There are very good arguments against intervention in Syria, even if I disagree with the conclusions reached from those arguments. I haven’t denigrated those who disagree, although I can’t say the same is true in reverse.
Unfortunately, regardless of how you come out on the issue, many people are buying into a media narrative which seeks to minimize the brutality of the Assad regime and the threat it poses, and to create a false choice of “Assad v. al-Qaeda.”
First, The NY Times ran a story and video of Syrian rebels executing Syrian soldiers, Brutality of Syrian Rebels Posing Dilemma in West:
This scene, documented in a video smuggled out of Syria a few days ago by a former rebel who grew disgusted by the killings, offers a dark insight into how many rebels have adopted some of the same brutal and ruthless tactics as the regime they are trying to overthrow.
As the United States debates whether to support the Obama administration’s proposal that Syrian forces should be attacked for using chemical weapons against civilians, this video, shot in April 2013[*}, joins a growing body of evidence of an increasingly criminal environment populated by gangs of highwaymen, kidnappers and killers.
The story and video were spread far and wide, including in the conservative media, to bolster the case that “the rebels” were even worse than the Assad regime. The Daily Beast noted how the Times’ story was a turning point in the debate, Syria Video Turns the Debate on U.S. Intervention.
But then there were the corrections, including this from the Times:
Correction: September 6, 2013
An article on Thursday about the brutal and ruthless tactics adopted by some rebel groups in Syria misstated the date of a video that showed a band of rebels executing seven captured Syrian soldiers. The video, which was smuggled out of Syria by a former rebel, was made in the spring of 2012, not April 2013.
That’s important. This was a video which was shot 18 months ago, but the source apparently didn’t tell The Times that fact. It also turns out that the “rebel” group is a splinter group with little influence, as reported by Politico:
That error, which the Times corrected on Friday, is being cited by supporters of the Syrian opposition as evidence that the Times report misrepresented the rebels — a significant charge given the video’s role in the debate over the proposed military strike against Syria.
The Times report cites a source who says that Abdul Samad Issa, the Jund al-Sham rebel commander who led the execution, received weapons from the Western-supported Supreme Military Council. But the SMC was founded in December 2012, at least six months after the execution took place.
In a statement to Foreign Policy’s “The Cable” blog, the Washington-based Syrian Support Group, which is pro-intervention, said “the SMC has no previous or current relationship with Jund al-Sham and, contrary to the New York Times article, the group is not shown within the SMC’s or SSG’s delivery records as having received supplies from the SMC command.”
I don’t doubt the increasing influence of al-Qaeda elements on the battlefield, or its brutality.
In fact, I’ve lamented the fact that Western indecision has left us only with bad choices between Assad and rebels in which al-Qaeda affiliated groups play a role. But we can have that debate without media manipulations meant to convey false information through old videos.
In fact, the media gives far less attention to the brutality of the Assad regime apart from the use of chemical gas. The civil war has seen the widespread use of rape, torture, executions and the wholesale destruction of cities by the Assad regime.
You may say “who cares?,” but then don’t use the 18-month old video for your argument against taking action in relation to chemical weapons.
Was this manipulation of The Times an accident? Did some ex-rebel miraculously appear on The Times’ doorstep with the video supposedly “smuggled out” of Syria even though the video was 18-months old? It seems doubtful.
As The Times itself reported last April, supporters of Assad have an organized public relations campaign designed to sway public opinion by portraying the rebels as all al-Qaeda:
As Islamists increasingly fill the ranks of Syrian rebels, President Bashar al-Assad is waging an energized campaign to persuade the United States that it is on the wrong side of the civil war. Some government supporters and officials believe they are already coaxing — or at least frightening — the West into holding back stronger support for the opposition.
Confident they can sell their message, government officials have eased their reluctance to allow foreign reporters into Syria, paraded prisoners they described as extremist fighters and relied unofficially on a Syrian-American businessman to help tap into American fears of groups like Al Qaeda.
And there were more headline-grabbing stories which were less than they seemed.
Russia announced that it had filed a 100-page report with the U.N. proving that the rebels were responsible for a March use of chemical weapons previously attributed to Assad forces.
That garnered headlines far and wide, as if the number of pages mattered, but you had to read deep into the story to learn that the report has not been released (emphasis added):
Russia says a deadly March sarin attack in an Aleppo suburb was carried out by Syrian rebels, not forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, and it has delivered a 100-page report laying out its evidence to the United Nations.
A statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website late Wednesday said the report included detailed scientific analysis of samples that Russian technicians collected at the site of the alleged attack, Khan al Asal in northern Syria. The attack killed 26 people.
A U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, confirmed that Russia delivered the report in July.
The report itself was not released.
Then NBC reported that a Facebook page for a rebel faction contained an image of the U.S. Capitol burning. But again, you had to read deep into it to see that this was, at best, some fringe group whose connection to the main rebel opposition is attenuated:
As debate grows over the extremism of some armed factions battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, an incendiary illustration on the Facebook page of one such group leaves little doubt where its leaders envision the uprising ending – with masked Islamic fighters marching through Washington, D.C., as the U.S. Capitol burns in the background.
The image is one of eight photos posted on the official Facebook page of the “Al-Aqsa Islamic Brigades,” a small armed Sunni rebel faction fighting with the Free Syrian Army, the main umbrella military organization of the opposition forces. Two other photos posted on the group’s page feature the widely recognized black flag of the al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist group, which operates freely in Syria.
Evan Kohlmann, a senior partner with the security firm Flashpoint Intelligence and an NBC consultant on terrorism, who discovered the image on Facebook and provided it to NBC News’ investigative unit, said Al-Aqsa has not been designated as a terrorist group by the United States. But he noted that it fights alongside another Free Syrian Army force, the Tawhid Brigade, that has been linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, one of two rebel factions labeled terrorist groups by the U.S. government.
None of this is meant to downplay the threat of al-Qaeda related groups in Syria.
It is meant to let you know that there appears to be a conscious effort to manipulate the news cycle into forcing the West to choose between Assad and al-Qaeda, and that is the choice Assad wants you to have to make. But that may not be the only choice.
We should identify American interests based on the facts we can prove as to what happened with the use of chemical weapons. Calculations based on “Assad versus al-Qaeda” are unreliable.
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