The Information War on Syria and Beyond
By Rick Sterling – Introduction: The U.S. establishment is not happy. They are not content with largely dominating media narratives on Syria and other critical foreign policy issues; they want total dominance.
Thus we now have the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act signed into law on December 24 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017. The bill will mandate the U.S.Secretary of State to collaborate with the Secretary of Defense, Director of National Intelligence and other federal agencies to “create a Global Engagement Center to fight against propaganda from foreign governments”.
The bill directs the future Center to be formed in 180 days and to share expertise among agencies and to “coordinate with allied nations”.
This bill was initiated in March 2016, before widespread allegations of “Russian hacking” began. Hillary Clinton voiced strong support for the bill: “It’s imperative that leaders in both the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy, and innocent lives.”
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Irony: USA is the Major Purveyor of Propaganda
This bill is remarkable because the US government and agencies appear to be major purveyors not victims of propaganda and disinformation. A good recent example is the accusations of Russian hacking at the Democratic National Committee and Clinton private email servers to “influence’ the U.S. election. Despite the widespread accusations, here is little or no no public evidence in support of this and much to contradict the claims. An analysis by veteran intelligence professionals leads to the conclusion this was a leak, NOT a “hack”, and allegations of hacking the election are “baseless”. On top of that, there is now a credible source , a former UK Ambassador, who says he received the Clinton email data from a disgruntled DNC staffer and delivered the data to Wikileaks. The accusation that the US election was influenced by Russian hacking appears to be an example of what they claim to oppose: fake news and disinformation for political purposes.
There is a long history U.S. disinformation and propaganda. Former CIA agents Philip Agee and John Stockwell documented how it was done decades ago. For the past ten years there has been increasing emphasis on using supplied, trained and paid “activists” and “independent journalists” along with social media to spread false stories and news and to undermine or discredit journalists who challenge the orthodoxy. Disinformation, fake news and propaganda are no longer the province of the CIA; it’s managed by the State Department using staff and contractors. The new bill to “counter foreign propaganda” will provide tax payer money and escalate this aspect of the information war.
Propaganda and Disinformation on Syria
Syria is a good case study in the modern application of information warfare. In her book “Hard Choices”, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote that the U.S. provided “support for (Syrian) civilian opposition groups, including satellite -linked computers, telephones, cameras, and training for more than a thousand activists, students and independent journalists.”
A huge amount of money has gone to “activists” and “civil society” groups in Syria as well as in the USA and west. These groups have shaped and manipulated public opinion. The fact they are recipients or contractors of one or more governments directly involved in trying to overthrow the Syrian government has generally been ignored or hidden.
In North America, representatives from the Syrian “Local Coordination Committees” (LCC) were frequent guests on popular media programs such as DemocracyNow. The message was clear: there is a “revolution” in Syria against a “brutal regime” personified in Bashar al Assad. It was not mentioned that the “Local Coordination Committees” have been primarily funded by the West, specifically the Office for Syrian Opposition Support which was founded by the United States Department of State and UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
More recently, news and analysis about Syria has been conveyed through the filter of the White Helmets, also known as Syrian Civil Defense. The White Helmets were stated to be neutral, non-partisan, civilian volunteers courageously carrying out rescue work in the war zone. In fact, the group is none of the above. It was initiated by the US and UK using a British military contractor and Brooklyn based marketing company. While they may have performed some genuine rescue operations, the White Helmets is primarily a media organization with a political goal: to promote NATO intervention in Syria. The manipulation of public opinion using the White Helmets and promoted by the NY Times and Avaaz petition for a “No Fly Zone” in Syria is documented here. The White Helmets hoax continues to be widely believed and receive uncritical promotion but is increasingly being exposed as the creation of a “shady PR firm”. White Helmet individuals have been used as the source for important news stories despite a track record of deception.
Recent Propaganda: Blatant Lies?
