Media beyond the mainstream: Syria’s information wars – Terry Burke/StarTribune.com, PLUS: A Rebuttal by MintPress
After four years, many people are still confused by the Syrian conflict. It has in part become a proxy war, with many fighting groups and outside forces intervening. The path to peace isn’t clear. However, there is nothing proxy about Bashar Assad’s war against the Syrian people.
It hasn’t been adequately covered by the media, but Assad’s barrel bombs, starvation sieges and torture of thousands in Syria’s prisons are not directed at his military opposition. They are directed at civilians. As Human Rights Watch states, Assad’s “strategy is to depopulate these [opposition-controlled] regions and send a lesson to other Syrians that they will be attacked if the opposition takes their neighborhood.”
The United Nations human rights commissioner, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights and Doctors without Borders have repeatedly condemned the Assad regime’s human-rights violations. Amnesty International said the regime’s “responsibility for creating one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent history cannot be overstated.”
Assad’s regime is not a secular moderate force to partner with against ISIL — but in the information wars, there are many “news” sites that portray Assad positively and that claim the uprising is U.S.-backed “regime change.” With the explosion of alternative Internet news sites, considerable misinformation has been circulated about Syria. While there are many reputable alternative news sites, some function as an unrecognized force for Assad. They never publish the international human-rights organizations’ reports about the regime’s crimes. Instead, they post interviews with Assad, polls that claim most Syrians support him, articles on rebel or ISIL abuses, and stories that blame the U.S. for Syria’s uprising.
Sample pro-Assad headlines: “Why Syrians Support Bashar al Assad,” “81% of Syrians Believe U.S. is to Blame for Isis,” “Letter from a Pro-Assad Syrian Resident of California.”
Who are these sites? Mint Press, Info Wars, the Anti-Media, Shadowproof, Media Roots, Counter Current News, SouthFront and Zero Hedge are among the alternative “news” organizations that provide no information on how they are funded or the names of a board. They variously describe themselves with words and phrases such as “independent,” “watchdog,” “citizen journalism,” “news from outside party lines,” and so on.
With inaccurate mainstream media reports that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war, more Americans don’t trust the mainstream media and are open to alternative sources. Most articles on these pro-Assad “news” sites have a progressive bent — a focus on the environment, corporate corruption, police brutality, immigration, wealth inequality, and on being antiwar and anti-racism. They are progressive — except for Syria.
Before the Internet, it was extremely difficult to create a news organization. Now anyone with funds can hire a couple of people to set up a Web page, write some articles and repost pieces from around the world. There’s no need to worry about subscribers or advertisers.
Minneapolis-based Mint Press is best known for its story based on one unknown reporter’s claim that the Syrian rebels were behind the August 2013 chemical attack that killed 1,300. The story went viral. Russian President Vladimir Putin cited it to defend Assad. The Christian Science Monitor found the story “mind-boggling” and asked if it was a “disinformation operation.” Mint Press stands behind it, despite the findings of a U.N. Commission that the chemicals “appear to come from the stockpiles of the Syrian military.” Mint Press is accountable only to its anonymous funders.
Look at the coverage of airstrikes hitting hospitals. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented 313 attacks on medical facilities and the deaths of 679 medical personnel in Syria in the last four years. From PHR: “Syrian government forces have been responsible for more than 90% of these attacks, each of which constitutes a war crime.” While the above-named “news” sites have never covered any of the regime’s attacks on hospitals, they have posted many articles denouncing the U.S. for the recent Afghan hospital airstrike. Their agenda is obvious.
The lesson is to be cautious in what you believe from the Internet, especially with regard to Syria. Many “news” sites have an unstated agenda. In contrast to the run-up to the Iraq war, much of the mainstream media has been more accurate in its Syria coverage. It hasn’t portrayed the criminal Assad regime as the good guys, as do many of the alternative Internet “news” sites.
Terry Burke, of St. Louis Park, is a volunteer for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria.
*MINTPRESS’S REBUTTAL FOLLOWS:
MintPress Attacked Again For Exposing The Truth About Syria
MINNEAPOLIS — In recent commentary for the Star Tribune, Terry Burke, a volunteer with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS), cautioned readers on the anti-interventionist coverage of the ongoing war in Syria by several independent watchdog journalism organizations — including MintPress News, Media Roots, Shadowproof, Anti-Media, Zero Hedge and Counter Current News.
