In this special episode I reflect on the war in Syria and the propaganda emanating from governments on both sides. In particular I focus in on how the apparently anti-war Left has been fooled into becoming de facto propagandists for the Russian and Syrian security states, and how the same binary narratives are issued in the wake of every reported chemical weapons attack in Syria.
I have often been asked my opinions on the war in Syria, and on occasion been asked why I don’t discuss it much on this podcast. The simple answer is that there are too many unknowns for me to be able to develop any particularly strong opinion. The slightly more complex answer is that I see very little, if anything, in the media discussion about Syria that’s at all likely to lead to a more positive situation for Syrians. It strikes me as a conversation that leads to nothing good, so it’s not worth having.
Nonetheless, there is a kind of meta-conversation that may be worth your time to listen to, so that is what I will attempt to engage with today. 99% of the people commenting or reporting on Syria fall into one of two binary camps. Either they argue that Assad is being opposed by a legitimate uprising because he’s a bastard, or they argue that Assad is some kind of hero standing up against US imperialism. The notion that some bits of both arguments might be true, but fundamentally that both sides are talking bullshit, is rarely if ever acknowledged.
We can go all the way back to the start of this conflict to see how this was always part of the tapestry, that these narratives were woven into everything we’ve been told about Syria from day one. From my perspective the Assad government is not one that we should be praising, particularly people who consider themselves left-wing. Before all this recent trouble Syria was a relatively stable and prosperous country, but for the most part I see that as happening in spite of the government, not because of it.
Assad’s government is very repressive, devotes a huge proportion of its resources to security, i.e. to keeping the government in power and clamping down on opposition. As someone who is primarily opposed to advanced security states, I cannot defend Assad and the Syrian state. But here is where we get the first round of Rorschach politics. Those who want to see Assad as a brutal dictator, the new Hitler, etc. can find enough evidence to justify their rhetoric. His government has certainly committed war crimes and deliberately slaughtered civilians. But the flipside of this demonisation is a heroisation by those opposed to NATO imperialism, who make out that Assad is the innocent victim of Western power and that all the claims against him are lies.
This presents a problem for anyone who actually cares about what’s going on in Syria, rather than the 99% of people who just want to be seen belonging to one of these two tribes. Feel free to disagree, but for my money the vast majority of people who talk about Syria and Syrians don’t actually give a damn about the country or the people. After all, they never report what the people are saying unless it conforms to their prejudices and their desired view of the situation. That’s not to say there aren’t any good journalists who have worked in Syria – Robert Fisk springs to mind as one of the exceptions – but that most are simply appealing to an established audience.
So if you’re like me and you do care, at least somewhat, about the future of the country and the people there, and you’d gladly see Assad fall but don’t think a superpower-sponsored civil war is the way to do it, there basically isn’t any media coverage out there. You’ve either got to believe one set of mutually-reinforcing, circular arguments (Assad is evil, therefore the opposition is good, therefore Assad being overthrown would be a good thing, therefore the war is good) or the exact opposite (Assad is good, the opposition are all ISIS and Al Qaeda, therefore Assad clinging to power is a good thing, therefore the war is bad). As someone who falls into neither camp and sees problems with both of these narratives, there is not only no media for me to subscribe to, there’s not much point in me even stating my position on this. The only likely result is that I’ll face abuse from both camps, and be further shut out of the established mainstream and alternative media cultures. As I’ve said so many times before, it would be far easier for me to just jump on a bullshit bandwagon and prostitute my talents for one side or the other.
This war started, at least by most understandings, with the Arab Spring. Indeed, the term ‘Arab Spring’ is highly misleading because it assumes that disparate opposition movements in a variety of countries were all somehow connected and motivated by the same things, simply because most of the people in these different countries are Arabs. It seems that no matter what they do or don’t do, Arabs are destined to be lumped in together and stereotyped by Western media.
