Role of mass media in Syrian conflict By Yekaterina Kudashkina

7 March, 2012  — Voice of Russia

Interview with Aisling Byrne – projects coordinator with the Conflicts Forum coming to us all the way from Beirut.

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Aisling, thank you very much for joining us. So, as far as I understand the United States has dismissed the results of the referendum saying it was cynical because it took place while the Syrian Government guns, tanks and artillery were still firing in Homs and other cities. So, basically that’s what the statement said.

I think that what we continue to see is that there are two sides to this media war and much of the conflict in Syria is a media war. For example if you read certain newspapers or websites and look at certain television stations you will see everything by essentially the mouthpieces of the Syrian opposition. And if you look at the other television stations or websites, or publications – you will see reporting given from both sides.

But you need first to remember that there are two sides to a sectarian conflict, which is what we are seeing in Syria. And if you just report one side the aim is, as Nir Rosen has said, what people are trying to do is to instigate a hammer moment in which a hammer turns eventually cold. Nir Rosen is a journalist who was invited with the Free Syria Army for some months and has been following quite closely what’s been happening in Syria. And he said – what we see is that only a hammer event would actually change the equation.

A hammer event?

What we are seeing is very much a push on the side of the opposition to push for this mass humanitarian crisis which would then justify intervention and which basically obliterate any resistance from Russia or China, or other countries. So, for example on the Guardian newspapers and on Channel 4 in Britain and most of the Western mainstream press have been telling horror stories from Homs, from all over Syria. Just today the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was saying that Assad’s forces are bombing bridges so that the refugees can’t escape to Lebanon.

And just to illustrate it here is the recent Reuters report from Beirut. Just let me quote it: “Dozens of men, women and children returned on foot to Baba Amr, passing bullet-pocked and damaged buildings, days after rebel fighters pulled out after a sustained and heavy military assault. Residents who fled the district spoke of bodies decomposing under rubble, sewage mixing with litter in the streets, and a campaign of arrests and executions.”

“The smell of death was everywhere. We could smell the bodies buried under the rubble all the time,” said Ahmad, who escaped to Lebanon. “We saw so much death that at the end the sight of a dismembered body … stopped moving us”.

You know, we’ve seen this all along. The trouble is that a lot of this is fabricated and I think what’s coming out now, particularly in the alternative media and more mainstream media, actually there are a lot of fabricated videos, fabricated YouTube clips and different people have been cataloging this. There are pictures on YouTube and videos being made waiting for CNN or BBC, or Aljazeera to call. And one clip shows a child done up in bandages, and the child is being told what to say when the camera starts rolling, and then a mobile phone is used as if to show that this is being done in the field whereas actually it’s been done in a quiet department center.

So, a lot of this has been documented. Myself and many other commentators have been saying from the start of it that there is a media war going on as well as wider geostrategic political war towards the strategic ties of Syria in relation to the West’s war with Iran.  But then on the other side there are other publications, websites, television channels which actually show both sides of the story. And for example I can give an example from Russia Today, where they interviewed residents of Homs who said that actually most of the people in Homs don’t side with either the Government or the rebels and they just want to be left alone, and they’ve said that the violence lies on both sides – with the Government and the rebel fighters.

Another people had graphic stories of people being chopped into pieces and put in plastic bags. And this isn’t new but these stories aren’t available in the wider media. There is a Christian man, Agnes Delacroix, who is from Damascus but has been reporting from Homs for months about some of the atrocities that have been carried out by the opposition fighters – women had their breasts cut off, there has been terrible groups that attacked people their stomachs scorched out. But none of this appears in the mainstream press because the point is to build up this narrative, as Nir Rosen said that there needs to be a hammer moment – a sort of catastrophic humanitarian crisis – a picture or an event which would actually change the appraising.

And so, in this sense we continue to see horror stories coming out. The important thing to notice is that probably 95% of the sources of these stories come from the opposition and groups affiliated to them like for example the campaign group AVAZ which, it’s now have been documented, have clear links to the SNC and to individuals who are involved in providing weapons in Libya.

So, I think the more of this kind of details come out it is easier to challenge this mainstream narrative which gives a very simplistic sort of moral perspective which is pushing for arming the rebels and the kind of plan the Senator McCain is now pushing for.

Do I get it right that the statement made by Senator McCain is also an attempt to create a hammer effect in that situation?

It could be, he does say that enough is enough and he says that Homs is lost for now but all the other cities could be saved. I think even for people like him the sort of defining moment hasn’t quite come yet despite all the claims that these terrible thing happen. You know, terrible things have happened but on both sides and what we are seeing is a sectarian conflict. These aren’t peaceful protesters and we are talking about months now. It’s been acknowledged and documented that since the first day of the initial protest in Dara’a on the 15th of March last year and on the 16th on March weapons were seen and were being build up – weapon stocks in different places – in Idlib, in Homs, in Dara’a. So, actually from the start the Syrian uprising has been very different from other uprisings that we’ve seen in the Arab countries.

So, but what do we make out of Mr. McCain’s statement?

I think what we are seeing in America, I mean there’s been a push from the Pentagon and definitely their think tanks and right wing politicians from the start for sort of greater American involvement and now they are particularly pushing for the US to join Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait and some other countries in actually arming the Free Syria Army and the opposition. And I think the Americans have stepped back certainly for the moment and have acknowledged that actually the opposition is in disarray.

Armed opposition groups which keep fracturing and breaking up and fighting amongst each other but also the political opposition and what we’ve seen over the last year in Syria – there hasn’t been any political vision, statements, strategic plans put by the opposition. What we are seeing is the different groups fighting amongst each other for creatives, for money, for recognition. But there isn’t any sense of any kind of political strategy that they have adopted and what we see actually is that even the political opposition and the military opposition groups are actually fracturing and there is more argument and more and more break up. But I think what’s really important to notice is that at the same time as this is happening particularly with the external opposition. Internally there is a political process that started.

So, do I get you right that the recent referendum has been a part of this process? Interestingly enough it has been totally ignored by the West, just let me quote the AFP report. It said that the United States on Monday dismissed Syria’s referendum for a new constitution as “absolutely cynical” after nearly a year long Government crack down that has left thousands of its citizens dead. The report goes on to quote US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland who asks “how any kind of democratic process take place while the Syrian Government guns, tanks and artillery were still firing into Homs and other cities.” “We dismissed the referendum as absolutely cynical, – Nuland said of the balloting which was praised Sunday as a historic breakthrough by President Bashar al-Assad but which Washington and its allies dismissed as a farce.

Although overall I think it was about 51% of eligible voters who voted for the new constitution. Actually quite a few of the opposition political groups, political parties asked their members to vote “no” but they abused their members to actually vote because they wanted to say that they are committed to a political way forward in Syria, a political process, even though they were against certain articles of the constitution which was voted on in the referendum. There were for example some groups that didn’t like the clause that said that the President of Syria should be a Muslim.

Another group felt that they didn’t want to vote on a constitution in which they didn’t have any part in preparing or building up, or developing, or discussing, so that they could just vote “yes” or “no” for it. But the point is that a lot of groups actually voted “no” but they did vote and they mandated their members to vote because they wanted to be clear that there needs to be a political process and they are completely against any kind of foreign intervention. And I think as we now move this has been ratified by the presidential decree in the constitution.

And I’ve also heard people saying something about the election.

There are going to be elections in 90 days from when the ratification happened, in essentially three month time. And the groups are already preparing and sort of starting to think about, not openly, but there are repots particularly in the Arabic press, that groups are starting to sort of prepare for elections and they say they are going to field the candidates and stand in the elections.

And I think interestingly this includes especially the young people who have been involved in the protest movement and in demonstrations but who don’t feel that all the opposition groups, particularly the external opposition, they don’t feel they represent them in any sense at all. So, I think it will be interesting as we get closer to the elections to see increased political activity and there are a lot of reports that there is a lot more political discussion now, we see it on the streets, obviously in the areas of conflict and in the certain villages that are opposed to the opposition which doesn’t have this kind of openness. But there are a lot of reports that there is a lot more political discussion amongst the Syrian generally, particularly in towns.

But isn’t it really a democratic change which we are witnessing now, which you are telling me about?

Actually the percentage of the vote that was almost 57% in the referendum, I mean that was the percentage that Obama got in his election. And in the Iraqi referendum I think the total vote was 55%. And as I said the Syrian total vote was 51% of I think 14.6 million of the supposed voters. And this is in the context of essentially the civil war in parts of Syria. So, I think it isn’t very easy, you can’t just dismiss it as a shame, the whole constitutional referendum, this is what the West did. Even before the voting posts were closed Western politicians were saying that this is a shame and just disregarding it and saying, you know, there are reports of anti-ballot-boxes in towns.

But the independent Arabic newspapers which had reported on the ground, Aljazeera and al-Arabi, they have no reporters on the ground, they didn’t sent their reporters, but there were many other independent reporters – Chinese, Turkish, there were lots of other reporters from non-Western countries and there weren’t any allegations of widespread corruption or people being denied voting. There were small incidents but this happens in any election, I mean it’s just to dismiss that the official level on the West said it’s a complete shame.

But then it will still mean that the political process is already on the way.

What I’m trying to say is that actually if you read what is happening and follow it closely and talk to people you will see that there is the beginning of the political process. So, this is a big achievement as it brought a change. I think what we need to be careful of is that a lot of the calls for Assad to go are from the external opposition and mainly from regional countries. And this is where the whole issue of the Syria conflict actually is, it is being a proxy for a war in Iran. And the Syrian political parties and activists have said – we don’t want to be a proxy for anyone. This is about Syria, this is about democracy and reforming in Syria and that’s why they are committed to a political process, they don’t want to be used.

And I think what you see with particularly the SNC and the external opposition is that effectively they are the proxies for some of the Gulf States which actually are using them in terms of their war on Iran. But you know this raises the stakes higher and Saudi Arabia and Qatar and some of the GCC countries have said that their decision is to confront Iran on the Syrian arena. Whether Russia or the US, or others like it or not they will participate. So, you know, the stakes are set high and these countries perhaps have now publically committed themselves to arming the opposition.

I know that there was a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry asking the UN for a legal opinion on whether it is actually legal for them to arm the Syrian opposition, but I mean this is now being done openly and they are sending money, and they are sending weapons and as I said earlier some of the military opposition groups are now fighting amongst themselves because they want to be recognized key group and they want to make sure that they are sort of key in terms of receiving weapons and aid.

Thank you very much. And just to remind you this time our guest speaker was Beirut based Aisling Byrne – Projects coordinator with the Conflicts Forum.

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