The Pathologies of War: Dual Propaganda Campaigns in Reporting on Syria

Photo by Debra Sweet | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Debra Sweet | CC BY 2.0

The travesty of war in Syria represents a defining political issue today. The Pew Research Center estimates that by 2016, as many as six in ten Syrians were displaced from their homes due to the civil war between Syrian and Russian government forces and rebel groups (Connor and Krostad, 10/5/16). This represents an astounding 12.5 million people. Estimates vary, but when taken in total suggest that deaths from the conflict are in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps as large as half a million (Barnard, 10/11/16).

But a serious problem that’s emerged is the willful ignorance exhibited by the defenders of the U.S., Russian, and Syrian governments, which is driven largely by political considerations, rather than human rights concerns. On one side, U.S. political officials and pundits eagerly condemn the Russian and Syrian governments for human rights atrocities, but they focus only on heinous crimes committed by officially designated enemies of state. These officials and the journalists who enable them downplay the United States’ own role in funding and arming of radical Islamist groups that have destabilized Syria and are responsible for countless deaths.

On the other side, the Putin and Assad governments have no interest in acknowledging their own atrocities, and make numerous attempts to woo naïve western bloggers, celebrities, and other willing dupes in terms of attributing the responsibility for war deaths exclusively at the feet of radical Islamists.  Some critics of U.S. foreign policy reflexively assume that countries opposing U.S. imperialism and military power must represent a valiant, anti-imperialist, revolutionary force for good. At the very least, some on the American “left” insist that such countries should not be criticized or condemned. I’ve had numerous experiences with these individuals, as I begin to speak up with greater frequency about the destructiveness of Syria war.

The valorization of Putin is also taking shape on the American right. Media depictions at Fox News and in other rightwing media portray a shirtless Putin as the sort of virile, hyper-masculine “leader” that Obama could only dream to be. And Trump’s efforts to schmooze Putin by describing him as a “strong leader” and calling on him to spy on American officials appear to play a major role in the Russian president’s mainstreaming among the conservative segment of the American public. This much is evident in YouGov’s polling, which finds that Putin’s “favorability” grew by 27 percentage points among Republican Americans from July 2014 to December 2016, now standing at 37 percent from a low of 10 percent (Nussbaum and Oreskes, 12/16/16).  It’s one thing to welcome Trump’s rhetorical efforts to calm U.S. hostilities with Russia, contrary to the dangerous saber rattling of the Democratic Party.  Any sane person who wishes to avoid nuclear apocalypse should welcome de-escalation with Russia. But “favoring” an autocratic leader who has contempt for freedom expression, gay and lesbian rights, and who commits war crimes with impunity, is a real stretch.

I have no interest in assessing the exact percent blame to be attributed to the U.S., Syrian and Russian forces, and various rebel groups, in the destruction of Aleppo and other Syrian cities. As a longstanding opponent of war, I condemn all killing, and all parties who play a role in it. And propaganda abounds on all sides during times of war, so it is difficult for me to assess the exact accuracy or inaccuracy of many individual news reports about civilian deaths coming out of Syria.  Veteran middle east reporter Patrick Cockburn warns about the problem of attaining accurate information in war zones. Of concern is the shutting out of reporters from Aleppo, and the possibility that insurgents are driving the war narrative via false news reports. Cockburn writes in the Independent: “The Jihadis holding power in east Aleppo were able to exclude western journalists, who would be abducted and very likely killed if they went there, and replace them as news sources with highly partisan ‘local activists’ who cannot escape being under jihadi control. The foreign media has allowed – through naivety or self-interest – people who could only operate with the permission of al-Qaeda type groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham to dominate the news agenda. The precedent set in Aleppo means that participants in any future conflict will have an interest in deterring foreign journalists who might report objectively. By kidnapping and killing them, it is easy to create a vacuum of information that is in great demand and will, in future, be supplied by informants sympathetic to or at the mercy of the very same people (in this case the jihadi rulers of east Aleppo) who have kept out the foreign journalists” (Cockburn, 12/16/16).

