Propaganda Is the Name of the Game in Media Reports of Atrocities in Syria

One of the houses in Qubair was devastated inside (Photo and caption: BBC)

One of the houses in Qubair was devastated inside (Photo and caption: BBC)

FPJ — Another massacre has allegedly taken place in Syria that is being compared to the recent massacre in Houla. There are indeed striking similarities. As with the Houla massacre, claims that Syrian government forces or pro-regime militias carried out the atrocity are being parroted by the Western media despite the fact that such claims made by opposition groups and rebel forces remain unverified.

In the case of Houla, there are numerous indications, including eyewitness testimony, that the massacre was actually carried out by rebel forces or allied terrorist groups—with the U.S. and its allies actively supporting the opposition, including by funding and arming the rebels. The allegations of government-backed massacres of civilians are predictably being used as a pretext by the U.S. to implement a policy of regime change in Syria.

The latest massacre was alleged to have occurred on June 6, the same day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to Turkey to “talk strategy with America’s allies,” as the Associated Press put it, “and look for a way to win Russia’s support for a transition plan ending the Assad regime.”

“It’s time for all of us to turn our attention to an orderly transition of power in Syria that would pave the way for democratic, tolerant, pluralistic future,” Clinton told reporters in Azerbaijan before leaving for Istanbul.

Clinton made clear that the U.S. was not supportive of the peace plan brokered by U.N. special envoy and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, which seeks a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war.

“We think it is important for us to give Kofi Annan and his plan the last amount of support that we can muster,” she obliquely declared, “because, in order to bring others into a frame of mind to take action in the Security Council, there has to be a final recognition that it’s not working.”

A State Department official briefed reporters on Clinton’s meeting in Turkey by saying she had set forth “essential elements and principles that we believe should guide that post Assad transition strategy, including Assad’s full transfer of power.”

Also on June 6, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stated, “We the United States hope that all responsible countries will soon join in taking appropriate actions against the Syrian regime, including, if necessary, Chapter VII action in the U.N. Security Council, as called for by the Arab League last weekend.”

The reference to Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter is an allusion to Security Council authorization for the use of force. However, the Charter would also forbid any use of force for the purpose of regime change.

NATO’s regime change operations in Libya, for example, exceeded the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone to protect civilians in violation of the U.N. Charter prohibition against “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”.

On June 7, following reports of the alleged massacre in Hama coinciding with her visit, Clinton declared that the regime was responsible for this killing of civilians.

“The regime-sponsored violence that we witnessed again in Hama yesterday is simply unconscionable,” she stated. “Assad has doubled down on his brutality and duplicity, and Syria will not, cannot be peaceful, stable or certainly democratic until Assad goes.”

She added, “We have to do more to help organize and focus the opposition.”

It is unlikely that the U.S. would gain cover for another illegal military intervention to overthrow the Syrian regime in the form of another U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force, since Russia and China, both permanent members with veto power, have made it clear that they will not permit a repeat of what occurred in Libya.

“China and Russia strongly oppose any attempt to address the Syria crisis with military interference from the outside or forcefully impose a regime change in the insurgency-ridden country,” both nations expressed in a joint statement.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) also called for a “peaceful resolution of the Syrian problem through political dialogue”. The SCO said in a statement, “Member states are against military intervention into this region’s affairs, forcing a ‘handover of power’ or using unilateral sanctions.”

Russia has proposed to host a meeting of 15 nations and organizations to attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Russian foreign minister said that the goal would be to “agree with a circle of outside players, without the Syrians, about how we should use our influence on each Syrian group” to pave the way to ending “all military excesses”.

Russia proposed to include Iran in the discussions, which the U.S. immediately rejected, with the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, telling reporters, “There is no question that it is actively engaged in supporting the government in perpetrating the violence on the ground”.

The hypocrisy is difficult to ignore, given the fact that the U.S. is admittedly actively engaged in supporting rebel forces in perpetrating violence on the ground. But Washington, as ever, holds itself to one standard and the rest of the world to another.

An apparent reference to the U.S. policy of seeking regime change in Syria, Kofi Annan urged that “Individual actions or interventions will not resolve the crisis.”

