Reporting on Syria: How the Media Designates a Role for the UK

The Editors, 20 March 2013

Categories: Syria | BBC News | The Guardian | The Telegraph | War |

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'We believe that a people is in danger today [...] we have to give the Syrian opposition the means finally to gain the upper hand, that is the departure of Bashar al-Assad', announced French president Francois Hollande recently, while David Cameron explained that 'what we want to do is work with [the Syrian opposition] and try to make sure that they are doing the right thing'.

As confused reports come out about European desires to arm the Syrian opposition groups involved in the civil war there, the debate in the news is framed within certain limits, along the lines of: 'we' are probably right to arm the rebels, as long as we arm the right groups and they don't fall into the wrong hands. Among the rhetoric urging the dangers of not arming the rebels is the suggestion from David Cameron that 'inaction could encourage jihadi groups'.

The news overwhelmingly portrays the UK as a force which simply wants to end bloodshed, but recently Cameron was perhaps more honest than much of the reporting when he said that ‘If we want to take individual action, [and] we think that is in our national interest, of course we are free to do so’. Rarely does the news allude to the notion that it may simply be in what the UK government calls the ‘national interest’ to take sides in the Syrian civil war. The impression given by the news is instead that any action taken by the UK will be out of humanitarian concern. It's startling that such a viewpoint is still put forward by journalists, after Britain’s record in the bloody wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, which demonstrated a clear disregard for the lives of people in those countries. Much of the reporting on the Syrian conflict reinforces UK foreign policy, and is masked in the same supposed concern for human life. An example of the perceived benign intentions of the UK was given when Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab British Understanding, spoke to the newsroom presenter about the idea of arming certain rebel groups (shown in a BBC story page entitled ‘Why a two-year delay in arming Syria rebels?’). The presenter said to Chris Doyle that

if you remove the arms embargo it simply will open the floodgates to other countries providing arms to all sorts of different groups who are engaged in the fighting including of course the Assad regime itself and this could simply inflame an already desperate situation.

So it is the ‘other countries’, not the UK, who are presented here as capable of making a mess of the situation; this despite the UK's recent record of attacking countries and leaving them in ruins. Chris Doyle responded that the last thing the UK needed was arming a group who would use the weapons ‘in ways that we would not approve of’. In his constant references to ‘we’, presumably, Doyle is referring to the UK government.

By all accounts, it is likely that the role of Islamists in the Syrian uprising is greater than claimed by western leaders, and that this is downplayed if only to maintain support for their intentions to intervene. Islamic groups have for decades been opposed to the Ba'athist rule in Syria, and there is a long history of tensions between Islamic groups and the Syrian government. While we are told that France and the UK have troops in Mali to essentially prevent Sharia law being implemented, such concern is hardly present for the possibility of this happening in Syria, despite extensive evidence of the Islamist nature of much of the opposition. For example, the Netherlands is concerned about returning Dutch citizens who have gone to fight in Syria and been radicalised (‘these jihadist travellers can return to the Netherlands highly radicalised’), while analysts have told the BBC that jihadist militants are operating in Syria and have claimed most of the blasts. If the UK government is genuinely so concerned about the spread of radical Islam, we might wonder why it would even choose to support certain factions who are on the same side as such jihadists.

To reiterate the idea that the UK and the west are on the side of freedom and democracy, Luke Harding at the Guardian presents us with a comparison of the proxy roles of Russia and the west with an almost propagandistic tone of pride:

The differences between Moscow and the west over Syria are well known. The Kremlin has supplied large amounts of heavy weaponry to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, including attack helicopters. The UK and other EU states have backed moderate democratic forces within the Syrian opposition.

How Harding claims to know the genuine degree to which these forces are moderate and democratic is unexplained.

Another perceived dangerous consequence of arming the Syrian rebels is that such action would strengthen Iran’s position. The EU’s Catherine Ashton, the BBC said, warned that arming the rebels ‘could be used by Iran as an excuse to increase arms exports across the region’. The Telegraph’s Bruno Waterfield presented this as an ‘apocalyptic contribution to the debate’. To make such a suggestion is to turn reality almost on its head. If we were to rate governmental acts by the 'apocalyptic' effect they have had, or are capable of having, on the Middle East, Iran would be very far down the list. Yet the necessary illusion here is, as usual, that Iran presents a threat to peace while 'we' simply want to maintain it.

In the end, whatever the reasons are for being for or against the arming of a certain side in a civil war in Syria, the media has overwhelmingly failed to ask important questions: should the UK even be considering playing a role in a civil war 2,000 miles away, and if so, why? By not addressing such basic, fundamental questions, the media once again legitimises the peculiar yet deeply embedded assumption that the UK government is for some reason entitled to intervene in other countries around the world as and when it wishes.

Categories in which this article appears: Syria | BBC News | The Guardian | The Telegraph | War |

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