Influencing public opinion on the Syrian civil war continues to be just as important to winning as fighting on the ground. The ever-increasing complexity of the conflict means what is not said can be just as influential as what is said. Reporting that ignores context and vital explanatory detail can simply confuse or, even worse, mislead the reader.
Take the Sydney Morning Herald report from its Middle East correspondent, Ruth Pollard on 3.10.2014. Writing from Urfa in Turkey, Pollard describes the side effects of western bombing of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) strongholds in Iraq and Syria upon several competing jihadist groups.
Pollard outlines setbacks and member defections suffered by “other rebel groups” who she labels “More Moderate”, “Formerly moderate” and “Less Radical”. Quotes taken from the group’s supporters and a single private consultant convey the image that they are being unfairly hindered by the bombing campaign. The bombings, the article claims, are both driving more men into the ranks of ISIS and weakening US popularity with Syrian civilians.
“… despite the brutality of the Islamic State and the violent campaign of terror it has been waging across much of Syria and Iraq, some Syrians warned the US-led airstrikes were pushing formerly moderate or less radical rebel fighters into the arms of IS.
Already 200 men from Raqqa City had left more moderate brigades to join IS, while in Aleppo, some fighters from groups such as Ahrar al-Sham have defected to Jabhat al-Nusra, said Abu Aws, an activist from the group, known as the al-Nusra Front in English.”
The article fails to mention that Jabhat Al-Nusra is the official Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, one of the most brutal forces fighting in that conflict.
Jabhat Al-Nusra (JAN) and Ahrar al-Sham (AaS) are both Islamist groups seeking to establish an Islamic state in Syria. Both use strong Salafist* rhetoric that expresses their intent to turn Syria into a shadow of Saudi Arabia.
In practice these groups differ only slightly, AaS are not as keen on suicide bombings as JAN but both insist on an Islamic State under sharia law for a future Syria.
Some media outlets see both groups as ‘less distasteful’ intermediaries for regime change in Syria than ISIS and have hence been dubbed “Less Radical” – by a hair. Note this is not based on evidence that they refrain from public beheadings, corporal punishment for inappropriate dress or any other key markers of extremist Islamic ideology. ISIS’ highly publicized emergence as the most revolting form of Islamic extremism in western media enables equally extreme – though slightly less public – groups like JAN and AaS to escape similar scrutiny.
Jabhat al-Nusra is firmly entrenched on several international terror lists being Al Qaeda’s ‘preferred’ independent operative group in Syria (a decision which caused infighting between JAN and its sibling, ISIS). Even Turkey – which has been reluctant to put any roadblocks in the way of Jihadist activity in Syria, briefly listed the group as a banned terror organisation.
The problem facing journalists such as Pollard is that these “less radical” groups are the only forces capable of troubling the Syrian Army. The prize of removing Assad – with what might come after never examined – still reigns supreme, and remains a rallying point for western media. Despite the fact that well-armed Jihadist militias now roam free between Baghdad and Beirut, toppling Assad – likely to further the region’s slide into chaos – remains a worthy outcome for some.
Despite years of evidence to the contrary, JAN representatives are now trying to hide their similarities to ISIS. Pollard uncritically reported these statements.
“The US coalition made a big mistake when it attacked Jabhat al-Nusra, and later Ahrar al-Sham [another hard-line Islamist rebel group] in Idlib,” he [JAN representative] said.
“We are fighting the Assad regime, we are not fighting against other Muslims, we are not fighting America and we are not aligned with ISIS.”
Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are both al-Qaeda franchises, operating in the grey area that spans northeastern Syria and western Iraq (18). Their operations overlapped and co-operated until they had a bloody falling out in late 2013. ISIS tried to subsume JaN under its command, resulting in al-Qaeda ejecting ISIS from its ranks. (17)
Unquestioningly quoting both a Jabhat Al-Nusra representative and a U.A.E based private consultant, Pollard helps to portray JAN as an aggrieved party, unfairly targeted by bombing.
Hassan Hassan, an analyst with the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi, described the attacks on the Nusra Front as a “blunder”.