At the same time, he seemed to imply that pro-regime militiamen were responsible for the Houla massacre and alleged killings in Hama by saying, “The first responsibility lies with the government…. The government-backed militia seems to have a free rein, with appalling consequences.”

“The trail of blood leads back to those responsible,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, using similarly vague language. “Any regime or leader that tolerates such killing of innocents has lost its fundamental humanity.”

The Syrian government denied responsibility. “What a few media have reported on what happened in Al-Kubeir, in the Hama region, is completely false,” the government said in a statement. “A terrorist group committed a heinous crime in the Hama region which claimed nine victims. The reports by the media are contributing to spilling the blood of Syrians.”

The Syrian ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Jaafari, said that government troops intervened to try to save civilian lives and that four were wounded in the attempt.

“Mr Jaafari also accused news organizations, including the BBC, of broadcasting images of bodies from an entirely different location”, The Telegraph reported, declining to inform readers that this “accusation” was true—the BBC had earlier posted an image of dead bodies purporting to be of the massacre in Houla that had actually been taken in Iraq in 2003. When the photographer who took the photo learned of this, he criticized the BBC for its “propaganda”.

The mainstream corporate media reports on the latest alleged massacre have apparently relied exclusively on claims from the Syrian opposition that pro-regime forces were responsible. The Guardian reported, “On the face of it, the circumstances of the apparent massacre at al-Qubair, a tiny village near Hama, look grimly familiar: tank or shellfire followed by an assault by the feared shabiha, paramilitary thugs drawn from the minority Alawite community of President Bashar al-Assad.”

The Guardian thus reported the account given by the opposition as fact before providing the government’s version: “The regime blamed ‘armed terrorists’ for killing nine people and accused ‘media backing Syria’s bloodletting’ of spreading lies. Opposition activists have listed 56 named victims and claim 78 died.”

Of course, if the victims of the alleged massacre—described here as “apparent” even though there had yet been no independent confirmation that a massacre even occurred, apart from the Syrian government’s own claim of nine dead—were in fact killed not by pro-regime militias but by rebel forces or allied terrorist elements, then the charge against the media of “spreading lies” would be perfectly accurate.

Another Guardian report by the same author, Ian Black, noted that the Syrian government stands accused of carrying out the massacre, the source of that accusation being “an opposition group”.

“We have 100 deaths in the village of al-Qubair, among them 20 women and 20 children,” Black quoted Mohammed Sermini, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, as saying.

Another opposition group, the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, was a second source cited by Black as accusing the regime of committing the massacre.

“Quibair was stormed with very heavy and random gunfire, houses were broken into and the residents were killed, some with knives,” Black quotes a third “Hama-based source” as saying. “There are also burnt bodies.” He didn’t disclose whether his anonymous source is also member of the opposition.

Black acknowledged that reports and images of the alleged massacre “spread rapidly on Twitter and other social networks but were impossible to verify independently given the lack of media access to much of Syria.”

This raises the question of why, if Black had not verified the information he had received, he reported as fact that the regime was responsible in his other article.

Another Guardian reporter, Martin Chulov, quoted people claiming to be eyewitnesses and identifying the murderers as belonging to a pro-regime militia. “I knew some of them from school,” said one. “I know their names. I know their villages. I know exactly who they are. They are Shabiha, no doubt. They passed by here with the regime army.” The individual is named as Abu Hisham al-Hamawi and described as “a resident of the Mazraat area, whose home is on the outskirts of al-Qubair”.

Chulov cited a second witness who wished to remain anonymous, and a third named as Laith al-Hamawi who offered a similar story: “I saw the tanks enter the village and I knew some of the Shabiha personally.”

But did Chulov verify these individual’s identities? Were they also members of the opposition? Did he meet with him or merely speak with him on the phone? Was Chulov even in Syria? After all, as Chulov’s colleague Ian Black had acknowledged, the opposition’s claims “were impossible to verify independently” due to lack of media access, and Chulov filed another report published the next day—repeating the same claims from the same sources—not from Syria, but from Beirut, Lebanon.