As the armed groups in east Aleppo recently lost ground and then collapsed, western governments and allied media went into a frenzy of accusations based on reports from sources connected with the armed opposition. CNN host Wolf Blitzer described Aleppo as “falling” in a “slaughter of these women and children” while CCN host Jake Tapper referred to “genocide by another name”. The “Daily Beast” published the claims of the Aleppo Siege Media Center. They titled it “Doomsday is held in Aleppo” and claimed the Syrian army was executing civilians, burning them alive and “20 women committed suicide in order not to be raped.” These sensational claims were widely broadcast without verification.
In fact, the news and reports on CNN and throughout western media were coming from highly biased sources and many of the claims can be accurately described as propaganda and disinformation. As one indication, the Aleppo Media Center was created by the “Syrian Expatriates Organization” (SEO) based on K Street in Washington DC, the base of operations for Public Relations and Marketing firms.
In sharp contrast to the wailing and dubious reports of CNN and most western media, RT and other media outlets have broadcast videos and interviews showing popular celebrations at the “liberation of Aleppo”. Jan Oberg of Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research has published a powerful photo essay describing his eye witness observations in Aleppo including the happiness of civilians from east Aleppo reaching the government controlled areas of west Aleppo. Dr. Nabil Antaki, a medical doctor from Aleppo, describes the liberation of Aleppo in an interview titled “Aleppo is Celebrating, Free from Terrorists, the Western Media Misinformed”. The first Christmas celebrations in Aleppo in four years are shown here, replete with marching band members in Santa Claus outfits. Journalist Vanessa Beeley has published testimonies of civilians from East Aleppo. The happiness of civilians at their liberation is clear.
Contrary to the mythology of rebel “liberated zones” , there is persuasive evidence the armed groups were never popular in Aleppo. American journalist James Foley described the situation in 2012 like this:
“Aleppo, a city of about 3 million people, was once the financial heart of Syria. As it continues to deteriorate, many civilians here are losing patience with the increasingly violent and unrecognizable opposition — one that is hampered by infighting and a lack of structure, and deeply infiltrated by both foreign fighters and terrorist groups.
The rebels in Aleppo are predominantly from the countryside, further alienating them from the urban crowd that once lived here peacefully, in relative economic comfort and with little interference from the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad.”
The Overall Narrative on Syria
Analysis of the Syrian conflict boils down to two competing narratives. One narrative, pervasive in the West, is that the conflict is a fight for freedom and democracy against a brutal regime. This description has been promoted in the West which have been fueling the conflict from the start. This narrative is also put forward by some self-styled “anti-imperialists” who seek a “Syrian revolution”.
The other narrative is that the conflict is essentially a war of aggression against a sovereign state. The aggressors include western NATO countries plus regional actors, Israel and Jordan.
Censorship and domination of western media is so thorough that one rarely hears the second narrative. This is true of much of the liberal and progressive media as well as mainstream. For example, listeners and viewers of the generally progressive TV and radio program “DemocracyNow” have rarely if ever heard the second narrative described in any detail. DemocracyNow news has frequently broadcast the explanations of Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power and others associated with the US position. They have rarely if ever broadcast the explanation and viewpoint of the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, the Syrian Foreign Minister or countless analysts inside Syria and around the world who have written about and follow events there closely.
DemocracyNow has done repeated interviews with proponents of the “Syrian revolution” and never with analysts who say this is a war of aggression. This, despite the fact that many prominent international figures see it as such. For example, the former Foreign Minister of Nicaragua and former President of the UN General Assembly, Father Miguel D’Escoto, has said, “What the U.S. government is doing in Syria is tantamount to a war of aggression, which, according to the Nuremberg Tribunal, is the worst possible crime a State can commit against another State.”
In many areas of politics, the public affairs program DemocracyNow is excellent and challenges mainstream media. However in this area, coverage of the Syrian conflict, their broadcast is biased, one-sided and echoes the news and analysis of mainstream western corporate media. This shows the extent of domination of foreign policy news that already exists.
