Covering Syria: The Information War
By Aisling Byrne
July 14, 2012
Clearing House" --
The narrative that has
been constructed by the Western mainstream media on Syria may
seem to be self-evident from the scenes presented on television,
but it is a narrative duplicitously promoted and coordinated so
as to conceal and facilitate the regime-change project that is
part of the war on Iran.
What we are seeing is a new stage of information war
intentionally constructed and cast as a simplistic narrative of
a struggle for human rights and democracy so as deliberately to
exclude other interpretations and any geo-strategic motivation.
The narrative, as CNN puts it, is in essence this: "The vast
majority of reports from the ground indicate that government
forces are killing citizens in an attempt to wipe out civilians
seeking [President Bashar] al-Assad's ouster" - the aim being
precisely to elicit a heart-wrenching emotional response in
Western audiences that trumps all other considerations and makes
the call for Western/Gulf intervention to effect regime change.
But it is a narrative based on distortion, manipulation, lies
In the first months, the narrative was of unarmed protesters
being shot by Syrian forces. This then evolved into one of armed
insurgents reluctantly "being provoked into taking up arms", as
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton explained, to
defend peaceful protesters.
It was also a narrative that from the outset, according to a
recent report in Time magazine, that the US has facilitated by
providing training, support and equipment to Syrian opposition
Reports confirmed by leading Syrian opposition leaders in April
2011 reveal that in addition to cyber-training, weapons and
money from Syrian exiles, as well as from a "major Arab Gulf
country" and a Lebanese political party, were being distributed
to "young demonstrators". The former head of Russian
intelligence, Yevgeny Primakov, similarly noted that the Syrian
conflict "started with armed revolts against the authorities,
not peaceful demonstrations".
Ironically, one of the most accurate descriptions of the
sectarian conflict we are witnessing in Syria comes from an
assessment by the neoconservative Brookings Institute in its
March 2012 report "Assessing Options for Regime Change in
Syria", one option being for "the United States [to] fight a
"clean" war ... and leave the dirty work on the ground to the
FSA [Free Syrian Army], perhaps even obviating a massive
commitment to Iraq-style nation-building".
"Let the Arabs do it," echoed Israeli President Shimon Peres.
"Do it yourself and the UN will support you." This point was not
lost on one leading Turkish commentator, who noted that US
Senator John McCain "said that there would be no American boots
on the ground in Syria. That means we Turks will have to spill
our precious blood to get what McCain and others want in the
In the wake of the failures at state-building in Afghanistan and
Iraq, direct intervention, with all the responsibilities this
would entail, would not go down well in cash-strapped Western
nations. Better to get others to do the "dirty work" - pursue
"regime change by civil war".
"The United States, Europe and the Gulf states ... are starving
the regime in Damascus and feeding the opposition. They have
sanctioned Syria ... and are busy shoveling money and helping
arms supplied by the Gulf get to the rebels," Joshua Landis,
director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies, wrote in
Foreign Policy in June.
With regional allies prepared to do the "dirty work" of
providing increasingly sophisticated weapons clearly geared for
purposes other than "self-defense", and the FSA and its jihadist
allies doing the "dirty work" within Syria (their salaries paid
by Saudi Arabia), the US and European nations can proffer their
clean hands by limiting support to communications equipment,
intelligence and humanitarian aid, and of course to providing
the moral posturing required to topple the Syrian system and
implant a regime hostile to Iran and friendly to Israel. Having
"clean hands" enables the US, France and Britain to pose as
abiding by UN standards, while at the same time flouting the UN
Charter by promoting an attack on a member state.
Time magazine reported last month that the administration of US
President Barack Obama "has tiptoed across an invisible line.
[It] said it will not actively support the Syrian opposition in
its bid to oust Assad ... [but] as US officials have revealed,
the administration has been providing media-technology training
and support to Syrian dissidents by way of small non-profits
like the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and Freedom House.
"Viral videos of alleged atrocities," noted Time, "have made
Assad one of the most reviled men on the planet, helping turn
the Arab League against him and embarrassing his few remaining
allies almost daily."
It is a position that reeks of hypocrisy: as US columnist
Barbara Slavin notes, "Without a UN Security Council mandate,
the prospects for US military intervention in Syria are minimal
... the provision of communications gear frees up others to
A US official quoted by Associated Press was more frank:
Washington's equipment and medical supplies to the opposition
"can now be easily augmented with weapons from other donors.
