There’s an underlying problem with reporting about Syria: The media continue to treat as human rights violations what is actually authority clamping down on people it considers, rightfully or not, revolutionaries or terrorists.

You might disagree with that government. You might find that government repressive, even odious, and want those involved in the uprising to succeed. But to call yourself reasonably objective you would have to admit that all governments respond with force when their survival is threatened. And, because they have the army and its might, they use it. It’s nasty, and a lot of people die.

Any regime considers itself authorized to do whatever it takes to put down insurrection. And when foreign powers are helping the uprising, the regime believes it has even greater cause for muscular action.

That’s the basic issue in Syria. Yet, because the West, which wants the Assad regime gone, does not have a policy of generally supporting uprisings against authoritarian, repressive regimes (see Saudi Arabia, or Bahrain) it cannot invoke that argument.

Instead, to justify intervention, it must make its case by presenting a growing litany of increasingly egregious human rights violations, being visited upon the people for no reason beyond an inherent monstrousness. That’s basically the only valid basis for ousting Assad.

The Monster Grows

Thus, the playbook of “psychological operations” requires that monstrousness be on constant and increasingly vivid display.

One of several such stories concerned the massacres at Houla, which as we previously pointed out have turned out to be murky, without hard evidence that the Assad regime was responsible.

A few days ago, we heard of new atrocities by Assad’s government. This time, in the village of Tremseh, near the city of Hama, the alleged numbers topped a previously “most grotesque” scenario, and therefore got top billing.

However, now there are doubts about the accuracy of that story—but how many people will remember the original, graphic and horrible account, and how many will fully absorb the more nuanced correction?

Here’s the original story in the New York Times:

Syrian opposition activists said more than 200 people were killed in a Sunni village on Thursday by government forces using tanks and helicopters, which, if confirmed, would be the worst in a series of massacres that have convulsed Syria’s increasingly sectarian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian government also reported a mass killing in the village but said it was committed by armed terrorist groups, the official description for Mr. Assad’s opponents. It said at least 50 people were killed.

And here’s the Times’ more recent one:

New details emerging Saturday about what local Syrian activists called a massacre of civilians near the central city of Hama indicated that it was more likely an uneven clash between the heavily armed Syrian military and local fighters bearing light weapons.


There were also new questions about the death toll, with initial figures from activists of more than 160 and other reports putting the toll at more than 200. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in Britain that has a network of contacts in Syria, said that it had been able to confirm only 103 names, and 90 percent of them were young men. There were no women’s names on the list of 103 victims obtained from activists in Homs.


After the high toll was announced from Tremseh, as was the case with Houla and other similar episodes, Western leaders lined up to condemn the mass killings of civilians. Col. Riad al-Assad, based in Turkey as the ostensible leader of the loose coalition of fighters called the Free Syrian Army, told the Arabic television network Al Jazeera on Thursday that there had been no opposition fighters in the town.

Although what actually happened in Tremseh remains murky, the evidence available suggested that events on Thursday more closely followed the Syrian government account.

“Mohammed” For the New York Times

In the original article The Times had noted, almost in passing, that the UN Security Council was due to meet and that harsh sanctions against Syria were in play.

Much more attention was focused, of course, on the alleged atrocities by the Assad regime. Among witnesses, the paper quoted a local man, identified only by his first name, whom it reached by telephone:

Mohammed accused the government and armed militiamen, or shabiha, of carrying out the massacre, since the residents were opposed to the government. “I swear these were shabihas and the Syrian army, why would we want to burn our own houses? 150 houses are burning, why would we want to kill our own people?”

Mohammed doesn’t seem to really have any information himself, beyond the apparent cause of death. He says that the Assad side is responsible, based on logic. “Why would we want to kill our own people?”

By the same token, why would Assad commit atrocities of this sort just as the Security Council prepares to meet?

These things are complicated. There’s a long history of brutal murders of civilians by militias loyal to governments. But there is also a long history of employing provocations to justify interventions—including putting your people into the uniforms of the opposition—and even tolerating the killing of innocent people if it will advance the cause.

See, for example, Operation Northwoods, proposals that the United States attack itself and blame it on Cuba. There are many other such examples. We know that JFK vetoed Northwoods. We do not know that all presidents have rejected such proposed schemes. And if the US Joint Chiefs of Staff could consider it worthwhile to perpetrate terrorist attacks on American citizens, with  expected innocent deaths, why would it be impossible that the reverse could happen in Syria?

We don’t know the answer. But we should at least be asking these questions.

As for the reporting, when the New York Times interviews a person only identified as “Mohammed” who we are told lives in the town, we should be told more. How did the paper settle on this person? Where did it find his phone number? Did someone provide it? What about other residents? Did it try to reach others and fail? And what more about Mohammed? Where was he when the killings took place? How does he know who did the killing? Etc. We need a lot more detail—and much of it can be provided to us by two steps:

1.  Ask  more and better questions of sources
2.  Be more transparent with the public on how your news organization gets its information

“Come Out With Your Hands Up”

If the “see the evil” story is a staple of psychological warfare, another old standby is the “everyone hates them” story. We’ve had a bunch of stories recently about Assad loyalists bailing out. One was a general, one was an ambassador. Now we have someone from the field.

In Fleeing Pilot, Hints of Trouble for Syria’s Assad” is the latest of what are generally sympathetic accounts concerning defectors.  The message is obvious: Assad’s power is crumbling.

Such messages are effective. But they leave out one thing: People defect for many reasons, not always just for honorable purposes. Sometimes they read the writing on the wall. And money or the promise of compensation is frequently in play but of course rarely acknowledged.

Still, these defection stories often work, because at some point you hit critical mass, and then everyone scrambles out.

Spreading word of defections is crucial. And not just for people in Syria. The more the world can be convinced that Assad is getting weaker, the more everyone is likely to jump onto the winning team. And with the Security Council under pressure to act, how surprising can this raft of defection reports be?

Psychological operations to win over the public are an essential part of warfare. Because the United States and its allies are much more experienced and sophisticated in such things, and because they can count on the lion’s share of the media to go along without much resistance, it is an uneven match.

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  • Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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Vivek Jain

Indeed. Washington’s overthrow of Syria and Iran has been years in the making.
Here is Wesley Clark (of whom I am no fan), in 2007, talking about a trip to the Pentagon he made just after 09/11/01, and was told that policymakers wanted to attack and destroy the governments of seven countries in five years:

James Petras ties imperialism, with authoritarianism, capitalism/neoliberalism, the police state, and Zionism here:

A related article, tying the police and surveillance state to the erosion of rights and the further aggrandizement of power by the Executive:

The former analyst Daniel Ellsberg (leaker of the Pentagon Papers) said in 2007 that a coup had occurred in our government.

Has anyone here seen the Metanoia films documentary, The Power Principle?


Every high school kid should be made to read this as a warning about bullshit in the news. Excellent. Bravo, Mr. Baker.


Western leaders are also not talking about their ‘boots on the ground’,
‘helping things along’……


You’re not really defending Syria are you?  It is one of the worst human rights violators in the world.

Until we figure out some way to sort through the fact that no country is perfect yet all still have to act and suvive in the same world we will have meaningless arguments about how bad the US is or is not for its interventionism.

I think the whole idea of “draining the swamp” of the middle east is not a bad one.  alienating Iran is good, and taking down these dictators can be good too.  Of course they are not going to move right into democracy, but neither do we anymore.

It’s not good to have all these rogue states, and again, Syria is a nasty government that needs change.


 Please reread our articles. You’re doing apples and oranges. Our point is that while human rights violations may matter to you and me, they are not and have never been the basis for US interventionism–and are not in Syria. They are merely used to convince those who care about that issue.


OK, good point, so then how do these discussions need to be framed so that we stop allowing a small group of people to use American force to enrich themselves?

How can we use the power of our country to promote good things.  I do think it would be a good thing to get the regime in Syria gone, but what will replace it.


When I think about this, the qualifier for “good” in America is that you can do anything as long as you point to some long term good that will result from it.  That is essentially the argument used to support capitalism and the free market.  It seems pretty clear to most of us that there is no good coming from most of these excuses.

So … it is incumbent on the opposition political groups to think up a new way to get things working – or even an alternative way.  But it all boils down to money, and as soon as substantial money is involved most of these ideas or people seem to lose their altruism.

I have thought that one way to support people would be to  allocate public land in all cities for gardening.  People who need jobs and training would volunteer to work in the gardens at whatever needs to be done and their work could be monitored and graded to allow them to enter the real job market.  Meanwhile food can be produced which is superior to what we get in most supermarkets and either given to non-profits or sold to restaurants.

The beginnings of a social economy that I think few would have a problem with and would help a lot of people.  The “Growing Power” collective in Wisconsin (on You-Tube) could be a model for this.  People need to have some source of credibility and economic power of they will not be taken seriously.

Russ Baker

 um, i think you took the “apples and oranges” reference a little too literally…. 


Syria is a nasty 
government?… I wonder whose reports on SYRIA you 
have been reading… 


What do you think I should be reading Rossinim and why?

Dan Garden

Traitors and defectors are not always motivated by the highest ethical considerations, obviously. At Salamis  Themistokles played both sides, they say, and Xerxes was defeated as a result. Xerxes may have believed the false traitor because Ephialte, a real traitor, sold out the Spartans at Thermopylae. Essentially, Imperial Hubris caused the Great King of Kings to, ah, trip over his, ah, “member”. We may be sure that the Persians remember the lesson, but do their lordships?The “humanitarian” claims are simply a vacuous appeal to emotion – this is considered to be the weakest form of rhetoric. Actually it is an insult to the intelligence of the audience. In the examples to-day we have a window through which we may see, if we choose to look, precisely what their lordships think of their vast unwashed masses.Who cannot say tu quoque? Consider the “humanitarian” aspects of the Empire…