Dictators, massacres, and the media

Does Bashar al-Assad check his approval ratings? Probably not. But that’s no reason to believe that he or his government lack interest in their public image. Indeed, Assad probably pays as much attention to how he is perceived in New York and Washington, as he is in Homs or Alleppo, which is not to say he hopes to make any new American friends but rather that he has a keen interest in the extent to which he can rely on American indifference.

Having already probed the international political and media environment with some exploratory ‘minor’ use of chemical weapons and triggered no major international public or political outcry, the Syrians have likely been looking for the most propitious moment to escalate. As much as people refer to the use of chemical weapons as ‘unthinkable’ and ‘unconscionable,’ the regime quite likely sees this class of weapons as useful in several ways.

Firstly, they are very effective as instruments of terror. To avoid a cloud of dispersing poisonous gas is far more difficult than avoiding artillery fire. Since there’s really no way to take cover, the incentive to flee will be that much higher.

Secondly, if pockets of resistance can be cleared without destroying most of the physical infrastructure, then in a city such as Damascus it will be that much easier for the regime to fool itself into believing that it is avoiding destroying the city.

So, the primary obstacles to the use of chemical weapons are international law and public opinion. International law has little power if the United Nations Security Council does nothing to promote its enforcement, and in the case of Syria there is no consensus among the UNSC’s veto-wielding members.

That leaves the limited effect that public opinion can have on shaping the actions of individual governments.

If Assad wanted to run a test to see what kind of reaction the slaughter of hundreds more of his citizens might have in a world that already seems largely indifferent to the deaths of over 100,000 people, he couldn’t have been better served than he was by General Sisi’s operations in Cairo last week in which hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood protesters were gunned down.

The U.S. cancelled military maneuvers that were due to take place with their Egyptian counterparts next month. A few generals won’t be sharing cocktails together. As for the press reaction, predictably the casualties weren’t ‘Egyptians’ — they were ‘Islamists’ who, we are often led to believe, have a predilection for martyrdom.

For Assad, the signals from Cairo were all positive. Add to that America’s overriding preoccupation with the actions of the NSA and now the sentencing of Bradley Manning, and all of Assad’s advisers must have agreed that this week looked the perfect week to fire off some chemical weapons. A front-page story, but just a one-day story, was probably the assessment.

The New York Times turns out to be have been the only major U.S. newspaper that made this its lead story, yet cautious as ever it played down the casualty size and underlined the uncertainty about the causes of death: “Scores Killed in Syria, With Signs of Chemical War” and “Images of Death, but No Proof of Cause.”

The Washington Post went with “Syrian regime accused of chemical attack” — no mention of the number of casualties and the lead story was on the NSA. Likewise the Los Angeles Times kept numbers out of its headline: “Syrian rebels allege new gas attack.”

USA Today said: “Rebels say chemical attack kills hundreds” — again this ran beneath the lead on the NSA.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution consigned the story to page two.

Assad’s media advisers must be reporting back to their president: Mission accomplished. As we expected, the U.S. government doesn’t care too much about what we do and the American people care even less. The really big news today is that a young American soldier changed his name.

More sarin is on the way.

Update: As Brian Whitaker noted, there is another element in the timing of this attack: it comes on the one-year anniversary of Obama laying down his ‘red line’ on the use or even movement of chemical weapons.

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5 thoughts on “Dictators, massacres, and the media

  1. dickerson3870

    RE: “As much as people refer to the use of chemical weapons as ‘unthinkable’ and ‘unconscionable,’ the regime quite likely sees this class of weapons as useful in several ways.” ~ Woodward

    MY COMMENT: It’s not just the “regime” that might see the use of chemical weapons as useful! ! !

    “Britamgate: Staging False Flag Attacks in Syria”, Voltaire.org [original source – Oriental Review (Russia)], 2/04/12

    [EXCERPTS] On January 22 a telling leak cropped up in the Internet. British defense contractor’s BRITAM server was hacked and megabytes of classified internal files of the firm were released to the public. . .
    . . . The key finding is a mail dated December 24, 2012 sent by Britam Defence’s Business Development Director David Goulding to Dynamic Director of the firm Phillip Doughty, who is a former SAS officer:

    We’ve got a new offer. It’s about Syria again. Qataris propose an attractive deal and swear that the idea is approved by Washington. We’ll have to deliver a CW to Homs, a Soviet origin g-shell from Libya similar to those that Assad should have.
    They want us to deploy our Ukrainian personnel that should speak Russian and make a video record.

