mosul, fewer than 10,000 Isis fighters control about a million people. In eastern Aleppo, it is estimated that about 5,000 armed men, the majority linked to al–Qaeda, dominate a population of about 200,000. In each case the armed groups use the zones they occupy to attack government areas with rockets, mortars and other weapons.

So Prime Minister al-Abadi in Iraq and President Assad in Syria face the same dilemma. Should they do nothing for fear of killing civilians? Or do they take air action and eliminate the so-called rebels, but at terrible cost in innocent blood as they wage merciless war against ruthless insurgents?

In both cases, enormous bloodshed could be prevented if the terrorist groups let the civilian population leave. Last month the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, pleaded with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Qaeda, but now decoupled and rebranded) to do just that: ‘One thousand of you are deciding the destiny of 270,000 civilians.’ He pointedly used the word ‘hostage’ to describe the way these civilians were being held by the rebels and not by Assad

This episode highlighted the double standard about western reporting of these terrible problems. In Mosul, western reporters travelling with the invading Iraqi army publish pictures of joyful populations liberated from the jihadists. In Aleppo, the attempt to free the city from al-Qaeda control is portrayed as a remorseless attack on the civilian population.

Assad and his allies have carried out war crimes. But that is not the whole story. When I visited the government-held areas of Aleppo earlier this year, I met scores of people who had fled for their lives from al–Qaeda or Isis in the east of the city. They told me hideous stories of how these jihadists, very few of whom were Syrian, had enforced a brutal form of sharia law, abolished education in schools and forced women to wear burkas and stay at home.

In western Aleppo, I found a woman in a government building where she had come to collect her salary as a teacher (government employees in rebel-held areas are still paid by the regime, even though they are no longer allowed to work). She told me how she was preparing to return home to rejoin her husband and children. She had no doubt at all what fate awaited her: ‘The fighters are preparing ambushes with explosives. They are moving their wives and families out. They are keeping us as human shields.’

Western reports about the fighting in Mosul have made much of the liberated churches. Yet exactly the same narrative applies across Syria. Two years ago I joined Syrian government forces as they freed the eastern city of Maaloula (where Aramaic, the language of Christ, is still spoken). The famous monastery above the town had been dreadfully desecrated by al-Qaeda. In Aleppo, the Christian community has collapsed from 200,000 before the war to maybe 25,000 today. This is because Christians in Aleppo know that if the British and US-backed jihadists in the east win the war, they will be slaughtered.

A further double standard concerns the reporting of Russian and Syrian atrocities. Much has — rightly — been made of the so-called barrel bombs dropped on Aleppo by the Russians. Yet rebel commanders in eastern Aleppo use equally hideous weapons. Last April, fighters from Jaish al-Islam, backed by Saudi Arabia and considered moderate enough that American diplomats retain relations with them, admitted to using chemical weapons against the Kurds in Aleppo. This attack received almost no attention from the media, and failed to generate the faintest outrage in Britain.

Jaish al-Islam employ a so-called ‘hell cannon’ to fire gas canisters and shrapnel weighing up to 40 kilograms into civilian areas. These are every bit as murderous as the barrel bombs. Reports in the western press have suggested that hell cannons are examples of the engineering ingenuity of plucky rebels. Few journalists have dwelled on the fact that these improvised weapons have been deliberately used to kill hundreds of Aleppo civilians.

Yet another double standard applies to the destruction of hospitals. When I was in Aleppo, I interviewed Mohamad El-Hazouri, head of the department of health, at the Razi hospital. He told me that when rebel groups entered the city they put six of the 16 hospitals out of service, as well as 100 of the 201 health centres, and wiped out the ambulance service.

An Aleppo eye hospital, which had been one of the greatest treatment centres in northern Syria, had been turned into a jail for detainees by the rebels. He said that his workers went to great lengths to supply hospitals in the rebel areas. Often they were rebuffed.

There is a wider pattern at work here. When opponents of the West try to reclaim urban areas from terrorists, they are denounced. When our allies do the same — think of Israel in Gaza or the Saudis in Yemen — we defend them. We judge Assad by one set of rules, and ourselves and our own allies by another.


This is why everything you’ve read about the wars in Syria and Iraq could be wrong
It is too dangerous for journalists to operate in rebel-held areas of Aleppo and Mosul. But there is a tremendous hunger for news from the Middle East, so the temptation is for the media give credence to information they get second hand
Patrick Coburn

the Independent,
14 December, 2016

The Iraqi army, backed by US-led airstrikes, is trying to capture east Mosul at the same time as the Syrian army and its Shia paramilitary allies are fighting their way into east Aleppo. An estimated 300 civilians have been killed in Aleppo by government artillery and bombing in the last fortnight, and in Mosul there are reportedly some 600 civilian dead over a month.

Despite these similarities, the reporting by the international media of these two sieges is radically different.

