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US Missile Attack on Syria – Peering Through the Smoke

by | Wednesday, 12th April 2017
Since President Donald Trump ordered the US missile attack on Syria, the international media response via BBC World Service, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and the like has been astounding. The message they have broadcast has been clear, unanimous and irrational: the chemical attack was by Assad’s Syrian “regime” and the US response has reset the Trump presidency which is now back on the, admittedly difficult, path to world salvation via American exceptionalism.

To illustrate the nature of this narrative, where better than the New York Times, or as President Trump, until recently, used to call it, “the failing New York Times”. Specifically I have been struck by a piece by the New York Times Middle East reporter Anne Barnard titled “Assad Aimed to Crush Hope”.

To briefly introduce this reporter, she is the NYTimes Beirut bureau chief, covering Syria and the Middle East. She is also described as "a former Boston Globe Iraq-ME buro chief. Russia hand. Mother. New Yorker."

Wikipedia records that Anne Barnard is "an American journalist who works for the New York Times as Beirut Bureau Chief. She was born in New York City, studied at Yale University, and from 1993 to 1995 reported for the Moscow Times. She then worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1996 to 2000, and for the Boston Globe as Baghdad Bureau Chief and Middle East Bureau Chief from 2003 until 2007, when she joined the New York Times staff. In 2011, she received the Mike Berger Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism."

So we are not talking about a reporter fresh out of journalism school. This woman has an impressive CV with considerable time spent in the middle east, concentrating on reporting events in that troubled and turbulent region. This can be no case of youth, inexperience or naivety generating flawed reporting. What Anne Barnard writes, she writes knowing the facts and deciding on a narrative.

Her NYTimes article “Assad Aimed to Crush Hope” was printed in the international edition (not available online) but was essentially a reprint of a 6th April report, “The Grim Logic Behind Syria’s Chemical Weapons Attack”. This begins:

The diplomatic situation had been looking bright for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. With the help of Russia, he had consolidated his power, the rebels were on their heels and the United States had just declared that ousting him was not a priority. So why would Mr. Assad risk it all, outraging the world by attacking civilians 

Why indeed? This is a good question for, as Ms Barnard immediately acknowledges, such a move is being called inexplicable, crazy and against the interests of Assad and the Syrian Government. Her answer is brief and evidence free:

Yet, rather than an inexplicable act, analysts say, it is part of a carefully calculated strategy of escalating attacks against civilians.

So “Analysts” are the authority for this view. That sounds better than “un-named sources”, but remains a vague, unattributable source given a title implying authority and knowledge. In short, given that this is the whole point of the article and the core of her argument, what we see here is a deception. And on it goes:

For years, at least since it began shelling neighborhoods with artillery in 2012, then bombing them from helicopters and later from jets, the Syrian government has adopted a policy of seeking total victory by making life as miserable as possible for anyone living in areas outside its control.

Government forces have been herding defeated opponents from across the country into Idlib Province, where the chemical attack occurred. Starved and bombed out of their enclaves, they are bused under lopsided surrender deals to the province, where Qaeda-linked groups maintain a presence the Syrian military uses as an excuse to bomb without regard for the safety of civilians

This seems, in part, an accusation that Assad is prosecuting a war against vicious terrorists but is not being nice enough when doing so; a strangely naive approach for an experienced journalist. It accepts the US government narrative as entirely factual and proceeds to bend the subsequent analysis to suit, with these strange viewpoints emerging as an inevitable result. 

And again we have the deceptive language. “Qaeda-linked groups maintain a presence” might be translated as “tens of thousands of heavily armed insurgents, including Al Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists maintain military control.” But “presence” is the term she prefers. It implies that Assad is motivated not by military necessity in a long vicious war against a ruthless enemy, but rather by a wish to kill civilians who do not support him, using any excuse to do so. It is a carefully crafted calumny against the leader of a government which, though authoritarian, retains the support of a large part of the Syrian population and has a record of defending the rights of minorities which contrasts with the murderous nature of the Islamic state. If you were a Syrian Christian or other minority, who would you support? Rebranded Al-Qaeda groups, Islamic State or the Syrian Government. The choice seems obvious but this is not a question Anne Barnard chooses to address in this article.

Looking for other sources she quotes Dr. Monzer Khalil, Idlib Province’s health director who said

such extreme tactics aimed to demonstrate the government’s impunity and to demoralize its foes.

She takes this quote on face value and fails to ask the obvious questions:

1. Does the Health Director (a government post in insurgent controlled area) have an agenda in stating this?

2. How could the health director know the aims of the Assad government in an apparently crazy move to use chemical weapons when the war is all but won? He is not a political or military figure, so how could he possibly know the mind of President Assad?

This is in reality no better than “analysts say”.

Her next source is Heinrich Böll Foundation, which does sound more independent and authoritative. They said:

Militarily, there is no need,” said Bente Scheller, the Middle East director of the Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Foundation. “But it spreads the message: You are at our mercy. Don’t ask for international law. You see, it doesn’t protect even a child.

Who are they you ask? A German green political foundation! They campaign on left wing politics and environmental issues, that is to say their main focus is on plastic waste at sea, global warming and the like. What expertise have they in Syria? None that I can see; they simply echo the current left wing orthodoxy that Russia is bad, and the NYTimes is righteous. Is this really the best quote that the NYTimes could muster to prop up their narrative? This is fake news, a false narrative bolstered by voices who, for ideology or gain, will back the narrative, without evidence or independent thought playing any part.

