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The first casualty (#2)

09/02/2018

“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” – Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst to an underling on the eve of the Spanish-American War.

The Syrian Civil War is both a tragedy and a chaotic catastrophe; for Syrians on all sides of the conflict and for the world at large. Perhaps it will someday inspire satirical accounts in the tradition of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but for now the ongoing suffering of many thousands of combatants and non-combatants alike can only induce horror and despair.

If therapeutic satires are eventually written one of the prime sources of irony will be the coverage of the conflict by the mainstream media. By then the media itself will have ‘forgotten’ its propaganda role in perpetuating the disaster – in much the same way its disinformation about the Iraq and Libyan wars has already disappeared down the memory hole – and it will be up to authors – primarily of fiction – to remind us of its reprehensible reporting.

I’ve already commented on some of the most egregious misreporting of the conflict, though documenting all the lies would provide full time work for dozens of critics. But developments this week mark a dangerous escalation that history may yet (fail to) record as the deadliest turning point in the conflagration thus far. A flare-up that ‘liberal progressive’ outlets such as the Guardian seem determined to fan.

According to both US and Syrian government sources a large number of Syrian Arab Army fighters were killed by US air and artillery strikes in Deir Ezzor province on February 7th. Damascus talks of dozens dead while Washington claims over 100 kills. Syria says the strikes were unprovoked but the US Central Command (CENTCOM) say they were responding to an attack against a headquarters unit of their Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allies which was ‘co-located’ with Coalition service members. Both sides insist they were in the area in pursuit of ISIS/Daesh remnants. The assault force included Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships, F-22 and F-15 warplanes and USMC artillery batteries.

I have no opinion as to who initiated the fighting. Even in conflicts with fixed alliances and well defined front lines accidental attacks against misidentified targets are commonplace. But the outcome seems clear. Syrian forces suffered a large number of dead and wounded while the Coalition reported no US casualties and just one SDF fighter injured. If the alleged Syrian attack had been anywhere near Coalition positions we could have expected more US and allied casualties from friendly fire alone. Neither side suggests the US tried to warn off Syrian forces before launching its deadly assault, though the Pentagon claims to have given Russia prior notice of the strikes.

It’s hard to believe the Syrian Army would have deliberately attacked US occupied SDF positions in the face of certain devastating reprisals. In fact it’s hard to say why they would attack the SDF at all, given the long-standing detente between them that enables both to concentrate on common enemies such as ISIS, Al Nusra and the US trained and supplied Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA – having previously fought alongside ISIS against the SDF – is currently supporting Turkish forces in their attacks on SDF positions around Afrin and Bulbul, though the US shows no inclination to respond to the attacks by its allies against its allies. In fact CENTCOM provoked them with its ill-advised announcement of a 30,000 strong US-backed SDF force along the Turkish border. On the other hand, the Syrian armed forces allow the US-aligned SDF to use government held territory to reinforce and resupply its besieged fighters in Afrin. As I said, the conflict is utterly chaotic.

It’s to be expected the American military would release an unbalanced and self-serving report of the ‘battle’. That’s SOP. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the Guardian would go even further in misreporting the massacre. But I was. According to them the Americans were responding to an unprovoked attack on a ‘US-controlled base’. No mention it was actually an SDF position. No suggestion it could have been an accident, or that it may not have even happened. No questioning of whether the US response was proportionate or justified despite the large number of Syrian casualties. No theories as to why Syrian commanders would order such a self-defeating provocation. Aren’t they just Hollywood-style baddies who carry out suicidal attacks for the pure evil of them? Instead the Guardian used the opportunity to repeat – for at least the fourth time in two days – allegations of Syrian atrocities against the few remaining rebel strongholds. Allegations sourced exclusively from Western-funded, pro-rebel outfits such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the White Helmets.

Completely missing from the Guardian’s coverage is the growing danger of military conflict between America and Russia in the face of escalating US belligerence in Syria and increasing proximity between their respective armed forces. Nor will you find mention of the fact that US intervention in the war is illegal under international law, unlike the government-authorised presence of Russian forces on Syrian sovereign territory.

It’s not as if Syria is the only flashpoint between the US and Russia either. Eastern Europe has become steadily more tense as NATO pushes ever closer to Moscow and – as the BBC puts it – the Russian military has become “increasingly aggressive” by conducting “manoeuvres on Europe’s doorstep, with large-scale exercises near Nato’s borders”. Presumably the Beeb assumes its viewers don’t know that much of Russia is in Europe and that ‘NATO’s borders‘ are now also Russia’s borders.

Over the past year our media outlets have unleashed a deluge of anti-Russian fake news unprecedented since the height of the Cold War. The Guardian has even claimed Moscow is trying to hack the Oscars.

According to some analysts (e.g. Alfred McCoy) the US empire is on its last legs. Its diplomatic and economic hegemony have entered their final decade with military dominance soon to follow. Living standards and perceptions of security are set for precipitous decline and though we might reasonably expect a short-term backlash against the excesses of the current White House incumbent the long term trend of an increasingly desperate and misinformed US electorate would seem to be towards simplistic solutions from unhinged populists who promise to ‘make America great again’. Populists who, if elected, will have their finger on the nuclear button. And while some would argue the macho posturing of Vladimir Putin doesn’t extend to Russian military policy it would be dangerously complacent to assume his successors will exercise similar restraint in the face of US aggression. It’s little wonder the atomic scientists who set the Doomsday Clock have recently moved its hands to two-minutes to midnight – the equal closest it has come to Armageddon since its inception in 1947.

I don’t know how extreme media propaganda will become as the risk of nuclear conflict escalates, but I doubt their final, strident attempts at warmongering will face criticism. There will be no-one reading them and no-one trying to counter them. The only spin remaining will be that of wind through the ashes.

________________________________________________

Postscript: (14 February 2018): Recent media reports suggest that up to 200 Russian military contractors may have been killed in the US strikes in Deir Ezzor, however it should be noted that Southfront Crisis News dismissed these claims several days ago when news of the strikes first emerged.

According to Southfront, Syrian rebel sources with no involvement in the incident released reports of large numbers of Russian and Iranian casualties to selected news outlets as part of their propaganda campaign. There has been no confirmation of non-Syrian casualties from US, Syrian, Russian or Iranian officials and recent reports seem to rely on unsourced second-hand claims from social media.

From → history, politics

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