In Mosul, civilian loss of life is blamed on Isis, with its indiscriminate use of mortars and suicide bombers, while the Iraqi army and their air support are largely given a free pass. Isis is accused of preventing civilians from leaving the city so they can be used as human shields.

Contrast this with Western media descriptions of the inhuman savagery of President Assad’s forces indiscriminately slaughtering civilians regardless of whether they stay or try to flee. The UN chief of humanitarian affairs, Stephen O’Brien, suggested this week that the rebels in east Aleppo were stopping civilians departing – but unlike Mosul, the issue gets little coverage.

One factor making the sieges of east Aleppo and east Mosul so similar, and different, from past sieges in the Middle East, such as the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982 or of Gaza in 2014, is that there are no independent foreign journalists present. They are not there for the very good reason that Isis imprisons and beheads foreigners while Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is only a shade less bloodthirsty and generally holds them for ransom.

At least 45 Syrian refugees killed by regime missile while trying to flee Aleppo
These are the two groups that dominate the armed opposition in Syria as a whole. In Aleppo, though only about 20 per cent of the 10,000 fighters are Nusra, it is they – along with their allies in Ahrar al-Sham – who are leading the resistance.

Experience shows that foreign reporters are quite right not to trust their lives even to the most moderate of the armed opposition inside Syria. But, strangely enough, the same media organisations continue to put their trust in the veracity of information coming out of areas under the control of these same potential kidnappers and hostage takers. They would probably defend themselves by saying they rely on non-partisan activists, but all the evidence is that these can only operate in east Aleppo under license from the al-Qaeda-type groups.

It is inevitable that an opposition movement fighting for its life in wartime will only produce, or allow to be produced by others, information that is essentially propaganda for its own side. The fault lies not with them but a media that allows itself to be spoon-fed with dubious or one-sided stories.

For instance, the film coming out of east Aleppo in recent weeks focuses almost exclusively on heartrending scenes of human tragedy such as the death or maiming of civilians. One seldom sees shots of the 10,000 fighters, whether they are wounded or alive and well.

None of this is new. The present wars in the Middle East started with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was justified by the supposed threat from Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Western journalists largely went along with this thesis, happily citing evidence from the Iraqi opposition who predictably confirmed the existence of WMD.

Some of those who produced these stories later had the gall to criticise the Iraqi opposition for misleading them, as if they had any right to expect unbiased information from people who had dedicated their lives to overthrowing Saddam Hussein or, in this particular case, getting the Americans to do so for them.

Much the same self-serving media credulity was evident in Libya during the 2011 Nato-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

Atrocity stories emanating from the Libyan opposition, many of which were subsequently proved to be baseless by human rights organisations, were rapidly promoted to lead the news, however partial the source.

The Syrian war is especially difficult to report because Isis and various al-Qaeda clones made it too dangerous to report from within opposition-held areas. There is a tremendous hunger for news from just such places, so the temptation is for the media give credence to information they get second hand from people who could in practice only operate if they belong to or are in sympathy with the dominant jihadi opposition groups.

It is always a weakness of journalists that they pretend to excavate the truth when in fact they are the conduit rather than the originator of information produced by others in their own interests. Reporters learn early that people tell them things because they are promoting some cause which might be their own career or related to bureaucratic infighting or, just possibly, hatred of lies and injustice.

A word here in defence of the humble reporter in the field: usually, it is not he or she, but the home office or media herd instinct, that decides the story of the day. Those closest to the action may be dubious about some juicy tale which is heading the news, but there is not much they can do about it.

Thus, in 2002 and 2003, several New York Times journalists wrote stories casting doubt on WMD only to find them buried deep inside the newspaper which was led by articles proving that Saddam had WMD and was a threat to the world.

Journalists and public alike should regard all information about Syria and Iraq with reasoned scepticism. They should keep in mind the words of Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria. Speaking after he had resigned in frustration in 2014, he said that “everybody had their agenda and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third or not at all”.

The quote comes from The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East by Christopher Phillips, which is one of the best informed and non-partisan accounts of the Syrian tragedy yet published. He judiciously weighs the evidence for rival explanations for what happened and why. He understands the degree to which the agenda and pace events in Syria were determined externally by the intervention of foreign powers pursuing their own interests.

Overall, government experts did better than journalists, who bought into simple-minded explanations of developments, convinced that Assad was always on the verge of being overthrown.

Phillips records that at a high point of the popular uprising in July 2011, when the media was assuming that Assad was finished, that the long-serving British ambassador in Damascus, Simon Collis, wrote that “Assad can still probably count on the support of 30-40 per cent of the population.”

The French ambassador Eric Chevallier was similarly cautious, only to receive a classic rebuke from his masters in Paris who said: “Your information does not interest us. Bashar al-Assad must fall and will fall.”

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