Syria: my enemy’s enemy is not my friend

The failure of some elements of ‘the Left’ to see a real revolution even when it stares them in the face.

The UN is not perfect. But it is sometimes all we have, in terms of a worldwide vehicle for international diplomacy and for governments to make clear what they believe in, what they will stand for, and what they will not stand for; and so it is encouraging to see the overwhelming majority of the UN states in the General Assembly as well as in the Security Council backing resolutions that make quite clear the world's horror at what Assad and his minions are doing in Syria. 

But, as Mary Kaldor has argued here on openDemocracy, the situation in Syria remains of course extremely worrying, due in part to Russia and China being part of a very small minority of the world's states who are obstructing effective action against the Syrian 'government'. 

It's sad then to see some on the British 'left' and in the 'peace movement' backing the stance of ultra-authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing, against the vast majority of world opinion, and effectively going soft on Bashar Assad's murderous, corrupt and fascistic government in Syria. I'm referring for instance to the latest output from 'Medialens'. 

I have previously criticised Medialens's general stance on Syria, here. What I want to draw attention to today is their not only failing to offer any solidarity whatsoever to the heroic uprising that is the Arab Spring (contrast Medialens's weasel words in these ‘alerts’ of theirs with the active solidarity being offered to the Syrian revolution by Avaaz, as reported here on openDemocracy): but actually subtly trying to minimise the sense that there is a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria being perpetrated by the Assad junta. I am interested, that is, in for instance the apparent keenness of Medialens to play down the casualty figures in Syria (except for the casualty figures being caused by the Free Syrian Army). More on this below.

I am also interested in Medialens's citing favourably extremely dubious sources in their alerts. I drew attention in my previous article to their positive citation in relation to what is happening in Syria of Chossudovsky: a 9/11 conspiracy theorist who also believes that 7/7 was an "inside job" by MI6, and whose fantasies about a global Muslim threat (of which, naturally, the heroic Slobodan Milosevic was a noble opponent, hence his murder by the New World Order) vastly outstrip the jeremiads of Mark Steyn & Melanie Phillips…  

In Part 2 of their latest ‘alert’, Medialens’ main sources on Syria consist of a dreadful article by Robert Dreyfuss and a perhaps-even-worse piece by Aisling Byrne.

Dreyfuss, who writes that he agrees 100% with the Russian foreign minister on the hysterical reaction to their vote on the UN Security Council, alleges that the casualty figures in Syria are 'wildly exaggerated'. The figures for individual nights of bombing may be. But the overall figures are likely to be now a serious underestimate. Because of the very high number of 'disappeared'; and because the UN has effectively given up trying to count, because of the dire state of communications now in Syria, a country where the government is quite simply torturing, assaulting and murdering so many of its own people. Let me repeat and thereby stress what is the key fact here, for our present purposes: Medialens line up behind this article of Dreyfuss’s, without disputing anything in it, and so quietly commit themselves to Dreyfuss’s claim that the casualty figures estimated in Syria by activists etc. are, purportedly, “wildly exaggerated”. They thereby concur exactly with the government narrative in Syria. Congratulations, Medialens: Pravda would have been (still probably are) proud of you. 

To anyone familiar with Medialens’s smear campaign against George Monbiot and others over Srebenica, all this might not come as such a surprise. Medialens have systematically flakked Monbiot for daring to insist that genocide occurred in Srebenica. Their claims have been refuted here and here. The figures that these Norwegian statisticians arrive at for minimum deaths at Srebrenica have been borne out by every physical discovery since. It's good science. And the reason that it's correct to call this massacre a case of genocide is that by killing every Muslim man and boy, the Bosnian Serbs prevented the Muslim population from reproducing itself. They succeeded, too: Srebrenica is part of the Republika Srpska and not a single Muslim lives there anymore. The figure of 8,000 Srebrenica victims is thus robust, and it is entirely correct to term it genocide. 

There is a pattern here. Medialens if anything tends to talk up the numbers killed in Iraq (it is less clear now than it was that the Lancet survey is right), though I agree with MediaLens that the IraqBodyCount methodology clearly drastically underestimates the numbers killed in Iraq; but talks down the numbers killed at Srebenica, or in Syria. Why should MediaLens want to talk down the numbers killed by Assad in Syria, unlike the numbers killed in Iraq? The answer appears, sadly, breathktakingly simple: human beings killed by enemies of the western imperium don’t matter as much to MediaLens as human beings killed by the western imperium. 