“There was an opportunity to draw a deeper wedge between [IS} and other jihadist groups,” he wrote in the Abu Dhabi-based National. “Weeks before the air strikes in Syria, it was clear that Jabhat al-Nusra tried to send signals that it was different from [IS], through the release of kidnapped peacekeepers and an American hostage.”
To many Syrians, Jabhat al-Nusra has been the most efficient force against the regime, he wrote, and to target it while sparing the regime invited people to conclude the air strikes were aiding President Assad.”
While JAN are a well equipped and experienced force, they do not have a large following amongst civilian Syrians, many of whom object to their strict enforcement of Wahhabi** social standards. Almost all historical reports of JAN’s activities in Syria since early 2012 portray them as a being heavily influenced by foreign fighters (2) and committed to imposing radical Islamic beliefs regardless of local tradition. In 2013 The Economist confronted them directly about their unpopularity, yet they kept to their ideals of an Islamic state and punishment of all who diverge from their rule:
“Many, maybe most, Syrians do not share your views. Do you care?
It would be great if the Syrians were with us but the kuffar are not important…Allah knows what will happen to them [Alawites]. There is a difference between the basic kuffar [infidels] and those who converted from Islam. If the latter, we must punish them. Alawites are included. Even Sunnis who want democracy are kuffar as are all Shia. “(3)
JaN’s character is no secret. While they may be able to boast about helping people buy bread and restore utilities (4), JaN also proudly claims a long list of suicide bombings (7), including on hospitals as well as kidnappings, most recently of UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights (5).
JaN also has a complex history with journalists. A hacked 2013 Facebook conversation between Matthew Van Dyke (pro-opposition US journalist) and Steven Sotloff (the same executed by ISIS) revealed Van Dyke telling Sotloff that opposition fighters had chemical weapons and may consider a false flag attack. During a later previous conversation, Sotloff raised the idea of purposely being arrested or kidnapped by JaN as a way of gaining their trust and protection (15). It is possible JaN passed journalist James Foley onto ISIS, whose subsequent execution helped catalyse US-led attacks on ISIS(14).
Pollard unquestioningly quotes a “senior tribal leader” implying the Syrian government should be the bombing target rather than ISIS:
““How is it possible that the US watched for the last three-and-a-half years while more than 200,000 Syrians were murdered by Assad … and 5-6 million displaced and it is only now that they are acting, and not against Assad but against the Islamic State,” asked one senior tribal leader who asked not to be named.”
“Assad used chemical weapons against his people, we were desperate for the West to help and they did nothing,” he told Fairfax Media, echoing the frustrations of many Syrians.”
Pollard makes no effort to balance these statements. She could have pointed out that: the figure of 200,000 deaths includes both Syrian Government and Opposition casualties as well as civilians killed by all sides; it is Assad’s government that is looking after most of the 6.45 million internally displaced (12), including the families of men who have taken up arms against the government.
Nor does she make the caveat that despite extensive investigations into the use of chemical weapons in the conflict there is no conclusive evidence as to which side(s) is responsible. The speculative evidence points as much at opposition groups as it does the Assad government (10,11).
Pollard also conjures up the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (et. al.) despite serious doubt as to whether such an organization even exists (13), encouraging the reader to think that there is such a neglected underdog in the Syrian conflict attracting the popular support of a large proportion of Syrians. This mirrors use of the term “moderate opposition”, which gets bandied about by politicians and journalists alike without ever bothering to identify specific organisations.
“But many Syrians – both those aligned with the Free Syrian Army along with other rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime – say the intervention is too little, too late, and too narrow in its focus.”
This ignores several hushed confessions, the latest by U.S vice president Joe Biden that the FSA as a single fighting force doesn’t currently exist and never really did, except in the media (6,9). More importantly it neglects the fact that polling of the Syrian population has shown an increasing majority of the population support the Assad government. (8)
*See glossary for a detailed description of terms.
- Tamer al-Samadi, Al-Monitor online November 15, 2013
- Aymen Jawad al-Tamimi, Jabhat Al-Nusra and The Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham: Raqqah Governorate. Jihadology.com, June 4, 2013