A couple must-reads from the weekend are Patrick Cockburn's "Misreporting Iraq and Syria" and an interview of Gareth Porter by Dennis Bernstein, "The Double Standard on Yemen’s Suffering."
Cockburn drives home the complete breakdown of journalistic standards in the Western media when it came to reporting on East Aleppo. Qaeda-spread rumors of atrocities perpetrated by Syrian government forces were immediately and uncritically whisked to the front page.
The big takeaway from Cockburn's piece is that Western reporting on Syria in general and East Aleppo in particular has been outsourced to jihadis. No independent, secular journalists remain in "opposition" territory. So for every Anne Barnard story you read where she communicates with an "anti-government activist" via Skype, that's likely a Nusra fighter being featured in the "newspaper of record." As Cockburn reminds us,
Since at least 2013 it has been too dangerous for journalists to visit rebel-held areas because of well-founded fears that they will be kidnapped and held to ransom or murdered, usually by decapitation. Journalists who took the risk paid a heavy price: James Foley was kidnapped in November 2012 and executed by Islamic State in August 2014. Steven Sotloff was kidnapped in Aleppo in August 2013 and beheaded soon after Foley. But there is tremendous public demand to know what is happening in such places, and news providers, almost without exception, have responded by delegating their reporting to local media and political activists, who now appear regularly on television screens across the world. In areas controlled by people so dangerous no foreign journalist dare set foot among them, it has never been plausible that unaffiliated local citizens would be allowed to report freely.
In East Aleppo any reporting had to be done under licence from one of the Salafi-jihadi groups which dominated the armed opposition and controlled the area – including Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly known as the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. What happens to people who criticise, oppose or even act independently of these extremist groups was made clear in an Amnesty International report published last year and entitled ‘Torture Was My Punishment’: Abduction, Torture and Summary Killings under Armed Group Rule in Aleppo and Idlib. Ibrahim, whom al-Nusra fighters hung from the ceiling by his wrists while they beat him for holding a meeting to commemorate the 2011 uprising without their permission, is quoted as saying: ‘I heard and read about the government security forces’ torture techniques. I thought I would be safe from that now that I am living in an opposition-held area. I was wrong. I was subjected to the same torture techniques but at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra.’
The fact that groups linked to al-Qaida had a monopoly on the supply of news from East Aleppo doesn’t necessarily mean that the reports in the press about the devastating effects of shelling and bombing were untrue. Pictures of flattened buildings and civilians covered in cement dust weren’t fabricated. But they were selective. It’s worth recalling that – according to UN figures – there were between 8000 and 10,000 rebel fighters in East Aleppo, yet almost none of the videos on TV ever showed any armed men. Western broadcasters commonly referred to the groups defending East Aleppo as ‘the opposition’ with no mention of al-Qaida or its associated groups. There was an implicit assumption that all the inhabitants of East Aleppo were firmly opposed to Assad and supported the insurgents, yet it’s striking that when offered a choice in mid-December only a third of evacuees– 36,000 – asked to be taken to rebel-held Idlib. The majority – 80,000 – elected to go to government-held territory in West Aleppo. This isn’t necessarily because they expected to be treated well by the government authorities – it’s just that they believed life under the rebels would be even more dangerous. In the Syrian civil war, the choice is often between bad and worse.The second half of Cockburn's article is devoted to the media blackout of the U.S.-led siege of Mosul, what Cockburn calls the largest urban combat theater post-WWII.
Media blackout is one of the points Gareth Porter makes in his interview. The Saudi's are starving Yemen with critical assistance of the United States. Thirty-one percent of children under five are suffering from acute malnutrition, a.k.a., starvation. Without U.S. logistical support the Saudi coalition could not maintain its blockade. Do news consumers in the U.S. get treated to that fact? Hardly ever.
Porter concludes the interview by mentioning how Iran is especially impacted by Trump's immigration ban and how deeply intertwined Saudi Arabia is with the U.S. deep state, which is in turn largely privatized:
DB: Now, I notice that the Saudis didn’t make the Trump [immigration] ban list. Although there would be a lot of good reasons why they might be on it. Can you put that in context?
GP: Yeah. If there was a ban that reflected the degree of risk, relative degree of risk, let’s not call it the absolute degree, but the relative degree of risk from people trying to gain entry into the United States from the Middle East, you would certainly have to say that Saudi Arabia was the top risk because of the number of jihadists who have come from Saudi Arabia, and have gone to, of course, Syria, as well as Iraq, to participate in those jihadist campaigns.
And, of course, as you say, Saudi Arabia is not included. The fact is, of course, that that list of countries whose people are banned from coming into the United States is entirely political, yet includes Iran which is, of course, not a risk at all. There’s simply no basis for saying that there’s the slightest risk from Iran because it has not, in fact, been at war with the United States. Because it has been an ally of the United States against the jihadists in those countries where the United States faces the greatest risks… the countries from which the Unites States faces the greatest risks.
DB: But that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from going and sort of implementing its policies particularly focused on… there are a number of Iranians now really directly impacted, right?
GP: That’s right. I mean, Iranians have been severely impacted by this. Students, of course, the largest number of graduate students in American universities from the rest of the world, as I understand it, are Iranians, at this point, certainly higher education, the higher levels of education.
And so, many, many Iranians now have been caught in trying to get back to the United States, or who needed to visit home, from American universities, and this was a very serious problem for them. But I would just add that, you know, clearly this administration is not basing its first major foreign policy decision on the situation in the Middle East, or the degree of risk. But it’s basing it on the appeal to the constituency that elected Donald Trump.
DB: Alright, and just, again, to step back a little bit, the situation on the ground in Yemen at this moment is dire. And, is there any attempt at a truce, a treaty? There’s a lot of focus on Syria.
GP: Right. There have been negotiations going on now for many months, between the Houthis on one side, and the Yemeni government that was put into power, put back into power, by the Saudis and their coalition, after the war began.
Well, after the war began, these negotiations have been stalled because the Saudi supported officials in those negotiations have essentially refused to allow the Houthis to basically hold onto their weapons, until the process is completed. I mean, they have been demanding a prior giving up of weapons before the settlement is reached, in terms of the political part of it. So, we’re still not close to, as I understand it, to actually having a peace agreement, and a durable ceasefire.
And the United States, you know, the Obama administration, was at least trying to push the Saudis to be a bit more reasonable. But, I’m sorry to say that the problem we face here is that the U.S. government, (and I’m quite sure that the Trump administration will not be very different, if at all, from the Obama administration in this regard) the permanent government, the national security government or the “permanent war government,” as I call it, of the United States is so dependent, or shall we say so cozy with the Saudis, particularly, that they have basically screwed up Syria, they have destabilized and caused a terrible humanitarian crisis in Syria, then they went and did the same thing in Yemen, by supporting the Saudis.
Why did they do it? Because the Pentagon, the CIA and the NSA all have sweetheart deals with the Saudis which are worth a great deal of money. Both sale of arms and basically selling of intelligence services to the Saudis are at the heart of this. And also, of course, there’s access to bases that… at least the base in Bahrain, the naval base in Bahrain, which the United States covets, the U.S. Navy covets. And, therefore, the Saudis control that base, and that’s another thing that the permanent war state isn’t unwilling to give up.
DB: And this is big business in the context of the Pentagon.
GP: It is.
DB: By the way, what are the corporations… who are we talking about now… who are happy about this?
GP: Well, you’re talking about all of the major arms suppliers. The big four, the big five of aircraft, aerospace companies who have been able to sell more weapon systems to the Saudis because of the political relationship that exists between the United States and the Saudi government. Those people are obviously very concerned, and very happy about the situation. But when you talk about big business it’s not just the private companies.
What I have found, just to summarize… the conclusion that I’ve come to in my study of the permanent war state, is that what we used to think of as a state bureaucracy has morphed into a combination of state bureaucracy and private contractors. They have merged so totally that there’s no distinction anymore. The lines have been blurred. And the Pentagon and the CIA and the NSA are all now, basically, more like corporations than they are public services, or state services, to the American people.