Featured in our Viewpoints section yesterday, Anand Gopal writes at Harper’s Magazine about how the media have uncritically accepted the word of the US-backed rebel fighters in Syria in order to create “a simple and self-serving narrative” about the murderous Assad regime and the Syrian people yearning for freedom and reform. He opens with what American newspapers reported as a Syrian government massacre in the town of Tremseh last month:
But there was a problem—no one had actually visited the town. The New York Times, for instance, reported the story from Beirut and New York, relying solely on statements and video from anti-Assad activists and the testimony of a man from “a nearby village” who visited the scene afterward. When the first U.N. investigators arrived two days later, they uncovered a very different story. Instead of an unprovoked massacre of civilians, the evidence pointed to a pitched battle between resistance forces and the Syrian army. Despite rebel claims that there had been no opposition fighters in Tremseh, it turned out that guerrillas had bivouacked in the town, and that most of the dead were in fact rebels. Observers also downgraded the death toll to anywhere from forty to a hundred.
We noted this when it happened last month (a similar thing might have happened with June’s Houla massacre). The New York Times published a subsequent report admitting, “Although what actually happened in Tremseh remains murky, the evidence available suggested that events on Thursday more closely followed the Syrian government account.” That is, a battle between regime forces and rebel militias, rather than a slaughter of unarmed civilians, as was claimed by the opposition and subsequently touted by Western sources.
Gopal’s piece is a welcome antidote to the narrative-seeking observers of the Syrian conflict. But he also notes there is narrative-seeking on the other side as well and he challenges a growing chorus of US intelligence officials going to the press to divulge secret information about al-Qaeda’s significant presence among the rebel fighters. Still, the ultimate lesson is that the American news media are predisposed to eat up anything the opposition claims is the truth:
The battles of the Syrian revolution are, among other things, battles of narrative. As I recount in “Welcome to Free Syria,” the regime has indeed committed grievous massacres, including one I saw evidence of in the northern town of Taftanaz. The Assad government also puts forth a narrative—the country is under siege from an alliance of criminal gangs, Al Qaeda, and the CIA—that is quite removed from reality. Yet there is also a powerful pull in the West to order a messy reality into a simple and self-serving narrative. The media, which largely favors the revolution, has at times uncritically accepted rebel statements and videos—which themselves often originate from groups based outside the country—as the whole story. This in turn provides an incentive for revolutionaries to exaggerate. A Damascus-based activist told me that he had inflated casualty numbers to foreign media during the initial protests last year in Daraa, because “otherwise, no one would care about us.”
Despite the unsavory and counterproductive interventions of the Obama administration, which Antiwar.com has been railing against from the start, they are getting hammered from the more crapulous warmongers in Washington who argue our policy should be one of direct military engagement to oust the Assad regime (followed by the requisite affinity for post-war nation-building). Many different factors could precipitate those policies in the near-to-medium term, but one is developing a simplified narrative of humanitarian intervention that goes unquestioned in the media.