Smuggling lines are smuggling lines. We use the same donkeys,"
he said, pointing out that routes are in essence the same for
bandages as they are for bullets.
And while various Western governments are helping "document
crimes" committed by Syrian forces, these same governments have
refused to investigate their own killings of civilians in
attacks by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Libya. NATO
"created its own definition for 'confirmed' deaths: only a death
that NATO itself investigated and corroborated could be called
confirmed", enabling the alliance to conclude: "We have no
confirmed reports of civilian casualties."
Britain was the only country involved in the bombings to conduct
its own inquiry. Its report accepted "that coalition forces did
their best to prevent and minimize civilian casualties ... We
commend them for this approach."
For every tragic story like journalist Marie Colvin's final
dispatch before she was killed while embedded for British media
with the FSA ("In Babr Amr. Sickening. Cannot understand how the
world can stand by. Watched a baby die today. Shrapnel: doctors
could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until
he stopped. Feeling Helpless"), there are other similar
tragedies, committed by the insurgents, that are rarely reported
in the mainstream Western press.
You won't read in the mainstream press of foreign jihadists
increasingly pouring into Syria to fight their holy war; you
won't read that some ultraconservative Salafi sheikhs in Saudi
Arabia are running their own military network inside Syria; you
won't read how Assad's support during the 14-month crisis has if
anything increased in light of the insecurity gripping the
country; you won't read comments like those of the Lebanese
Christian Maronite patriarch who said that while "Syria, like
other countries, needs reforms which the people are demanding
... the closest thing to democracy [in the Arab world] is
You won't read how the head of the opposition in Turkey, a
former ambassador to Washington, Faruk Logoglu, has said that
what Turkey is doing hosting armed FSA fighters and allowing
them to carry out attacks in Syria is "is against all
international norms; against all neighborly relations ... It is
a basic rule that countries must respect the sovereignty of
You won't read how armed insurgents used the Arab League
observer mission's ceasefire to "reinforce themselves and bring
supplies from Lebanon, knowing the regime would be limited in
its ability to obstruct them at that time", or how they have
used the Kofi Annan plan to prepare for larger attacks.
While we have seen extensive demonization of Assad, his wife and
family, with the president depicted recently in the British
press bathing in blood, you won't read articles demonizing the
Saudi or Qatari regimes, or highlighting the hundreds of
millions of dollars they have poured into political parties and
groups, particularly Salafists, across the region in their
"counter-revolution" against change; or the recent declaration
by the official Saudi Mufti for all churches in the Arabian
Peninsula to be demolished (which was not covered by a single
Western mainstream news outlet); or as a senior Sunni political
figure told me recently, the more than 23,000 detainees in Saudi
prisons, a majority of whom (a recent report notes 90%) have
degrees (to be fair, Chatham House did comment on this in a
recent report that this "is indicative of the prevalence of a
You won't read how Saudi Arabia and Qatar have bullied satellite
hosting channels in the region to stop broadcasting "pro-regime"
public and private Syrian television channels; or that the
Syrian opposition has set up 10 satellite channels, all with an
Islamist orientation and which take a strong sectarian line -
calling on the FSA to "kill Iran's mice" and "the rats of the
Lebanese devil's party" (Hezbollah); or how Russia has been
attempting to facilitate a political process of reconciliation
with the internal opposition since the onset of the crisis.
There is clear duplicity in the deliberate unwillingness of the
Western mainstream media to acknowledge the nature of those who
are the West's allies in the regime-change project -
particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar - and the danger they pose
in the region through their arming and firing up of jihadist
Salafist groups in Syria and across the region. Rare are
articles in the mainstream Western press that highlight this
A critical piece in the British press by Peter Oborne, The Daily
Telegraph's chief political correspondent, was an exception:
"Washington never ceases to complain about the connection
between the Pakistani intelligence services and the Taliban. But
we never hear a whisper of concern about the connection between
Saudi intelligence and Salafi movements across the Middle East,
of which al-Qaeda is the best-known offshoot."
