‘Set up to be shot in Syria’s no man’s land’
He describes how the anti-Assad rebels maneuvered the vehicle in which Thompson, his crew, translator and an Arab League observer were traveling into an area where they would be shot by the Syrian Army. Their intent, he argues, was to make it appear that the Syrian Army had knowingly killed journalists and thereby stoke feelings against Assad and for those opposing him.
In his words:
I’m quite clear the rebels deliberately set us up to be shot by the Syrian Army. Dead journos are bad for Damascus…. Please, do not for one moment believe that my experience with the rebels in al Qusair was a one-off …. It has to make you wonder who else has had this experience when attempting to find out what is going on in rebel-held Syria. …. In a war where they slit the throats of toddlers back to the spine, what’s the big deal in sending a van full of journalists into the killing zone?’
We must keep our wits about us when assessing reports from war zones, especially one as ill-served by independent journalists as Syria. Thompson, however, is a credible witness. We should not be surprised by what happened to Alex Thompson. The only surprise is that it became news.
Thompson’s close shave serves as an introduction to the manipulation of emotions for political and military ends. Modern wars are also media wars over information. We’re in the middle of one now, caught in the crossfire in Syria.
Preparing the emotional battleground
Just as there is a war between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the ‘rebels’, there is a war for public opinion—not that in Syria, for that is pretty solidly behind Assad, but for public opinion in NATO countries, which support these rebels. And as every emotional marketer knows, opinion follows feeling, so shaping emotional reactions ‘back home’ is a central priority for those wanting to dispense with the services of Mr. Assad.
Each side points to the others’ atrocities as justification of its own actions. Sometimes they—more usually their proxies—even commit these atrocities and blame the other side, for their emotional effect. Other times these atrocities are simply made up, their falsity discovered only when it is too late. Agent provocateurs infiltrate the opposition and incite them into discrediting actions.
Emotional deception is as much a part of warfare as it is of emotional branding. Wars are ‘products’, enveloped in an emotional persona and narrative, brought to market only at the opportune time.
All militaries understand the importance of emotions. That’s why they’ve weaponized psychology and medicine. That’s why they do their utmost to shape emotional reactions back home by controlling the information that reaches there.
Very little information leaves a Western theatre of operations these days that isn’t officially approved. Journalists are vetted, embedded with the troops, their reports censored. Independent ones are treated as enemies, targeted and killed. (See 918 Journalists Killed since 1992). Remember Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, killed by a Syrian army bombardment in February, 2012? They were ‘embedded’—but with the rebels.
The control of information doesn’t stop there.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq was sold to the American people by the Pentagon’s ‘military analyst program’, beginning in early 2002. What were presented as independent analysts giving impartial advice to American viewers were actually selected, trained and coordinated by the Pentagon. This was revealed only in 2009—too late for those killed in Iraq. See David Barstow “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,”. New York Times, April 20, 2009,
It’s a struggle to find out what is actually happening in Syria.
Most reports come from rebels, telling us of the latest Assad regime atrocity and imploring the outside world to ‘do something’. Typically, these are recorded with a camera-phone, uploaded to YouTube and uncritically endorsed as true by corporate news media, with the tag ‘activists say’. [Google ‘activists say + Syria’ and check for yourself.]
And who are we to say differently when they are there and we are not?
Interests not feelings
That deception is an integral part of warfare is well-understood. That deception is also an integral part of diplomacy or statecraft, i.e., war by other means, is less so.
The basic deception is the pretense that nation-states have feelings; that they ‘care’. They don’t, they have only interests. A state is like a selfish lover, interested only in its own satisfaction. A lot of states are trying to satisfy themselves in Syria at the moment.
The West’s touching concern for the Syrian people is a recent invention.
Syria is where the United States, with the complicity of Canada, sent Maher Arar to be tortured into a confession. But for the tireless efforts of his extraordinary wife, Monia Mazigh, he’d still be there. The Canadian government did nothing to help and everything to hinder, her efforts.
The United States regularly ‘outsourced’ illegal detention and torture to Syria until it suited its interests not to. It uses other countries now, including some of those currently trying to claim the moral high ground vis-a-vis Syria.
Those complicit in facilitating what the United States likes to call ‘extraordinary rendition’, i.e., world-wide clandestine kidnapping and incarceration in its global gulag, may yet have cause for regret for there are legal remedies for illegal actions. Consider, for example, recent developments in Poland.
Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, the former head of Polish intelligence faces charges of violating international law by ‘unlawfully depriving prisoners of their liberty’ in connection with a secret CIA prison in Poland, where they were subjected to ‘brutal interrogation methods’. The prime minister of Poland at the time, Leszek Miller, could also be charged. (See Polish Ex-Official Charged With Aiding C.I.A.)
The West’s interest in Syria is, inter alia, in its strategic importance vis-a-vis Iran and Lebanon—two enemies of Israel. It wants rid of President Assad so that a more pliable president can be installed and the connection between Lebanon and Iran broken. The plight of the Syrian people is emotional leverage to that end. When the West’s interests have been met Syrians will be abandoned to their fate—just as they have been in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
Our emotions are being trifled with.