While we at MintPress agree with Burke’s assessment that mainstream media fails to give the public a full, clear understanding of the nature of the conflict in Syria and what’s driving it (control of oil and gas supplies), her attempts to bash these independent, alternative news organizations contained a wealth of inaccuracies.
Writing for Fifth Column News, Justin King broke down Burke’s arguments and called into question Burke’s implications that MintPress and other sites are on “the payroll of the regime of President Assad of Syria.” These implications, he says, are “buried in a rant that bemoans the named outlets’ habit of criticizing US efforts for regime change.”
Further, she asserts that websites like MintPress are “progressive except for Syria.” But what’s progressive about supporting an imperialist agenda that believes it’s possible for America to bomb its way out of every difficult situation?
Rather than conjuring up conspiracies about the agendas of independent, watchdog journalism outlets skeptical about what motivates politicians and foreign policy, let’s look at the real agenda behind so-called “solidarity” organizations that promote interventionist foreign policy:
Burke’s organization, CISPOS, like the better known Avaaz or White Helmets, for example, promotes an agenda in line with NATO’s war interests. Despite claiming to be anti-war, they’ve staunchly advocated for acts of war, including sanctions and no-fly zones over Libya and Syria, ahead of the United States intervening and arming rebels in those countries. CISPOS has also hosted several events with Syrian expats, who had gone on the record as supporting the U.S. bombing of their country.
When the U.S. prepares to invade a country or topple a government, it does so first on a “humanitarian” basis. It uses calls for sanctions and no-fly zones to rally public support for the impending conflict, and groups like CISPOS, Avaaz, Human Rights Watch, and the White Helmets jump in to influence public perception of humanitarian crises and to lobby politicians to overthrow foreign regimes.
Justin Raimondo, writing last month for Antiwar.com, outlined the work of these leftist “solidarity” organizations, including CISPOS:
“Indeed, the cruise-missile left bleeds off into the more liberal precincts of the Democratic party and the mass media, where ‘humanitarian interventionism’ has replaced the old McGovernite ‘isolationism’ of the previous generation.”
These groups, he explains, have actually been created by pro-war Democrats, or “cruise missile leftists,” that play to the whims of the State Department and hawkish politicians like Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.
Raimondo concludes by saying these organizations “claim that the Syrian ‘revolution’ must be supported, and are basically taking the same position as the US State Department in saying that there is such a thing as a ‘moderate’ and even a secular socialist (!) opposition to Assad which we have a moral obligation to aid.” But this “revolution” has been exposed as being instigated by the CIA and planned out as early as 2006, according to WikiLeaks dumps of State Department cables.
The true motivations driving U.S. intervention are clear: The U.S. wants to gain control of Middle Eastern oil and gas resources and the routes they take to get to Europe, in order to weaken Russian control over the European gas market.
The efforts of these “solidarity” organizations to passively advocate for this war for oil and gas have been dangerous. In 2011, Avaaz started a petition for a no-fly zone over Libya and lobbied the U.N. Security Council, the EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and European Foreign Ministers to take heed. Their philosophy: “Hundreds have already been killed and, without immediate international action, the situation could spiral into a national bloodbath.”
And in 2013, CISPOS and the White Helmets advocated sanctions against and a no-fly zone over Syria. The White Helmets’ inner workings with the PR firm Purpose, Inc. were exposed this year, revealing efforts to lobby the U.S. government to topple the Syrian President Bashar Assad regime. It then came as no surprise when it was revealed that Avaaz and the White Helmets both had ties to the Open Society Foundation, an NGO backed by George Soros, a wealthy investor frequently linked to acts of U.S. imperialism and war profiteering.
To understand the gravity of both acts of war, look no further than the First Iraq War. Sanctions placed on Iraq by President George H. W. Bush in the early 1990s that left nearly 2 million Iraqis dead, 500,000 of which were children. To punish Saddam Hussein, a dictator installed by the U.S., U.S. sanctions limited imports of goods, clothing, medicine and food to the Arab nation, punishing the innocent civilians who vehemently opposed Saddam.
