We get major-media reports from Syria with increasing frequency. What’s wrong with these reports are that they are generally devoid of power analysis.

This recent New York Times article, for example, headlined “Neighbors Said to Be at Violent Odds in Syrian Crackdown,” is based almost solely on accounts of refugees interviewed in Lebanon. Here’s the lead paragraph:

Sunni Muslims who have fled Syria described a government crackdown that is more pervasive and more sectarian than previously understood, with civilians affiliated with President Bashar al-Assad’s minority religious sect shooting at their onetime neighbors as the military presses what many Sunnis see as a campaign to force them to flee their homes and villages in some sections of the country.

In other words, ethnic cleansing, perhaps a precursor to the kinds of large-scale horrors we saw in  Rwanda and Yugoslavia. The inevitable conclusion is that any decent person would support international efforts to stop this. Based on past history, in Libya, in Iraq, and elsewhere, that would evolve quickly into military intervention. In fact, on Sunday, the pace quickened. In a meeting Sunday in Istanbul, the US and allies began actively moving toward direct intervention. Arab nations agreed to pay $100 million to rebels and the Obama administration to send them communications equipment.

Yet, the Syria coverage tends to focus only on the misery, not the cause: an uprising intended to overthrow a government and a ruling class. If indeed the Syrian government is arming one group in the country, that is because the government is besieged—and those being armed are members of the same minority sect as the ruling Assad clan. Syria managed for decades without internecine warfare. It is the uprising itself that has massively exacerbated animosity and fear between religious groups.

But the Times’s account offers virtually no analysis of the background to the conflict. Instead, we get awkward, rudimentary disclaimers, in case the reporting turns out to be way off-base:

It is hard to evaluate all of the refugees’ claims because in the Syrian conflict, the longest and bloodiest of the Arab revolts, each side blames the other for sectarian division.

That’s a highly misleading statement because it elides the central issue: who is promoting the revolt, and why? The most authoritative and self-confident of the sources quoted tend to be military officers and officials defecting from the government. Their comments should not be taken simply as independent testimony, since they are, de facto, part of an organized rebel effort to justify the coming Western intervention on their side.

Because the conflict in Syria coincided with the wave of uprisings in other Arab countries—the so-called Arab Spring—does it necessarily follow that the nature of the Syrian conflict is identical with the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc.? Although the media, by and large have failed to note any real differences, they are enormous. Tunisia and Egypt were largely authentic, domestic uprisings, reflecting broad dissent, and came about with no foreign military intervention. Libya was a cynical attempt by foreign powers to ride long-simmering tribal animosities and foster a purportedly domestic uprising that was actually planned, managed and staffed covertly by those outside countries’ militaries and intelligence services. See this article we published on that subject.

Clearly, proper media coverage would focus on the history of Syria, the proximal cause of the uprising, the legitimacy or lack thereof of the authorities, the agendas of the various rebel factions. We need to know why, if that country has long been ruled by a minority, only now are we seeing serious anti-government agitation. In short, we need geopolitical context. And we need to ask why some advocates of open revolution are characterized as victims, as in this case, while other rebels elsewhere—in, say, France or Saudi Arabia—are characterized as terrorists?

Besides, while aspirations to greater freedom are right and proper, not all the people trying to overthrow odious regimes are necessarily pure-minded freedom fighters. And the result after the fall is often not what was promised.

As important is that we look at our own system objectively. In the United States, for example, we pay homage to democracy every four years, but isn’t our political system, like that of these Middle Eastern countries, increasingly dominated by a fairly small number of very rich people? The average American  has very little understanding of what is really going on, or why—either in their own country or in their name in distant lands—and tends to respond to propaganda, much of it funded by this same small circle of interests.

But if enough Americans really got the picture, concluded the system was rigged, and began taking to the streets, we know that the authorities would, just like the Syrians, the Saudis, and so on, clamp down with force. Oh, wait: that’s already happened, all over the country, in myriad ways. We could start, for example, with the aggressive response to various Occupy encampments.

As for why the West is suddenly so passionate about human rights in this particular country, while almost totally ignoring the issue in other places, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, some possible explanations immediately come to mind.

With American troops pulling out of Iraq just as foreign oil companies step up their production, it is of paramount importance to have a military presence nearby to protect those investments. And what country is right next door?

The very fact that Syria does not harbor major oil reserves is exactly what allows the “humanitarian” argument to prevail unchallenged. It is what allows news organizations to act as if no business or strategic concerns are in play. Importantly, Syria has been a longtime ally of Iran, and therefore removing it has been part of the larger plan to weaken the Tehran regime’s regional influence. And because Syria adjoins the strategically crucial Israel, Lebanon and Turkey—it is a dream hub for bases.

Long before Sunday’s meeting in Istanbul, we had constant hints that the leading NATO countries, along with key allies such as the Saudis (closely tied to the Syrian Sunni opposition), were deeply involved in priming the pump behind this uprising. To continue to pretend, as the media has now done for many months, that this is simply a one-sided tragedy to be ameliorated through eventual military action (which if recent history is any guide will only lead to much more human misery)—well, is that anything less than journalistic malpractice?

The media’s job is not just to send in correspondents to get heartrending firsthand or eyewitness accounts of violence. Certainly, old-fashioned war reporting serves a useful purpose, and generates emotionally powerful storytelling. But rendered without the big picture—namely, what is happening and why—war reporting can turn into propaganda for more, not less, war. Thus, the media plays perfectly into the hands of those seeking a trumped-up opportunity for the West and its Arab allies to remove yet another “inconvenient” regime.

GRAPHIC: http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/files/clinton_syria.jpg

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9 years ago


Dr. Mobasheri
Dr. Mobasheri
9 years ago

Unfortunately article misses the fact that in contrary to
article’s statements, the official US foreign policy under Obama/Hillary/AIPAC
has determined to get along with Assad’s brutal regime until to the end, no
matter how many civilians he slitters. They have come to this conclusion that
because Assad is so harmless to Israel, and there is no guarantee that future
regime in Syria to be as harmless to Israel as Assad. Since 1973 war,
practically both elder and baby Assad were in a secrete peace with Israel,
regardless of their phony propagandas against Zionist regime of Israel. Since
1973, even one bullet has not been shut to Israel via Syria or even after
bombing of Syrian national nuclear facilities by Israel a few years ago, Assad even
did not show an eyebrow. Obama and his AIPAC girl, Hillary Clinton, may make
some face saving noises in UN or so called Friends of Syrian People
conferences, but in reality they would not allow downfall of a harmless regime
like Assad’s as much as and as long as they can, no matter how many more civilians
he kills. 

9 years ago

In case someone forgot, Hafez al-Assad , the father of the present ruler, Bashar al-Assad foughtduring the mid-seventies and into the eighties  the same battle against sunni uprising groups. The city of Hama suffered in 1976  between 15 – 25.000  killed and countless casualties under army attacks, such as we see them now.
So, yes, it may well be decades ago Syria suffered internecine warfare, but the reasons are the same, then as now..
The fact that the western countries back in 76 hardly bothered to comment the genocidal murderings, but are all in a row about it now, is only because the geopolitical situation has changed.
Still, two wrong doesn’t make one right.

Peter Duveen
Peter Duveen
9 years ago

What you say is quite obvious, Russ. Are you preaching to the choir? You say:  ” Tunisia and Egypt were largely authentic, domestic uprisings, reflecting broad dissent, and came about with no foreign military intervention.” Yet my understanding was that NGOs were assisting groups in Egypt the goal of which was to overthrow Mubarak. My call was that the entire arab spring was fabricated, and that the Tunesia and Egypt revolts, both nations flanking Libya, the real objective with oil, were quite strategic.

Russ Baker
Russ Baker
9 years ago
Reply to  Peter Duveen

 That argument ignores the close and highly successful relationship the West had for many years with the dominant cliques in both those countries. Destabilizing Egypt and Tunisia did not seem in Western interests, while removing Qaddafi was. The evidence of non-US involvement in Egypt and Tunisia was the lack of intervention and the very hesitant and belated support for democracy movements there. Also, its not really fair to discount authentic aspirations of the people. Egyptians in particular arguably suffered much more than, say, Libyans, at least economically.

9 years ago
Reply to  Russ Baker

Russ, I used to share that perspective, but I now increasingly believe that the whole thing was US orchestrated for a number of reasons.  The recent stories of US “Civil Society” groups facing arrest in Egypt is telling.  Why are these groups like the NED and the IRI and NDI and Freedom House continuing to work against the regime in Egypt such that they would be arrested en masse?  I can think of a few reasons why the US would have orchestrated the Arab Spring:

1.  To provide legitimacy for operations against longtime neoconservative targets for regime change: Libya, Syria, and Iran.

2.  To move Egypt’s state run economy (in which the army owns vast assets) toward the neoliberal model.

3.  To secure Egyptian logistical support for the Libyan operation (the Egyptian military helped supply the Benghazi rebels; maybe Mubarak had a better relationship w/ Ghaddafi but I can only speculate)

This documentary below is the best piece I have seen on the US supported “democracy promotion” business.  These “color revolutions” and the Arab Spring seem to new versions of the CIA overthrow, updated for the facebook/twitter age:


Anyway, this is just stuff to think about as we try to discern constantly obscured reality.

9 years ago
Reply to  Eric_Saunders


You are giving too much credit to our foreign policy makers
and our intelligent agencies for whatever happening over in Arab World. Any
changes in Middle East could come with unexpected risks and our conservative
foreign policy makers and our intelligence agencies neither have stomach to
take those risks nor are stupid to do so again. Committing of several absolute
stupidity during Baby Bush, have thought a lesson to US foreign policy makers
(combination of Corporate America, White House, Pentagon, State Department, Israel
and AIPAC) that never commit same stupidity again and take risk of any changes.
Why US should take risks of any changes while situation before start of Arab
Spring was totally in favor of US interests. Who US could get in power in Tunisia,
Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and even Libya that could serve best interests of US and
her sister Israel, more than clowns like Mubarak, Bin Ali, Saleh, Al Khalifa, Saudis
 and Gadhafi? Arab Spring have started in
grassroots without any of foreign intervention and with great surprise to US,
and the only thing US could do to try to derail the speeding train, as US did
with appointment of military and civilian clowns in Egypt and Yemen and brutally
killings of freedom loving civilians in Bahrain. In the case of Syria, again
any changes in Syria would be greatly risky for best interests of US and
Israel, considering since 1973 war, both Elder and Baby Assad were and are so
harmless to Israel. Israeli are not that stupid to take risks of overthrow of a
harmless dictator like Baby Assad, and they are not going to dictate or even
recommend such changes to Washington and Washington don’t give a damn that how
many more tens of thousands of civilians killed by baby Assad, as long as find
in her interests.  

9 years ago

I think ,like Iran, Syria is a distraction. To be used as electioneering fodder in the U.S. Auction of the potus slot. Until November saber rattling will be the order of business as well behind the scenes arms dealing . It may be a long hot summer in the middle east. In the States fuel riots are more likely than war in the middle east.

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