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WRITTEN BY ZANAB J.S.
In 2003 the United States of America invaded Iraq under the pretence its dictator, the now late Saddam Hussein, harboured weapons of mass destruction (WMD). 14 years later this speculation still remains largely unfounded.
Iraq, at this point in time, was considered too dangerous for independent foreign journalists to enter. However, the lack of verifiable evidence to prove the presence of WMD in Iraq did not stop journalists around the world, and especially those in the U.S., from confirming their existence.
Regardless of the scarce number of journalists actually on the ground, the publication of news about Iraq and their infamous WMD, did not lessen in quantity from the mouths of major news broadcasters in America.
The desperate desire for information and constant, updated news from Iraq was an encouraging combination for mainstream media sources to indulge in secondary, potentially compromised sources.
The information attained from these sources in Iraq was, by principle, questionable.
Media outlets cited information from groups specifically opposed to the Saddam regime, and consequently, groups who needed the support of the American military to oust him. The confirmation provided by these groups was not influenced by verifiable truth, but rather their desire to overthrow Saddam. Journalists, analysts and broadcasters failed to critique and question much of the rationale touted by the Bush administration for pursuing an invasion of Iraq.
Opposition party advocates were treated as sources on the ground, with no regards to their obvious partiality. Those who wanted an end to the Saddam era confirmed the myth that was Iraqi WMD, and it was these compromised sources which qualified for front-page material.
Propaganda was treated as truth. Not once, not twice, but regularly and for weeks prior to the invasion. News broadcasters cemented theories on rationale provided by political parties--both domestic and those in Iraq--committed to the removal of Saddam. This resulted, inevitably, in what may be the largest retraction of wartime information in decades.
For years the original reporters of Iraqi WMD citing opposition propaganda did so with impunity. Only after the end of the invasion and withdrawal of troops was their reality confirmed.
This is not an uncommon phenomenon, nor is it something Americans have not seen before. The 20th and 21st century of news broadcasting has initiated a new era of global awareness that did not previously exist. The desire to constantly update the information we know--on blogs, social media, message boards--only fuels the practice of disseminating secondary information by popular media.
Years later in 2016, the pattern repeats in Aleppo.
Factions of the Free Syria Army are the only groups America has yet to ordain as “moderate” and mostly secular in their ideology. Despite possible temporary alliances with Al-Qaeda, "selling" journalists as hostages to Al-Qaeda, having involvement with some Islamist factions, and reports of defectors leaving FSA to join AQ, major factions of FSA are still regarded as a largely secular opposition movement.
Some of the major contingents of armed opposition forces which remained in Aleppo until recently, however, do not share this ideology.
As of December, 2016, two opposition groups reportedly led the way in Aleppo: Al-Nusra (now known as Jabhat Fateh al Sham) and Ahrar-ul-Sham.
Al-Nusra was the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda until July 2016 when its leader, Al-Jolani, announced their separation from AQ indefinitely. With blessings from AQ leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Jolani elaborated the organization would no longer be connected with its parent organization, but that there was no change in ideology.
Ahrar-ul-Sham is a Sunni Salafist militant organization which originated in late 2011. AuS worked alongside ISIS until 2014 when clashes amongst the two groups began. One year later, ISIS retaliated against AuS by launching a series of attacks which killed prominent AuS leaders.
Despite being directly connected to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the large contingents of Nusra and Ahrar-ul-Sham are curiously called “rebels” by the New York Times and several other news publications.
It is here the alchemy begins in the newsroom; Nusra, which was a faction of Al-Qaeda until only a few months ago, and Ahrar-ul-Sham, a Syrian opposition group which originates and maintains an Islamist militant ideologue, are consistently and interchangeably described as the “armed rebels” in Aleppo.
In my mind, at least, the term rebels resonates as a synonym for secular, non-Islamist anti-government forces working to restore democracy and freedom in Syria—not factions of Al-Qaeda, and not armies of extremists formerly aligned with ISIS. Despite this, Nusra and Ahrar-ul-Sham are referred to as rebels in an overwhelming majority of the publications available.
Despite the evidence stacked against them, there is no mention of their sectarian stance, no mention of their human rights abuses, and little to no mention of their hostage taking.
Amnesty International has continuously condemned the the coalition lead by AuS and Nusra for carrying out “indiscriminate” attacks against civilians in the past, and their possible use of chemical weapons in the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo. Video evidence obtained by Amnesty shows Fateh Halab—a coalition of brigades led by AuS and large contingents of Nusra—carrying out mortar, rocket and artillery attacks which have adversely targeted civilians.
Amnesty reports many of these armed opposition groups have acquired and used chemical weapons on YPG Kurdish forces, consequently severely impacting civilians in the region. A physician reported to have treated civilians and combatants for several symptoms relating to chemical attacks and there is witness testimony of “yellow smoke” arising from attack sites.