President Obama is both Bush presidents on steroids. Why do people in the progressive community support efforts to “spread democracy” when a Democrat is carrying out Republican policies?
Ms. Burke’s recent commentary and other smears against anti-war activists and journalists that target our lifeline — the funding that keeps our small businesses, blogs and websites running — make it dangerous for those of us who are trying to pick up where the mainstream media has failed: serving as a government watchdog and informing the public about the financial interests driving conflicts around the world. It’s effectively doing the opposite of what groups like CISPOS and activists like Burke should be working toward — fostering peace through transparency.
So, what is the Syrian war all about?
Part of the information war Terry Burke alluded to in her recent commentary lies in the mainstream media’s failure to serve as a watchdog and question the official government narrative of the hows and whys of war. The media paints a picture of sectarian strife fueling the atrocities in Syria, but this battle along sectarian lines has been deliberately engineered to provide cover for a war for access to oil and gas, and the power and money that come along with it. In this way, the chaos in Syria is similar to every other war or conflict that’s come before it.
U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks show U.S. plans to destabilize Syria and overthrow the Syrian government as early as 2006. “The WikiLeaks Files,” the only comprehensive analysis of the full archive of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, reveals that these plans were given to the U.S. by the Israeli government and would be formalized through fomenting civil strife and sectarianism in partnership with nations including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt. The ultimate goal was to dismantle the power structure in Syria to weaken Iran and Hezbollah.
When he appeared on the RT show “Going Underground” in September, WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange elaborated on the contents of a 2006 cable from U.S. Ambassador William Roebuck featured in the book’s chapter on Syria. That particular cable details plans to foster sectarian strife in the region and make Iran appear like a larger threat to Assad than it really was, Assange explained, despite Iran having been sanctioned and isolated for decades.
He also touched on Israel’s interests in the destabilization of Syria: “[I]f Syria sufficiently destabilized, it [Israel] might be in a position where it can keep the Golan Heights forever, or even advance that territory.” (Indeed, an Israeli subsidiary of New Jersey-based oil company Genie Energy has started drilling for oil in the Golan Heights as planned amid the deadly Syrian civil war.)
Much of the strategy at play is laid out in a U.S. Army-funded RAND report from 2008. “Unfolding the Future of the Long War” identifies the divide-and-conquer strategy while exploiting the Sunni-Shiite divide to protect Gulf oil and gas supplies while maintaining a Gulf Arab state dominance over oil markets. The report describes a number of strategies the U.S. and its allies could take to achieve their goals, suggesting “the United States and its local allies could use the nationalist jihadists to launch proxy IO [information operations] campaigns to discredit the transnational jihadists in the eyes of the local populace” or the U.S. could “take sides in the conflict, possibly supporting authoritative Sunni governments against a continuingly hostile Iran.”
Within months, the supposed “revolution” that consisted of only “hundreds” swelled, and armed, non-Syrian rebel groups swarmed the country, prompting a severe government crackdown aimed at squashing foreign meddling.
The U.S., United Kingdom, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey jumped on the opportunity to organize, arm and finance rebels to form the Free Syrian Army — the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels — through the Friends of Syria pact, as outlined in the State Department plans to destabilize Syria from 2006. (Just a few months ago, WikiLeaks confirmed this when it released Saudi intelligence that revealed Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia had been working together to arm and finance rebels to overthrow the Syrian government since 2012.)
MintPress released a video in 2014 outlining how the arming of the FSA led to the rise of ISIS. The FSA is allied with ISIS’ equally brutal rival Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, also known as the Nusra Front. A Pentagon report obtained via FOIA requests details the government’s awareness that supporting rebels would lead to such a consequence.
he true agenda behind the hijacking of the Syrian revolt quickly became evident, with talking heads inserting Syria’s alliance with Iran as a threat to the security and interests of the U.S. and its allies in the region. (The Syrian government is a major arms, oil and gas, and weapons ally of Iran and Lebanon’s resistance political group Hezbollah.)
But it’s important to note the timing: This coalition and meddling in Syria emerged immediately on the heels of discussions of an Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline that was to be built between 2014 and 2016 from Iran’s giant South Pars field through Iraq and Syria. Through a possible extension to Lebanon, it would eventually reach Europe, the target export market.
Writing for the Strategic Cultural Foundation in May 2013, Dmitry Minin provides perhaps the most accurate description of the current crisis over gas, oil and pipelines that is raging in Syria. Explaining the possible pipeline routes being explored at the time, it became evident that Syria would be a “key link” in the West’s strategy to secure resources from the Persian Gulf. Yet, he noted, Syria under Assad “leans in favor of Iran and Russia; thus it was decided in the Western capitals that its regime needs to change.”
Likewise, The Guardian reported in August 2013:
“Assad refused to sign a proposed agreement with Qatar and Turkey that would run a pipeline from the latter’s North field, contiguous with Iran’s South Pars field, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, with a view to supply European markets – albeit crucially bypassing Russia. Assad’s rationale was ‘to protect the interests of [his] Russian ally, which is Europe’s top supplier of natural gas.’”
The ongoing chaos in Syria isn’t rooted in sectarianism or the public’s yearning for democracy. It’s rooted in engineered chaos and a yearning for oil, control and money.
The cost of being truly antiwar
Terry Burke is certainly not the first person to target MintPress News or even me personally for challenging the U.S. government’s war narrative.
My parents took me to protests in downtown Minneapolis when I was just a few years old. We’d march as a family and a community against Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and the United States’ role in allowing it to persist.
When I returned to the U.S. in 2001 after living in Palestine for almost four years, I continued to speak out against Israel’s war crimes, occupation and apartheid — but by now, I had seen the true costs of war with my own eyes, and my voice was stronger than before. One of my teachers rallied against me, accusing me — a 13-year-old girl — of being a Hamas agent and an anti-Semite for criticizing Israel.
Then came 9/11. I was still traumatized by my years under Israeli occupation and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, but I didn’t hesitate to protest as the U.S. geared up for war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I gave presentations in school about how bombing people doesn’t save people. Students rallied against me, calling me a terrorist sympathizer and saying I was on Osama bin Laden’s payroll.
When our corporate media and elected officials again started pounding the drums of war — this time, ahead of invasions of Libya and Syria — I again did not hesitate to speak out against these plans or to expose the true motivations behind military intervention.
After I started MintPress, one particularly notable attack came from BuzzFeed, which functions, inexplicably, as a celebrity gossip website, listicle repository and Israeli Defense Forces mouthpiece. With Israel working with the U.S., even going as far as directing a call to destabilize and overthrow the Assad government in Syria, the site has gone after truly progressive anti-war parties, including pro-Palestine activists and journalists. It was inevitable that MintPress would eventually be targeted, too. Yet I didn’t expect to be at the center of a smear campaign targeting my religious beliefs and family in 2013. (My responses can be found here and here.)
I didn’t really give it much thought when Terry Burke started targeting me two years ago, calling for my speaking engagements to be cancelled and disrupting my speaking engagements. But rather than ignore her, I reached out to Ms. Burke via Facebook. I invited her to coffee to discuss the conflict in Syria and U.S. foreign policy, but I received no response.
It certainly wasn’t the first time that my opposition to U.S. intervention abroad was confused as support for Bashar Assad, Moammar Gadhafi, Hamas, Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. And it’s not the first time I’ve seen a fellow anti-war activist advocate for acts of war or even selectively support violent U.S. intervention.
This time, though, she’s not just going after me; she’s going after MintPress and other alternative outlets with a non-interventionist agenda. She’s questioning our funding, our dedication to our missions, and the people we work with day in and day out.
While I can’t speak for every outlet she named, it seems that Burke didn’t take time to familiarize herself with the MintPress website. Much of our funding — like funding for many of the sites Burke named and a host of other independent media outlets — comes from donations, sponsorships, grants and ad revenue. There’s similarly no secret about who is behind MintPress; our staff, correspondents and syndication partners are listed on our website.
Mnar Muhawesh is founder, CEO and editor in chief of MintPress News, and is also a regular speaker on responsible journalism, sexism, neoconservativism within the media and journalism start-ups. In 2009, Muhawesh also became the first American woman to wear the hijab to anchor/report the news in American media. Muhawesh is also a wife and mother of a rascal four year old boy, juggling her duties as a CEO and motherly tasks successfully as supermom. Follow Mnar on Twitter at @mnarmuh