Heeding Cockburn’s warning, however, does not mean one should dismiss out-of-hand reports of the mass aerial destruction brought upon Syrian civilians, or reported Russian and Syrian attacks on civilian targets. Numerous news reports across many individual media outlets provide visual confirmation of mass devastation, with block after block in Aleppo destroyed with the kind of viciousness that can only be achieved through massive, indiscriminate aerial bombing. News outlets such as Al Jazeera and the Independent – which are no dupes of American government propagandists – broadcast images of the mass destruction in Aleppo. They have published images of dead children, reports of Syrian-Russian attacks on hospitals, and broadcast footage of premature babies being removed from hospital incubators amid the chaos and destruction as civilians flee in mass (Bulman and Sims, 11/19/16; Al Jazeera, 9/28/16; Al Jazeera, 12/20/16).

Then there are the human rights reports. Most prominently, there is the documentation from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) of eyewitness testimony of Syrian-Russian state violence, in addition to the spotlighting of their devastating weapons of war. HRW published footage of Syrian aerial attacks that made use of barrel bombs in rebel-held areas. These bombs are notorious for their devastation. They are indiscriminate weapons of war, created to achieve maximum destruction. As HRW reports: “Syrian barrel bombs are large improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which are dropped from helicopters. They consist of oil barrels, fuel tanks or gas cylinders that have been packed with explosives, fuel and metal fragments – such as ball bearings, nails and machine parts – to increase their lethal effect. They cannot be accurately aimed at specific targets” (HRW, 2015). When used over urban areas, such attacks cause mass death and destruction. No one who uses such terrible weapons can be described as a friend of the Syrian people.

One can look to AI’s reporting of Syrian refugees to see the destruction wrought by Russia and Syria. AI’s interviews were done with dozens of Syrian refugees in Turkey, those who were eyewitnesses to and victims of the violence, and not subject to the kind of censorship by radical groups that Cockburn warns about in Aleppo. AI’s recent report, “Death Everywhere,” draws on the refugee interviews, describing the terror wrought by barrel bombs: “Several of these witnesses told Amnesty about the intense fear generated by this kind of attack. A 24-year-old woman explained, ‘The barrel bombs are the most miserable weapons. If they explode we know our bodies will be in pieces… [Also] we can see them coming. There is a minute of waiting to die.’ A shopkeeper from Sukkari neighbourhood echoed this. ‘After you see the barrel falling, you don’t know where to go,’ he said. ‘Sometimes we accidentally run toward the barrels. You crash into things while you are running, because you are looking up… My brother dislocated a disc in his spine because he was always looking up to the sky.’ A 34-year-old teacher summarized the mentality of many Syrian citizens: ‘We are always nervous, always worried, always looking to the sky’” (AI, 2015).

Despite the documentation of war crimes and human rights atrocities, pro-Russian, state funded media outlet Russia Today denies responsibility for the attacks. Pro-Russian citizens of the west who indulge in Russian and Syrian government propaganda are given free rein on the network to exonerate these countries from moral condemnation or blame (Wahl, 3/21/14; Bartlett, 12/17/16). Numerous Americans I’ve spoken with on “the left” accept this propaganda, and are willing to accept any claim from countries opposing U.S. military power, no matter how outlandish.  No evidence, no matter how thoroughly documented, is strong enough for them to take seriously if it threatens to harm the image of Putin and the Assadists.

Sadly, pro-Assad and pro-Putin propagandists have suspended disbelief regarding the ugly realities of war. They appear to prefer the comforting rhetoric of Russian officialdom, which promises to rein “massive fire” down on Syrian targets, while magically avoiding civilian casualties (Rosenthal, 11/15/16). This narrative is embraced by RT, which uncritically repeats Russian government claims that it is liberating Aleppo, and depicts civilian casualties from Russian bombs as propaganda fabrications of the west (RT, 10/1/15; RT, 7/29/16; RT, 8/19/16; RT, 9/20/16; RT, 12/24/16). Of course, Russia’s vulgar propaganda about a clean war over Aleppo is no different than the Bush administration’s self-righteous announcement during the 2003 Iraq invasion that it would engage in “shock and awe” destruction of Iraqi government targets, while miraculously avoiding civilian casualties in a bloodless war. Such misinformation was rightly rejected as absurd by American progressives when it was disseminated by U.S. leaders, which makes it strange that numerous leftists would accept identical rhetoric in the case of Russia and Syria’s bombings.

