By Rania Khalek
- This Daily Beast headline (8/8/16) was an unusually direct acknowledgement of Al Qaeda’s role in Aleppo.
The Syrian government—a dictatorship known for imprisoning, torturing and disappearing dissidents—is easy to vilify. And over the last five years of Syria’s civil war, it has committed its share of atrocities. But there is more than one side to every story, and US media coverage has mainly reflected one side—that of the rebels—without regard for accuracy or basic context.
As the Syrian government recaptured East Aleppo from rebels in recent weeks, media outlets from across the political spectrum became rebel mouthpieces, unquestioningly relaying rebel claims while omitting crucial details about who the rebels were.
Almost always overlooked in the US (and UK) media narrative is the fact that the rebels in East Aleppo were a patchwork of Western- and Gulf-backed jihadist groups dominated by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra)—Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria—along with its ally, Ahrar al-Sham (Daily Beast, 8/8/16; Foreign Policy, 9/1/16). These groups are explicitly anti-democratic and have been implicated in human rights violations, from mass execution and child beheadings to using caged religious minorities as human shields.
In the absence of any desire to evoke a political response, US media would surely have identified East Aleppo’s rebels by the name of the most famous militant group in the world—Al Qaeda. Yet press reports regularly referred to the militant forces dominating East Aleppo simply as “rebels.”
“Women in Aleppo Choose Suicide Over Rape,” declared a headline at the Daily Beast (12/12/16). The source of this very serious claim was Abdullah Othman, a member of Jabhat Al-Shamiya, or the Levant Front, an umbrella group whose membership consists of several jihadist rebel factions. So far no evidence has been presented, at least not publicly, to substantiate Othman’s claim. But that didn’t stop his story from spreading like wildfire across social media and being picked up by Commentary (12/13/16), Mic (12/16/16), Elle (12/13/16) and Foreign Policy (12/16/16), among others.
NBC News (12/13/16) reported that “scores of civilians were burned alive by regime forces.” The source for this accusation was unspecified “reports from Arab media.” The Independent (12/17/16) warned of “house-to-house murder.” The source was British politician David Miliband. The UN (12/13/16) cited “credible reports” of 82 civilians being shot “on the spot” by pro-government forces. While this is certainly plausible, the UN, which was not on the ground in East Aleppo, has yet to follow up on the matter.
US media also promoted accusations made by self-described “media activists” in East Aleppo warning that the Syrian regime was going to slaughter them. State Department spokesperson John Kirby called the messages “brave” and praised those who posted them as providing “independent third-party media coverage” of the horrors in Aleppo.
But information coming out of rebel areas is far from independent. On the contrary, it is tightly controlled by the jihadist groups that control these areas. These groups do not tolerate activism. They jail, torture and summarily execute activists, as well as lawyers, humanitarian workers, journalists and minorities. This should raise questions about anyone purporting to be an activist from rebel areas. But in the Western press, it doesn’t, which is why one of the most widely featured media personalities out of rebel-held Aleppo, Bilal Abdul Kareem, has been uncritically promoted by CNN (12/16/16) and even the usually adversarial Intercept (6/30/16), despite a well-established record of pushing hyper-sectarian propaganda for extremist groups (AlterNet, 12/29/16).
If media outlets were quick to grant legitimacy to rebel accusations, they ignored or downplayed rebel atrocities.
For example, when the rebels burned several buses (and killed the drivers) meant to evacuate the sick and injured from two besieged Shiite villages in Idlib, the New York Times (12/18/16) buried the details of the incident deep inside in the 19th paragraph of a story on evacuations.
Reports that the rebels shot at civilians attempting to flee to government areas and withheld food and humanitarian aid from civilians rarely made it into Western media reports.
While both sides have accused the other of carrying out massacres in Aleppo, only rebel accusations received widespread US media coverage. But the only evidence to emerge so far points to the rebels as culprits. Ahead of their evacuation from East Aleppo, rebel groups reportedly executed an estimated 100 Syrian soldiers they were holding prisoner, according to pro-government forces. The bodies were found in a local school. Despite photos, corroborating video evidence and the fact that rebels have carried out mass summary executions of Syrian soldiers taken prisoner in Aleppo in the past, US media outlets mostly ignored it. One of the groups alleged to be behind the killings is Nouriddeen Al-Zinki, a recipient of US weapons. (Months ago, Al-Zinki fighters videotaped themselves beheading a child. The gruesome act was met with a shrug by the group’s Western backers.) Russia also reported finding mass graves of tortured civilians and booby traps during its sweep of East Aleppo, which received little to no attention.
