Syria: Straining Credulity?

Alastair Crooke

Article posted on Asia Times Online, 09 March 2012

The UN Secretary General was reported on March 3 saying that he had received “grisly reports” that Syrian government forces were arbitrarily executing, imprisoning and torturing people in Homs after retaking control of the Baba Amr district from insurgents. Did he really believe this; or was he just “saying it”?

“One of the defining bifurcations of the future will be the conflict between information masters and information victims” the US officer assigned to the Deputy Chief of Staff (Intelligence), charged with defining the future of warfare, wrote in the US Army War College Quarterly in 1997.

“But fear not”, he writes later in the article, for “we are already masters of information warfare … Hollywood is ‘preparing the battlefield’ … Information destroys traditional jobs and traditional cultures; it seduces, betrays, yet remains invulnerable. How can you [possibly] counterattack the information [warfare] others have turned upon you? [1]

“Our sophistication in handling it will enable us to outlast and outperform all hierarchical cultures … Societies that fear or otherwise cannot manage the flow of information simply will not be competitive. They might master the technological wherewithal to watch the videos, but we will be writing the scripts, producing them, and collecting the royalties. Our creativity is devastating.”

This information warfare will not be couched in the rationale of geopolitics, the author suggests, but will be “spawned” – like any Hollywood drama – out of raw emotions. “Hatred, jealousy, and greed – emotions, rather than strategy – will set the terms of [information warfare] struggles”.

Not only the US army, but it seems mainstream Western media insist that the struggle in Syria must be scripted in emotional image and moralistic statements that always – as the War College article rightly asserts – trump rational analysis.

The UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry condemns the Syrian government of crimes against humanity, but only on the basis of what the opposition says, and without having investigated evidence of opposition “crimes”: and then proceeds to “charge” the Syrian government with this process based simply on “reasonable suspicion”: Do they really believe what they have written, or is it just a part of “writing the script”? [2]

Having quite forgotten what US Marines did to Falluja in 2004 (6,000 dead and 60% of the city destroyed) when armed insurgents there also sought to establish a Salafist “Emirate” – the Western media focus on Homs gives vent to the indignant cry that “something must be done” to save the people of Homs from “massacre”. The question of what effect exactly that something – whether external military intervention or providing heavier weapons for the insurgents – might be, and what its wider consequences might entail, meanwhile recedes entirely from view. Those with the temerity to get in the way of “this narrative” by arguing that external intervention would be disastrous, are roundly condemned as complicit in President Assad’s crimes against humanity.

This school of journalism – the Guardian and Channel Four are good examples of this “I-was-there” reporting – that emphasizes the reporter as participant, and indeed victim, a co-sufferer amid the charged, heart-tugging emotional sufferings of war, uses emotive images precisely to underline that “something must be done”. By focussing on mutilated bodies and weeping bereaved women they assert and determine that the conflict must be viewed as being of utmost moral simplicity – one of victims and aggressors.

“In Baba Amr. Sickening. Cannot understand how the world can stand by. Watched a baby die today. Shrapnel: doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until he stopped. Feeling helpless”. [3]

Those who try to argue that Western intervention can only exacerbate the crisis, are confronted by this unanswerable riposte of dead babies – literally. As the War College article so rightly states: how can you counter attack this manner of “information warfare” unleashed against the Syrian government who are on the receiving end of those “writing the scripts, producing them, and collecting the royalties”?

I too, saw such terrible sights in Afghanistan in the 1980s: It does of course create an emotional abyss into which the helpless spectator slips; but do these reporters really believe that innocents and children are not always the victims of conflict? Do they believe their personal distress to be somehow so primary that it must set aside all complexities, and all potential possibilities? Is more conflict the answer to the awful death of an infant?

This reductionist, emotional ardor is but a form of concealed political advocacy – little different to that of an information “warrior” such as AVAAZ, who help write and produce those info-war videos. [4] And while nobody openly endorses such “journalism of participation”, this approach seems to have triumphed in certain journalistic quarters. And indeed it is creeping further: increasingly we see even certain Western diplomats acting as though they are “activists” and participants in the internal struggles of the states to which they are posted. What sort of reporting must their governments be getting?

Are we now to understand that the armed opposition, who originally brought Western journalists to Homs – and then insisted to exfiltrate them perilously, and at the cost of many lives, via Lebanon, rather than through the good offices of the Red Crescent to the nearest airport, were not motivated by a desire to advocate, and impel the argument for externally-imposed humanitarian corridors to be opened to Homs? In other words, were not witness to the construction of une piece de theatre in favor of a type of external intervention? Will a Kosovo-type solution will make things better in Syria?

What has become so striking is that, whilst this “information warfare” may have been almost irreversibly effective in demonizing President Assad in the West, it has also had the effect of “unanchoring” European and American foreign policy. It has become cast adrift from any real geo-strategic mooring. This has led to a situation in which European policy has become wholly suggestible to such “advocacy reporting”, and the need to respond to it, moment-by- moment, in emotive, moralistic blasts of sound-bites accusing President Assad of having “blood on its hands”.

In one sense the West inevitably has fallen hostage to its own information warfare: it has locked itself into a single understanding, stuck to a “singleness” of meaning: a simplistic victims-and-aggressor meme, which demands only the toppling of the aggressor. Europe, in this manner, effectively is cutting itself off from other options – precisely because the humanitarian theme, which policy-makers may have thought would suffice to see Assad easily deposed, now impedes any shift towards other options – such as a peaceful negotiated outcome.

But does anyone really believe American and European objectives in Syria were ever purely humanitarian? Is it not the case – given that the turnout of events in the Middle East are taking such an ominous and dangerous turn – that it has now becoming somewhat awkward openly to admit that their info-war was never primarily about reforming Syria, but about “regime change”, and that it was that even from before the first protest erupted in Dera’a?

In his recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, [5] given in advance of President Obama’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee speech, the president, inter alia, was questioned about Syria. His response was very clear:

GOLDBERG: Can you just talk about Syria as a strategic issue? Talk about it as a humanitarian issue, as well; but it would seem to me that one way to weaken and further isolate Iran is to remove or help remove Iran’s only Arab ally.


Do these Western interventionist proselytizers really believe that the onslaught on Syria is only about democracy and reform? Obama said it plainly. It was always about Iran. And, as Europe and America increasingly become bystanders to a Qatari and Saudi frenzy to overthrow a fellow Arab leader by any means it takes, do these “apostles” truly think that these absolute Arab monarchies simply share the Guardian’s or Channel Four’s nice humanitarian aspirations for Syria’s future? Do these reporters really believe that the armed insurgents that Gulf states are financing and arming are nothing more than well-intentioned reformists, who have simply been driven to violence through Assad’s incalcitrance? Some perhaps do, but others perhaps are simply “saying these things” to prepare the battlefield?

1. Constant Conflict, Parameters, Summer 1997, pp. 4-14.
2. The United Nations Accuses Syria of “Crimes against Humanity”
3. The danger of reporters becoming ‘crusaders’,, Feb 27, 2012.
4. See ‘How Avaaz Is Sponsoring Fake War Propaganda From Syria’, March 3, 2012.
5. Obama to Iran and Israel: ‘As President of the United States, I Don’t Bluff’

Alastair Crooke is founder and director of Conflicts Forum and is a former adviser to the former EU Foreign Policy Chief, Javier Solana, from 1997-2003.

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