Politicizing Victimhood: Human Rights as a Propaganda Weapon in Aleppo and Mosul


Photo by United States Agency for International Development | Public Domain

Photo by United States Agency for International Development | Public Domain


Despite continued clashes between the government and rebel forces, the ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia appears to have significantly reduced the violence in Syria. Following the fall of Aleppo to Assad’s forces, we should be reflecting upon what lessons can be drawn from Syria. I would offer a few. First, in wars that involve officially designated enemies of state, such as Syria and Russia, there is little reason to think that one will be exposed to reasoned, sensible discourse in the U.S. media. Similarly, on “the other side” – Russia in this case – one sees a similar effort to exonerate the government from responsibility for human rights violations. A second, broader lesson from Syria is that “human rights” inevitably serve as a rhetorical weapon, used on “both sides” by powerful societal actors, including officialdom and the press, to advance their own strategic interests.

When writing about the politicization of human rights, I find it impossible to ignore Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s important distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy victims,” with individuals fitting in one of the categories or the other based on nationalistic and strategic considerations. If the human rights abuses are committed by an “enemy” state, they will be endlessly highlighted and condemned to create a polarization and dichotomy between the “righteous” home country and the “evil” enemy. If, on the other hand, the abuses are committed by an ally or by the home country itself, the abuses will be downplayed or completely swept under the rug, since they endanger romantic myths that the power in question acts heroically and selflessly, and merely to help others. In Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky established a “propaganda model,” which argues that U.S. media consistently fall in line behind official propaganda, failing to question governmental narratives portraying U.S. foreign policy in a noble, humanitarian light. Little appears to have changed since Chomsky and Herman wrote their book nearly three decades ago.

In the case of Syria, Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin are widely reviled by U.S. political elites. Due to the heavy nationalistic and official source bias among American journalists, it would be expected that the Syrian and Russian bombings would be subject to heavy attention in the news. On the other hand, the bombings of the United States, coordinated with its ally Iraq – while also producing a humanitarian crisis in Mosul – cannot be laid at the feet of an enemy country. Considering the propagandistic nature of the American press, one would expect that these bombings would receive far less attention in the news.

I won’t rehash the criticisms that are made against the Russian and Syrian governments regarding their aerial bombing campaign against Aleppo, which has resulted in significant civilian casualties and mass urban destruction. I spent considerable time documenting these charges in my previous piece (Counterpunch, “Pathologies of War,” 12/28/2016). But for those who embrace the romantic narrative of the Assad and Putin regimes as fighting for “the people” of Syria and against repression, terrorism, and tyranny, available public opinion data suggest this is not the case. Most Syrians polled appear to share strong distrust of most-all the actors involved in destabilizing their country, and this includes the United States, Assad’s government, rebel, and jihadi forces. Quality polling data is hard to come by, but what information is available is revealing. For example, one national poll of Syrians by ORB International completed in 2014 found that just 35 percent of respondents agreed Bashar Assad “best represents the interests and aspirations of the Syrian people” (ORB, 2014). But distrust was also evident for jihadi groups. Just 4 percent agreed that ISIS represented “the interests and aspirations” of Syrians, while just 9 percent feeling the same about al-Nusra, and only 21 percent felt this way about the political opposition to Assad in general.

Even when opposition to Assad was reframed by ORB in reference to “moderated armed groups,” just 14 percent of Syrians indicated support for opponents of the regime. This finding is not mean to delegitimize the non-violent protests of the Assad regime, particularly those in the early days of the rebellion (2011). These protests represented a meaningful grassroots condemnation of a regime that was notorious for human rights abuses and kleptocracy in an era of growing Syrian poverty and inequality (Cole, 4/6/16). And the rebellion against Assad predictably shifted from non-violent to violent as the Assad regime showered artillery rounds and bombs on Syrian cities in a scorched earth assault that intentionally targeted civilians, even when rebel groups were nowhere to be seen. The “Either Assad or We’ll Burn the Country” threat, made by government allied militiamen, was not an idle threat (Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, 2016). Despite the Assad regime’s radicalization of protests in the shift to violent insurgency, it appears that the Syrian public has had enough of the violence on all sides.  The ORB poll findings are instructive, at least in terms of pointing out that violent rebellion, even if pursued by non-Jihadi “moderate” groups, is not seen as helping the average Syrian, who has been victimized by years of war, death, and destruction.

A more recent ORB poll from late 2015 found mass public disenchantment with the war and the actors involved in it (ORB, 2015). Fifty-seven percent of Syrians agreed that their country “is going in the wrong direction,” compared to 37 percent who felt it was heading in the “right direction.” while just 21 percent agreed that they “prefer[ed] life now compared to before the war.” Furthermore, a minority of Syrians – 48 percent – supported “international coalition airstrikes” in Syria that are being pursued in the name of destroying al-Nusra and ISIS-style jihadi groups. When asked about whether various groups have had a “positive influence” on Syria, just 47 percent of the public agreed that Assad had played such a role, although there was even less support for al-Nusra and ISIS, with 35 percent and 21 percent respectively agreeing each group played a positive role. Most Syrians – 51 percent – indicated support for a “political solution” to the fighting, compared to just 37 percent who supported the continuation of the military conflict. Revealingly, skepticism of the United States was pronounced. When asked to “explain the presence of ISIL in Iraq/Syria,” 38 percent of Syrians agreed that it is a “U.S.-foreign manufactured group,” while the second most common explanation, held by 34 percent, was that its rise was a motivated by opposition to “widespread sectarian politics in Arab countries.”  Whether Syrians viewed ISIS/ISIL as actively created by the U.S. intelligence community and CIA, or merely a product of a radicalized climate in the region that materialized in response to U.S. wars and destabilization, was not made clear in the survey. But the results do suggest a profound distrust of the United States as a power that contributes to instability and social conflict in the region, rather than a force working for good.

Syrian public distrust of all the major parties involved in war is well documented. All the political actors involved in the war are viewed as worsening the crisis. But one should not allow the events in Syria to direct our attention away from another humanitarian crisis that has emerged in Mosul, which has received much less attention in the U.S. media. The Mosul offensive began in mid-October, 2016, and was undertaken by the Iraqi government, in coordination with Shiite, Kurdish, and other ethnic militias, and with the help of a U.S. aerial bombing campaign. The stated goal of the offensive against Iraq’s second largest city, as with Russia and Syria’s attack on Aleppo, was to root out jihadi fundamentalist groups. While Aleppo has recently fallen to Syrian government forces, the siege on, and humanitarian crisis in Mosul is ongoing. Reuters reported on January 4 that thousands of Iraqis were fleeing Mosul, as “U.S.-led coalition forces began a new phase of their battle to retake the city from Islamic State,” and despite warnings from the United Nations that “many more civilian casualties” are being recorded amidst intensified fighting (Reuters, 1/2/17).

Amnesty International reports on charges of revenge killings against civilians fleeing Mosul, committed by Iraq-government backed militias such as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and Tribal Moblizations (TM) – both Sunni militias – based on the assumption that the internally displaced were somehow responsible for participating in or enabling ISIS executions (AI, 11/2/16). Reports of the humanitarian crisis have not been totally absent from the U.S. press. CNN reporting from October, 2016 warned of a looming “humanitarian crisis” in Mosul, with the United Nations warning that the conflict between government-backed forces and ISIS could create “one of the largest man-made displacement crises of recent times” (Culinane, 10/18/16). CNN also reported in December that, under the U.S.-led siege, “at least half a million people [were] caught in the crossfire inside Mosul” with “no access to running water” (Mohammed and Abdelaz, 12/2/16). The progressive-left media outlet Common Dreams reported in early November on the “hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in Mosul…with U.S.-led forces refusing to create safe escape routes and urging residents instead to ‘shelter in place’ as the military assault on ISIS fighters swiftly move[d] into the Iraqi city” (Knight, 11/1/16). Reporting from the Guardian draws attention to mounting civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes, which have “deepen[ed] fears for civilians” and may be imposing a “high humanitarian cost” (Hawramy and Graham-Harrison, 11/1/16).

An analysis of news reporting on Aleppo and Mosul demonstrates just how politicized coverage has become. In the case of Russian reporting on Aleppo, there was a blackout on state-funded television in terms of recognizing government responsibility for civilian deaths. Since the U.S. scholarly news database Lexis Nexis does not archive daily newscasts from Russia Today, I instead looked to RT’s own online search function to seek out reports of civilian casualties that were attributed to Russian or Syrian bombing. Using the search term “Aleppo,” I found not a single news report that even acknowledged that civilian deaths from Russian and Syrian bombings occurred. To the contrary, there were numerous reports – I found nearly a dozen stories in RT in the last few months of 2016 – that covered reports of U.S. airstrikes targeting Syrian civilians or Syrian government forces.

The concentration on the U.S. demonstrates the tremendous cynicism and propaganda at work in RT reporting. The outlet draws on numerous reports from western human rights groups to condemn U.S. bombings, while ignoring reports from the very same human rights organizations that spotlight Assad’s and Putin’s responsibility for aerial strikes that kill civilians. It is difficult to find a starker example of the dichotomy between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims at work than this. RT readers are expected to believe that when the U.S. bombs targets from the air, civilians die, but when the Russian and Syrian governments do the same, casualties are miraculously avoided. All this, despite evidence of Assad’s use of indiscriminate weapons of war (such as barrel bombs) over urban areas, which are intentionally built to cause maximum destruction and death, and without regard to civilians in harm’s way.

Those looking for a fair or even-handed account of the destructiveness of war will not do much better in the American media. The coverage of human rights in the Middle East is heavily politicized in mass media outlets, in line with the government’s narrative that the U.S. plays a stabilizing, humanitarian role in the region, compared to its “enemies,” which seek merely to dominate and destroy for their own selfish motives. With American journalists, there is an intense focus on the crimes committed by the Assad and Putin regimes, with far less interest in the humanitarian disaster caused by U.S. bombs. Again, the dichotomy between “worthy victims” – those killed by “enemy” countries – and “unworthy victims” – those killed by the U.S. and its allies – is abundantly clear. Looking at the U.S. “paper of record” – the New York Times – news coverage in late 2016 was heavily propagandistic. On the one hand, a massive amount of attention was devoted to the humanitarian crisis and destruction in Aleppo. On the other hand, much less attention was sustained on the emerging humanitarian catastrophe in Mosul.  A review of the Lexis Nexis news database finds that, between November 15 and December 15, 2016 – during the height of Assad’s and Putin’s attack on Aleppo, the New York Times devoted 138 stories to the topic. This translates into a sizable 4.6 stories per day during that month. Within that same period, 33 stories, or more than one per day, referenced “humanitarian” concerns while also referencing Aleppo. This humanitarian narrative played into the politicization of human rights, with the victims of “enemy” countries placed front-and-center in U.S. media reporting and popular discourse.  Contrast the coverage of Aleppo with the dramatically reduced attention toward Mosul. During the two-month period from October 17 (when the U.S.-led assault began) through December 17, the New York Times reported 115 stories referencing Mosul. This translates into just 1.9 stories per day, less than half of the stories dedicated to Aleppo. One also sees the deemphasizing of human rights in the paper. Just 21 stories in the Times included a discussion of “humanitarian” concerns, while also discussing Mosul, from mid-October to mid-December. This translates into just 10.5 stories per month, or less than a third of a story on average per day. This means less than a third as many stories covering human rights concerns in Mosul, in comparison to in Aleppo.

The discrepancy between coverage of “worthy victims” in Aleppo and “unworthy victims” in Mosul is most certainly driven by the commonly held view among American elites that the U.S. holds valiant, noble goals in the Middle East, compared to the nefarious, pernicious motivations of Assad and Putin. As I discussed in my last Counterpunch piece on Aleppo, New York Times editorials reflexively assume that American motives are pure, with the Obama administration simply motivated by defeating terrorism, protecting human rights, and empowering the people of the region. In contrast, the Putinists and Assadists are dastardly figures who seek merely to destroy the region for their own self-aggrandizement and to enrich their own power. One can take this narrative and reverse it in the case of Russian media commentary on RT, which predictably frames Russia and Syria as driven by pure motives and out to protect human rights, against the big, bad, imperialist aggression of the United States. That the “worthy” and “unworthy victims” dichotomy operates in both corporate-owned U.S. media and in state-funded Russian media suggests that the power of nationalistic pressures transcend countries and borders, especially when the goal is to whitewash one’s own atrocities and crimes, while publicizing those of others. One thing seems clear – neither “side” – be it U.S. or Russian media – appear interested in addressing the victims of war in any serious or credible way.



Amnesty International, “Iraq: Tribal Militia Tortured Detainees in Revenge Attacks During Mosul Offensive,” Amnesty International, November 2, 2016, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/11/iraq-tribal-militia-tortured-detainees-in-revenge-attacks-during-mosul-offensive/

Cole, Juan, “Syria: Al-Assad Family’s Massive Stolen Wealth in Panama Papers Helps Explain Revolution,” Informed Comment, April 6, 2016, http://www.juancole.com/2016/04/syria-al-assad-familys-massive-stolen-wealth-in-panama-papers-helps-explain-revolution.html

Cullinane, Susannah, “Humanitarian Crisis Looms Amid Mosul Offensive,” CNN.com, October 18, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/17/middleeast/mosul-isis-iraq-humanitarian-crisis/

Hawramy, Fazel, and Emma Graham-Harrison, “Mosul: U.S. Airstrike that Killed Iraqi Family Deepens Fears for Civilians,” Guardian, November 1, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/01/mosul-family-killed-us-airstrike-iraq

Knight, Nika, “No Help for Civilians Trapped in Mosul as Deaths from U.S.-Led Bombing Reported,” Common Dreams, November 1, 2016, http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/11/01/no-help-civilians-trapped-mosul-deaths-us-led-bombing-reported

ORB International, “Face-to-Face National Opinion Poll in Syria,” ORB International, May 6-29, 2014, http://www.orb-international.com/perch/resources/syriadatatablesjuly2014.pdf

ORB International, “Syria Public Opinion,” ORB International, July 2015, http://www.orb-international.com/perch/resources/syriadata.pdf

Reuters, “More Than 2,000 Iraqis a Day Flee Mosul as Military Advances,” Reuters, January 2, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-int-idUSKBN14O150?il=0

Tawfeeq, Mohammed, and Salma Abdelaz, “Iraq: Death Toll Climbs as Urban Warfare Slows Battle for Mosul,” CNN.com, December 2, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/02/middleeast/iraq-mosul-battle-isis/

Yassin-Kasab, Robin, and Leila al-Shami, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (London: Pluto Press, 2016).

Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2015). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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