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
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.
Unsurprisingly, foreign journalists covering developments in east Aleppo and rebel-held areas of Syria overwhelmingly do so from Lebanon or Turkey. A number of intrepid correspondents who tried to do eyewitness reporting from rebel-held areas swiftly found themselves tipped into the boots of cars or otherwise incarcerated.
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 Eastby 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.”
Exclusive: In a last-ditch effort to salvage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, establishment Democrats are slinging McCarthyistic mud, joining in smearing independent journalists and blaming everything on Russia, writes Robert Parry.
The Clinton machine – running on fumes after Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid – is pulling out all remaining stops to block Donald Trump’s inauguration, even sinking into a new McCarthyism.
In joining a recount effort with
slim hopes of reversing the election results, Clinton campaign counsel Marc Elias cited a scurrilous Washington Post article that relied on a shadowy anonymous group, called PropOrNot, that issued a “black list” against 200 or so Internet sites, including some of the most respected sources of independent journalism, claiming they are part of some Russian propaganda network.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. (Photo credit: Department of State)
In classic McCarthyistic fashion, no evidence was supplied, simply an anonymous smear. But The Washington Post, which itself has devolved into a neoconservative propaganda conveyor belt, published the attack apparently without contacting any of the targeted groups.
Despite the obvious journalistic problems with this article, the desperate Clinton campaign treated it like a lifeline to its drowning hopes for reversing the outcome of the Nov. 8 election.
Announcing that the Clinton campaign would join the recount started by Green presidential nominee Jill Stein aimed at three key Trump states – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – Clinton’s campaign counsel Elias mentioned the Post story as one of the reasons.
“The Washington Post reported that the Russian government was behind much of the ‘fake news’ propaganda that circulated online in the closing weeks of the election,” Elias wrote.
Pro-Clinton media outlets piled on. Daily Kos wrote that “Even if they never touched a voting machine, there’s absolutely no doubt: Russia hacked the election.”
Besides the three recounts, the Clinton campaign’s last-ditch scheme to blame Russia for Hillary Clinton’s failure also involves lobbying the electors to the Electoral College to flip their votes from Trump to Clinton. The argument is that Trump must be part of some grand Russian conspiracy along with those 200 Web sites.
As bizarre as this conspiracy mongering has become, it is quickly emerging as a new Washington “group think.” All the “smart people” at the major networks and newspapers – as well as many Democratic insiders – are just sure that it’s all true.
They have conflated the hysteria over some “fake news” sites – apparently run by some entrepreneurs who realized that pro-Trump “news” got lots of clicks whether the stories were real or not – with the reality that some independent news sites have questioned the U.S. government’s extreme anti-Russian propaganda.
Plus, there was the claim by James Clapper, the Obama administration’s Director of National Intelligence, that the U.S. intelligence community believes that Russian hackers were responsible for giving Democratic Party emails to WikiLeaks. There, too, however, Clapper has provided no evidence to support his claim, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has denied receiving the leaked emails from the Russian government.
The Russians Did It!
Nevertheless, the Russians have become the latest scapegoats for why Hillary Clinton lost. It wasn’t that she had severe problems as a candidate, carrying heavy baggage from a long line of controversies and recording extremely high negatives from voters. It couldn’t have been that lots of Americans didn’t like or trust her or that she offered no inspirational message or coherent narrative of how she would govern.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Secretary of State John Kerry before meetings at the Kremlin on Dec. 15, 2015. (State Department photo)
No, it had to be the Russians. Of course, previously, the Clinton campaign had blamed the defeat on FBI Director James Comey, who announced just days before the election that he had reopened an investigation into Clinton’s private email server and then closed the inquiry for a second time, thus reminding voters of Clinton’s self-inflicted email scandal.
Though presumably the Clinton campaign is not suggesting that FBI Director Comey is another Russian agent or “useful fool,” blaming him at least had some evidentiary logic, in that he did reopen and then re-shut the Clinton email investigation.
