Our Sons-of-Bitches: Western Media and the Syrian “Rebels”

“He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch” – this is what U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt is rumoured to have once said about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. We examine how the western media, always so full of editorials and columns praising western values (whatever those may be), have covered the Syrian opposition during the Syrian war, focusing on three groups in particular. A closer look at the falsehoods that have been peddled, the inconvenient truths that were left unsaid, and the contradictions that emerged due to low journalistic standards, reveal the shameless and spineless support for western imperialism that has become the norm.

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A war outsourced to al-Qaeda

The coverage of the Syrian war reached deafening tones during the recent government recapture of East Aleppo. Who can forget hearing over and over that the “last hospital” in East Aleppo had been destroyed? This entire coverage, orchestrated with a multitude of hidden backers, had the goal of convincing western readers that this had been a collective failure of humanity, that the west had done nothing to prevent it and that it thus needed to do more.

This myth of western non-intervention has been thoroughly debunked, even if far away from the mainstream press. But nobody put it better than Rania Khalek:

[…] the US government outsourced its war against the Syrian government to Al Qaeda, and Americans have no idea, because corporate media continue to promote lies about Obama’s so-called inaction.

The way in which al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, has been portrayed in the western press will one day be part of journalism courses. It is truly unbelievable that the Syrian branch of) al-Qaeda, a group that was declared public enemy #1, the main target of the open-ended “war on terror”, the existential threat to western civilisation, would end up spearheading the U.S. regime change operation in Syria.

Throughout the Syrian conflict we have mainly seen three ways of incorporating al-Qaeda into the mainstream narrative. One is to simply not mention their presence. When the propaganda goes into overdrive we start reading only about “rebels”, with no mention whatsoever of their nature. And thus we heard of the plight of the “rebels” in East Aleppo over and over again. The contrast with the coverage of the operation to retake Mosul, or with previous operations against al-Qaeda in Iraqi cities, could not be starker.

The second one is to mention that, even though a given operation is led by the Nusra front and their jihadi cousins of Ahrar al-Sham (more on them later), there are also plenty of moderate rebels around. The myth of the moderate rebels became ever-present in the western media, David Cameron claimed there were 70.000 of them!

While the Russians and Syrians claimed they were bombing terrorists, western governments cried in outrage that moderate forces, standing side by side with extremists, were being attacked. At this point there is an obvious question to be asked: if they are standing and fighting next to al-Qaeda, how moderate can they really be?1 Additionally, the west has been supplying weapons to these groups via regional proxies. Does this not just simply amount to an indirect supply of weapons to the Nusra front, which is where they naturally ended up?

Press conference announcing the Nusra front’s rebranding as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham

And the final tactic is what is employed by low-cost airlines after a plane crash: changing the name. This has arguably more to do with the regional sponsors of extremism, Saudi Arabia first and foremost, but also Qatar, the UAE, and to some extent Jordan and Turkey2, in that they need to at least pretend that they are fighting extremism in the region.

Therefore we have seen multiple rebrandings and regroupings of the Nusra front. There was the umbrella Jaish al Fatah (“Army of Conquest”), there was the official split from al-Qaeda with the blessing from al-Qaeda and the renaming as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. While any serious journalist would remind readers that this was the regrouped/rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate, it was not uncommon to find cases where we are just presented with the new names and no background. We also witnessed a situation where, under the cover of these rebrandings, a Saudi official pretty much admitted that the Saudis were supplying weapons to the Nusra front. His blushes were spared by the low journalistic standards of the BBC but not by the Intercept.

All in all, it seems like Bin Laden only needed to survive a few more years, move to Syria and get a new logo, and he would be back working with the Americans just like in the good ol’ 80s.

An islamic state through the ballot box

Another group in Syria3 whose trajectory in the western media is worth analysing is Ahrar al-Sham. It is known that it began forming brigades well before the official start of the Syrian “Revolution” in 2011, and this seriously undercuts the theory that the Syrian uprising was entirely secular and progressive from the start, only to be hijacked by jihadists, or forced in that direction by the government response, later on.

When the group first emerged as a serious player the coverage rule book had yet to crystallise, and western journalists sometimes fell into old habits of doing actual journalism. Reporting facts, verifying stories, that sort of thing. At the time it was plainly said that Ahrar al-Sham were a jihadist group full of foreign fighters which fought side-by-side with al-Qaeda. When it became clear that these groups were the big players in the Syrian opposition, the tune needed to change, at least in the newsrooms. Intelligence agencies had long known of this risk as weapons and money had been flowing from the west and regional allies. But while al-Qaeda had an unfixable PR problem, there was still hope for Ahrar al-Sham.

So we witnessed a scramble to merge the “democratic, secular forces we said we supported” and the “bin-ladenites we actually support”. The BBC needs to be credited with a quite remarkable piece of journalism. When describing Ahrar al-Sham, they wrote that they were:

  • “An ultraconservative Islamist, or Salafist, rebel group that aims to topple Mr Assad and build an Islamic state;
  • Has vowed to achieve the latter through the ballot box and not force”

Among the multiple journalists and editors, not to mention whoever told this to a reporter, surely someone must have thought this was a bit hard to believe. Here we have a group that wants to create an ultraconservative Islamic state, ban music, install religious courts, stone adulterers, kill non-believers and all that, and the BBC thinks they will just put this as an option in a ballot.

width=Ahrar al Sham speaking to the press, assuring them that there were no terrorists in Aleppo

The campaign to whitewash the group was a full-blown PR effort, with sponsors such as Qatar swearing on the moderation of the group. The face of this sanitisation for western consumption was Ahrar al-Sham’s foreign policy chief, Labib al-Nahhas. Soon enough he was given op-eds in mainstream outlets, claiming that contrary to all previous reports of his group fighting side-by-side with al-Qaeda and sharing its ideology, including in those same newspapers where the floor is now ceded to him, accusations of “organizational links to al-Qaeda and of espousing al-Qaeda’s ideology” could not be “further from the truth”.

And the absorption into the mainstream was complete when, beyond giving a column to Ahrar al-Sham, western outlets started basing their editorial lines on the opinions of the group. The case in point is the Shia bogeyman, Iran’s alleged masterplan to re-engineer the demographics of the region, something regularly peddled by the most sectarian regimes in the region, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Monarchies, and by the always loyal DC think tanks. What is most remarkable is that a journalist in a supposedly serious newspaper would base his geopolitical analysis on the views of a group he himself not so long ago labelled as “jihadi“, “conservative salafist” and “sharing much of al-Qaida’s worldview“.

If we cannot work with child beheaders, who are we left with?

The episode that most gruesomely captured the contradictions of western foreign policy and media coverage took place in Aleppo in July 2016. A sickening video was released showing a group of men taunting and then beheading a young boy. The perpetrators were from Nour al-Din al-Zenki, and the boy was a 12 year old Palestinian whom they accused of belonging to a Palestinian militia that fights alongside the Syrian government.

This was immediately followed by the damning revelation that this group had been vetted by the U.S. and received weapons. And while in reaction to previous episodes of this sort, though arguably none as reviling as this one, we witnessed widespread condemnation and defiant proclamations that evil would not triumph, this time what transpired was a damage control mission. From absurd claims that the boy was actually 19 and had stunted growth, to justifications that this was an individual act that would be punished by a “judicial process“, even attempts to deflect the blame onto the Assad “regime”.

But for some even this episode was not enough to conclude that western powers should not be allied with this kind of groups. Sam Heller argued that the U.S. will only achieve its goals in Syria by backing groups such as Nour al-Din al-Zenki. If you can only achieve your goals by working with child-beheading jihadis, maybe the goals are not worth pursuing in the first place? This question never seems to pop up in western media.

Sam Heller defends working with groups like Nour al-Din al-Zenki while Charles Lister spreads lies about the victim.

Another fierce advocate of Nour al-Din al-Zenki has been Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute. He shamelessly tried to downplay the heinous crime by claiming the victim was a “child fighter“, while in truth he was nothing of the sort. In the past Lister had advertised the group as “moderate“, but he is also on record saying that 50% of the rebels in Syria are moderate and that ISIS was created by the Syrian secret services. Recently Lister declared that, even though the group was moderate, it had become disgusting and he no longer supported it. So either a long history of extremism, abuses and coordination with al-Qaeda was out-of-character behaviour from a moderate group or Lister was blatantly lying all this time.

As for Nour al-Din al-Zenki, it has joined the latest rebranding/regrouping of al-Qaeda in Syria.

Jihad made in USA

If we contrast the official discourse of the U.S. and other western powers with regard to the Middle East, always full of uncompromising pledges to defend freedom, democracy and human rights, and the nature of the groups and countries in the region that are allied with western interests, there is a glaring contradiction. The media, instead of exposing this hypocrisy, have chosen to bridge the gap through omission, obfuscation and outright fabrications.

In reality this contradiction is only apparent. There is a long history of western empires finding the most extremist islamist groups as their most useful allies. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Bin Laden are probably the most emblematic of recent examples. But this goes back decades, for instance, to the British manoeuvres to put the Saud clan in power. When there was a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East between Gamal Nasser and the Saud family, it was crystal clear on whose side the west was on. And even recently John Kerry admitted that the U.S. had hoped ISIS advances could be used as leverage against Assad.

Any truly progressive regime in the Middle East, past or present, will invariably find itself at odds with western interests in the region, from natural resources to the occupation of Palestine. This history of contradictions and weaponisation of Islamic extremism by western powers, along with the way it has been presented to western audiences, is explored in the recent book Jihad made in USA by Gregoire Lalieu (available in French and Spanish).

• First published at Investig’Action

  1. On a related note, western journalists do not seem to find any inconsistency in (supposedly) democratic, secular, feminist groups being backed by Saudi Arabia! []
  2. There is also a lot to write about Israel’s involvement in all this, from their détente with extremist groups right on their doorstep (the occupied Golan Heights), sometimes even allowing fighters to receive hospital care in Israel, to their constant violations of international law when they bomb targets in Syria. []
  3. It would be lazy and inaccurate to call them “Syrian groups”, since there has been a tremendous influx of foreign fighters. []

Ricardo Vaz writes for Investig’Action. Read other articles by Ricardo.