If none of this were true, the loathing that many Syrians in government areas express for the rebels, and for the Western media who glorify them, would be hard to explain.
In November, I visited government-held areas of Syria, where the overwhelming majority (an estimated 75 percent) of Syrians live, and I witnessed a side of the conflict that US media outlets have almost entirely overlooked. It’s as if the views and well-being of some 17 million Syrians don’t matter, simply because they live on the government side.
This rule seems to apply across the media spectrum. An editor at a major progressive publication rejected on-the-ground reporting from government areas, telling me it was a futile journalistic endeavor because the Syrian government watches everything, and Syrians are too terrified of the secret police to say what they really think.
While it’s true that Syrians are limited in their capacity to criticize the government, it doesn’t justify ignoring them. And the situation on the ground isn’t so black and white. Behind closed doors and in private conversations, many Syrians were sharply critical of the Assad regime. Yet they still supported the government, largely out of even stronger opposition to the religious fundamentalism and brutality of the armed groups, whom they view as foreign-backed religious fanatics who have invaded their country and terrorized them and their families.
I’m still haunted by what I saw at Al-Razi Hospital in what was then government-held West Aleppo. I watched as one ambulance after another dropped off civilians wounded by rebel mortars fired into residential neighborhoods around the clock. Medical staff quickly went to work on a man whose chest was pierced by a piece of twisted metal. A frantic woman lingered close by, shouting, “He’s the only son I have left!” The man was soon pronounced dead and the woman collapsed in agony.
Down a crowded hall, 10-year-old Fateh stood on a blood-smeared floor, crying beside a gurney where his 15-year-old brother, Mohammad, was lying. Blood had soaked through the bandage on his leg, but the medical staff was too busy with more life-threatening injuries to take notice. The boys were lucky to be alive. They had been moving furniture out of the house with their younger cousins earlier in the day when they were struck by rebel mortars. Their 6-year-old cousin, a girl, was in the ICU. Their 4-year-old cousin, a boy, had been killed.
Across the street, grieving families waited outside the morgue to identify the bodies of their recently deceased loved ones. A group of sobbing children explained to me how they had watched their father die that morning from the balcony of their apartment. A rebel mortar struck him as he was parking his car. Meanwhile, a shell-shocked father told me his 10-year-old son was shot and killed by a sniper while fetching water on the roof.
A grief-stricken woman, mourning the loss of her husband, cursed the government for not hitting the rebels—or “terrorists,” in her words—hard enough. Her family members agreed, complaining that the Syrian government was being too soft on the armed groups that they blamed for destroying their city.
Underneath all the grief and calls for revenge was exhaustion. After five years of war, these people were tired. I didn’t meet a single Syrian in the government areas I visited who hadn’t lost friends and family since the war started. But their suffering, with a few minor exceptions, has been largely disappeared from Western media, probably because the people most responsible for it are supported by the West.
Even those who expressed disapproval of Russia’s involvement in their country told me they hold the US and its regional allies—Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey—most responsible for the disintegration of their country.
These sentiments totally contradict one of US media’s most pernicious lies—that US inaction allowed the bloodshed in Syria to continue with impunity.
“Many thousands of people have been killed in Aleppo…but Washington shrugs,” lamented the New York Times (12/14/16). “The United States’ inaction in Syria has transformed our country into nothing other than a bystander to the greatest atrocity of our time,” complained Leon Wieseltier in the Washington Post (12/15/16).
But Washington has intervened (FAIR.org, 10/1/15)—and by doing so, it prolonged the bloodshed and empowered Al Qaeda.
Despite being warned about the extremist and violently sectarian ideology that dominated the opposition as early as November 2011, the Obama administration spent, according to the Washington Post (6/12/15), a colossal $1 billion-a-year training and funneling weapons to Al Qaeda–linked extremists in order to weaken the Syrian government.
In written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 2016, Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter IS, warned that “Nusra is now Al Qaeda’s largest formal affiliate in history.” According to US intelligence officials, Nusra is starting to plot attacks against the US.
