Max Blumenthal on How the Media Covers Syria
As the U.S. and Russia reach a new ceasefire in Syria, Max Blumenthal of Alternet’s Grayzone Project and TRNN’s Aaron Mate discuss foreign involvement in the Syrian war and how Western media across the political spectrum has covered it
AARON MATE:It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. This is part two of my discussion with Max Blumenthal, best-selling author, journalist, and senior editor of AlterNet’s Grayzone project. In part one, we talked about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s meeting at the G20. Despite agreeing on a ceasefire in southwestern Syria, most U.S. media is focusing on Putin and Trump’s talks about alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election. In this part, Max and I discuss how the media is covering Syria.
Max, after talking about Syria, I want to ask you about a piece you just wrote for AlterNet along with Ben Norton up at AlterNet’s Grayzone project. It’s about Bilal Abdul Kareem, who is an American who’s been embedded with rebel groups inside Syria. He recently worked with CNN on a documentary, but afterwards, they apparently made an effort to distance themselves from him. He recently complained about that in a Twitter video, so let’s go to that clip.
Bilal Abdul K.:There was a piece that I did along with the other members of [O-G-N 00:01:10] staff called Undercover in Syria. This was with CNN, and their correspondent Clarissa Ward, which I have big time respect for, big time respect, as a journalist and as a person. This Undercover in Syria, and you can Google it, it won the prestigious Peabody Award, and it won the prestigious Overseas Press Club Award, which are basically the highest awards in journalism for international reporting. Now, they barely mentioned my name. I’m telling you, somehow, CNN must’ve forgotten that I was the one that filmed it. I guess they forgot that.
AARON MATE:That’s Bilal Abdul Kareem. Max, talk about who he is, and what he’s complaining about here.
MAX BLUMENTHAL:Bilal Abdul Kareem is right. CNN is seeking … It’s not really distancing itself from him, it’s just seeking to erase the role he played in its award-winning Undercover in Syria special, which was filmed in 2016. Clarissa Ward, the star CNN correspondent who just gets award after award from these corporate industry organizations, she got a Peabody Award for that special, contracted Bilal Abdul Kareem.
She should have known, and everybody knows who follows Syria, that Bilal Abdul Kareem is a propagandist for Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Al-Nusra. If you watch his videos, you’ll see him having friendly sit down chats with Abdullah Muhaysini, the Saudi hate preacher and warlord who’s the most influential cleric inside Al Qaeda-controlled territory in Syria. This guy raises millions of dollars for Al Qaeda-led offensives against the Syrian government. We revealed, Ben Norton and I at Alternet, that it appears that Bilal Abdul Kareem was working behind the scenes to produce propaganda for Jaish Al-Fatah, which is a coalition led by Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliates. He directly had his hands on the propaganda steering wheel.
Then there’s the issue of whether he’s even a member of Al-Nusra, as the Saudi state organ Al-Arabiya reported. I don’t really trust their credibility that much, but Akif Razaq, who is a colleague of Bilal Abdul Kareem, is from Britain. These guys seem to think like Bilal, who is an American, that they have a right to go to Syria and promote rebels who are running rampant across the country and committing atrocities. They have some kind of right to be there.
This character Akif Razaq just had his citizenship stripped by the British government, which has accused him of membership in Al Qaeda. It’s really clear that Bilal Abdul Kareem has a very friendly relationship with Al Qaeda in Syria. He works hand in glove with them inside their territories, along with Salafist militias like Ahrar Al-Sham. He is the man that Clarissa Ward chose to contract as her videographer and fix her when she went in.
She went in at a time when no other Western journalists had come in, and we’d seen James Foley beheaded by ISIS after getting involved and getting traded around by a kidnapping ring that involved some British foreign fighters. We published a piece in AlterNet by Lindsey Snell, who was one of the last journalists to go into Al Qaeda-controlled territory before getting kidnapped. Clarissa Ward was able to move freely there, came back with another commercial for the Syrian armed opposition. This is what she’s been doing year after year.
Then she testified before the UN at the invitation of Samantha Power, the most strongly interventionist voice in the Obama administration, and proclaimed that the Islamist militias inside Syria are, in her words, the heroes on the ground. It was just straightforward advocacy, but it’s also well in line with the editorial line of CNN that we see every day on Jake Tapper’s Lead. This isn’t even treated as a scandal.