But the Clinton campaign’s Russian complaint comes across even more like a dog-ate-my-homework excuse, except that it also has this ugly side of accusing professional journalists of treason because they wrote skeptical articles that some anonymous Web site didn’t like.
The complaint about alleged Russian hacking of emails also represents an attempt to divert attention away from the fact that the information published by WikiLeaks appears to be entirely true. By all accounts, the leaks revealed genuine communications between Democratic Party leaders and people in the Clinton campaign.
WikiLeaks also revealed the contents of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and other special interests, words that she delivered to these groups of insiders but wanted to keep from the American voters.
However, somehow this truthful information has morphed into “fake news” without anyone explaining how that transformation occurred. Through the black magic of simply saying “Russians” a few times, truthful information becomes “fake” and everyone’s judgment becomes hopelessly clouded.
The point is that even if the Russians did uncover this information and did deliver it to WikiLeaks, the reason that it was “news” was that Clinton had decided to make millions of dollars in speeches, trading off her government service, and then chose to conceal the contents of her speeches from the public.
However, instead of criticizing Clinton for her excessive greed and her obsessive secrecy, these Democrats are blaming the Russians, a classic case of sending out a red herring.
The Truth as ‘Fake News’
The same point holds true for Secretary of State Clinton’s disastrous decision to evade State Department regulations on handling official documents by instead channeling her emails through a private home email server, thus endangering national security secrets. That was her choice. The Russians weren’t involved (unless someone thinks that Hillary Clinton is also a “Russian agent” set on sabotaging her own campaign.)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh on March 30, 2012. [State Department photo]
And, regarding WikiLeaks’ disclosures that the Democratic National Committee was working hand-in-glove with Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and others to ensure that the nomination was delivered to Clinton, the problem was not the source of the information, again it was the information itself. Rank-in-file Democrats had every right to expect a legitimate competition for the party’s nomination, not a rigged process designed to deliver the prize to the establishment favorite.
The reason for the party’s reforms after the raucous 1968 convention was to take the presidential selection out of the hands of party insiders and give it to the voters. What the emails revealed was that the Clinton machine had become the new-age Democratic Party bosses making sure their candidate prevailed.
Again, even if the Russians were behind the hack, they would only have been providing the American people with newsworthy information about how their democracy was being turned into a sham. The Russians didn’t create the sham; the Democratic insiders did.
And, regarding the anonymously developed “black list” of independent media sites, there is no evidence there either that these sites were distributing “fake news,” the focus of the current mainstream media hysteria. It was just news that PropOrNot — and presumably its fellow-travelers at The Washington Post — didn’t like.
As for Consortiumnews, which was one of the sites that was slimed, we are very careful to present well-reported and well-researched information. Granted, it sometimes isn’t what the U.S. State Department wants the American people to hear, but that is because the State Department has become a manufacturing center for propaganda and disinformation during both Republican and Democratic administrations.
It is not the job of independent journalists to simply retail the propaganda that the State Department and other agencies of the U.S. government produce, or that any other government produces. But that seems to be the anti-journalistic attitude that we now see at The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Mainstream Media’s Shame
Tragically, the mainstream U.S. media has become a major disseminator of endless amounts of “fake news,” including highly misleading and false coverage of the Middle East and of the New Cold War. Possibly the most destructive modern case of “fake news” was the reporting by the Post and Times about the existence of Iraq’s fictional WMD.
Nazi symbols on helmets worn by members of Ukraine’s Azov battalion. (As filmed by a Norwegian film crew and shown on German TV)
But there are more recent cases. For instance, the Times and Post have studiously ignored the reality of neo-Nazi and other ultranationalists serving as the tip of the spear for the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in 2014. Occasionally, one of their field reporters will mention the inconvenient truth about the Azov and other battalions running around with Swastikas and SS symbols, but the newspapers will then turn a blind eye to this ugly reality or minimize its significance.
So, neo-Nazis are okay in Ukraine – and if any independent news outlet mentions their existence, you end up on a Washington Post-promoted “black list.” However, if some claim is made linking Russia to a neo-Nazi outfit or to some coup plotting – no matter how hazy or dubious the claim – it is trumpeted as loudly as possible.
For example, the Post’s lead editorial on Friday asserted, “In NATO member Hungary, Russian agents have been fingered for training with a neo-Nazi militia; in the tiny Balkan state of Macedonia, which is on the verge of joining the [NATO] transatlantic alliance, Moscow is accused of plotting a violent coup.”
Though the Post admits the evidence is “incomplete,” it presses ahead with the allegations. Yet there is no self-awareness or self-criticism; since the Post strenuously supported the violent coup in Ukraine that overthrew elected President Viktor Yanukovych, a putsch spearheaded by armed neo-Nazis, many of whom have since been incorporated into Ukraine’s security forces and have received U.S. military training.
In the weeks before the coup, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was caught conspiring with U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt on how to “midwife” or “glue” the change in Ukraine’s leadership. “Yats is the guy,” Nuland enthused about Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was indeed installed as prime minister after Yanukovych was forced to flee for his life.
However, simply recalling that history apparently now is forbidden in Official Washington.
Behind the Clinton Machine
There’s also the little-discussed issue of how the Clinton machine evolved and currently works. A short version of that history is that the Democrats got pummeled in 1988, in part, because Republicans “weaponized” their advantage in campaign cash to launch devastating attack ads against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, including the race-baiting Willie Horton ads.
President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 1997. (White House photo)
Sensing that they couldn’t beat the Republican money while trying to represent the average citizen, the national Democrats largely abandoned the working class to join the dollar chase. They developed a pro-corporate agenda pushed by the Democratic Leadership Council and its brightest star, Bill Clinton.
After winning in 1992, Clinton and his understudies, the likes of John Podesta, institutionalized this relationship between the Democratic Party and various financial and other special interests. Then, after Clinton left office in 2001, his money machine’s business model adapted, with the Clinton Foundation and various Democratic-led Beltway consulting firms expanding or setting up shop.
The key to the strategy was always that Hillary Clinton would eventually become president and therefore foreign governments and domestic interests had to stay on the Clintons’ good side.
The expectation was that Hillary Clinton would get elected in 2008, but her path was blocked by the charismatic Barack Obama. Obama, however, bailed the Clinton machine out by naming her Secretary of State. So, the Clinton influence with foreign potentates remained.
After Clinton left the State Department in 2013, the business model still thrived because she was widely viewed as the clear front-runner to succeed President Obama – and both Clintons cashed in by giving speeches to various business groups and foreign interests for several hundred thousand dollars a pop, totaling in the millions of dollars.
You might have thought that the Clinton machine would have shielded Hillary Clinton from this apparent pay-to-play operation but instead she joined Bill Clinton in raking in the dough, a sign of startling arrogance or stunning greed.
The idea that Hillary Clinton could “power through” the obvious conflicts of interest that these speeches presented and that she could hide from the voters what she told Goldman Sachs and other well-heeled groups further revealed an extraordinary hubris. Clinton and her entourage brushed aside demands from Sen. Bernie Sanders and his populist backers that she disclose what she had said to the rich and powerful.
That brazenness made her vulnerable to the WikiLeaks disclosures late in the campaign revealing her friendly advice to Goldman Sachs and the others. Again, the only reason that was “news” was because Clinton and her team had stonewalled public demands for the information earlier. But rather than taking the blame for that judgment, they blamed the Russians.
The next question for the national Democrats is what will replace the Clinton machine or will it just be retooled in some new way that keeps the money pouring in. Clearly, the old business model of hitting up donors with the implicit club of a Hillary Clinton presidency in the closet will no longer work.
That means possibly leaner years for both the Clinton Foundation and Clinton-related businesses, such as the Podesta Group, a lobbying firm led by John Podesta’s brother, Tony, which has collected annual lobbying fees in the tens of millions of dollars.
But the Democrats risk a bleak political future if they don’t break away from the corporatist model that Bill and Hillary Clinton have personified over the past quarter century. Or maybe the Democrats can just keep on blaming the Russians.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).