In other words, 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.
Many US media consumers might be shocked to learn that the Syrian uprising was never particularly popular in Aleppo. The rebels, with help from their American benefactors, invaded and captured Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods by force in 2012. At times they laid siege to Aleppo’s government-held areas, cutting off access to drinking water, electricity and food. American politicians cheered the territorial gains. Hillary Clinton, then secretary of State, expressed hope that the rebels taking East Aleppo would “provide a base for further actions by the opposition.”
With its ground forces already overstretched fighting an insurgency across the country, the Syrian government responded, as it often has, with overwhelming and devastating air power, which Western leaders routinely denounced. But the criminal conduct of the rebels failed to provoke similar outrage.
Many whose neighborhoods were occupied by rebel forces fled early on to government areas or neighboring countries. Their homes were looted in their absence and turned into operating bases. Those who stayed were subjected to strict interpretations of Islamic law that closely resembled the brutal practices imposed by ISIS.
Corporate media’s own accounts periodically reflected these realities, back when Western journalists still ventured into rebel areas.
“We waited and waited for Aleppo to rise, and it didn’t. We couldn’t rely on them to do it for themselves so we had to bring the revolution to them,” a rebel commander told Reuters in July 2012. The article went on to note that the fighters were “lounging inside a school taken over by the rebels as a temporary base” in an area that “appeared to be completely deserted by residents. Fighters were using houses as bases to sleep in.”
“Around 70 percent of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them,” confessed another rebel commander to the Guardian in August 2012.
“In Aleppo, I heard Salafi jihadists talk of slaying the minority Alawites, and call for both the immediate support of America, and its immediate demise,” reported the New York Times in October 2012.
Indeed, schools, medical facilities and residential buildings were transformed into military bases and sharia courts. The Children’s Hospital in Aleppo became a notorious prison and torture facility where several Western hostages, including journalist James Foley, who was later beheaded by the Islamic State, were held.
By late 2013, rebel kidnappings of journalists were so rampant that major Western media outlets collectively urged the Syrian opposition to put a stop to the abductions.
At the same time, Western governments poured millions of dollars into rebel propaganda made up of authentic-looking rebel media outlets and NGOs, like the White Helmets, to glorify the armed groups and agitate for more forceful Western military intervention against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
No longer able to travel to rebel areas for fear of being kidnapped or worse, journalists were relegated to covering the war from Beirut and Istanbul, becoming entirely dependent on Western-funded propaganda to fill the information vacuum.
Falling in line behind the geopolitical interests of their governments, Western media went about whitewashing and romanticizing jihadist groups as liberators and protectors adored by the Syrians living under them, even as their own reporters were being kidnapped, ransomed and even shot by Western-backed rebels.
Take Liz Sly of the Washington Post. In a 2013 on-the-ground report from East Aleppo (3/19/13), Sly details the brutality of Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, which had taken over the area and turned the city’s Eye Hospital into its headquarters. Yet as the government recaptured East Aleppo, Sly and her colleagues omitted any mention of Al Qaeda among the rebels, while promoting the claims of rebel activists who operate under their control.
The cognitive dissonance is truly astounding in light of US media’s fawning coverage of similar military offensives in cities controlled by ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, where US-backed forces have employed many of the same tactics condemned in Aleppo.
In the Syrian city of Manjib, not far from Aleppo, US-backed ground forces imposed a crippling siege that left tens of thousands of civilians hungry as US airstrikes pounded the city, killing up to 125 civilians in a single attack. In Iraq, the US also used airstrikes to drive ISIS out of Ramadi and Fallujah, leaving behind flattened neighborhoods that resemble the ruins of East Aleppo. In Fallujah, 140 people reportedly died from lack of food and medicine during the siege.
After ISIS was ejected from Fallujah, NBC News (6/17/16) ran the headline: “Iraqi Forces Enter Central Fallujah, Liberate Key Areas from ISIS.” In striking contrast, during Al Qaeda’s removal from East Aleppo, NBC (12/14/16) declared: “Aleppo Is Falling. What Does This Mean For Assad, ISIS and Russia?”
Since 9/11, US corporate media have portrayed Al Qaeda as a monstrous organization whose existence justifies a global war without end. Who could have predicted that by 2016, these same media outlets would become Al Qaeda’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders?