Syrian Conflict: Biases on International Involvement in the UK Media

The Editors, 17 June 2013

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

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Barack Obama's decision to further arm the Syrian rebels, which has prompted Iran to respond by sending 4,000 troops to support Bashar Al-Assad, has been met by the BBC's Mark Mardell, currently travelling with Obama, not by high-level alarm at the potential repercussions of the internationalisation of the Syrian conflict, but with seeming sympathy for the 'very hard call' Obama has 'had' to make.

Mark Mardell writes that the US President 'finds himself pushed towards acting' on Syria. This echoes a common attitude held by proponents of intervention, who depict Western states seemingly as pawns 'pushed' inevitably towards action, with intervention the inherent responsibility of these powers. This push to act does not come, it is clear, from Obama's electorate. Polls tell us that US public opinion is against intervention by the US in the Syrian conflict, including provision of arms to the rebels. An NBC / Wall Street Journal poll (30 May - 2 June) found that 66% of respondents said that the US should provide 'only humanitarian assistance' or 'no additional assistance' (other than diplomatic and economic measures) 'to try to stop the Syrian government'.

On the issue of intervention, Mardell writes on 17 June that, 'Mr Obama is restrained by his distaste for further American entanglement in the Middle East'. Whether Obama believes in the actions he has decided to take which will further involve the US in the Syrian conflict, must surely seem irrelevant when compared to the consequences of prolonged violence for the civilian population of Syria. Mardell, the BBC's North American Editor who aims to present 'America in all its glory', reflects not an iota of the mood of the American public (much less an attempt to contextualise US actions in relation to the effects they will have on Syrian civilians), but rather proposes a perspective strikingly empathetic with the inner feelings of the leader of the worlds largest military power.

US arms: the only arms that 'fix' a country

An article by Jonathon Marcus at the BBC has been titled "Will US arms fix Syrian 'problem from hell'?" If the choice of headline intends to signify that the conflict can be 'fixed' in the sense of 'remedy', 'make better', which in this case the reader might imagine to be an end to violence in favour of peace, this implication is, given that Western interventions have left a number of Middle Eastern states in ruins over the last decade, both naïve and misleading. The term 'fix' in the context of Western intervention in the Syrian conflict makes sense only if viewed from the perspective of Western power, implying the achievement by the US of its preferred outcome, i.e. to resolve the conflict in a manner favourable to its own interests. Compare this with a news report one month earlier of Russia selling missiles to the Syrian government. Can we imagine the BBC posing the question of whether these weapons could have 'fixed' Syria? Rather it was reported that 'there is concern that the presence of sophisticated Russian-supplied weaponry will make it much harder to agree and carry out such [western] intervention, implement a blockade or conduct targeted airstrikes in the future'. Reporters are again much slower to show 'concern' for the effects of 'our' weapons than they are for those from Russia. The BBC has likewise downplayed the argument that the supply of further arms to the Syrian rebels risks the possibility that they reach fighters such as the al-Nusra Front, with reporting on this potential ramification dominated by the public statements of the White House. Robert Fisk in the Independent summarises the situation quite frankly:

[W]eapons are not just guns. They are currency. They are money. […]

The Western powers are dangerously close to flooding Syria with weapons and ammunition which will officially go to the nice rebels – but will quickly pass to the horrid rebels, who will sell some of them to al-Qa’ida, Iraqi insurgents, Syrian government troops, Malian militiamen, Taliban fighters and Pakistani hitmen. Guns are about money.

However, in a video report following the announcement of further arming the rebels, the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen acknowledges this risk only with the statement, ‘The Americans believe they can keep the weapons away from these rebels [referring to footage of Al-Nusra Front training drills], the Al-Nusra Front, allies of Al-Qaeida and also the most effective rebel fighters in Syria’.

A Guardian editorial on Syria on the 14 June reassured that 'Mr Obama will be conservative in his choice of weapons' to the rebels. ('Mr Putin’, conversely, ‘has shown no such introspection'.) This comes despite the impossibility of any level of certainty of the care Obama will take, particularly because the White House has explicitly avoided revealing any such information on which arms will be provided.

Examining claims of chemical weapons use

The same editorial claims that 'Without even examining it, Russia yesterday dismissed the evidence that Assad had used sarin'. (The term 'evidence' describes what was the previous day referred to as 'allegations' or 'assertions' by the Guardian). The Guardian had reported a day earlier that Russian foreign policy advisor, Yuri Ushakok, said 'I will say frankly that what was presented to us by the Americans does not look convincing', suggesting that what was presented had been to some degree examined, but the editorial appears now to take issue with this dismissal of US claims. Setting aside the realpolitik of the Russian role in backing the Assad regime, there are very strong reasons to cast doubt on the evidence of which the US claims to be in possession, particularly considering the history of US WMD claims as a prelude to war.

A starting point in the search for clarity on which evidence or otherwise that the US may possess is the White House statement. This points to no conclusive evidence but is rather a re-hash of previous claims, only this time the claims seen in the news over the last few weeks are prefixed with 'our intelligence community has high confidence in'.

The statement explains that each sarin test 'does not tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible for the dissemination' – suggesting the evidence is still very much inconclusive. The 'high confidence' of the intelligence community does not guarantee conclusive evidence, though much of the reporting seems to have interpreted it this way. Mardell writes that, 'The basic news from the White House is pretty clear - they are now sure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has used chemical weapons against the rebels'. In contrast, Ban Ki-moon, on 14 June, issued a clear statement that, 'The validity of any information on the alleged use of chemical weapons cannot be ensured without convincing evidence of the chain-of-custody'. One might wonder whether the journalists responsible for the subsequent reports actually read the White House statement, or simply jumped to rather hyperbolic conclusions.

Fisk has treated the White House claims with appropriate scepticism, writing in the Independent on 16 June that, 'Final proof of the use of gas by either side in Syria remains almost as nebulous as President George W. Bush's claim that Saddam's Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction'. These claims are to Fisk merely 'Washington's excuse for its new Middle East adventure', which, 'convinces no-one in the Middle East'. Yet perspectives such as are in short supply in the media.

The US right to act

The above noted, the debate should not be limited, as has taken place, to questions over the availability and credibility of US evidence. Like with much coverage of US foreign policy, the debate has been framed in such a way that discussion is underpinned by the assumption that the US and its allies do indeed have a role to play in the conflict. The question of whether or not the US should be allowed to act abroad militarily as it wishes, is not up for debate. Mardell tells us that ‘many politicians in Britain and France still feel a heavy imperial burden to use their well-honed militaries to re-make the world’. Yet, what Mardell does not emphasise is that 'feeling' this way does not necessarily make their actions right or virtuous.

Mardell writes that, 'there are pressing humanitarian arguments to stop this now and to make sure those the West sees as the good guys win, before Islamic militants claim victory'. These arguments exist alongside those which claim that US arming of the rebels will prolong the violence of the civil war, resulting in further bloodshed and suffering for the civilian population. This latter point fails to make it into Mardell's report.

To consider the intentions behind the US position on the Syrian conflict, we can again learn from the White House statement, which points out the simple, underlying motive of US foreign policy (though rarely touched on in much news analysis). It states that 'any future action we take will be consistent with our national interest, and must advance our objectives'. The failure to suggest that this aim of foreign policy might influence the US’s approach towards the Syrian conflict – and thus have implications for the level of scepticism with which US claims of chemical weapons usage at this militarily strategic moment in the civil war, and, more generally, the overarching narrative of US humanitarian preoccupations, should be met – suggests a general acceptance that the US is allowed to, as it is phrased, 'advance our objectives'. It is rightly not accepted as legitimate by the media that other global powers such as Russia should advance their objectives through interference in the affairs of other states, so why should this attitude be any different towards the US?

'Right and wrong'

Mark Mardell comments that, 'many in the West see this as a simple contest of right and wrong'. This has, in great part, to do with the media portrayal of the conflict, with its easy divisions of 'good' and 'bad' forces (discussed in our previous article). A more realistic assessment of the situation was made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, which complicates the 'right and wrong' portrayal of the conflict: 'Government forces are shelling and launching aerial attacks on urban areas day in and day out and are also using strategic missiles and cluster and thermobaric bombs. Opposition forces have also shelled residential areas, albeit using less firepower, and there have been multiple bombings resulting in casualties in the heart of cities, especially Damascus'.

As the conflict escalates with the growth of international involvement, the implications for the region, and the world, have reached a new level of danger. If the public is to hope to influence government policy it must first be permitted to grasp what the implications of those policies may be. This requires journalists to attempt to expose some level of truth to events, rather than regurgitating un-critiqued the black-and-white narrative put forward in the press statements of those who are looking to, as they put it, advance their own objectives. We should expect this in particular from the BBC. Public news correspondents who identify with power (some touring with the US President to conveying to us in detail his inner feelings) operate at the expense of contextualising events in terms of their wider implications on the lives of the powerless.

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

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