    Frankly, I don’t think it’s a good idea but the sums proposed are enormous. Your opinion?
    Kind regards

    To clarify the things, CW is a standard abbreviation for Chemical Weapons; ‘g-shell’ is a bomb consisting of an explosive projectile filled with toxic gas.
    Taking into account the memorable Barack Obama’s warning that the ‘use or even transportation of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would represent a “red line” that would precipitate military intervention’, a message he reiterated last month after the election to the second term, the plotted operation, if carried out, would provide an ideal pretext for the foreign intervention into Syria. Israel has voiced the same warnings last week.
    Who would perpetrate the video-recorded delivery of CWs to Homs? The text of mail clearly indicates that they would use Britam’s Ukrainian personnel for forging videos. . .
    . . . Summing up these facts we can conclude that a provocation in Syria is the only option left for the war-mongers. Having exhaustive information on the real situation in Syria and being aware of inability of the corrupted rebel group to make any significant change in Damascus, they have nothing to do but hire a second-rate British PSC for another round of dirty job. We have no doubt that numerous tragic ‘revelations’ of atrocities committed by ‘pro-Assad army’ that were repeatedly hitting YouTube for the last two years, were also ‘ordered’ for enormous fee to the former British ‘berets’. The latest leakage deserves thorough investigation and consideration on the top international political level. . .

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://www.voltairenet.org/article177357.html

  2. Paul Woodward

    One loony conspiracy theorist site — Voltairnet — quotes another: Prison Planet.

    If I had an infinite amount of time, I would spend a portion of it pointing out why people like Thierry Meyssan and Alex Jones are worthy of profound contempt for having made a profession out of peddling in bullshit. But I don’t have an infinite amount of time. I did however spend a few minutes looking to see how Prison Planet is spinning the chemical weapons story and quickly came upon this:

    Headline: “Expert: Chemical Weapons Victim Footage Appears ‘Set-Up'”
    In the article, the BBC’s Frank Gardener is quoted saying that the “timing is odd, bordering on suspicious” but the link to the source doesn’t go to the BBC. Strange, eh, to quote the BBC but not link to the source. However, once I did track down the source of the quote it became clear why Prison Planet wouldn’t want its readers to see how Gardner’s statement was taken out of context. Here’s what Gardener wrote:

    Two things stand out immediately in this reported Syrian attack.

    Firstly, the timing is odd, bordering on suspicious. Why would the Assad government, which has recently been retaking ground from the rebels, carry out a chemical attack while UN weapons inspectors are in the country?

    But secondly, the scale of the apparent casualties is far worse than any of the previous alleged chemical attacks. Experts say it would be almost impossible to fake so many dead and injured, including children and babies. They bear no visible wounds from gunshots; instead, many display the classic symptoms of a nerve agent attack, with startled, frozen expressions that experts say are reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 attack on the Kurds at Halabja.

    Last year a senior Syrian defector, Nawaf Fares, told me in Qatar that the Assad government would not hesitate to use chemical weapons if it wanted to. However, today it denies any guilt and instead says this is a media campaign by its enemies.

    Some people might believe the Assad regime. I don’t.

  3. eugene

    Being a life long American, I learned there isn’t any way to tell who to believe. Everything is spin. Everybody is lying! Decades from now, some investigative reporter will dig through the ashes and write a book no one will read revealing what really went on. It’s a chess game and the common people are the pawns ie expendable!

  4. La verite

    “Everything is spin. Everybody is lying! Decades from now, some investigative reporter will dig through the ashes and write a book no one will read revealing what really went on. It’s a chess game and the common people are the pawns ie expendable!”
    I could not agree with you more….. everyone lies…… the govt, the media, the corporations, even people supposed to take care of law and order…..
    Very sadly, in these times, it is rare to find a person of total honesty, integrity and conscience. And when one does appear on the scene, she/he is destroyed.

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