News Unspun looks at how the media has reported the chemical attacks in Syria
Since the reported chemical attacks in Ghoutta, outside Damascus on Wednesday 21 August, Western government officials have repeatedly attributed blame to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Some of the comments from officials are as follows:
UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague: 'We do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime.'
Prime Minister, David Cameron: 'What we've seen in Syria are appalling scenes of death and suffering because of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.'
US Vice President, Joe Biden: 'There is no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime.'
Jay Carney, White House Spokesman: 'There is very little doubt in our mind that the Syrian regime is culpable.'
Chuck Hagel, US Defence Secretary: 'I think that the intelligence will conclude ... that the government of Syria was responsible'
The US claims to have further evidence in support of the allegations the regime was behind the attacks, but has so far declined to release it, planning to do so, it says, in a few days - that is, potentially following any planned military attack. This is not to say that the regime could not be responsible, but rather to argue against the use of speculative claims as the pretext for a military attack. In the meantime, the absence of proof of culpability has not prevented such claims forming an accepted wisdom in most of the subsequent reporting. The Guardian Editorial of 22 August, mirroring the official language, writes, for example, that there is not 'much doubt about who committed the atrocity'. Reports have instead focused on how the 'international community' should respond to the Assad regime, with plans for military attacks steam-rolling ahead, urged on by a media storm calling for retribution, in the form of a 'limited punitive strike'. We asked Mark Mardell, the BBC's US correspondent, what real 'proof' was offered at a White House press briefing when the blame was laid on the Assad regime. He responded that the US State Department was relying on 'common sense':
@news_unspun I think they are making it pretty clear they are depending on "common sense" cicumstantial evidence.— Mark Mardell (@BBCMarkMardell) August 27, 2013
AP reporter, Matt Lee, pressed State Department Deputy Spokesperson, Marie Harf, on the nature of the 'very little doubt' the US claims to feel over the culpability of the Syrian regime.
QUESTION: [..] the scintilla of doubt that you have is about who might have used them?
MS. HARF: Again, the investigation is ongoing that the intelligence community is doing, but I will say a few things about the regime, that the regime has used chemical weapons in the past year, we know that the regime has the capability to launch a chemical weapons attack, as the Secretary said, using this method. We also know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from this area. So clearly we're still gathering all the information, but there is very little doubt in our mind that this was perpetrated by the regime.
QUESTION: So the doubt - however minuscule the doubt is [...] has to do with who used them, not whether they were used.
MS. HARF: Well, we still assess that the opposition does not have the capacity or the capability to use these kinds of weapons.
QUESTION: Right. But you don't have some kind of smoking gun clear - there is - if there is any doubt left, it is only about who might have used them, not whether they were used at all. Is that correct?
MS. HARF: I think that you can, I guess, use those words.
Although Matt Lee at AP is still eager to see evidence, many journalists now accept the rhetoric of those preparing to attack Syria as the basis for their reporting, and many reports have been largely based on speculative theories of the mindset of Assad. One such theory was put forward by Lord Malloch Brown, who told the BBC that 'one has to work on the hypothesis' that the Assad government carried out the attack. The reason he carried out the attack, Brown went on, was that Assad had seen the weakness of the west when dealing with Libya and Egypt, and could now:
'poke the US and its allies in the eye, show [his] strength by so doing, because they won't do anything about it. So mad though that is, and the insight of in a sense a besieged leader with an increasingly narrow form of Arab nationalism in his mind, I think some kind of thinking of that kind must have provoked this.'
After taking this divergence into a whole world of speculation and guesswork, the BBC presenter responded by reinforcing the idea that Assad was trying to 'corner' the west:
'But we're not looking at a similar character to that of say Sadam Hussein who constantly wrong-footed the west because there was no logic to what he was doing. But there does seem to be some sort of similarity - if indeed your analysis is right - in terms of provocation and pushing people into a corner to actually make a decision which he thinks they won't make.'
This suggestion, that the Assad government is taunting and testing the west, is tied in with the idea that the US has 'credibility' to maintain. Many comment that if the US does not assert its credibility it will lose face. The BBC's Mark Mardell writes: 'its credibility would now be zero if it failed to take some form of military action', while Gavin Hewitt commented that 'President Obama had said that the use of chemical weapons would be a game changer and so US credibility is on the line.'