The essential components of what we do see daily in the Western
press have changed little during the conflict: in effect, all
violence and terror are apportioned to one side only - the
Syrian government and its purported "ghostly shadowy" shabiha
Any violence committed by the "peaceful protesters" and the Free
Syrian Army is purely for defensive purposes - all of which
comes straight out of the color-revolution/regime-change text
book; daily figures for those killed are based almost
exclusively on "reports by activists and YouTube footage"
(unverifiable, it is claimed, because the Syrian government does
not allow free movement of journalists) and are described simply
as "people" - dead insurgents do not appear; Al-Qaeda-type
jihadist groups are played down (reports in leading media
outlets like The Guardian continue to question whether they
exist at all); and any weapons or equipment supplied to the
"opposition" is, according to Saudi leaders, to help Syrians
Embedding journalists on their side is an asset that the FSA,
activists and their Western and regional partners have clearly
learned from the experience of the US Army in the wake of its
attacks on Fallujah in 2004. A US Army intelligence analysis
leaked by WikiLeaks revealed that "in the military's opinion,
the Western press are part of the US's propaganda operation.
This process was facilitated by the embedding of Western
reporters in US military units". In their second attack on
Fallujah in November 2004, the US Army "got many reporters ...
to embed with US troops, so that they could act, as the
intelligence report calls for, as the propaganda arm of US
The fundamental pillar of this Western narrative relies almost
exclusively on claims and "evidence" provided by "activists" and
opposition-affiliated groups, particularly the Syrian
Observatory for Human Rights. Are we seriously to believe that
this outfit, reportedly run from Coventry by a man who,
according to Reuters, part-time runs a clothes shop with his
wife, then "sits with a laptop and phones and pieces together
accounts of conflict and rights abuses before uploading news to
the Internet", is the primary source of daily casualty
statistics on the 14-month Syrian conflict - the key
geo-strategic conflict of the time?
It is clearly the front office of a large-scale (dis)information
project - when Russian diplomats asked to meet with the
organization, they were refused. Senior political figures in the
region have told me, as other reports indicate, that the
Observatory is in fact funded from a Dubai-based slush fund and
is a key component of the regime-change project.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that it was in the
opposition's interest "to provoke a humanitarian catastrophe, to
get a pretext to demand external interference", so it is not
surprising that analysis of the Observatory's figures, including
claims of "massacres", consistently show a significant inflation
in numbers of casualties, sometimes wildly so.
As Al-Jazeera journalist Nir Rosen, who spent some months
embedded with the Free Syria Army, explained: "Every day the
opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation
of the cause of the deaths. Many ... reported killed are in fact
dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden
and they are described ... as innocent civilians killed by
security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or
sitting in their homes."
Analysis I did of what was reported to be the "deadliest day of
the nine-month uprising" (December 20, 2011), with the
"organized massacre" of a "mass defection" of army deserters
widely reported by the international press, and opposition
Syrian National Council claims of areas "exposed to large-scale
genocide", showed that figures differed so significantly
(between 10 and 163 armed insurgents, nine to 111 unarmed
civilians and zero to 97 government forces), that the "truth"
was impossible to establish. Similarly, analysis of The
Guardian's data blog on casualties as of December 2011, based
solely on press reports largely from opposition sources,
contained basic inaccuracies and made no reference to any
killings of armed insurgents during the entire 10-month period.
So the Observatory and "activists" provide doctored figures, the
Western media report these figures uncritically, and the UN
provides reports on the basis of opposition and activist sources
alone. The December 2011 UN Human Rights Commissioner's report
was based solely on interviews with 233 alleged "army
defectors"; similarly, the first UN report to accuse the Syrian
government of crimes against humanity was based on 369
interviews with "victims and witnesses". The spokesman for the
UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights explained that
while "getting evidence from victims and defectors - some who
corroborated specific names", the UN "is not in a position to
cross-check names and will never be in a position to do that ...
The lists are clear - the question is whether we can fully
endorse their accuracy."
British public-service broadcaster Channel 4 has championed the
cause of Syrian "video journalists" who it claims are leading a
"Syrian media revolution". The channel's foreign-affairs
correspondent Jonathan Miller wrote: "Each report is datelined;
exact location and date, [which] doesn't in itself necessarily
authenticate the report, but combined with other reports from
other districts of the same attack filmed from a different
location, the reports have the effect of corroborating each
other." The channel even made a documentary of activists
exaggerating the "truth" - "even if it means embellishing
During the early months of the Syrian conflict, activists like
the now-notorious Danny and Khaled Abou Salah were regularly
interviewed in the Western media - that is until footage found
by the Syrian army in Homs after the attack on insurgents showed
them, among other things, preparing child "victims" for
interviews and until their "witness statements" lost all
credibility. The New York Times' Neil MacFarquhar, reporting
from Beirut, almost exclusively bases his reports on "activists
speaking by Skype" and "video posted on YouTube".
Described as "the most horrific video" yet by Britain's Daily
Mail, a YouTube clip of an opposition member being "buried
alive" was found most likely to be fake. Perhaps more telling
than the use of the actual photo by the British Broadcasting
Corp of hundreds of body bags from Iraq in 2003 that was used
for the story of the al-Houla massacre three weeks ago was the
caption beneath the photo: "Photo from Activist. This image -
which cannot be independently verified - is believed to show
bodies of children in Houla awaiting funeral."
Nevertheless, activist-supplied videos and statements continue
to provide the basis for unquestioned reports in the mainstream
press: in the wake of the Houla massacre, for example, The
Guardian ran a front-page story - "among the most important of
the testimonies" from an army defector reportedly on leave at
the time. From his house 300 meters away, the man saw and heard
the massacre, despite there being persistent shelling at the
time. He claimed to have seen men "he knew to be shabiha "riding
into Taldous village in cars, motorbikes and army trucks,
shouting: 'Shabiha forever, for your eyes, Assad.'"
This is not to argue that Syrian security forces and some
supporters of the Syrian government have not committed abuses
and killings; they have admitted this to be the case. "Don't put
me in a position of defending brutality and knifing people,"
former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said
about Syria recently. "Frankly that is not the issue. We do know
these things happened, and they are horrible. They also happened
on a much larger scale in many other countries in which we have
What we are witnessing is a new generation of warfare - an
information war where, by using what is in effect propaganda,
the aim is to construct a consensual consciousness to provide
overwhelming public support for regime change.
Not to be outdone by Senator McCain (described by a leading US
foreign-policy magazine as one of the "three amigos ... who have
rarely found a country they didn't want to bomb or invade"), The
Guardian itself noted in March: "If you think Guardian readers
are a peace-loving bunch, think again. In an online poll, more
than 83% [13,200 votes] have so far backed John McCain's call to
launch air strikes against Syria."
While The Guardian describes the so-called shabihain what
appears to be a piece of pure propaganda - "according to
demonstrators" it interviewed - as "large lines of plain-clothed
or khaki-clad men and boys armed with submachine-guns" who
appear "awaiting an excuse to intervene" and who fire on
protesters, a senior European diplomat based in the region told
me that it is not in fact clear who the shabiha are, or whether
they actually exist.
The diplomat told me of an instance when the UN monitors were
filmed by activists as they were inspecting an insurgent-blocked
subsidiary road; they later saw footage of themselves at the
same ditch on the international news spliced in such a way as to
make it appear that there had been bodies in an excavated area
and that the UN monitors were watching bodies being removed,
whereas in fact it was no more than a ditch across a road that
they had been filming.
Human rights are a fundamental component of this information war
that is a cover for regime change. By in effect taking a
one-sided approach to events in Syria, leading human-rights
groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are,
willingly or unwillingly, being used as an integral part of this
information war on Syria.
Despite publishing the odd report on abuses, torture and
killings perpetrated by the insurgents, they cast the conflict
in Syria as a simple one-sided case of aggressors and victims,
lamenting, along the lines of John Bolton and McCain, "Why is
the world doing nothing?" Amnesty International's Eyes on Syria
site, for example, exclusively documents "the scale of torture
and ill-treatment by security forces, army and pro-government
armed gangs", harassment of "pro-reform" Syrians, and deaths in
A notable exception has been the International Committee of the
Red Cross, which has continually criticized the militarization
of humanitarian assistance. When former French president Nicolas
Sarkozy and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called
for the creation of "humanitarian corridors", the ICRC publicly
criticized a move that would inevitably involve the deployment
of armed forces to enforce the zones.
The use of propaganda as a tool in war is an old one. During
World War I, in the wake of British propaganda of "babies [with]
their hands cut off ... impaled on bayonets ... loudly spoken of
in buses and public places ... paraded, not as an isolated
instance of an atrocity, but as ... a common practice", a member
of Parliament wrote: "In Parliament there was the usual evasion
... the only evidence given was 'seen by witnesses'."
What we see now in coverage of Syria has echoes of 2003 -
Western governments and the Western media accept at face value
the claims of exiles living in the West. Paul Pillar, a former
official of the US Central Intelligence Agency now at Georgetown
University in Washington, notes that the neocon case for arming
the Syrian opposition "is a continuation of the same patterns of
neoconservative thinking that led to [president George W] Bush's
war [on Iraq]. There is the same wishful thinking substituting
for careful analysis about consequences."
