Le Figaro reported last month that Syria’s chemical weapons were “under surveillance” and that “US special forces have been deployed to prevent their use.” A diplomat in Jordan warned that “it’s the threat of chemical weapons that may trigger a targeted American intervention.” Give or take a few details, it’s the same script as in Baghdad 10 years ago: is Bashar al-Assad about to unleash weapons of mass destruction on his opponents? The claim has been around for some time: Bernard-Henri Lévy’s website (1) reported last September that “Assad’s killers have launched aerial operations using poison gas in the Al-Rastan area, not far from the rebel city of Homs.”
AFP (Agence France Presse) cautiously reported on 27 July that it “has heard this claim from dozens of people in the province of Hama. But in spite of weeks of research, no rebel or tribal leader, doctor, combatant or civilian has been able to produce irrefutable proof.” It concluded: “The war in Syria is also a war of information and disinformation.”
The war of words began on 29 January on a Twitter account (@DamascusTweets) belonging to “militants with close links to the opposition” (2), which claimed that Assad had fled the country. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) allegedly had the president’s palace surrounded and the cornered dictator had tried to get to the international airport and fly to Moscow with his wife and children. Though unverifiable, the rumour was “not without foundation”, claimed the Nouvel Observateur’s website: “According to Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East correspondent, the FSA is just 30 minutes away from Assad’s presidential palace. It’s a military situation that could push the dictator to flee” (3).
On 18 July, during a new rebel offensive which brought fiercer fighting than Damascus had yet seen, a bomb went off at the headquarters of the Syrian National Security Council, killing the defence minister and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat. On French news channels, opposition figures, most of them from the Syrian National Council (SNC), commented on events as they unfolded: the regime’s days were numbered; it might even collapse in a matter of hours. “We can say that it’s the beginning of the end,” said Randa Kassis (4), president of the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians, which is part of the SNC. Anonymous sources quoted in The Guardian alleged that Assad himself had been injured in the attack. His wife was again reported to have flown to Moscow. The FSA and a small Islamist group both claimed responsibility for the attack, while the regime detected the hand of “foreign powers” (Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia) supporting the opposition army.
Then AFP reported (shortly before 9am on 20 July) that Assad, unharmed after all, had agreed to leave two days later, “but in a civilised fashion”. Confirmed half an hour later by Reuters, the news had picked up on an interview given by Russia’s ambassador in Paris to Radio France Internationale (RFI). But he hadn’t announced Assad’s departure at all, merely issued a reminder that Syria had undertaken to move towards a “more democratic regime” in Geneva on 30 June.
Media war unreported
Syrians have been fighting for democracy since March 2011 in a popular uprising that has been brutally repressed and widely documented (5). But a media war is also being waged, and that has largely gone unreported by western news organisations. It’s true that it’s very hard to tell truth from fiction on the ground. The regime is sparing with the visas it grants. Nearly all the journalists who succeed in joining the rebels (at the risk of their lives) follow the FSA line. Their reports follow the narrative developed by the FSA and its Turkish, Saudi and Qatari affiliates: a barbaric regime is bloodily crushing peaceful demonstrations that are defended by pro-democracy militants who have plenty of courage but little by way of weapons, ammunition or medical supplies.
Unsurprisingly, the few journalists who have accepted the invitation of the Assad regime tell a radically different story: of hideously mutilated soldiers’ bodies piled in hospital morgues, of members of Alawite and Christian minorities terrorised by armed gangs engaged not in a war of liberation but a religious war, with the backing of the Gulf’s oil-producing monarchies.
To the embarrassment of the opposition army, the presence in Syria of jihadist groups, some claiming links to Al-Qaida, is an established fact. Another reason,Libération insisted on 6 August, to help the insurgents “politically and militarily, even if only to avoid leaving the field and the final victory to the Islamists.”
Separating the revolutionary wheat from jihadist chaff often turns out to be difficult. Abu Hajjar, “one of the mujahideen, who left the Paris area four months ago to take part in the uprising against the Assad regime”, defines himself as an “Islamist militant, not a jihadist linked to Al-Qaida”. Profiled in Le Figaro, he insisted that the Alawite and Christian minorities, most of whom support the Assad regime, would be represented in a future Syrian parliament (6). He also said he had opened a “centre for preaching” in the village of Sarjeh to distribute “banned books” by Ibn Taymiyya, a “great theoretician of jihad”, Le Figaro added, failing to mention that he had also issued a fatwa calling for a holy war against the Alawites.
But such testimony doesn’t alter the larger narrative of the Syrian drama, which is dominated by a handful of protagonists and events: the siege of Homs, the massacre at Houla, the death of the journalists Marie Colvin, Rémi Ochlik, and Gilles Jacquier (who it now seems was probably killed by fire from rebel positions). The reporting of the conflict is dominated by a few players including the main Middle Eastern satellite news channels, especially Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, owned by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two heavyweights in the Arab League, the new mouthpiece for Gulf diplomacy. These absolute monarchies, which promote “freedom” among their neighbours without having any democratic legitimacy of their own, are conducting a regional cold war in Syria, the last Arab regime that, in their view, is a participant in the “Shia arc”, which extends from Beirut to Baghdad, bringing instability to Bahrain.
These news channels benefit from the public’s predisposition to believe the information they broadcast, however unreliable. Columnist Caroline Fourest wrote in Le Monde on 25 February: “According to Al-Arabiya, opponents of the Iranian regime say their government has given a crematorium oven to its Syrian ally. Installed in Aleppo’s industrial zone, it will be working at full capacity… perhaps to burn the bodies of its opponents.”
Otherwise, the media rely on the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which through AFP, AP and Reuters, disseminates death tolls from military engagements and reports from the armed opposition. Its founder, Rami Abdel Rahman, went to live in the UK in 2000, where he runs a clothing shop. From his flat in Coventry, he said: “I am the only member of my organisation based in the UK. But I have 200 volunteer correspondents in Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon. They are soldiers, doctors and opposition militants.” He claims complete neutrality: “I’m not financed by anyone. I set up the SOHR in 2006 because I wanted to do something for my country.” But with only a secretary to assist him, there must be a question mark over his ability to obtain and verify the numbers of dead and injured in military confrontations all over Syria almost as they happen.
Nonetheless, AFP has accorded the SOHR the status of a key source. Ezzedine Said explained: “We first used the SOHR back in November 2006. The organisation has shown itself to be trustworthy and credible in the past, which is why we continue to use it.” The agency’s chief editor in Nicosia, from where its reports on the Middle East are coordinated, acknowledged that “our journalists have almost no contact with the organisation’s correspondents on the ground. Those working in Damascus cannot operate freely. They are not in a position to give an overview of the situation around the country. The SOHR, though it never takes a political position in its communiqués, is not a perfect source. But it is the source that gives the least unreliable figures on the number of dead on the ground.” Some people at APF are uncomfortable with this: “We know very well that the SOHR is not reliable,” one leading reporter said. “Even so, we continue to use their figures. When you ask management, the answer is always the same: ‘You’re probably right, but the other agencies use them and we’re in a highly competitive business’.”
The way in which the SOHR covered the Houla massacre, for example, raises questions about its claimed impartiality and the reliability of its sources. This much is clear: on 25 May, 108 people were massacred in Houla. The bodies of 49 children and 34 women were found in this area to the north of Homs. In a communiqué dated 26 May and relayed by AFP, the SOHR initially reported that 90 people had been killed in bombardments. UN and Arab League accredited observers claimed three days later that most of the victims had been killed with bladed weapons. The UN revealed the same day that the area where the massacre took place was held by the rebels.
A UN Human Rights Council report published on 16 August said that most of the victims had been killed by government forces, even though its investigators had not visited Houla and so were unable to verify the identity of those responsible. But this didn’t prevent the SOHR’s initial report being widely disseminated and used in French diplomatic efforts to make Russia yield to the UN Security Council: “The Houla massacre may change minds,” the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told Le Monde on 29 May.
Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International secretly entered Syria in April and spent three weeks trying to assess the human cost of the conflict. She underlined the difficulty of the task: “Hospitals aren’t a reliable source, because the injured can’t go there without being arrested by the security forces. I was in Aleppo during a huge army operation. I saw small ad hoc medical units set up in apartments where under-equipped doctors were trying to tend the injured. Under such conditions, the tallies are simpler to take. When you arrive after the event, you have to take statements from survivors and neighbours and collect evidence on the ground such as shell casings and bullet holes in walls.” She said it is “possible to work from outside the country, but that adds to the difficulties. Especially over the reliability of sources you don’t know, who may be tempted to try to manipulate us.” At the end of July, Amnesty reported that 12,000 people had been killed, compared to the SOHR’s 19,000. The rigorous methods that Amnesty claims contrast with the figures provided by Abdel Rahman. But that rigour is incompatible with the demand for instant reporting that now rules the media world, especially online.