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Journalist Rania Khalek, who recently returned from Syria, says that the rebels are despised even by many of those who loathe the government

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. In Syria, on Monday, President Bashar al-Assad stated that everything is on the table when it comes to the Russian-brokered peace negotiations that will be taking place in Kazakhstan including his own position within the framework of this Syrian Constitution. Let’s have a look. (video clip) BASHAR AL-ASSAD: We are ready to negotiate everything. We spoke about negotiation regarding whether to end the conflict in Syria or talking about the future of Syria. Everything — it’s fully open, there is no limit for the negotiations. But who is going to be there from the other side we don’t know yet. Is it going to be real Syrian opposition? And when I say “real” it means has a grassroot in Syria. Not the Saudi one or the French one or the British one, it should be a Syrian opposition to discuss the Syrian issue. (end video clip) SHARMINI PERIES: There has been mounting evidence that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to buy the U.K., U.S. and the Gulf monarchs to push for regime change in Syria. In her most recent article titled “In Syria Western Media Cheer al-Qaeda,” journalist Rania Khalek describe how, in her words, media outlets from across the political spectrum become rebel mouthpieces, unquestioningly relying on rebel claims while omitting crucial details about who the rebels were. Joining us now to talk about all of this is Rania Khalek. Rania is a co-host of the podcast Unauthorized Disclosures and is the former Associate Editor of Electronic Intifada. She was recently in Syria and, of course, she’s been writing about this, as well. Thanks for joining us, Rania. RANIA KHALEK: Good to be on with you. SHARMINI PERIES: Give us a sense of your recent trip and why you penned this article about U.S. media and coverage in Syria? RANIA KHALEK: Well, the U.S. media and Western media, more generally, have relied almost exclusively on claims made by various armed rebel groups and rebel activists to guide their reporting. Because the fact of the matter is that, in rebel areas in Syria, there is no Western media present. So there is no actual real media presence at all because journalists can’t go into rebel areas because if they do they will be killed or kidnapped or ransomed, as we’ve seen happen over the years with journalists being, in some cases, sold to ISIS and then beheaded. And so, journalists are generally reporting from places like Beirut and Istanbul on what’s going on in Syria — and they’re reporting almost entirely on claims made by rebel groups that are basically like facilitated to journalists through either PR companies or through rebel propaganda outlets that are funded by the U.S. and U.K. and other governments. So a lot of the reporting coming out of Syria, I mean, it’s one of the most poorly reported conflicts I think I’ve ever seen. And I say that as somebody who has been focused on Israel-Palestine for a number of years. And having gone to Syria myself, obviously, the government’s side of Syria, which you never hear about in the press here in this country, it really is shocking just like the level of discrepancy between the reality on the ground and what you’re hearing in the press here. People in government areas, where the majority of Syrians live — 75% of Syrians inside Syria live in government areas — and the general sentiment that I got, being in both Damascus and Aleppo, is the people, across the board, pretty much loathe the rebels. I mean, that includes people who are critical of the government. They loathe the rebels and that’s one of the reasons the government is still able to be in control, is because it has a level of support from the Syrian population, most of which comes from the fact that Syrians, regardless of how bad the government might be or what they think of the government, they loathe and fear the rebel groups that we have helped arm and empower them even more. Because those rebel groups, which is something you also don’t hear, in the U.S. press almost ever — many of the rebel groups are basically linked to al-Qaeda. Some of them are affiliated, but some of them are in groups that are actually a part of al-Qaeda, like in broader coalition groups. Almost every single rebel group at this point, across the board, works with al-Qaeda because the fact of the matter is that al-Qaeda is the most powerful fighting force among the rebels and it has been for a very, very, long time. And the U.S. government knew this and still decided to continue to funnel weapons and arms to groups that they knew were linked to al-Qaeda. So that was the general picture that I saw when I went to Syria that you just don’t see in the media here. SHARMINI PEIES: And, Rania, the claim that U.S., U.K. and Gulf monarchs are funding regime change and this is, of course, transpiring through the media, how do we know that? RANIA KHALEK: Well, the U.S. itself — and we know this from Edward Snowden leaks that were reported by The Washington Post — is the CIA spent, starting in 2013, a billion dollars a year arming and training rebel groups. That doesn’t include however much the Saudis may have spent and the Qataris and the U.K. as well — that’s just the CIA alone. And so that’s a lot of money. That’s a big chunk of money — that’s almost as much as we give to the Egyptian military every year in weapons. So it’s not a small sum of money. And, on top of that, we know that the U.K. and U.S. both have been spending money on a media apparatus and, especially with the USAID, it’s been funneling millions of dollars to what they say is helping set up independent media in Syria in rebel areas. With the U.K. Foreign Office – and, again, it’s really difficult to pin down exactly how much money and exactly where it goes, because a lot of this is covert — but with U.K. foreign office, I reported about a month ago on the fact that a colleague of mine, a journalistic colleague of mine, was approached by a rebel media outlet that was covertly funded by the U.K. Foreign Office and he was offered $17,000 a month to report what is essentially rebel propaganda from offices in Istanbul and Gazientep in Turkey. And this is an American journalist, not a Syrian. So we know that that money is being spent on trying to whitewash and sanitize on rebel groups. Many of these groups, one of them in particular that received U.S. funding, the Zenki group, videotaped itself beheading a child a few months ago. And so, these are the kind of groups that we’ve been funding in Syria. Groups that commit atrocities that are not that different than al-Qaeda, that implement really harsh Islamic law, and that the people in Syria — especially those who have lived under these groups and escaped to government areas or even outside of Syria — those people despise these groups. And it’s including activists I spoke to who protested in 2011 for reform and democracy. They also, the people I spoke to at least, despise these groups. SHARMINI PERIES: But, Rania, one specific thing in your article, you write that Western media simply refer to anti-government militants in Syria as rebels. What’s wrong with that? RANIA KHALEK: Well, it’s fine if you want to call them rebels, call them insurgents, militants, call them whatever you want — but you’ve got to be clear about who they are. Rebels is a cute name. It has a positive connotation. And we call them rebels in America, but when you go to Syria, the people that are being shelled by the rebels, the people whose families, like Christians and Druze and other minorities, whose families have been kidnapped, killed or forcibly converted by the rebels — or even other Muslims who’ve experienced repression under the rebels — they laugh when you call them this name. In fact, one person in particular told me, “Please stop calling them rebels. It’s an insult to us.” In Syria, they call them terrorists. And we can argue about whether the word “terrorists” is a fair word to call anybody because, obviously, there’s a lot of political meaning behind that in this country, the point is, is that, in Syria the conversation about these people is completely different than the conversation we have here. Here, they’re not only described as rebels, they’re portrayed as being freedom fighters. They’re portrayed as people who are fighting against tyranny and trying to institute something better. When, in fact, yes, they are fighting to overthrow a government that isn’t democratic in any way whatsoever — that said, they’re not fighting to institute something better, in the areas they control they’ve instituted really harsh forms of Sharia law. That’s the reality. And it is really shocking to me that the media, whenever there is some sort of military confrontation between the two sides in Syria, they say all these things about the government’s sides, some of which is true and some of it isn’t, but there is no honesty whatsoever about the rebels. They just become “the rebels” and that’s it. And I think that that’s really misleading, especially to the American public which has been funding these groups. SHARMINI PERIES: And what do you make of the allegations against the Assad government? You were saying sometimes both sides have been engaged in atrocities in Syria, but the government particularly has a moral responsibility to protect civilians. And there’s been allegations that the Assad government, with the support of the Russians, have targeted civilian populations and caused a great deal of suffering for its own population. What do you make of that? RANI KHALEK: Well, I mean, there’s no question that you’re seeing a lot of suffering taking place, especially in the rebel areas because the government has responded with devastating airpower. And I think that that should be absolutely investigated. I would never, ever try and whitewash war or say that the government shouldn’t be held