AARON MATE:Max, let’s connect this to Western policy. You have this major U.S. media outlet, CNN, working with someone who you say sympathizes with Al Qaeda, and might even be working with them directly. At the same time, you’ve had this criticism of U.S. policy in Syria that either through sending weapons to militant groups and also through partnership with its Gulf allies, it’s directly and indirectly supported jihadist groups inside Syria like Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, of course we know, was behind 9/11. It’s an example of where U.S. foreign policy goals, whatever they are, subsume issues like being concerned about working with or abetting Al Qaeda.
MAX BLUMENTHAL:Yeah. This is the real issue that has plagued American foreign policy and what you could call the national security state. I think people popularly refer to it as the deep state. I think it’s fair to call them that, or permanent war state. That’s plagued them since the Cold War, in its zeal to bleed the Soviet Union, and now it’s really about bleeding Russia and Iran. The national security state has completely abrogated what should be its top mission, which is to take on these Sunni jihadist organizations which have repeatedly attacked soft targets in the West and caused chaos. They should be fighting them. Instead, they’re using them as proxies in many cases to bleed Russia and Iran, and Syria as well, countries which have really no intention to attack the United States, and which are active in the fight against ISIS.
This took place in Libya. It took place in cooperation with Qatar. The U.S. not only intervened through NATO, through its air force, but it was also funding the rebels through the Libyan National Transition Council. In Benghazi, it was Abdelhakim Belhadj, the head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who was getting the bulk of the arms. The money was going through Qatar, but Qatar was the U.S. proxy for the most effective anti-Gaddafi fighting group.
Then you saw what took place in Benghazi. Around the time that Ambassador Christopher Stephens was killed and the Benghazi consulate … What the hell was he doing there? He was part of the rat. He was helping to direct the rat line, which is this transfer of arms from the arms depots that had formerly belonged to Gaddafi’s military, now defunct, into Syria. Belhadj was going into Syria to meet with the Free Syrian Army, which was being trained and armed by the U.S. When you started to see these heavy weapons on the battlefield, that’s when the Syrian Civil War escalated. Actually, a Clinton advisor referred to this in the New York Times as the bank shot, using this sports metaphor.
Then the U.S. started a series of shell companies through Saudi Arabia to purchase arms from eastern European arms distributors. TOW missiles, the anti-tank missiles, were coming in by the tens of thousands into the rebels starting in 2013. This is when Operation Timber Sycamore, the CIA’s operation, which budgeted $1 out of every $15 of the agency’s budget towards arming and training the rebels, took place. As we’ve reported again and again at AlterNet, and others like Gareth Porter have reported for example, most recently in American Conservative, the arms went straight from the CIA-vetted groups into Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Jabhat Al-Nusra would either take over the CIA’s weak, little FSA proxies, or its fighters would simply join Jabhat Al-Nusra because they were better fighters.
Now you see on the Syrian battlefield, in places like Jobar for example, east of Damascus, you’ll see Al Qaeda’s local affiliate operating with TOW missiles that have been made by Raytheon, the U.S. arms manufacturer, and were shipped in as part of our effort to extend and escalate the Syrian conflict. This is a complete disaster.
Then beyond that, Aaron, you have the issue of the disposal problem. This is a problem that the U.S. first experienced after the Bay of Pigs, when they trained Cuban exiles to attack Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. It failed. They came back to Miami. They had to give them stuff to do to keep them from returning to militant activity using their skills and their subterfuge and subversion that they learned against the U.S. government. Time and time again, we have seen since the training of the Afghan mujahideen, we saw this most recently with the Manchester bombing, that the proxies the U.S. has been using in the Middle East, these Salafi jihadist proxies, have come to attack their former patrons. The chickens will come home to roost again and again after what we’ve done in Syria. We’ve barely begun to experience the full extent of this catastrophe.
AARON MATE:Max, it’s so interesting to me that Western narratives can be so dominant that everybody, even progressive media, can be swayed by them. On that point, I want to talk to you about Sy Hersh, the veteran investigative journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner, broke a number of really important stories starting with the My Lai massacre back in Vietnam decades ago. He reported recently that the Trump administration had ordered its air strike against the Assad regime back in April despite warnings from U.S. intelligence that they had no evidence that Assad had carried out the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun which Trump had said was the reason for his bombing.
The Hersh point was totally ignored here in the Western media. In fact, to publish it, he had to go to Germany. He couldn’t publish it here, which was one thing, but then even after he reported it, it didn’t even get a mention, to such an extent that even a progressive story like Democracy Now, which I used to work for, didn’t even mention it in any of their news items. It was just striking to me that this claim from this legendary journalist was deemed unworthy of being even mentioned.
I’m not saying you have to endorse what he’s saying, but even to mention it was all of a sudden off-limits. I’m wondering your thoughts on that.
MAX BLUMENTHAL:It’s pretty clear that what happened in Khan Sheikhoun is bizarre, given the timing of it, two days after the Trump administration officially reversed longstanding U.S. policy on encouraging regime change in Syria. It declared that Assad would stay. You saw the apparent deployment of chemical weapons, triggering the red line, and then massive pressure in the media from the Syrian opposition, from all of these forces, from the Gulf states, for Trump to do something.
This should have been the source of public debate, and it should have fallen to places like Democracy Now to fill the void and at least have a debate on what happened, why this is happening, and to explore the wisdom of attacking the Syrian government at this point. This has really scarcely ever happened at Democracy Now. In my opinion, they have abrogated their mission, which should be to challenge mainstream narratives and particularly imperial narratives on issues like Syria. I understand there are massive human rights abuses by the Syrian government, but that’s not reason enough to not explore what the West’s agenda, the Gulf agenda is for that country, what the consequences are, to actually get into the geopolitical issues. Instead, we’ve seen Democracy Now propagate generally a regime change narrative.
I don’t believe they actually have a line on Syria. It’s more a fear of actually taking on the official line. I haven’t found a single article in the Intercept challenging the regime change line on Syria. I have, however, seen a puff interview with the former spokesperson for the Jabhat Al-Nusra inside Syria, someone who is an Australian foreign fighter who is involved in one of the largest financial embezzlement schemes in Australia, where he took something like $40 million in taxpayer money from the Australian government and funneled it into Al Qaeda in Syria. There was no question about that put to him in the Intercept. I don’t understand how that gets through the editors, or why somebody like, for example, Rania Khalek, hasn’t been called on to just provide the other side of the narrative.
This hasn’t happened in progressive media. It’s why we’re pushing, why we’re trying to fill the void at the Grayzone project at AlterNet and provide a critical perspective on what the U.S. and its allies have been doing in Syria and what the consequences could be. I think we’re probably the only progressive outlet that’s consistently doing that. I don’t want to attack other outlets. I like the work that the Intercept does, and I’ve been a frequent guest on Democracy Now. In many ways, I owe them, because they’ve been an institution for almost two decades and I’ve learned so much from the work they’ve done. It’s just that we should expect more of them, and we should expect them to challenge the official imperial narrative that’s really emanating from the national security state, not to echo it. Instead, they’ve generally done the opposite.
AARON MATE:Yeah, Max. I totally share in your sense of it. I worked there for a long time, and I owe them, too. It’s hands down my favorite news show. I’ve just been surprised by many of the issues that you’ve raised.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: On the day that Trump attacked Syria, Democracy Now hosted Lina Sergie Attar, who is basically a lobbyist for the Syrian opposition, who’s been pushing for a U.S. military assault on Syria since 2012. It’s absurd. Day after day, they either go without challenging the regime change line, or hosting these figures who should be on CNN instead. Progressive media’s job is to challenge that narrative, to fill the void. In the Trump era, it’s just not really happening.
AARON MATE: Max, I do want to point out one exception to all this, which I think was very important. There was a very long piece in the New York Times Magazine about a month ago called Aleppo After the Fall. It was by the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert F. Worth. He basically presented a picture that totally contradicts the dominant Western narrative that we’ve seen about Syria. One of the things that he pointed out, and I think it touches on something that you raised, he pointed out that Aleppo, for example, that few people in the West could properly appreciate just how brutal the jihadis who controlled Aleppo were in the service of pushing their own foreign policy objectives and fighting the Assad regime.
One point he made, and I think it tracks with what you said about the serious abuses of the Assad regime, is that he said that exiled Syrians are so upset by Assad’s crimes that they’ve been unable to acknowledge the crimes of the jihadists. I’m wondering your thoughts on that.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Many of them have been part of the opposition for years, and in many ways, their political behavior mirrors that of exiled Venezuelans and exiled Cubans in Miami. They form lobbies to push for regime change. I don’t want to generalize all of them, but this explains those who are officially organized and active to a large degree. We published a piece by Rania Khalek of interviews of Syrians inside government-held Syria, where 18 million Syrians live, which is something like 85%, 80% of the whole population. There is no group that they have more contempt for than the Syrian expat community that’s been out of the country for decades and been pushing the U.S. and its allies to bomb the crap out of Syria.
We have to go back to the time in December … I guess, if you’re watching this right now, I would just direct you to, on Aleppo, a documentary made by a resident of Aleppo called Nine Days in Aleppo. Just go on YouTube. Watch it. It’s one of the most remarkable documentaries, it’s about 10 minutes long, of the Syrian Civil War. It shows how east Aleppo was taken by hardline Islamist rebels in 2012. He was in his apartment, and he’s just filming outside his window and showing what’s happening, and how first the CIA-vetted Syrian Free Army comes in. They take some territory, then meanwhile Tawhid, which later became Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki, a CIA-backed hardcore Islamist militia which has been responsible for beheadings and all sorts of atrocities, the kidnapping of journalists, they just simply took five neighborhoods in east Aleppo.
It wasn’t like there were protests, and then the protesters had to take out guns to defend themselves. This started with straight-up violence. The officers’ club in Aleppo was bombed. People were killed in order for the rebels to hold that territory. Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate, came in. Ahrar Al-Sham, a hardcore Salafist militia, came in with backing from Turkey and Qatar. They held these areas, and about 40,000 people who were mainly sympathizers of the rebels were there. We were supposed to drop everything we were doing in the United States and display total solidarity for these groups and their supporters, and to believe Samantha Power that the removal of them by the Syrian armed forces and its Russian ally was as bad as Srebrenica and as bad as Rwanda.
Now we’ve seen what really took place and what has been left in its wake, as Robert Worth from the New York Times reluctantly revealed, which is that yes, eastern Aleppo was held by jihadists. Terrorism was used against the population of 1.2 million people in west Aleppo. The removal of these forces was in fact, by any objective measure, a liberation. If you said that in December 2016, you’d be branded as an Assadist, but that’s what Robert Worth essentially found when he saw what these jihadist and Salafist forces left behind. I would just ask any American who was cheering for the rebels and displaying solidarity with the white helmets in east Aleppo, think about what you would do if you were living in west Aleppo and Al Qaeda was next door. How would you react?
AARON MATE:Yeah. I just want to read a bit about what Worth writes. He said, “Eastern Aleppo may not have been Raqqa, where ISIS advertised its rigid Islamist dystopia and its mass beheadings, but as a symbol of Syria’s future, it was almost as bad. A chaotic wasteland full of feuding militias, some of them radical Islamists who hoarded food and weapons while the people starved.”
Max, quickly, as we wrap up this part of the discussion.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: That dovetails with what we saw when Vice actually managed to get access to the rebels in east Aleppo and went to the schools where Al Qaeda’s local affiliate was taking a generation of youth between ages five and 10 and training them in the ways of violent jihad. It was absolutely shocking. You see circles of children singing these classic jihadist songs in support of Osama bin Laden, just being indoctrinated day after day after day. Some of them were from Uzbekistan, and their parents had come to Syria to fight not just against the government but to fight to establish an Islamic state. That’s what was taking place in schools in east Aleppo.
I don’t know what people were thinking when they were displaying not only solidarity but support for the agenda which had taken hold. We saw a total whitewash of the reality on the ground by every major cable news network. Meanwhile, we’re seeing at least the same level if not more of atrocities being wielded against the civilian population in Raqqa, just as we saw in Mosul, by the U.S. coalition. There’s total radio silence from U.S. media.
It was clear what was happening there. The rebels were proxies for the U.S. and its allies, and they were defeated. That defeat really represented, it should have represented, the end of the Syrian Civil War, but it represented the major transition point in the Syrian Civil War. We’re moving towards de-escalation. Refugees are coming home, and I think from a symbolic perspective, that defeat represented one of the greatest losses for the empire since the fall of Saigon. It’s something that many people on the left cried about. I don’t understand that.
AARON MATE:We’ll leave it there. Max Blumenthal, bestselling author, journalist, and senior editor for AlterNet’s Grayzone project. Max, thank you.
MAX BLUMENTHAL:Thanks for having me.
AARON MATE:Thank you for joining us on the Real News.