Charged with defining the future of warfare, the US deputy chief
of staff for intelligence in 1997 defined this "conflict between
information masters and information victims ... We are already
masters of information warfare ... we write the script," he
wrote. "Societies that ... cannot manage the flow of information
simply will not be competitive ... Emotions, rather than
strategy, will set the terms of struggles." Against such an
onslaught, there is little the Syrian government can do to
defend itself - Assad has already said that Syria cannot win the
media war with the West.
As Syria tips into the next more violent stage of sectarian war,
with the SNC/FSA and their foreign backers increasing the ante
with possible supplies if heavy weapons by the US, leading to
more violent attacks, and the Syrian government (with its
Republican Guard and the Syrian Army's powerful 4th Division
still held in reserve) cracking down on "all armed groups", we
should expect to see the "crusaders" in the mainstream media
follow suit with their onslaught on Syrian government
"atrocities" - massacres, use of children as human shields,
claims of the imminent collapse of the Syrian government, etc.
But we would do well to acknowledge that there are two competing
narratives out there. The BBC acknowledged recently that while
"video filed by the opposition ... may provide some insight into
the story on the ground ... stories are never black and white -
[they are] often shades of grey", and Channel 4's Alex Thomson's
near escape after being set up by the Free Syria Army prompted
him to say: "Do not for one moment believe that my experience
with the rebels in al-Qusair was a one-off." It makes you
wonder, he wrote, "who else has had this experience when
attempting to find out what is going on in rebel-held Syria".
The narrative, however, complete with myths, has established a
virtual reality that is now set in stone.
Sixteen months into the conflict, it is too little, too late to
acknowledge that there are "shades of grey" at play in the
Syrian context: for 16 months, The Guardian, Channel 4, the BBC
and others have presented the conflict, using largely spurious
"evidence", in exactly the black-and-white terms that
increasingly people are now questioning. Peter Oborne, writing
some months ago in The Daily Telegraph, warned that by
presenting the conflict as a struggle between the regime and
"the people", British Prime Minister David Cameron is either
"poorly briefed or he is coming dangerously close to a
calculated deception of the British public".
The Takfiri jihadists and their backers have been allowed to
define and dominate the crisis. The crisis is now symbolized by
car bombings, assassinations, mutilations and atrocities. This
empowering of the extreme end of the opposition spectrum -
albeit a minority - has in effect silenced and pushed to the
sidelines the middle ground - that is, most of the internal
opposition. One key internal opposition leader recently told
Conflicts Forum that, like other leaders, he has had close
relatives assassinated by the Salafists. The internal opposition
has acknowledged the stark choice between two undesirables -
either a dialogue that currently is not realizable, or the
downfall of Syria, as Al-Akhbar, one of the leading independent
newspapers in the region, recently reported.
With weapons of war, words and ideology, the self-appointed
"Friends of Syria" have done everything they can to tiptoe
around the UNSC and to undercut all attempts at an intra-Syrian
political dialogue and a negotiated end to the conflict, of
which the Annan mission is the latest attempt. The
West/Saudi/Qatari "dirty war" on Syria applies as much to its (dis)information
campaign as it does to getting others to fight and kill for
As was no doubt the intention, Clinton's "spin" that Russia was
supplying attack helicopters to Syria went a long way - the US
Congress, the British government and the mainstream media all
fell into line calling for action. A member of the Senate Armed
Services Committee wrote to the US defense secretary calling the
Russian state arms firm "an enabler of mass murder in Syria",
and Cobra, the British government's emergency security
committee, met several times.
It turned out, however, that what the New York Times described
as "the Obama administration's sharpest criticism yet of
Russia's support for the Syrian government" was, according to a
senior Defense Department official, "a little spin" put on the
story by Clinton so as "to put the Russians in a difficult
position". It was three helicopters of "marginal use
militarily", explained the Times, returning from routine
servicing in Russia.
For their part, the mainstream media bear some responsibility
for the slide toward sectarian war in Syria, the victims of
which, as always, are civilians. The media's conceptualization
of victims and oppressors has in effect eliminated the space for
negotiation. Lavrov has warned: "Either we gather everyone with
influence at the negotiating table or once again we depart into
ideology, where it is declared shamelessly that everything is
the fault of the regime, while everyone else are angels and
therefore the regime should be changed.
"The way the Syrian crisis is resolved", he advised, "will play
an important role in the world tomorrow; whether the world will
be based on the UN Charter, or a place where might makes right."
Aisling Byrne is projects coordinator with Conflicts Forum and
is based in Beirut.
This article was originally published at
Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd.