After US Bombs Syrian Government for Third Time in 8 Months, Media Ask Few Questions

2 June 2017 — FAIR

The United States has bombed Syrian government–allied forces three times in just eight months. Major media outlets have overwhelmingly failed to ask critical questions about these incidents, preferring instead to echo the Pentagon.

Fox News: US Airstrikes Pound Pro-Assad Forces in SyriaFox News (5/18/17) celebrates a US attack on pro-Syrian forces for the offense of being in Syria.

For years, media have consistently downplayed the extent of US military intervention in Syria, and repeatedly propagated the long-debunked myth that Washington never pursued regime change there in the first place. The distorted reporting on these US attacks reflects this longer trend.

On May 18, the US military launched an air raid against forces allied with the Syrian government, killing several soldiers. The Trump administration claimed Syrian- and Iranian-backed militias had entered a 55-kilometer (34-mile) “deconfliction zone” around a base in southern Syria, near the borders of Iraq and Jordan, where the US trains opposition fighters.

Yet US officials also later admitted that they do not themselves recognize the legitimacy of these de-escalation zones—even while using them to justify carrying out such attacks.

No major media outlets questioned the government narrative, or the notion that the Syrian-allied forces were a “threat.” (For context, 34 miles is the distance between Aleppo and Idlib, considered two separate theaters in the Syrian civil war. It is also roughly the distance between Baghdad and Fallujah, or between Washington, DC, and Baltimore.)

In its report on the attack, Reuters‘ cartoonish headline (5/18/17) was “US Strikes Syria Militia Threatening US-Backed Forces: Officials.” The article uncritically repeated that an unnamed pro-government militia “posed a threat to US and US-backed Syrian fighters in the country’s south.”

Reuters added that, when those “threatening” government-allied forces were hit, they were allegedly still a distant 27 kilometers (17 miles) from the US-led coalition’s al-Tanf base.

USA Today (5/18/17) simply noted that the “forces came within a 34-mile defensive zone around the al-Tanf base,” and unskeptically claimed the US airstrike “targeted pro-regime forces who were threatening a coalition base.”

Fox News (5/18/17)  triumphantly declared, “US Airstrikes Pound Pro-Assad Forces in Syria.” Obediently echoing the US government, Fox claimed the Syrian forces “were near the Jordanian border and deemed a threat to coalition partners on the ground.”

The New York Times‘ report was similarly deferential (5/18/17), echoing Pentagon officials who insisted the pro-government convoy “ignored warnings.”

Unquestioned Double Standards

Later follow-up statements added a wrinkle to the US government narrative the media had parroted.

In peace talks in early May, Russia, Iran and Turkey signed an agreement to create four deconfliction zones in Syria. This deal was supposed to apply to the US as well, but the Trump administration has refused to recognize the legitimacy of these de-escalation zones—even while using them to justify attacks on Syrian government-allied forces.

The US military official who is leading the air war against ISIS, Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, insisted at a May 24 press conference (The Hill, 5/24/17), “We don’t recognize any specific zone in itself that we preclude ourselves from operating in.”

Harrigian stressed that the US carries out whatever air strikes it wants in Syria. “We do not have specific zones that we are deconflicting with them,” the general said. “When we’ve talked to the Russians, we do not talk about those deescalation zones.”

Yet media reports still went along with the narrative that US forces were “threatened” by Syrian government-allied forces miles away in a zone that the US does not even accept as legitimate.

An anonymous CENTCOM official quoted two weeks after the attack by Military Times (5/30/17) complained, “These patrols and the continued armed and hostile presence of pro-regime forces inside the deconfliction zone are unacceptable and threatening to coalition forces.”

Meanwhile, Syrian rebels applauded the US attack and called for more strikes against the government.

‘First Time’ for a Third Time

WaPo: US airstrike hits pro-Syria government forces for first timeAP story in Washington Post (5/18/17): It was the third time, actually, but who’s counting?