Indeed, the prevailing alternative media narrative was that the Arab Spring was just one big CIA operation. So we had two contrasting narratives: the one perpetrated by Western, pro-NATO liberal media which claimed that the Arab Spring was the moment at which Arabs embraced democracy; and the one perpetrated by Infowars, RT and the rest which claimed this was all just the CIA and that Arabs are all dupes and useful idiots. Bear in mind that the alt media at that time were also perpetuating the false claims about Obama’s birth certificate and claiming he was the secret leader of the Muslim brotherhood, and you’ll see the racism inherent in claiming that the Arab Spring was a mere CIA operation.
Then there was a period in between the Arab Spring circa 2011 and the rise of ISIS in 2014, which has largely been forgotten by journalists and historians. During this period a very mixed opposition to Assad – some democratic, some militant – fought against the government in Syria in a variety of ways. Western nations adopted a train and equip program not unlike the one in Bosnia in the 1990s, and definitely encouraged the more militant and fundamentalists parts of the Syrian opposition while mostly ignoring the non-violent, democratic opposition. This was the period of the ‘moderate rebels’, some of whom were jihadi cannibals.
Then ISIS happened, and a handful of beheading videos of dubious provenance were used to create the image of a new, even worse, Al Qaeda. The summer of 2014 saw a PR operation the like of which we hadn’t seen since the immediate post-9/11 period. We were told that ISIS were trying to take over the entire middle east, that they had tentacles reaching all across Europe, that they had massive financial resources, chemical weapons that they could unleash at any moment – all the same crap we heard about Al Qaeda in early 2002.
In reality, ISIS were an Islamist militia who grew out of the Iraq insurgency. They had no air force, very little anti-air capacity and could have been wiped out in a matter of months if NATO truly wanted rid of them. But with Al Qaeda being reduced to a guerilla army with little ability to project their power in the form of terrorist attacks on the West, NATO needed a new enemy image. ISIS fit the bill because they had an excellent media department, regularly releasing videos that met Western propaganda specifications to the letter.
As anyone with half a brain could have predicted, ISIS fell into the same binary conversation that preceded them. The Western mainstream media acted like they were some kind of unstoppable Arab horde, blaming them for every incident, large or small, that befell Western Europe. The alt media dismissed them as useful idiots working for the CIA. The reality – that they were one of many militias fighting for territory in Syria, that they were in many respects a product of the Iraq war, and most crucially that they were at least somewhat being managed by the Turkish government and sponsored by several Gulf states – got forgotten.
By September 2015, with a year of US airstrikes failing to peg back ISIS, the Syrian government asked Russia to intervene militarily, and help them. This does mean that Russian involvement in Syria is different to NATO involvement, if we’re talking about international law. But given that none of the sides in this war seem to give a damn about international law, I don’t see that it makes much difference. Russia cynically exploited the situation to do what they wanted to do in Syria, while painting themselves as heroes riding in to save the day. Meanwhile, Western media focused almost solely on civilian casualties caused by Russian airstrikes, while hypocritically ignoring the casualties caused by NATO.
Since then we’ve had a very tense situation that looks like it might expand into a larger war at any moment. A few big flashpoints – such as when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, or when the US bombed and killed a group of Russian mercenaries – have thankfully not turned into all-out war between the various factions. And herein lies the proof of the pudding, i.e. that hardly anyone actually cares about Syria or Syrians, especially the faux anti-war crowd. Whenever one of these events has happened, none of the journalists in either tribe have cautioned their readers, encouraged them to wait and see what the facts on the ground end up proving. Instead they have leapt in, as quickly as possible, with their versions of what happened and why that conveniently reinforces the rest of their mutually-reinforcing bullshit. This has simply exacerbated the conflict and made it more likely that the various factions and superpowers struggling for control of Syria will get into a head-on battle. It hasn’t promoted the cause of peace, at all.
The Chemical Weapons attacks
Nowhere is this dynamic more obvious than in the string of supposed chemical weapons attacks. These began in October 2012 and continued relatively consistently until August 2013. Many of these were blamed on the Assad government, at least by Western mainstream media and government officials. At this point the White Helmets didn’t exist so the alt media and Russian media largely restricted themselves to criticising the Western versions of these attacks.
Indeed, aside from the Assad government occasionally blaming the rebels for this early string of attacks, the first example I can find of the counter-narrative, that the attacks were false flag operations, is in the fake news about the Britam Defence hack. In September 2013, following a particularly deadly month in Syria, the British mercenary firm Britam Defence had their email server hacked, and a bunch of emails were leaked online. One of these emails implicated Britam in a disguised chemical weapons attack in Syria, which went viral and was even reported by the Daily Mail.
The problem is that the email was fake, it had been added to the hacked emails by the hackers before they released the whole batch online. The Daily Mail ended up having to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in damages to Britam Defence and published a complete retraction of the story. But it was too late, the notion that the chemical attacks in Syria were false flags, perpetrated by the Syrian opposition in order to frame the Assad government, was out there. Years after the Daily Mail retracted the story, I still see prominent journalists including credible people like Pepe Escobar, sharing the original Britain Defence hack story to substantiate their claims that the chemical attacks were carried out by someone else. To be fair, Pepe has stopped sharing it after I responded by pointing out it was a false story based on a faked email.
Then the Syrian government apparently got rid of its entire chemical weapons stockpile in 2014. This was done with the assistance of the Russian government, when then sold advanced weapons systems to Syria to replace the chemical weapons that had been destroyed. The Russians not only came out of that looking like the adults in the room, their military-industrial complex profited from the situation. Unsurprisingly, hardly anyone has pointed this out.
But, mysteriously, the chemical attacks have continued. Beginning again in April 2014, and like the previous year running through to August there were a string of reported chemical weapons attacks. This started again in February 2015, again running through to August. In 2016 they started in April, again, and there hasn’t been a prolonged break until the most recent incident in Douma, in April this year. Since then there have been no reported chemical attacks in Syria.
Also in 2014, the White Helmets (a.k.a. The Syrian Civil Defence Forces) were formed. I am sure you’ve all heard of them, but they are a volunteer organisation operating in Syria and to some extent in Turkey. Exactly what the White Helmets are is a matter of some dispute, with Western media largely portraying them as heroic volunteers helping to evacuate besieged areas, digging through rubble to rescue the victims of bombings, and helping deliver essential resources and services to ordinary Syrians. Beginning with Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett, and spreading out from them like fucking syphilis, is the claim that the White Helmets don’t rescue or help anyone, they are an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organisation seeking to overthrow Assad, and that all their videos are faked.
Frankly, there are elements to both narratives that are true. The White Helmets certainly have received funding from the US and UK, and their videos are partly aimed at criticising both the Assad government and the Russian military for their brutality in the Syrian war. But they have also rescued and helped people, which neither Vanessa Beeley nor Eva Bartlett have. And nor have any of the other people reporting on this version of the White Helmets.
When it comes to the question of media fakery I always ask the simple question ‘what do you mean by fake?’ and this invariably results in accusations and emotional dissembling. Invariably. As in, I’ve never had anyone who believes the Bartlett/Beeley narrative explain to me what they mean by ‘fake’. Do they mean CGI? Do they mean that the people being rescued are actually crash test dummies? Or are they dead bodies, and the White Helmets are staging a rescue scene? I can buy into the idea of them paying people to lie in piles of rubble and pretend to be rescued, but if that was every person in every White Helmets video then that would be literally thousands of people. Which would make the deception extremely easy to prove, and yet no such proof has been forthcoming.
I explained in detail my objections to this narrative, and to Bartlett and Beeley’s behaviour in general, in a subscriber podcast but the salient point is this – they are denying people’s suffering. Unless you believe that Assad and Russia haven’t done any bombing in Syria and that every White Helmets video was produced by Industrial Light & Magic, at some point Bartlett and Beeley have said a video was fake when it was real, and thus denied the real suffering of real Syrians. For all their anti-war posturing and claims about caring for the Syrian people, Bartlett and Beeley are nothing other than paid apologists for Russian and Syrian state brutality.
This is especially obvious if you read the leaked messages between Beeley and another pro-Assad activist, where Beeley admits that she knows torture is going on in Syria, and is being perpetrated by the Assad government, but that she won’t report on it because it undermines the cause. But what is that cause? If she was genuinely anti-imperialist then she’d be opposed to both Russian and NATO imperialism, and if she really cared about Syrians then she’d expose the fact they were being tortured. So the cause is actually the cause of keeping Assad in power, because that’s who is paying for her trips to Syria and enabling her access to officials. In short, Bartlett and Beeley are propagandists for the Syrian security state, among others.
This is one of the conclusions of a recent report by Nafeez Ahmed called State Propaganda in Syria: From War Crimes to Pipelines. It’s over 100 pages long but I strongly recommend you read it. It is an extensive critique of the binary narratives surrounding the White Helmets, the chemical attacks, Western and Russian intentions in Syria and pipeline politics. Nafeez concluded that both of the two main factions have engaged in shameless state propaganda, and in particular identifies the Bartlett-Beeley axis as the point where the anti-war Left have been sucked into becoming de facto propagandists for Russian imperialism.
I cannot fault his argument, indeed I’ve been thinking along similar lines for a while. What Nafeez did is actually chase up a lot of these stories and claims with their authors, trying to determine where the (often false) narratives originated. The report criticises a lot of people who are otherwise quite respectable, like Seymour Hersh and Ray McGovern, indeed the whole Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity or VIPS organisation comes in for some deserved criticism. And I like that organisation, I have interviewed Ray and other members regarding the new head of the CIA Gina Haspel, but when it comes to Syria they’ve jumped on a lot of bullshit bandwagons.
Russia vs NATO vs Honesty
As Nafeez points out, Russia is a major energy resource power so they have as much reason to want to sabotage the Syrian pipeline project as NATO has reasons for wanting it to go ahead. Similarly, Russia is one of the world’s largest arms exporters and Syria is a prominent client state when it comes to the market for Russian-manufactured weapons. The notion that Russia is not an imperialist nation, or that its imperial ambitions aren’t a factor in the destruction and suffering, is simply a lie.
Are they as hostile and aggressive as NATO? No. But they’re a lot more hostile and aggressive than Cuba, or Zaire, or Malaysia, or Bosnia or most other countries in the world. One of the effects of RT, and Sputnik and the rest of the Russian state-sponsored news media outlets, is the exact same effect CNN and Fox and the BBC have. They launder the reputations of imperial states and their military-industrial complexes. The idea that there is only one imperial regime in the world, and only one military-industrial complex, is just stupid and dishonest. The idea that Russia’s military industry behaves differently to Britain or America’s is equally so.
Here is where the Rorschach politics really come into play. If you want to believe that Russia is an evil, imperial state and that RT is fake news, CNN and the BBC serve up regular bite-size, fat-free portions of misinformation that reinforces that. Naturally they focus on things like the Skripals and military exercises, because if they said the truth, that RT is an apologist for the Russian military-industrial complex, that might reveal a little too much about what CNN and the BBC really are. Likewise, if you want to believe that NATO are the only force for evil in the world and that CNN and the BBC are fake news, RT serve up regular portions of misinformation reinforcing that. They focus on bizarre claims about media fakery and deny the suffering resulting from Russian military actions because they too don’t want to get into that much detail about how imperial states truly operate. That risks revealing how the Russian state, or at least the Russian security state, actually functions and therefore what role RT have in all that.
So both media empires are lying to you, to me, to us. That’s the almost unsayable thing in this conversation, that you shouldn’t trust either of them. On balance I prefer RT, but not by much and largely because Matt has been a semi-regular guest on RT while the BBC completely and wilfully ignores his work and our work. But I don’t trust RT, at all.
A recent example of this is a story I heard about through comments on Craig Murray’s facebook page, that RT reported the Russian MOD predicting a staged chemical weapons attack in Syria within two days. Firstly, this use of the word ‘staged’ isn’t helping anyone, because it implies both a faked attack where no one dies and a disguised attack where people are killed but the perpetrators make you think it was someone else. This is a Jonesism, and like all Jonesisms it is retarded and counter-productive.
