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    Middle East
     Jul 12, 2012


Page 3 of 3
COMMENT
Covering Syria: The information war
By Aisling Byrne

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 government custody.

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 them.

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.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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