responsible if they committed atrocities. That said, I do think it’s important to put this in context. And the context is that with the U.S. media, in particular, there’s a way they cover the situation in Syria that they don’t in areas in Iraq that are controlled by ISIS. In Syria, the rebel areas are controlled by al-Qaeda-linked groups — in some cases they are controlled by al-Qaeda like we saw in Aleppo. And you look at the way that the U.S. media covers Aleppo versus the way it covers, let’s say, Fallujah or Ramadi or any other areas controlled by ISIS where the U.S., with Iraqi forces on the ground, has employed these same exact tactics that you see being employed by the Syrians and the Russians in parts of Syria. And, again, that is not to try and say that that’s okay to do just because the U.S. does it, but it is to say that there’s a double standard going on here. The U.S., just like we see with Russia and Syria, you know, there’s ground forces that are aligned with the U.S. that surround these places and impose very brutal sieges. In Fallujah, I believe, 120 something people actually died from lack of food and medicine because of the U.S.-instituted siege in Fallujah. Last year, when ISIS was removed from Fallujah, you saw a celebration in the U.S. media calling Fallujah liberated. Whereas, in Aleppo, when al-Qaeda was removed from Aleppo, you saw the U.S. media calling it “the fall of Aleppo” and comparing it to genocide and comparing it to other things like Rwanda. And so, it’s just this double standard that demonstrates that the U.S. media, the Western press is really so closely aligned with the geopolitical interests of its own government that it isn’t even interested in reporting honestly and accurately on really any of these situations. Because the same suffering we saw in East Aleppo, is also happening in parts of Mosul right now. And it was also happening in Fallujah and Ramadi, and those areas were also devastated by air power. I believe in Ramadi they said it was apartment block to apartment block, it’s completely levelled from U.S. air strikes. So that, to me, suggests that we’re just not getting the real story on anything that’s happening in these places. SHARMINI PERIES: Rania, Bilal Abdul Kareem has become a significant figure in terms of the story of the media coverage about Syria. Tell us who he is and why he’s become so controversial. RANIA KHALEK: Well, Bilal Abdul Kareem is an American who went to Syria and basically reports from areas controlled by al-Qaeda. I don’t know how he has access to these areas, but his journalism has been extremely sectarian. He has basically offered his platform as a tool to allow foreign fighters in Syria, to propagandize for other Muslims around the world to come be foreign fighters in Syria and to fight to institute an Islamic state in Syria. It’s pretty clear in his reporting, he’s extremely sectarian, he’s basically like excused the behavior of many of the armed groups, including the one in particular that went around parading allied civilians in cages to use them as human shields on video. So this is the kind of stuff that this guy seems to think is all right or okay or somehow excusable, yet he was, during the operation to take back East Aleppo by the government, he was all over U.S. media — he was on CNN. He was in The Guardian, he was everywhere reporting on what was happening on the ground. Meanwhile, nobody had anything to say about his very violent sectarian ideology. This is a guy who praised Anwar al-Awlaki. That’s not to say that everything he says is completely false, but he clearly has an agenda — at least say that if you’re going to have him on TV and airing him. And instead he was presented repeatedly — especially by CNN — as an independent journalist and that’s it. And so, this is the kind of thing that you’ve seen a lot from Aleppo. It’s not just Bilal Abdul Kareem, although he’s an interesting case because he’s an American from Brooklyn who seems to think like it’s okay for foreign fighters to go determine the future of Syria. But that’s been the case with other journalists, as well — and I put “journalists” and “activists” coming out of rebel areas, I put that in big quotes. And the reason I do is because, in the areas controlled by rebels, we have reports from places like Amnesty International showing that in these areas, activists and lawyers and doctors and humanitarian aid workers and minorities and women — and basically anybody who defends at all against the armed groups — is killed. People are summarily executed, they’re tortured, they’re stoned for things like blasphemy. And so, if that’s what’s happening in rebel areas, I think that anybody who’s presenting themselves as somehow independent or an activist or a media personality out of these areas should be treated with a great deal of skepticism. It should raise questions about them, if they’re claiming to operate under these areas freely. SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Rania, you, along with a few other journalists like Max Blumenthal and Vanessa Beeley, have written extensively about the issue of media and representation. Max and others have covered this particular issue involving the White Helmets, the Syria Campaign, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, these organizations, groups, what do they have to do with the media coverage in Syria? RANIA KHALEK: Well, the White Helmets, in particular, is the rescue group that is funded almost entirely by Western governments, to the tune of millions and millions and millions of dollars. And a lot of the reasons for that is because they function as a propaganda tool. Are the rescuing people on the ground? Probably. They probably rescued some people, although there has been questions raised about whether or not they stage things. But I don’t know. I don’t know the answers to these things. All I do know is that they’re exclusively on the ground in areas that are controlled by al-Qaeda and now you don’t see much of them now that East Aleppo’s been taken back by the government. So I guess they were maybe mostly focused in the East Aleppo area. But groups like this, they basically work to propagandize for Western military intervention, specifically aimed at the public. Now, after 2013, when Obama claimed this was a red line in Syria and he was going to bomb Syria — and then parliament voted against authorizing David Cameron to bomb the Assad government and the same thing happened here in the U.S. where we didn’t end up bombing Syria — in the U.K. we know that, after that, the U.K. Foreign Office started funding propaganda efforts and investing more money in propaganda efforts specifically geared towards changing the public’s mind about the situation on the ground, because there was such a strong anti-war sentiment in the public. And this is something that The Guardian reported on. And so, we know for a fact that our governments are trying to figure out a way to get around the fact that their populations are tired of war, they’re tired of these regime change operations and so they have to change the minds of the public and they do that by trying to frame everything as a humanitarian intervention. And these groups, like the White Helmets, play a huge role in that because they become the advocates for the cruelty of the regime, whether every instance is true or not. And with White Helmets, you have a Netflix documentary being made out of them. Meanwhile, you know, there are a lot of questions about the people in the White Helmets and some of them are in videos — you can go see them holding weapons and cheering on al-Nusra, which is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Then you have other organizations based in the U.S., mostly run by Syrian exiles or Syrian-Americans. I believe you mentioned one, the Syrian American Medical Society, which I believe the director of it is a man named Zaher Sahloul — he’s been an extreme advocate for overthrowing the Syrian government to such an extreme degree, I mean, he actually called just for basic reporting, called me and several others, fifth columnist journalists who are funded by Putin. The guy’s a little unhinged. But the point is that these groups are run strictly by Syrian-Americans. And I can say, I spoke to Syrians in Syria about this and they harbor a lot of resentment towards these groups that are run by Syrian-Americans or Syrians in the West. They harbor a lot of resentment towards these Syrians and they basically say they come from two groups, either Muslim Brotherhood exiles or they’re from aristocratic families from Syria who were forced to redistribute their land in the ’60s. And so, that’s how Syrians in Syria feel about them. So it’s just interesting to me there’s this dynamic where you have these Syrians from outside the country that are army opposition but they have no ground game at all and they don’t have the support of the population in Syria and, meanwhile, they’re trying to overthrow that government. It really is just a striking dynamic. It’s very similar to what we saw with Iraq with Ahmed Chalabi type people. For some reason, when it comes to the Syrian exiles who are pushing for this violent regime change in their country, you do have a lot of support for them, from even liberals and progressives, which I found very sad and shocking. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Rania, I thank you so much for joining us. You’ve really shed light on a lot of aspects of the media and media coverage of Syria that helps us understand this. We’ll read more carefully and analytically when we’re reading about Syria. Thank you for joining us today. RANIA KHALEK: It was great to be on with you. Thanks for having me. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. ————————- END

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Rania Khalek is a journalist and co-host of the weekly Unauthorized Disclosure podcast. Her work has appeared at The Nation, Salon,, Vice, The Intercept, Electronic Intifada and more.