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.