Historical academic studies are all over the map in terms of their estimates for how many civilians die during wars, but the estimates all have one thing in common – they are large. On the most extreme end, some research suggests that as many as 90 percent of those who die in war are civilians (Sivard, 1991; Graca, 1996), while more conservative estimates put the figure at 50 percent (Eckhardt, 1989). It’s a cold, hard, fact that a great many civilians die during war; it’s simply inevitable. So to reject responsibility for those dropping the bombs – in this case Assad and Putin – is to engage in Orwellian propaganda. To frame war as an inherently peaceful affair is grotesque, but not out of line with the common historical understanding that truth is the first casualty of war.

There is also a second propaganda front in the Syrian civil war. Just as Russian and Syrian government apologists are blind to the abuses described above, the American “mainstream” media commentary on Syria reveals a willfully blind, arrogant focus on Russian and Syrian crimes of war to the exclusion of criticizing U.S. contributions to the destruction. No evidence is ever strong enough for the apologists to provoke condemnations of U.S. military power. The dominant narrative in the American press is to reflexively assume that the U.S. is motivated by pure intentions, including a desire to promote human rights, freedom, and democracy. Suggestions that the U.S. holds selfish, materialist interests in the Middle East, or that its actions deter democracy, while increasing global instability and human rights atrocities, are considered beyond the pale of respectable political discourse.

One can observe the ‘U.S. as a world hero’ framing at work in the nation’s ‘paper of record’ – the New York Times. With Syria, the U.S. is one-dimensionally portrayed as working toward the end of hostilities, seeking to protect regional order and stability in the Middle East. Such claims, while heavily propagandistic, are maintained by an impressive indoctrination system that demands uniformity of beliefs from the political class, “mainstream” journalists, and intellectuals. Consider some of the sordid details involving the United States’ actual actions in Syria, compared to the way they are depicted by political officialdom.  First, the United States has long provided tactical support and weapons to Syrian rebel groups at least as early as 2012 to 2013, greatly destabilizing the country in the name of weakening the government of Bashar Assad. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2015, in intensifying military aid to the rebels, “U.S. officials said the Obama administration is pursuing what amounts to a dual-track strategy, which aims to maintain military pressure on Assad and his Russian and Iranian supporters while U.S. diplomats see if they can ease him from power through negotiations. U.S. officials said the pressure track was meant to complement the diplomatic track by giving the U.S. leverage at the negotiating table” (Entous, 11/4/2015).

Second, despite longstanding claims that the U.S. is committed to fighting Islamist fundamentalist groups in the Middle East, recent reporting finds that American officials unwittingly (and incompetently) allocated military aid to such groups in their war against Assad. Wikileaks initially reported this bombshell story, relying on Hillary Clinton’s own emails, which admitted 1. “the Saudis have exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years” (Norton, 10/11/16), and 2. That “we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the [Middle East] region” (Cockburn, 10/14/2016). The New York Times elaborated upon Clinton’s admissions with more damning details in a 2016 report: “the C.I.A. and its Saudi counterpart have maintained an unusual arrangement for the rebel ­training mission [against Assad], which the Americans have code­named Timber Sycamore. Under the deal, current and former administration officials said, the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money, and the C.I.A takes the lead in training the rebels on AK­47 assault rifles and tank­ destroying missiles.” But “while the intelligence alliance is central to the Syria fight and has been important in the war against Al Qaeda, a constant irritant in American ­Saudi relations is just how much Saudi citizens continue to support terrorist groups, [U.S. intelligence] analysts said.” The New York Times elaborated on the self-defeating nature of the ordeal: “The more that the argument becomes, ‘We need them as a counterterrorism partner,’ the less persuasive it is,” said William McCants, a former State Department counterterrorism adviser… “If this is purely a conversation about counterterrorism cooperation, and if the Saudis are a big part of the problem in creating terrorism in the first place, then how persuasive of an argument is it?” (Mazzetti and Apuzzo, 1/23/16).