According to Amnesty International’s MENA deputy, Magdalena Mughrabi, various brigades from Fateh Halab may have committed war crimes in the process of carrying out blanket attacks:
“The relentless pummelling of Sheikh Maqsoud has devastated the lives of civilians in the area. A wide array of armed groups from the Fatah Halab coalition has launched what appear to be repeated indiscriminate attacks that may amount to war crimes [...] By firing imprecise explosive weapons into civilian neighbourhoods the armed groups attacking Sheikh Maqsoud are flagrantly flouting the principle of distinction between civilian and military targets, a cardinal rule of international humanitarian law[...]The international community must not turn a blind eye to the mounting evidence of war crimes by armed opposition groups in Syria. The fact that the scale of war crimes by government forces is far greater is no excuse for tolerating serious violations by the opposition.”
Rupert Colville, the U.N. spokesman for human rights, relayed reports of summary executions of civilians, prevention and killing of civilians from fleeing rebel territory and the use of “human shields” by the opposition in Aleppo.
“During the last two weeks, Fatah al-Sham Front and the Abu Amara Battalion are alleged to have abducted and killed an unknown number of civilians who requested the armed groups to leave their neighborhoods, to spare the lives of civilians.”
This instance, like many other reports of criminal activity under the command of amalgamated rebel forces, remains largely unreported by major news outlets.
For visiting journalists in Aleppo, the dangers of indiscriminate attacks are accompanied by the added threat of kidnapping. Amnesty International has reported of non-state armed opposition groups kidnapping journalists in Aleppo on sight. Whereas ISIS beheads foreign journalists, Nusra holds them for ransom. Due to the many dangers they face, it is not unreasonable for journalists to have stayed away from Aleppo for firsthand reporting.
The lack of writers on the ground has not, as it seems, relented the constant publication of news. Journalists writing from Lebanon and Turkey have continuously tracked the situation with developments akin to firsthand reporting, while in reality relying on secondhand information.
To keep up with the desire for incessant updates in Aleppo, journalists in distant locations rely on the same tactics as their predecessors in Iraq; secondary sources. Writers take statements from unnamed officials often cited as “sources close to the opposition leadership” or “sources close to the Syrian government” as evidence for the points in their work. The same concerns from 2003 still ring true today; one cannot treat information from a source that seeks to profit by promoting their narrative as truth. Remarkably enough, the same organizations which have threatened to kidnap journalists are being trusted with the authenticity of their statements.
Of course, the argument can be made that unbiased activists from Aleppo are providing updated news as well. But in order to validate this claim, one would have to invalidate the evidence which suggests activists in rebel-held Aleppo may only exist under the approval of Nusra and AuS.
The question worth asking is this: if parts of rebel-held Aleppo are too dangerous for foreign independent journalists to enter, and civilians living in such places are detained for speaking against the opposition leadership, how are independent activists allowed to freely report their conditions under the surveillance of these organizations? After all, it has long been established that Al-Nusra (and to a lesser degree, AuS) are not in the business of promoting unflattering visions of themselves.
It was only recently that even pro-democracy marches held by protestors in FSA controlled Maarrat al Numan was immediately targeted by Jabhat al Nusra members.
According to Philip Luther, MENA programme director for Amnesty International, civilians living under the control of AuS and Al-Nusra are subject to kidnappings and torture should they make critical statements.
“[civilians] live in constant fear of being abducted if they criticise the conduct of armed groups in power or fail to abide by the strict rules some have imposed...”
- Philip Luther, MENA programme director for Amnesty International
How is it then activists from these areas in Aleppo can remain independent, or somehow immune from such violent policies?
Is it absolutely impossible that the self-proclaimed independent activists in rebel-held Aleppo would be able to broadcast meaningful, truthful news? No. Is it curious the same organizations that threaten harm against anyone who speaks against them would enable non-partisan reporting under their control? Yes--especially when considering testimony of civilians who have faced the consequences of true, independent reporting under such leadership.
A young media activist utilizing the alias "Issa" says the following about free-speech in areas dominated by Nusra rule:
“[They] are in control of what we can and cannot say. You either agree with their social rules and policies or you disappear."
Examples of such disappearances are not lacking.
An Idlib lawyer was detained after he criticized Nusra on Facebook:
“I was happy to be free from the Syrian government’s unjust rule, but now the situation is worse.”
The widespread disregard for partiality in the sources being cited has resulted in a deep lack of nuance in the reporting in Aleppo.
Whereas crimes of Assad are, rightfully, given swift condemnation, potential war crimes of the armed opposition are not discussed as zealously. Militants belonging to Al-Qaeda, Sunni salafist groups, and ISIS are given the same title originally reserved for secular armed resistance. While the siege of Aleppo makes headlines, the Shia villages of Kefreya and Fua which have been besieged by Al-Qaeda for years, has not yet graced the front pages. While news claiming pro-Assad forces broke the original ceasefire dominated the newsroom, it is not discussed that the suspension of civilian evacuation occurred only after Al-Nusra militants refused to simultaneously evacuate civilians from Idlib. In fact, the burning of buses meant to carry wounded and ill Shia muslims from besieged areas of Idlib has not yet gained any kind of notable traction at all.
All of these atrocities and their missed appearance in the press is indicative of a deeply flawed approach to the broadcasting of news from Syria. The usage of potentially compromised news sources to substantiate popular narratives is something Americans have seen before, yet maybe not something that would immediately raise alarm among the consumers of news media.
Another vague and poorly stratified concept is that of public opinion in Aleppo. Based solely on media representation in the Western world, it would be difficult to believe there could be anyone in Aleppo that supported, in any way, Assad and his forces. On the ground, however, the division is blurred.
There are still legions of people that welcome Assad, his forces and their advance on the city. Videos of tens of thousands of Syrians celebrating Assad's advance circulated on the internet concurrently with reports of summary executions in rebel-held areas. Syrians celebrating in parts of "liberated" Aleppo were readily available, but were never the focus in Western media.
It is not only Russian and Syrian news broadcasters claiming Syrians' support for Assad; at the beginning of the turmoil in Aleppo, rebel-leader Sheikh Tawfik Abu Sleiman suggested that there was still a majority of residents that supported the regime:
"Yes it is true[...]Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them. We are saying that we will only be here as long as it takes to get the job done, to get rid of the Assads. After that, we will leave and they can build the city that they want."
Abu Sleiman, in an interview with the Guardian in 2012
None of this, of course, negates the crimes of Assad. It is undeniable Assad and his forces have caused the majority of documented civilian casualties in Syria. According to Amnesty International, as well as the United Nations, Assad has been responsible for civilian deaths in a much greater capacity than any armed opposition group in Syria. The most recent report of summary executions of 82 people in Aleppo (as reported by the U.N.) is reminiscent of the attitude of an unrepentant incumbent to a brutal family dictatorship. Whether it is blanket attacks of highly urban, heavily populated neighbourhoods, hospitals, or the latest seige in Aleppo which saw the removal of necessary transport routes to civilians, the Assad regime has never been conscientious of reducing civilian casualties.
Furthermore, the ability to determine public support for the regime remains difficult. Surveys claiming majority of civilians support Assad, such as the one presented by Doha Debates, may be reliable in theory, but one must confront the reality it may be impossible to gauge public opinion in a country and landscape where the distribution of anti-regime material has been immediately punished with detainment, torture and death. Is it even feasible to request an unbiased opinion in a place where criticism of the government is prohibited?
The answer becomes clear when assessing the foremost actions of Assad forces in evacuating civilians from East Aleppo. Several men were reportedly apprehended from evacuation line ups by uniformed soldiers upon their entry to West Aleppo, their future whereabouts unclear. Activists elaborated the army was making an effort to detain people who had spoken against the regime, involved themselves in protests or media activism. But the distinction between "anti-regime" and "presumably anti-regime" is unclear: civilians from East Aleppo without any political ties, medics and teachers were also detained without explanation. Many civilians remained in East Aleppo as a last resort due to the fear of being detained, interrogated or worse.
Just as the concerns raised in 2003 regarding the news coverage of WMD in Iraq was not an attempt to spare Saddam from condemnation, the questions raised today about news coverage in Aleppo are not meant to justify Assad's actions in Syria. Surely, anyone can agree regardless of the presence of WMD in Iraq, Saddam was still a dictator responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims and Kurds, and his death, most likely, was inescapable. The same way it is recognized the crimes of Assad must be addressed in a court of international law, and his dethronement is deserved at the very least.
The question here, rather, is a question of veracity: why has secondhand, unverifiable information dominated the newsroom regarding Aleppo? When will we confront the deep contradiction of supposedly non-partisan activists operating freely in the same areas where independent journalists are taken hostage--on one side by Nusra, and on the other the regime? For how long can we treat members of the regime, Nusra and Ahrar-ul-Sham as corroborative sources?
With ever changing front-lines, coalitions that dissolve as quickly as they are named, and brutally irresponsible assaults in civilian areas, Aleppo is a testament to modern, 21st century warfare. News coverage and media activism of our time has become a victim of this onslaught. Unknowingly peddling propaganda has become common practice, and the hunger to know everything may have become the reason we know nothing at all.
For further questions please tweet Zanab J.S. @zanabism.
Author's Note: This article is written in solidarity with civilians in Aleppo, and Syrian civilians abroad who have suffered at the hands of the Syrian regime, insurgents, and foreign governments. For aid workers, teachers, and independent journalists who have been killed trying to educate, heal and excavate truth in Syria.