The London Telegraph prefaced an article on the alleged massacre in Mazraat al-Qabeer by stating as fact that it came “less than two weeks after a massacre in the town of Houla, in which security forces and pro-Assad militia men known as ‘Shabiha’ killed 108 people, nearly half of them children.”

But, again, the claims that pro-regime elements were responsible for the Houla massacre similarly originate from rebel sources, the truth being that we do not yet know who was responsible and that there are plenty of reasons to believe that the massacre was carried out by rebel forces or allied terrorists.

An individual named as Mohammed Abu Bilal was quoted as saying, “Today the regime troops started to shell the village. Under this cover the shabiha entered the village while people were hiding in their homes. They killed everyone they found in the houses or streets by knives.” This individual “claimed to have spoken to a survivor”, the Telegraph remarked.

Neither of the article’s two authors were actually reporting from Syria, however, but were rather based in Beirut and Cairo, respectively.

The other sources used for the article are instructive: “Mousab al-Hamedee from the opposition Local Coordination Committee”, “Opposition activists from the nearby city of Hama”, “Sammy, and activist form [sic, ‘an activist from’] the opposition Hama news agency”, “activists”, and “Lieutenant Khaled Ali, a spokesperson for the rebel Military Council in Hama”.

The following day, The Telegraph ran an article implying throughout that the Syrian government was responsible for a massacre in Hama and not until paragraph 25 of the 30 paragraph article acknowledged that “it is difficult to assign blame for much of the bloodshed. The government restricts journalists from moving freely, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts from either side.”

The Independent quoted “Mousab Al Hamadee, who said he was a local activist”, claiming that pro-regime militia were responsible for the massacre.

The article added, “Others claiming to be from the village backed this version of events, describing indiscriminate killing” (emphasis added).

It quoted “an activist giving his name as Laith Al Hamawi” saying, “They murdered children and women and the bodies were burnt by those thugs.” This was presumably the same “Laith al-Hamawi” cited by Martin Chulov in the Guardian, raising the question of whether “Laith” is really running public relations for the opposition.

The Independent added, “It was impossible to verify the accuracy of these claims, although several people purporting to be from the area yesterday gave similar accounts of the atrocity” (emphasis added). But the only other sources given for the claim pro-government forces were responsible were “another opposition source, the Local Co-ordination Committee”, and “The Syrian National Council in Exile”.

An Agence France-Presse report began, “Syrian pro-government forces have killed at least 87 people in Hama province, many of them women and children, a watchdog said in allegations denied by Damascus.”

The so-called “watchdog” referred to is none other than the so-called “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights”, which is anti-regime activist Rami Abdel Rahman operating out of his home in London to relay information from anti-regime activists and rebel forces to the Western media.

AFP also cited the “exiled opposition Syrian National Council (SNC)” claiming that Assad loyalists carried out the massacre.

Another AFP report began: “‘Burned bodies of children and women and girls were on the ground,’ Laith, a young villager, told AFP news agency by telephone from near Al-Kubeir….”

AFP did’t give this individual’s last name, but it seems safe to presume this is the same Laith al-Hamawi who talked also to The Guardian and The Independent, which reinforces the conclusion that this individual has been tasked with peddling propaganda misinformation to the media for the rebel forces.

Laith also told AFP, “I saw something you cannot imagine. It was a horrifying massacre…. People were executed and burned. Bodies of young men were taken away…. I heard from people I know in that village that last night the shabiha militiamen drank and danced around their corpses, chanting songs praising Assad.” Laith also emphasized that there had not been “a single demonstration” against the regime in Al-Kubeir.

AFP quoted another anonymous source as saying, “People who do not take sides are a target, because the regime is running out of options on how to stop the revolt.”

A third source, “Another Hama-based activists, Mousab al-Hamadi”, told AFP that there was no presence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)—the rebel military force supplied, funded, and trained by the U.S. and its allies—and that “The regime wants to create a sectarian clash in the country.”

The only other source cited was the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

That the victims had reportedly not joined the opposition is another similarity to the Houla massacre, where, according to the Syrian government, the victims “were killed because they refused to cooperate with these terrorist groups”. Included among the dead was the family of a member of parliament. One of the few reporters—if not the only one—who actually went to the area and interviewed local residents face to face, capturing testimony on camera, is Russian journalist Marat Musin. The eyewitness testimony he gathered corroborated the Syrian government’s version of events.

The BBC cited “activists” claiming pro-regime forces had carried out the alleged massacre, noting that the government had denied these claims and commenting that “Neither account could be confirmed.”

The other sources for the BBC report were “activists”, “activists”, and “one activist”, “One of Qubair’s residents”, and “The Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist network”.

Canada’s Globe and Mail followed the same script (emphasis added):

Wednesday’s massacre, in villages west of the central Syrian city of Hama, is believed to have been carried out by a gang of thugs known as the shabiha, and involved the killing of about 80 men, women and children, local activists said….

Activists said the community of Qubair was shelled for several hours by Syrian tanks and artillery, following which masked men entered the area and killed the reportedly unarmed civilians—the method of operation used two weeks ago in the massacre of 108 people in the Houla area west of Homs. Witnesses are reported to have said the men who carried out Wednesday’s attack were members of nearby Alawite villages supportive of Mr. al-Assad….

“All killings are now sectarian in character,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian activist and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “The killers are Alawites; the victims Sunnis.”

The writer, Patrick Martin, asserted without evidence or further explanation that “the most likely culprits are the freelance gangs of thugs sympathetic to the regime of Mr. al-Assad”. The apparent logic behind that statement is since the opposition claims pro-regime thugs were responsible, therefore it is “most likely” true.

Al Jazeera also stuck to the script, quoting “Mohammed, a 20-year-old from a small village in Hama province”—the same Mohammed Sermini cited by Ian Black in The Guardian running public relations for the rebel army?

“Mohammed and opposition activists blamed government-backed militia,” Al Jazeera stated, offering in addition the following second-hand account: “Mohammed’s grandfather, who was transferred to [a] nearby hospital, told him that supporters of President Bashar al-Assad from the nearby towns of Tal Sikkeen and Aseelah had attacked him.”

Apart from “Mohammed”, the story’s other sources were “opposition activists”, “activists”, and “activists”.

Another aspect of the propaganda campaign to garner support for intervention to overthrow the Assad regime is exemplified by the New York Times, which reported that “government troops and their civilian supporters blocked unarmed United Nations monitors from investigating a massacre”.

The Times claimed that “The monitors were thwarted from reaching the tiny hamlet of Qubeir, just west of Hama, to check on what activists say was the slaying of as many as 78 people, half of them women and children, who were shot, garroted and in some cases burned alive.”

It added that, “The monitors themselves were fired upon, United Nations officials said”—thus implying, given the context, that it had been government troops that had fired at U.N. monitors.

The Times article was compiled from reporting from four different journalists—in Turkey, the U.S., Russia, and the U.K., respectively.

This propaganda narrative has been repeated in other mainstream sources. “As well as being shot at, the observers were blocked from reaching the scene of the killings by the Syrian army,” The Telegraph reported, for example.

Yet this is not at all an accurate retelling of the information that was actually provided by the U.N.

Immediately after learning of the failure of the U.N. mission to gain access to the site of the alleged massacre, Secretary Ban said that while trying to enter, “the U.N. monitors were shot at with small arms”—he did not suggest that the fire came from government troops.

A U.N. press release stated that “while trying to reach the village, they were also shot at with small arms”—again with no suggestion whatsoever as to who was responsible for firing on the U.N. officials.

U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said that “The patrol was forced to withdraw to a nearby government checkpoint” (emphasis added)—there being a not insignificant difference between this and the media narrative that the monitors were forced away from a government military post. That the monitors were forced away from the scene by gunfire to the safety of a government military post is the actual story that is inferred from this account. “They will try again tomorrow,” Haq  added.

The head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), General Robert Mood, issued a statement that did say that observers were unable to investigate the scene at Mazraat al-Qubeir because “They are being stopped at Syrian Army checkpoints and in some cases turned back.” But the explanation for this could simply be that there is a legitimate concern for the safety of the mission, and Mood also gave two other reasons for their failure to access the area.

“Some of our patrols are being stopped by civilians in the area,” he said—offering no indication that these “civilians” were regime “supporters” as dishonestly elaborated upon by the New York Times.

Finally, said Mood, “We are receiving information from residents of the area that the safety of our observers is at risk if we enter [the] village of Mazraat al-Qubeir.”

UNSMIS observers were finally permitted through to Mazraat al-Qubeir mid-afternoon on June 8.

“We found the village empty of its local inhabitants, bmp [tank] tracks on the road, a house damaged from shelling, with a wide range of caliber types and grenades,” said UNSMIS spokesperson Sausan Ghosheh. “We found burned homes, and at least one burnt with bodies inside—there was a heavy stench of burned flesh.”

Whether the stench was of human or animal flesh remains unclear. BBC reporter Paul Danahar, who accompanied U.N. observers to the scene, relayed that “The U.N. have not found any people yet.” He posted to Twitter, “Butchering the people”—none of whose bodies had yet been found—“didn’t satisfy the blood lust of the attackers so they killed the live stock too. Their carcasses rotting in the sun.”

Danahar reported on “a remarkably appalling scene” in the village. “There are pieces of human flesh lying around the room. There is a big pile of congealed blood in the corner. There’s a tablecloth that still has pieces of someone’s brain attached to the side of it.”

“There is no one alive in this village to tell us what happened, at the moment,” Danahar attested. “We’ve been led up here by some nearby villagers. They say it was shabiha, militia from another village, that have come and done this. Men here told us that after the killing had taken place, a pickup truck arrived with men in civilian clothes and took the bodies away.”

“We don’t know where the bodies are,” he said. “There are all kind of rumors and people are getting the numbers of people who were killed, they’re changing the numbers that they think were killed. No one really knows.”

“I stand where I am now, I can see another building in front of me. It’s completely burnt out, and there is a pile of something. I don’t think it’s bodies. Whatever it is, it’s a big pile of ash, and it’s still smoldering. Next to that, there is a donkey that has been shot on the side of the road. I mean, this has basically been a scorched earth policy by whomever’s done this. They’ve killed the people. They’ve killed the livestock. They’ve left nothing in the village alive.”

On Twitter, Danahar said, “The only clue to where the bodies of the people may have gone are etched into the road. UN said they were tracks made by military vehicles.”

The tank tracks do not necessarily indicate that government forces cleansed the area of evidence. The Free Syrian Army has been documented using captured BMPs in battle. In fact, opposition activists have uploaded videos bragging of this achievement to YouTube.

Credible eyewitness accounts of what occurred have yet to be documented. “Residents from neighboring villages came to speak to us,” Ms. Ghosheh said. “The circumstances surrounding this incident are yet not clear and we have not yet been able to verify the numbers.”

After arriving in the village, Danahar posted to Twitter:

A man called Ahmed has come up from the village who says he witnessed the killings. He has says dozens were killed. #syria

He has a badly bruised face but his story is conflicted & the UN say they are not sure he’s honest as they think he followed the convoy.

Illustrates how [hard] it is to get the truth here in #Syria and how tough the UN mission is.

In one last footnote, an article on the alleged massacre at the BBC website published on June 7 included a sidebar analysis from Danahar, who reported the following update on what has since been learned about the Houla massacre:

Members of the international community in Damascus say that, contrary to initial reports, most of the people in Houla were killed by gunfire spraying the rooms, not by execution-style killings with a gun placed to the back of the head. Also people’s throats were not cut, although one person did have an eye gouged out.

Of course, the sources for those false claims were rebel forces or anti-regime “activists”. The fact that such exaggerated claims from “eyewitness” testimony offered by the rebels—parroted uncritically by media outlets around the world—have proven to be lies won’t stop mainstream news sources from continuing to rely exclusively on members of the opposition in further reports as the situation continues to descend into chaos and the violence escalates.

Dutiful and highly self-disciplined so-called “journalists” will continue to parrot the narrative preferred by Western government officials and to propagate pretexts in order to manufacture consent for yet another U.S.-managed regime change operation.

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