Of course, outside of scattered reports, the general narrative in the American press is to depict the U.S. as committed to the valiant mission of defeating radical Islamist terrorism. This much is apparent in the New York Times’ own editorials, which paint a rosy image of U.S. intentions in Syria. I examined all 19 of the paper’s editorials from 2016 that referenced “Syria” alongside discussions of radical groups such as the “al-Nusra front” and “ISIS” to document the noble depictions of U.S. actions. In not even one of these 19 pieces did the Times editors ever suggest that the U.S. holds a selfish material interest in Middle Eastern oil that is motivating its heavy military presence in the region. Nor did a single piece assert that the U.S. may be making an already unstable situation even worse by intensifying the violence in Syria. No editorial mentioned the inconvenient truth that the U.S. has destabilized Syria by indirectly funding and arming Islamist rebel groups. A single editorial did briefly admit that the U.S. had aided “some” rebels “whom fight either in partnership with or in proximity to the affiliate of Al Qaeda known as the Nusra front…making it hard to tell the good buys from the bad” (Editorial, 9/22/16). But even with this admission, the U.S. was not depicted as part of the problem in Syria. Within the same piece, and without a hint of critical self-reflection, the Times editors commended the Obama administration for its “struggle against extremists,” which must “be waged on multiple fronts, for prioritizing “humanitarian aid deliveries” in Syria, for allegedly serving as a stabilizing force in Syria by calling for a temporary ceasefire in Aleppo, and for seeking “broader negotiations on a political transition to end the war” (Editorial, 9/22/16).

A small sampling of the messages delivered by the New York Times editors leaves no doubt that the paper exonerates the U.S. from responsibility for the human rights crisis, while viewing Russia, Syria, and the more radical elements of the rebellion as the real problem. The paper congratulates Obama on having “worked to subdue the threat of terrorism abroad and at home,” and for ensuring “the Islamic State is losing ground in Syria, Iraq, and Libya” (Editorial, 6/14/16).  In a piece revealingly titled, “Aleppo’s Destroyers: Assad, Putin, Iran,” the Times exonerates the U.S. from responsibility for death and destruction, instead envisioning Obama as “restrained in supporting the rebels” and having “struggled to mold them into an effective fighting front” (Editorial, 12/15/16). It demands that Obama “must be willing to pressure [Putin] to do what is needed to stop the [Syrian] bloodshed” (Editorial, 5/4/16).  The paper lambasts Trump for his “refusal to acknowledge Russia’s role in making it [the Syrian war] worse,” and for the president elect refusing “to condemn the bombings that have killed thousands of civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere” (Editorial, 10/12/16). Putin is condemned for his “bloody actions – the bombing of civilian neighborhoods, the destruction of hospitals, the refusal to allow noncombatants to receive food, fuel and medical supplies – all in violation of international law” (Editorial, 12/15/16).

The Times is remarkably skilled at constructing abstractions when it finally gets around to recognizing the destructiveness of war. Criticisms are globalized, with “war” itself, rather than U.S. actions, being the problem. The “Syria war” has “provided a breeding ground for Islamic State radicals, who have spread bloodshed and destruction in the region and the West” (Editorial, 9/22/16).  The “Syrian war,” rather than U.S. actions., has “created a refugee crisis” (Editorial, 3/11/16).  “The five-year civil war” has “created chaos, allowing ISIS to thrive and claim large parts of Syrian territory” (Editorial, 12/1/16). Nowhere in these passages are U.S. officials condemned for contributing to a humanitarian crisis, destabilizing the Middle East, or fueling mass refugee flows.

Sociologists speak of the “social construction of reality” as a force that impacts how people look at the world. Clearly, this concept has significant value in terms of understanding how political leaders like Obama, Putin, and Assad – and the intellectual and media sycophants who please them – seek to mold public consciousness. These leaders designate official enemies of state, attributing all the evils of the world to these villains, while conveniently ignoring their own roles in escalating human rights atrocities and in deterring democracy.  The goal of the critically thinking citizen is to stop these one-sided narratives and social constructions from defining how one looks at the world. This is no easy task, considering the dominance of “mainstream” news sources by elite forces seeking to manipulate and manage the public mind.



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Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.