David Blair, writing in the Telegraph, also makes overt a concern implicit to much reporting, that 'For the world's good, America's credibility as a superpower must be maintained'. 'The credibility of the United States - a "long-term national interest" par excellence - is at stake' if Obama fails to exert punitive military power against the Syrian regime. If the 'credibility of a superpower [...] underpins the entire global order', as Blair writes, what is at stake is the maintenance of the international status quo, dominated as it is by US power. In a similar vein, Alan Johnson wrote on 23 August in World Affairs that, 'In a disorderly world of thugs and fundamentalists, it is prudent to show that the democracies still carry a big stick and are willing to use it'.
The preservation of the global political order justifies the exertion of further violence in an already war-torn country, with an estimated 100,000 dead. This line of argument is where the humanitarian guise of the common rhetoric most strongly slips. The US must maintain global supremacy for the good of the world we are told. The Syrian civil war becomes a strategic battleground for the US's exercise of global power. To accept the use of violence for such ends is to accept a global order based on the rule of force, rather than the rule of law, precisely the type of paradigm the Western states claim to be preventing through their plans for a punitive military attack.
The significance of Wednesday's events at Ghoutta to the Western states appear in terms of political opportunity rather than human lives, providing the opportunity for a display of military force, and to protect the credibility of US dominance, of its position as purveyor of global violence. Set on the idea that intervention is about saving lives in Syria, Gavin Hewitt, the BBC's European correspondent raises concerns of what he appears to consider as Obama's failing to sufficiently live up to the US's self-appointed and self-interested role of global 'policeman', seemingly assuming that US foreign policy is founded on intentions to bring peace and prosperity to the global population:
'President Obama has been reluctant to play the role of the world's policeman. But in Syria 110,000 people have been killed, double that number have been wounded and there are four to five million refugees. And the civil war is beginning to draw in neighbouring countries.'
Another theme of the commentary at BBC News has been the repeated notion that the US, as usual, doesn't want war, but may be drawn into full war against its will. While it is likely to be true that the US does want to avoid a full war, this seems to make a 'small' attack from the US entirely acceptable. That the US can avoid being drawn into a full-blown war by refraining from bombing Syria is completely ignored.
At the time the US was building up military hardware in the region for a whole range of attacks on Syria, Mark Mardell felt the need to comment that 'Mr Obama does not sound like a man gung ho for military action'. Presumably sending warships across the Atlantic is not 'gung-ho' enough by Mardell's standards. Gavin Hewitt, another of the majority of journalists who now see Assad's guilt as a given, suggested that 'the Americans and their allies are not out to wage war but can they carry out a limited operation that deters leaders like President Assad in the future?'
The UN fact-finding mission in Syria has been pitted in much reporting as the solution to ascertaining a guilty verdict against the Syrian regime, however the remit of the mission does not extend to attributing blame. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf clarifies, 'it's important for everyone to remember what the mandate of this team was. It wasn't to determine culpability into who would have used chemical weapons, it's to determine whether they were used'. Yet in the face of all the options and information available, BBC News seems to be neutrally and normally now reporting the fact that the US is 'ready to go' against Syria and that France is 'ready to Punish' Syria.
Regardless of who may have used chemical weapons, journalists have ignored a whole range of important questions on Syria, and have accepted that the punishment for the reported crimes should be delivered by those states whose history of intervention in the Middle East is a shameful and ugly historical record, which has positioned complicit and often oppressive governments in their target countries.
The idea that our governments might be embellishing the truth, that we should sceptically demand proof, even so shortly after the NSA scandal exposed corruption and lies at all levels of governments in the US and the UK, is hardly considered. That this is about not just chemical weapons was made obvious by Barack Obama himself, commenting in a CNN interview that, 'We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests'.
To accept as legitimate the planned retributive violence, dressed in humanitarian rhetoric and driven by a global power-play, is to acceed to the attempt by the West to capitalise on the suffering of the Syrian population. The alternative of course is to urge for human rights violations to be dealt with by international law, for those who are alleged to have committed atrocities to be brought to trial.
If moves are to be made toward a peaceful solution to the Syrian civil war, only efforts toward a peace conference and ceasefire can lay the grounds for a cessation of the killing and displacement of civilians.
First published on News Unspun
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