Suppressing and Censoring Challenges
One of the primary purposes of the new “Global Engagement Center” will be to “counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation.” This is another remarkable development because there is already widespread censorship and “countering” of alternative analyses of critical international issues. In an article titled “Controlling the Narrative on Syria”, Louis Allday describes the criticisms and attacks on journalists Rania Khalek and Max Blumenthal for straying from the “approved” western narrative on Syria. Some of the bullying and abuse has come from precisely those people, such as Robin Yassin-Kassab, who have been frequent guests in liberal western media.
Recently Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett returned to North America after being in Syria and Aleppo. She conveyed a very different image and criticized biased media coverage of the Syrian conflict. She pointed to western media broadcasting claims without credible sources or evidence. Bartlett appeared at a United Nations press conference and then did numerous interviews across the country during a speaking tour. During the course of her talks and presentation, Bartlett criticized the White Helmets and questioned whether it was true that Al Quds Hospital in opposition held East Aleppo was attacked and destroyed as claimed.
Snopes is a useful website which has exposed many urban legends and false rumors. Unfortunately they have many internal challenges and have become inconsistent in their investigations. In an examination titled “White Helmet Hearsay” Snopes’ writer Bethania Palmer says claims the White Helmets are “linked to terrorists” is “unproven”. She overlooks numerous videos, photos, and other reports showing White Helmet members celebrating Nusra/Al Qaeda battle victory, picking up the bodies of civilians executed by Nusra executioner, and alternatively being rebel/terrorist fighter with weapon but later wearing a White Helmet uniform. The “fact check” barely scrapes the surface of public evidence.
The same writer did another shallow “investigation” titled “victim blaming” regarding Bartlett’s critique of White Helmet videos and what happened at the Al Quds Hospital in Aleppo. Bartlett suggests that some White Helmet videos may be fabricated and include the same child at different times. Photographs appear to show the same girl being rescued by White Helmet workers at different places and times. While the similarity in appearance is clear, it is uncertain whether or not this is the same girl.
The Snopes writer goes on to criticize Bartlett for her comments about the reported bombing of the Al Quds Hospital in East Aleppo in April 2016. A statement at the website of Doctors Without Borders says the building was “destroyed and reduced to rubble”. This is clearly false since photos show the building with unclear damage. Five months later, the September 2016 report by Doctors Without Borders says the top two floors of the building were destroyed and the ground floor Emergency Room damaged yet they re-opened in two weeks. The many inconsistencies and contradictions in the statements of Doctors Without Borders resulted in an open letter to them. In their last report Doctors Without Borders (MSF) acknowledges that “MSF staff did not directly witness the attack and has not visited Al Quds Hospital since 2014”.
Bartlett referenced satellite images taken before and after the reported attack on the hospital. These images do not show severe damage and it is unclear whether or not there is any damage to the roof. This was the basis for Bartlett’s statement. In the past week, independent journalists have visited the scene of Al Quds Hospital and report that that the top floors of the building are still there and damage is unclear. The Snopes’ investigation about Bartlett’s statement is superficial and ignores much larger issues of accuracy and integrity. Instead it appears to be an effort to undermine the overall eye-witness observations and analysis provided by a journalist who is challenging the mainstream narrative.
The Coming New McCarthyism?
U.S. propaganda and disinformation on Syria has been overall effective in misleading much of the population. Most Americans are unaware how many billion tax payer dollars have been spent on yet another “regime change” attempt. Many liberal and progressive news outlets have failed to challenge the propaganda and disinformation on Syria. It has been left to RT and a host of smaller media outlets to challenge the government and mainstream media.
The passage of HR5181 “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation”, suggests that the ruling powers seek to escalate suppression of news and analysis which runs counter to their narrative. Despite their current dominance in the media and information arena, that is not enough. They seek to further squelch opposing voices. The bill calls for “countering” and “refuting” what they deem to be propaganda and disinformation. A slush fund of $20M is provided to hire or reward “civil society groups, NGOs, journalists and private companies “ who participate in the campaign.
Progressives need to prepare for the escalation of the information war.
Main Image – Jan Oberg: Taken from Aleppo’s citadel stairs
Rick Sterling is an independent investigative journalist. He lives in the SF Bay Area and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org