Tragedy in Syria – Propaganda and Counter Propaganda

Posted by Dr John Jewell

On Wednesday 21st August news began to break of another atrocity in Syria. The BBC described how the Facebook pages of the Syrian opposition to the government of President Bashar al-Assad had reported sustained combat in the rebel-held area of Ghouta, a mainly rural area in eastern Damascus. During the fighting – and during the night, claimed the opposition forces – the Assad army had used chemical weapons which, it was announced later in the day, had resulted in the deaths of around of around 1300 people. The opposition Syrian National Coalition pleaded for western help and for a U.N. Security Council meeting. ‘I call on the Security Council to convene urgently,’ National Coalition leader Ahmed al-Jarba said to Al-Arabiya news channel, referring to the attack as  a “massacre.” For their part, the Syrian government described the accusations of chemical use  as ‘illogical and fabricated’ and that opposition forces had made up the claims to divert attention from their recent huge losses.

Almost as soon as the story broke, amateur footage of the impact of the nerve gas attack began to appear online. The British press was swift in its condemnation of Assad with the Daily Mirror in particular feeling the need to publish pictures of dead children on its front page under the headline, ‘Now They’re Gassing Children’

International revulsion was equally as rapid. Obama (who had previously indicated that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would ‘cross the red line’) said, what we’ve seen indicates that this is clearly an event of grave concern. This is something that is going to require America’s attention.’ William Hague reasoned that the only possible explanation for the horrific attack was that it carried out by Assad’s regime. Speaking at the Foreign Office, he stated,[we] believe this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale but we would like the United Nations to be able to assess that so those who don’t believe that, those who doubt that, the evidence can be gathered. But that is certainly our opinion.’ 

Whilst Hague expressed his certainty about the culpability of Assad, he also – albeit rather dismissively – referenced those that question the reliability of the Syrian opposition claims. And there are many who do question them. Patrick Cockburn, writing in the Independent, reasoned, ‘the problem is that the evidence so far for the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army is secondhand and comes from a biased source.’

Cockburn stated that the Syrian opposition wants to precipitate western intervention – given Obama’s previous statements about red lines being crossed what better way to do that than to highlight Assad’s chemical weapon use? The problem for Cockburn, whilst in no way saying that any of this did not happen at the hands of Assad, is that the veracity of the information remains questionable:  ‘International media organisations do their best to verify YouTube footage, but they do not have reporters who are eyewitnesses to chemical-weapons attacks. Skepticism about film produced by opposition activists has increased in the past two years, but frequently it is the only evidence available. The difficulty is, can it be concocted or edited to prove a point?

And there has been some skepticism over the footage. Stephen Johnson, an expert in weapons and chemical explosives at Cranfield Forensic Institute, told Euronews that there were inconsistencies among the patients’ symptoms. ‘There are, within some of the videos, examples which seem a little hyper-real, and almost as if they’ve been set up. Which is not to say that they are fake but it does cause some concern. Some of the people with foaming, the foam seems to be too white, too pure, and not consistent with the sort of internal injury you might expect to see, which you’d expect to be bloodier or yellower, Johnson said.

The issue for international observers is twofold:  first, why would Assad decide now of all times to mount a chemical attack? It was only on Sunday 18th August that UN weapons inspectors arrived in the country – they are based 10 miles away from the recent attacks. Secondly, should these atrocities be the work of the government, it would be a radical change in strategy. As Margret Johannsen, Middle East expert at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at Hamburg University told the German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, ‘At the moment, I can’t see a sensible reason why he would use chemical weapons, from the point of view of the regime.’

On Monday 26th August, Assad told the Russian newspaper Izvestia: ‘would any state use chemical or any other weapons of mass destruction in a place where its own forces are concentrated? That would go against elementary logic.’ On Saturday 26th August the Guardian carried a report from Syrian television which stated the Syrian government had discovered chemical agents in rebel tunnels in Damascus

We must recognise that alleged chemical weapons use has been a feature of the propaganda war prior to August 18thA seminar/consultation held on the Syrian Crisis held in June highlighted concerns about the way both sides were using these claims to gain political leverage without solid proof. The conference noted: the type of evidence regarding chemical weapons allegations that has been presented publicly up to this point is not legal proof but rather stories and allegations. The reports lack density, in comparison to previous instances where chemical weapons use was confirmed.  At the time of the meeting, there had been 7 or 8 incidents where a specific time or place has been indicated, the rest is based on unspecified time or dates.  The narratives are lacking supporting visuals, and according to one participant, there has not been one photo provided of a dead person in these reported attacks.  All of this is highly unusual.  

But the west seems geared up for military intervention and convinced of Assad’s use of chemical weapons. John Kerry, US Secretary of State has spoken of the staggering scale of death and injury. These attacks were a ‘moral obscenity’ and the evidence of the Syrian government’s culpability was ‘screaming at us’ he said. ‘With our own eyes we have all become witnesses’.

This is emotive language, clearly. Instantly recognisable to those who have followed the propaganda techniques previously utilised in order to galvanise public opinion behind conflict. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the removal of Gaddafi in 2011 were predicated along similar lines: these were brutal dictators, capable of murdering ‘their own’ people and the west had a moral responsibility to act. Anybody who attempted to add nuance to these claims or to underline the possible disastrous consequences of regime change were dismissed out of hand

Russia and China, hardly disinterested parties it has to be said, are those seeking to ensure history does not repeat itself. Alexander Lukashevich, Russian foreign ministry spokesman has called on the international community to obey the rule of law. He said, ‘attempts to bypass the Security Council, once again to create artificial groundless excuses for a military intervention in the region are fraught with new suffering in Syria and catastrophic consequences for other countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

At the time of writing, David Cameron is considering recalling Parliament to discuss the crisis with armed fleets in the Mediterranean apparently ‘good to go’  and UN weapon inspectors are into their second day of investigation into the site of the chemical attacks. Their previous day’s effort was marred and complicated by sniper fire and mortar attack. The inspectors have complained to both the Syrian government and the rebels about the onslaught. They simply don’t know who was responsible.

And at this stage we don’t know who was responsible for the use of sarin on the 18th of August. Nobody could deny that the situation in Syria is almost unbearably bleak and that the civil war has been ruinous and devastating.  Both sides seem capable of terrible horrors. There are few signs of peace on the horizon, Syria’s infrastructure is shattered and a humanitarian crisis is continuing apace. According to the UNHCR, they are addressing the needs of 1,947,213 refugees affected by violence. Over three quarters of these are women and children.

As a result of these events, though, Western military intervention may now only be a matter of days away. But amidst propaganda and counter propaganda it may be months, or even years, before who discover who was really responsible for the use of chemical weapons on 18th August.