Immediately after the May 18 airstrike, media portrayed the attack as something completely new. The Associated Press published a newswire headlined “US Airstrike Hits Pro-Syria Government Forces for First Time,” which was reprinted by the  Washington Post and Yahoo News. Foreign Policy (5/18/17) similarly claimed “US Bombs Syrian Regime Forces for First Time.”

In reality, this was the third time in eight months that the US bombed Syrian government and allied forces. Some of these reports, strangely, even acknowledged the Trump administration’s April strike on a Syrian airfield, but acted as though this somehow did not constitute an attack.

In September 17, 2016, the Syrian military was leading a fight against the genocidal extremist group ISIS near the airport of Deir al-Zor, in eastern Syria. Suddenly, the US launched an hour of sustained airstrikes on the Syrian military, killing 106 soldiers in the attack, according to the Syrian government.

The US insisted the air raid was an accident and that it had meant to target ISIS militants. This has been called into question, however. A senior officer in the Syrian Arab Army said the US-led coalition had sent drones above the Syrian troops’ positions before the attack, so it knew where they were situated. The officer also recalled that the majority of the US airstrikes were not targeted at the frontline, where the Syrian soldiers were fighting ISIS.

Ultimately, it was the self-declared Islamic State that benefited from the US attack. The extremist group seized important areas around the Deir al-Zor airport. The US air raid also led to a breakdown in the ceasefire in Syria that had been agreed to just six days before.

Since President Donald Trump entered office, the US has launched two more intentional attacks on pro-government forces. In April, the US launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria’s Shayrat airbase, in an attack that the Pentagon said destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s war planes. Trump claimed the strike was done in retaliation for a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, a village in the Al Qaeda–dominated province of Idlib, although this accusation has been called into question by some arms experts.

This incident, the US’s first officially intentional attack on the Syrian government, also in effect aided ISIS, which launched an offensive near the city of Homs immediately afterward.

Unasked Questions

Many questions remain unanswered. Why can the US use deconfliction zones it does not even itself recognize to justify attacking Syrian government-allied forces? Do the US and UK have the right to tell Syria where its forces can go in its own country? How is 34, or 17, miles “close”? How can the US attack Syrian government forces without benefiting ISIS, a group that routinely threatens Western civilians?

A strong independent media should be asking these important questions. Instead, news outlets are effectively recycling government press releases.

For their part, Syria and Russia were furious after the May 18 strike. “This brazen attack by the so-called international coalition exposes the falseness of its claims to be fighting terrorism,” declared a Syrian military official on state media. The Syrian government said “a number of people” were killed, and equipment including a tank and a bulldozer were struck.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the attack “a breach of Syrian sovereignty,” and Russia’s deputy foreign minister said it was “completely unacceptable.”

Yet the apparent presupposition shared and spread by corporate media is that Syria now belongs to the US, and the US can do whatever it wants in the country without anyone questioning it—especially not media outlets, which have been bending over backward to defend US actions.

Escalating US Military Intervention

The May 18 US air raid at the town of al-Tanf is only the latest in a string of attacks that have steadily been growing under Trump. The US has not officially declared war in Syria, although for more than 1,000 days it has waged thousands of airstrikes in the country, most of which have targeted ISIS.

Thousands of civilians have been killed in the US  air campaign, which began in September 2014.

Even the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights—which is frequently cited by media as an impartial observer, even though it until recently had the Syrian opposition flag openly at the top of its website and consists essentially of one man in England—has acknowledged the massive civilian casualties.

In the month from mid-April to mid-May alone, at least 225 civilians were killed in US-led air strikes in Syria, including 44 children and 36 women, according to the Observatory. From February to March, another 220 civilians were killed.

The bombing campaign against ISIS has killed many civilians in Iraq as well as Syria. FAIR has previously detailed how media outlets have whitewashed and downplayed US complicity in the deaths of hundreds of civilians in Mosul, Iraq.

Media should be asking critical questions about US military intervention in Syria and beyond. Instead, they are downplaying US involvement and relaying Pentagon press releases.

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