Propaganda, truth and lies in Syria

by Nathan Smith

There is a pattern connecting most reporting on the conflict in Syria.

A sharp picture is painted of a despotic regime attacking its own people out of capricious, violent self-preservation.

We are told the Syrian opposition are fighting for their freedom – to be free of a hated tyrant and to usher in a new democratic government that promises greater human rights.

One might disagree with Syrian President Basher al Assad’s actions this past year, but it becomes more difficult by the day to discern a clear “good” side from a “bad” side in this horrible internecine conflict.

Curiously, the media insists on portraying the Syrian regime’s violence as human rights atrocities, instead of as authority clamping down on terrorists and revolutionaries.

Consider how any government would respond to an armed insurrection.

The rebel groups have trudged throughout a sovereign nation-state for over 12 months, stagnating the industrial sector and absorbing government attention.

Explosions have ripped apart top Syrian leaders, while widespread fighting causes hundreds of deaths each month.

As an independent secular state, the regime considers itself authorised to do whatever is necessary to end the insurrection. If you include the covert (but now barely veiled) assistance from foreign powers helping the opposition then the government understandably feels greater justification for aggressive action.

Yet if this is the case, and it is hard to tell exactly what is going on, then how do the Western powers justify supporting the rebellion?

Surely, if armed groups rise up in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia (as happened in 2011 and early 2012) driving those regimes to brutally clamp down killing hundreds, then for the sake of consistency Western intelligence should move against them.

But they didn’t, and geopolitics explains why. There is a greater regional game being played in which Syria is a proxy battleground.

To justify toppling the al Assad regime, an enormous propaganda machine emphasises and embellishes any terrible story emerging from the conflict zone.

And as the discerning international public consume this, an ever-worsening presentation of horror is displayed.

President Al Assad is portrayed as a growing monster – a powerful despot with no regard for human rights. He might be, but the reporting from Syria doesn’t necessarily support this.

The focus seems to be on the imminent collapse of the regime. The rebels, say the media, have struck “significant blows” and are “gathering momentum”.

With rebels pouring out of dark alleyways to visit death on dwindling regime figures, the president is surely grasping at legitimacy as power falls away from him.

Indeed, it was Turkish foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu who proclaimed recently that no-one believes the president will keep his position. Mr Davutoglu and other regional leaders are already preparing for a post-al Assad reality.

Who that might be is as yet unknown, but even the opposition cannot agree on a rightful successor. And if they can't a smooth transition is out of the question.

International leaders announce weekly that rebels are quickly overwhelming government forces and cutting strategic routes.

Yet Damascus was able to position thousands of troops, drive columns of armour and fly squadrons of aircraft towards the largest city, Aleppo, last week. Fighting is now confined to isolated neighbourhoods.

Such a deployment requires a long, but direct route north through western Syria. Bringing the troops close to Homs, Hama, and Rastan (three towns that have seen heavy fighting between rebels and government forces over the past year) should have been near impossible.

Such a route would surely be overrun by rebel forces. Yet the troops managed to move past these towns with ease and attack Aleppo within hours. Clearly, something is not quite right with reporting from Syria.

Of course, for many months the international media has been denied official access to the country. They instead have to rely on snippets of camera-phone videos smuggled out.

When replaying these, viewers are reminded that they cannot be independently verified. This is obvious, but exactly how the media justify replaying them without verification of sources is unknown.

Videos of vicious artillery shelling and helicopter gunship strafing understandably cause international uproar. It is said president al Assad has clearly lost control of his nation, using his troops as death squads instead of soldiers.

Footage of massacres where children were targeted by government artillery has emerged supposedly showing how monstrous the regime really is.

Yet only recently, alongside Arab League observers, has the international media gained any real access to Syria and they are finding the situation less gratuitous. The wanton destruction and wholesale murder by Mr al Assad’s troops is not happening as expected.

Indeed, it appears many of the "massacres" may not have occurred as first described. Closer inspection in Houla reveals people killed, not by artillery shelling as first explained, but by close-range small-arms fire.

Reports suggest rebel forces may have committed the atrocities. Government troops may not be guilty of the massacre in Houla after all. It is unlikely we will ever know for sure, however.

Yet the propaganda depicting president al Assad as a monster was released into the world’s consciousness and the damage was done. No one will now remember a correction of these stories, even one is issued.

Western powers have a strategic goal in supporting the opposition. Removing the president undermines a growing Iranian hegemony in the region.

To spread the idea of al his imminent collapse, Western intelligence agencies are cleverly seeding the world’s media with half-truths and exaggerated stories alongside legitimate reports.

So if the Syrian leader is as critically threatened as the media says, why does he still maintain complete control over his armed forces? Why was he able to drive rebels out of Damascus and launch a siege on Aleppo?

The Syrian government still functioning, even sending regime officials abroad to attend meetings in Iraq.

President al Assad is moving quickly and violently to stamp out the insurrection. No country would find this policy alien.

China uses force, Israel uses force, Thailand uses force, and even the United States, during their civil war and in Iraq, used force.

An armed insurrection must be broken early and hard, otherwise more people die the longer it drags on.

Not every explosion captured on video is a nasty attack from Syrian government forces. Of course, horrible things are done by both sides in war, regardless of who occupies the “good” side.

War is never fought by perfect angels. There is always carnage and stray bullets. Truth is the first casualty in war and Syria is not different.

If Syria can teach us one thing, it is that the more complex a conflict the greater the responsibility of news agencies to verify their sources and separate fact from fiction without recourse to sensationalism.


Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict.

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