And as for the other side of the argument; this is dealt with as follows:

On Thursday, Syria’s foreign minister challenged accounts by witnesses, experts and world leaders that his government was involved. “I stress to you once again: The Syrian Army has not, did not and will not use this kind of weapons — not just against our own people, but even against the terrorists that attack our civilians with their mortar rounds,” the minister, Walid al-Moallem, said in Damascus.

But the denial, as well as a Russian assertion that a bomb hit a chemical weapons depot controlled by the rebels, seemed perfunctory, almost without regard to the facts, which Western governments said pointed to a Syrian government hand.

More of the same; this is what passes for journalism these days. On one side we have “witnesses, experts and world leaders”. The witnesses will be such as the white helmets, who are the terrorists; the experts are green party activists in Germany, and those acting as propagandists for the insurgents; the world leaders are the political interests fighting over Syria. But the categorical denials from the Syrian government “seemed perfunctory” and “almost” without regard to the facts. Almost? And those facts do not point to a culprit, no, Western Governments say they point to a culprit. In terms of information, this is smoke; an irritant used to conceal strategic movement. The words are crafted to conceal the total lack of evidence for the American missile strike. and to obscure the movement in policy.

Ms Barnard next returns to again quote Dr Khalil:

We are aware that we are in this Qaeda trap,” Dr. Khalil said. “But in Idlib we have 2.2 million people, and how many Qaeda fighters? You cannot kill the two million for their sake.

This is, of course, a strawman argument, for whatever the flaws of the Assad government, no one could legitimately suggest killing millions of civilians has been part of their history or policy.

The NYTimes article completes with a litany of previous "convictions" against the Assad regime for using chlorine gas and sarin nerve agent. This is to bolster the conclusion that Assad, despite having a winning military hand, deviously calculated that now was the right time for a chemical attack because it would show the west to be weak and unable to help the opponents of the “regime”.

The illogicality of this position is stark. Not only do the claims regarding Assad’s motivation make no sense in strategic terms, running the risk of bringing in western involvement when otherwise his war is almost won; they also make no sense as the western powers claim to have no dog in this fight. With the failure of US military attempts to train and deploy “moderate rebel forces”, the war is between Assad, The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliates. Who can the west back? Who can they portray as the plucky rebels fighting for liberty? The US air force is already in action against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. Al-Qaeda is a long time bogey man and hate figure for western governments and clearly and correctly labelled a terrorist organisation. Short of a full scale invasion (Iraq-style) seeking to take over Syria by military means what can the west actually do (other than support Assad of course)?

So, if this is simply smoke, what then is the real message of the missile attack? I suggest that it is, indeed, significant, and does, undeniably, crush hope: just not in the manner suggested by the NYTimes.

The hope that has been crushed is the hope placed in Donald Trump by the American people. They looked at the corrupt political establishment in Washington - personified by Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton and Bush domination of politics. They rejected more of the same, instead voting for an outsider from beyond the political world. They elected an abrasive, plain-talking man they could relate to: a man who pointed at CNN and said “you are fake news”: a man who would “Make America Great Again” by going to Washington to “drain the swamp”. Simple messages crafted for a political campaign, but they were victorious because they were true. It is true that America is in decline: it is true that the Washington political world is corrupt and cares little for the interest of the nation: it is true that CNN and the NYTimes are fake news. The emergence of a POTUS prepared to speak truth to power held out the hope that, despite everything, American democracy might save itself, and the American people could use the ballot box to save their nation.

But that early hope has been under relentless attack. With some of Trump's closest advisors forced out, and with the failure to repeal Obamacare, a more variable voice was coming from the “Trump Train”. When billions of dollars were pledged to a useless vanity project - NASA’s plan for a manned landing on Mars - the decline had clearly set in. Those who value liberty and the rule of law watched these events with increasing concern, and awaited a defining moment of crisis which would show which path this administration was taking. It was the news about Syria that provided this defining moment. Still well within the first 100 days of his administration, President Trump was presented with a fork in the road.

To the right lay the difficult path of speaking the truth, and hence fighting the media, the deep state, and the military-industrial complex. That would involve joining with Russia to arrange a full investigation into what happened in Syria with the evidence presented to the world. It would be greeted by howls from the left of American politics, and from the entire media machine, about Russian influence and dead babies.

To the left lay the easier road of a foreign policy set by the fake news of CNN and the NYTimes; military action of (at best) dubious legality; and a return to a post-truth world where the narrative matters, the facts are secondary, and truth is a dirty word. In short a return to the policies of the Bush-Clinton-Obama era; those very policies that the American people had been looking for The Donald to reverse.

The choice has been made; The Donald has gone with the fake-news, world-police, Washington-establishment option. He has abandoned those who looked for him to be a way back to a better, more truthful America.

Having taken this tragic miss-step is there any way back for the Trump presidency? I suspect there is not, for how could this have happened. For months , even years, Donald Trump had been speaking and tweeting against involvement in Syria and a USA role as world policeman. Why the reverse? The reason must be either blackmail, direct threats, political pressure or a lack of ability to discern truth from lies. Whichever it is, once in control, it is unlikely that the situation will be overturned; not with the political and economic establishment pressing for more of the same. Having surrendered once to whatever type of pressure was brought to bear, how can Donald Trump ever resist the same treatment when faced with further crises, be they real or CNN-generated?

Hence, this has been the reset of the Trump presidency, and the end of the hope he represented for the people of America and of the wider world. This hope was that the tide of lies and corruption could be reversed and that democracy, despite containing within it the seeds of its own destruction, might still work to achieve a just and responsible government. It may have been a slim hope, but it was fun while it lasted. 


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