Lest we forget, in late March, the West openly pledged, millions of dollars for the Free Syrian Army: for military equipment, to pay these rebels a salary, and to bribe government soldiers to defect. See U.S. Joins Effort to Equip and Pay Rebels in Syria, and International coalition plans to fund Syrian rebels. This was front page news, but memories are short.
When ‘revolutionaries’ have to be paid and bribed we’re entitled question their legitimacy.
The problem for the West is that the government of Bashar al-Assad is militarily strong and still enjoys considerable support in Syria, in part because of fear of the bloody alternative. To make matters worse, Syria’s constitutional reforms and recent parliamentary elections go some way to meeting its critics demands.
Those seeking a diplomatic solution to the conflict would surely want to build on these reforms and engage the two sides in dialogue. But you cannot both wage war and plead for peace and expect to be taken seriously and President al-Assad clearly does not take the UN’s diplomatic overtures seriously.
Furthermore, the opposition, in the form of the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council, in truth no more than an assortment of ultra-sectarian militias, is inept, divided and incapable of winning power militarily—without considerable outside help. (As was the case in Libya.)
The increasingly sophisticated attacks on Syrian forces suggest it is now receiving that help. But it needs much more if Assad is to be dislodged.
How can Western military intervention in support of one side be legitimized without seeming to abandon diplomatic efforts to mediate between the two? That’s the problem.
For NATO to intervene it must be supported by public opinion in each member country and be legitimized by a United Nations Security Council resolution. But Russia and China oppose such intervention and have the power of veto.
To intervene militarily in Syria there will have to be an atrocity of such depravity that the West’s collective reason is temporarily overcome by an understandable wave of emotion (‘We cannot stand idly by when ….’) and Russia and China will be shamed into accepting that ‘something must be done’.
We are being positioned for a ‘humanitarian intervention’ to stop ‘crimes against humanity’.
Massacre at Houla
The massacre of around a 100 people, said to include 32 children, at Houla on May 25 almost did the trick. (Alex Thompson’s report is here.)
Immediately—within hours—the regime of Bashar al-Assad was blamed by the United Nations and almost the entire Western news media.
It was done, they all said, by pro-regime militia (the Shabiha) and/or government troops. Whatever. Whoever. Assad was to blame.
Now, to my way of thinking, if children (especially) are butchered in this way, we want to know who really did it, not who to blame, because if we get it wrong, the perpetrators will be free to do it again. (As they have.)
The Houla massacre, quite rightly, made a lot of people very angry inside and outside Syria, although for very different reasons. It severely damaged the Assad government (which deplored the massacre and denied any responsibility.) Predictably, it added momentum to calls for outside intervention—an argument in itself against the involvement of Syrian forces.
Within days the US, France, Great Britain, Germany, Canada, and several other Western countries announced that they were expelling Syria’s ambassadors in protest.
“We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives,” said the state department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland. “This massacre is the most unambiguous indictment to date of the Syrian government’s flagrant violations of its UN security council obligations.” [source]
Canada’s John Baird followed suit:
“The murder of over 100 civilians is outrageous and unacceptable,” Foreign Minister John Baird told the Star. “Canada and our allies are taking decisive action by expelling the Assad’s regimes representatives.”
Only Russia maintained that not enough evidence had been obtained to blame anyone and insisted that ‘the blame must be determined objectively’. This stance earned Russia a stern rebuke by the portentous Globe and Mail.
On June 7, however, this narrative unity was disturbed by an article in Germany’s leading daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). It interviewed eyewitnesses who claimed that anti-Assad Sunni militants murdered these people, most of whom were pro-Assad Alawites.
The FAZ cannot easily be dismissed as Assad government propaganda. Nor can members of the Monastery of St. James in Qara, Syria, who echoed this account. They had talked to refugees who witnessed the massacre before fleeing the Houla area and they claimed that the dead were pro-Assad Alawites and they had been murdered by anti-Assad Sunni militants.
Here the founder of the Order, Mother Agnes Mariam De Le Croix tells Sky News’ Tim Marshal why she thinks the Free Syrian Army is responsible for the Houla massacre—and other massacres blamed on the Syrian regime. The reality of Syria is cast in shades of grey, not black and white, she says.
Russian journalist Marat Musin also refuted the Western account in his detailed investigation ‘The Houla Massacre: Opposition Terrorists ‘Killed Families Loyal to the Government’.
For those wanting military intervention, worse was to come.
On June 9, ‘America’s most widely read and influential magazine and web site for conservative news, commentary, and opinion’, the National Review, ran with the FAZ story, ‘Rebels Responsible for Houla Massacre’ and raised some awkward questions in Washington.
In this way, the ‘let’s invade Syria’ movement was stopped dead in its tracks.
The Battle for Syria. Channel 4 News.
The Pentagon’s Pundits. The Center for Media and Democracy.
See Todd, C. Helmus, Christopher Paul and Russell W. Glenn. Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation. RAND Prepared for the United States Joint Forces Command 2007
William Hutchinson, Information Warfare and Deception, Informing Science, vol. 9, 2006.
Albert O. Hirschman. The Passion and the Interest.