As for Byrne - she alleges that claims of casualties caused in Syria are as dubious as claims of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s Iraq. This is gob-smacking; an incredible insult to the families of the many thousands tortured, disappeared, executed etc. in Syria. Byrne uses the difficulty of getting 100% reliable information out of Syria – a difficulty caused of course by the Syrian government itself! – as an excuse for not believing that anything like the horror story that is emerging clearly from Syria (see) is really happening. Laughably, she also cites and horribly over-interprets a dubious ‘poll’ (in any case: how would one reliably poll people, in a police-state where the internet is constantly spied upon?) that purported to show that a majority of Syrians still support Assad, as further ‘evidence’. 

The atrociously-badly-informed, pro-Putin nonsense of Byrne and Dreyfuss is what is informing MediaLens’s ‘critique’ of the western media on Syria. This is what leads them to utter snide remarks like the following, in their latest ‘alert’ on alleged western media bias in reporting on Syria: that the casualty estimates there are only worth anything if we trust “unsubstantiated reports from ‘activists’ in Syria.” Notice the scare-quoting of the word ‘activist’. MediaLens clearly hope to imply by this that these brave people demonstrating and struggling against systematic brutalisation at the hands of torture, heavy weapons, etc., are in fact… what? Completely biased? Even ‘terrorists’? (As Assad claims.)

As for the word “unsubstantiated”: is MediaLens insisting that one should not believe the Syrian people, and should trust Assad’s government instead? Or is MediaLens, like Byrne, simply tacitly using the fact that the Assad ‘government’ bans all journalists not embedded with the ‘government’ (i.e. that the Assad ‘government’ is of course far more repressive of the media than western governments are – a fact unmentioned by MediaLens) as an excuse for thinking that no reports of casualties in Syria should be believed?! 

Whatever exactly MediaLens had in mind when they wrote these words, the effect of their words (if anyone believes them or is listening) is clear: it is to lessen, in the eyes of those who trust MediaLens, the credibility of the Syrian revolution, and tacitly to increase the credibility of Assad’s black propaganda. This, apparently, is what being in favour of ‘peace’ or being on ‘the Left’ has come to, seeking to snuff out the amazing hope offered to the world by the phenomenon of the Arab Spring.

Palestinian journalists, intellectuals, leftists etc. have recently signed an open letter telling the Syrian regime not to use the Palestinian cause for their own appalling ends. I wonder what Medialens would think about this remarkable, impressive letter. Its point stands in stark contrast to Medialens's own output. The Palestinian letter is directly calculated to help stop Assad.

In conclusion 

Why care about all this? The answer is as follows:

Because Medialens have done much good and important work in the past exposing the corporate media’s extreme dubiety over many issues, such as the justification (i.e. there was none) for attacking Iraq, such as dangerous climate change (which the media routinely downplay or trivialise), etc.  

Because many decent people follow and trust in Medialens (as I myself did for many years).

Because Medialens, unfortunately, tend to attract notice that other (often stronger) critiques of the corporate media etc. (e.g. that of @NewsFrames and ‘Dissident 93’) sometimes don’t.

And because it just isn’t good enough for anyone who, like me and like them, is (or at least claims to be) engaged in a struggle for peace, green, an egalitarian, a democrat, to exhibit systematic bias against anyone who fights in a cause that the UK or US supports. It just isn’t good enough to refuse to believe that Srebenica was a genocide or to tacitly side with Assad’s narrative in Syria, just because you don’t trust British or US foreign policy. 

One crucial reason why it isn’t good enough is this, entirely neglected by Dreyfuss and by the likes of MediaLens. For those Syrians who are rebelling, Russia is the imperialist power they have to resist. Leftists in the west should have the capacity to understand that. Russia supports the Syrian dictator, exactly like the USA supports the dictators in the Gulf, and supported Mubarak. This doesn't mean that the young activists of Syria are allying with other imperialists, i.e. the USA and the UK. This point shouldn’t be that hard to understand! But Dreyfuss and MediaLens exhibit a startling naivety about Russian (and Chinese) intentions vis a vis Syria, a naivety that ‘complements’ their utter cynicism about British and American motivations. Russia is bringing military supplies into Tartus, on the Syrian coast; are they doing this for the good of their health? Are they doing it for the cause of justice and peace? Or are they doing it out of brutally imperial motivations, uncaring about the cost to those struggling on the ground for elementary freedoms? MediaLens and their fellow-travellers do not seem to care about this in the slightest. 

Sloppy sourcing and dogmatic prejudice are contributing to suffocating the authentic revolution in Syria. I am not referring to the corporate media; I am referring to those on the Left who ought to know better. 

We ought to be with the Arab Spring. We ought to unmask the lies of Assad, not belittle the desperate efforts of those he is trying to crush to get the truth out of Syria. So we need to say to MediaLens and their fellow-travellers: Please stop. Please stop your weird crusade of opposition to the greatest democratic hope that the world has seen in a generation.

About the author

Rupert Read was a Green Party councillor in Norwich and a candidate in the 2009 European Parliamentary elections. He is Chair of the Green House thinktank.