Wednesday, 4 January 2017

How We Were Misled About Syria


Syria cuts across left and right.

Tim Hayward is Professor of Environmental Political Theory at Edinburgh University, founding Director of the Just World Institute and the Ethics Forum, Convenor of the Fair Trade Academic Network, and Programme Director of the MSc International Political Theory. He sounds incredibly progressive and left-wing but he is sceptical of the role of Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) in reporting Russian atrocities in Eastern Aleppo. 

In his blog he makes these points. I blame myself for not having thought of them before.

"But if none of MSF’s international doctors have been on the ground in Syria’s war zones since 2015, how can MSF claim to bear witness for what is happening there?

MSF has relayed reports from the rebel-held areas to which, exclusively, its supplies and support have been dispatched. The reports – including allegations of government attacks on hospitals and civilians – come from people working with the permission and protection of such groups as Al Nusra, Isis and other foreign jihadis and mercenaries. These anti-government forces are known to exercise a rule of terror and to be not overly concerned about ordinary citizens’ access to medical attention. That is precisely why the MSF doctors withdrew from the areas under their control. So there is scope to ask who the medics on the ground were, and who they were treating.
My question, though, simply concerns the reliability of uncorroborated witness statements coming from potentially compromised sources. For while press statements have been issued from various MSF offices around the world, it appears MSF had no independent access to verifiable information from Syria."

Now that, to my regret, journalism is taught in universities, Syria should be taught as a case study on how to do things incredibly badly.

So much of the story in the Western media stinks. This is not the fault of 'media organisers' on the rebel side, who until the fall of Eastern Aleppo were quoted as if they were independent sources, but of the journalists who lazily repeat their claims without nuance or context. 

Some refugees from Eastern Aleppo over the last weeks have said that even sick people did not dare go near the hospitals there, which were simply for the use of the rebel soldiers and organisers. I wonder if hospitals were made into military installations in the hope that they would not be bombed.

Vanessa Beeley and Eve Bartlett say they are self funded independent journalists and I assume this is true. They are certainly apologists for the regime and committed polemicists, are passionately anti-Western and anti-Israel.

What they never talk about are civilian deaths from bombing.

Still, their interviews with happy people arriving in Western Aleppo after four years of life in the East have the ring of truth. Yet Vanessa Beeley and Eve Bartlett's names and the stories they report are never mentioned even in passing in the 'mainstream media', while the opinions of somewhat sinister opposition activists like Bilal Abdul Kareem, recently photographed next to a man wearing a suicide bomb, are quoted at length.

On Western television there were accounts of babies killed, presumably, though we were not told this, by Russian bombs. We know that people, including babies, die in war. Beyond the horror of dead babies, the journalists did not provide more information about what had happened. 

There were accusations (by opposition activists) of opposition activists being killed, but without any circumstantial details. There are no eyewitness accounts and all sources of information from Eastern Aleppo before the Syrian army took it were controlled by the rebel forces. Those who were somehow managing to tweet their last messages before the fall of East Aleppo seem to have reached safety now.

What I'd badly like to know is why Swedish Radio’s Middle East correspondent Cecilia Uddén was ordered by the government to leave Syria two weeks ago because she had allegedly circulated ’false information’. She had been reporting from Damascus and Aleppo and, unlike Vanessa Beeley or Eva Bartlett, had presented views from both sides involved in the ongoing violent conflict.

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