A dangerous method: Syria, Sy Hersh, and the art of mass-crime revisionism

In the LA Review of Books, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: On the day the London Review of Books published a widely circulated article by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh exonerating the Syrian regime for last year’s chemical attack, 118 Syrians, including 19 children, died in aerial bombing and artillery fire. Only the regime has planes and heavy ordnance.

Since last November, Aleppo has been targeted by helicopters dropping explosives-filled barrels from high altitudes. Between last November and the end of March, Human Rights Watch recorded 2,321 civilian deaths by this indiscriminate weapon. Only the regime has helicopters.

For many months after the chemical massacre, the targeted neighborhoods and the Yarmouk refugee camp were kept under a starvation siege. Aid agencies were denied entry. Only the regime controls access.

The regime’s ruthlessness has never been in doubt. Reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry, and myriad journalists and on-the-ground witnesses have repeatedly confirmed it. The regime has demonstrated the intent and capability to inflict mass violence. The repression is ongoing.

So when an attack occurred last August, employing a weapon that the regime was known to possess, using a delivery mechanism peculiar to its arsenal, in a place the regime was known to target, and against people the regime was known to loathe, it was not unreasonable to assume regime responsibility. This conclusion was corroborated by first responders, UN investigators, human rights organizations, and independent analysts.

When a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and a respectable literary publication undertake to challenge this consensus, one reasonably expects due diligence. The gravity of the matter demands that a high burden of proof be met. Sources would have to be vetted, claims corroborated, contrary evidence addressed.

But the editors didn’t do that. They gave precedence to storytelling over truth-telling. They disregarded available evidence and, based on the uncorroborated claims of a single unnamed source, absolved the perpetrator of a horrific atrocity, demonized his opponents, and slandered a foreign head of state. Worse, in using Hersh as click bait, they provided a smokescreen for new violations.

Five days after Hersh’s article went live, a military helicopter dropped a barrel bomb on Kafr Zita. This one carried toxic chlorine instead of the usual TNT. The regime, like Hersh, blamed the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra. But only the regime has an air force.

In a time of ongoing slaughter, to obfuscate the regime’s well-documented responsibility for a war crime does not just aid the regime today, it aids it tomorrow. As long as doubts remain about previous atrocities, there will be hesitancy to assign new blame. Accountability will be deferred.

Propaganda usually functions on one of two tracks: sometimes it builds support for a desired policy, sometimes it saps support for an undesired one. The former relies on persuasion, the latter on obfuscation. “Doubt is our product” is the assurance PR firms in the 1950s gave to a jittery tobacco industry facing accumulating scientific evidence linking cigarettes to cancer. Energy companies wishing to impede environmental legislation have since invested in the same strategy. This is also Hersh’s method. [Continue reading…]

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