Now, of course there wasn’t a chemical attack in Syria in that two day period. It just didn’t happen. Did RT apologise? No. Did the Russian ministry of defence explain why they were wrong? No. But that’s what you’d expect. Did any of the people promoting and believing this story admit to themselves that they’d been fooled? No. Did any of them stop taking RT so seriously? No.
Why is this? Why is it so hard for people to not pick a side? Aside from things we’ve discussed previously about the general state of human stupidity, the tribal identity instinct and so on, there is something I’d like to add into the mix. While imperial states all tend to act alike, not all propaganda strategy is alike. While the Western propaganda model tends towards reinforcement, just repeating the same things over and over until people start believing them, the Russian model is somewhat different.
For example, the Russian-bought facebook ads before the US election. While the popular narrative in the Western liberal media is that this was aimed at getting Trump elected because of an ideological affinity between Trump and Putin, this doesn’t hold up. Many of these ads were actually pro-Sanders, at least until he was screwed out of the nomination. So this wasn’t ideological, so much as about promoting anyone but Clinton, the most establishment of candidates. This was aimed at disrupting the liberal consensus around Clinton.
So I do not believe that the primary purpose of this recent fake news predicting a staged chemical attack in Syria is ideological. In some ways I think it was a test of how well the propaganda has worked, and as such it is a kind of gaslighting. Getting people to believe your narrative about an event that’s already happened isn’t that difficult. But if you can get them to believe your narrative about an event that hasn’t happened yet, and even an event that never actually happens, then you’ve got control of them, lock stock and barrel.
The fact that anyone took this story seriously, and that basically no one identified it as the same kind of fake news as when Natural News and Infowars were pumping out nonsense about Jade Helm, shows how divorced these people are from reality. It doesn’t matter that the predicted event didn’t actually happen.
This state-sponsored crazymaking is more pronounced in Russian propaganda efforts than in the Western model, but it does exist in the Western model to some extent. The reason I find it more important to talk about the influence of Russian propaganda operations at it pertains to Syria is because they have a huge impact on the anti-war movement. Inasmuch as there is a British anti-war movement regarding Syria it is centred around this narrative – that Assad is a benevolent leader, that Russian involvement is for the good of Syrians, that the White Helmets are Al Qaeda’s media fakery department. The Russian state has successfully infiltrated the British anti-war scene and weaponised it for its own imperial purposes, without having to physically infiltrate it with people. It may have also done that, but it is the media operations, the disinformation war that has achieved this.
As you know, I’m no Russophobe. If anything I’m the opposite, I quite like Russia as a country, I love Russian history, I even have a certain fondness for Putin. But I think what’s happened to the anti-war Left in this country is a really bad thing. Railing against the hypocrisies of other left-wingers is a popular sport on the Left, but that’s partly because there is so much hypocrisy and double standards on the Left. That we’ve got to a point where the fashionable thing to do in response to the inconvenient suffering of Syrians at the hands of the Assad and Russian governments is to start prattling on about the White Helmets and dismissing evidence as ‘fake’ is anathema to everything I believe in. If we can’t ground our critical perspectives on geopolitics and war in reality, in the attempt to alleviate the suffering of real people, then what’s the point? Are we actually trying to stop this war or are we simply allying ourselves with the other side to prove how woker than thou we are?
I have been searching for a positive note on which to conclude this analysis, but there really isn’t one. The fact is that there will be another chemical attack in Syria at some point and everyone will respond in the exact same way they responded to what happened in Douma in April. The same factions will recycle the same narratives, the same audiences will repeat them to their friends. Nothing will actually get resolved, the conflict won’t move any closer to ending. And this is why I rarely comment on Syria – it seems like no one is listening unless you tell them what they already think. And what they already think is almost invariably one side of a binary, tribal struggle that merely emulates and thus reinforces the war itself. I refuse to be a part of that, I am not going to pretend that I want Assad’s government to win this war. But in refusing, I imposed on myself a degree of silence about a topic I feel deeply about. So now I’ve said what I have to say.