Tag Archives: Syria

Book review. War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran

Book review. War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August 2020

Currently writing for the Independent and the London Review of Books, Patrick Cockburn is one of the most experienced foreign correspondents working in the Middle East today.

His latest book is largely made up of short-form reportage based on writings and diary entries at the time of the events being covered, alongside some contextualising retrospective explanation.

Covering the first term of the Trump administration, which Cockburn argues has been populated by an unusually high number of dangerous people, the book’s strength lies in its on-the-ground journalism. ‘I have tried to give voice to what the Syrian, Iraqis and Kurds felt about events as they unfolded around them,’ he writes.

Cockburn regularly notes the complexity of the fighting in Iraq and Syria, describing the latter as having ‘the feel of medieval Italy’ where ‘every city and town had its own distinct politics, along with some powerful foreign sponsor.’

In Syria alone, the list of nations involved in the conflict is huge: Russia, Iran, the US, the UK, France, Turkey, Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia being the main actors.

There is much of interest to peace activists in the book. For example, those who wonder if Western air strikes were the only option for dealing with ISIS will be interested to read that NATO member Turkey allowed around 40,000 ISIS fighters to cross its border into ISIS territory.

Cockburn is also keen to highlight the skewed, propagandistic nature of much mainstream news reporting of the wars, noting ‘copious media coverage of civilian casualties caused by Syrian and Russian airstrikes’ in Aleppo and Ghouta (both in Syria).

In contrast, there has been ‘near silence… amounting at times to a media blackout’ about the similarly huge number of civilian casualties caused by US–UK air strikes in Mosul in Iraq (2016) and Raqqa in Syria (2017).

Visiting Raqqa after ISIS were defeated, he describes the ‘universal destruction’ as ‘similar to that of the carpet-bombed German cities in the Second World War.’

Elsewhere he notes the Western powers have ‘stoked’ the war in Syria ‘year after year’, supporting the armed opposition to the Syrian government, which has been ‘dominated by various Al-Qaeda clones’ since 2013.

Frustratingly there is no bibliography or footnotes, though arguably the first-hand nature of Cockburn’s reporting means these are not essential. This is a small gripe about an accessible, often engrossing, introduction to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East which should be of central concern to anti-war groups and activists in the UK.

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair

Peace News
August 2020

After interviewing more than 36 senior officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations for The War Within, his 1994 book about the movement against the Vietnam War, US historian Tom Wells concluded that ‘the movement played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war.’

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells the movement ‘had a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.’

However, despite this huge influence, Wells found ‘few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed’. This failure to appreciate the impact of their actions ‘hurt their cause’, he argued, leading to ‘defections from the movement’ and to ‘lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks.’

‘Moreover, some Americans never protested because they felt it was futile.’

A window

A new report prepared for the UK ministry of defence (MoD) inadvertently highlights how the post-9/11 anti-war movement in the UK has had a similarly important impact on British foreign policy – an influence largely unknown to the general public, and to many activists too.

Published by the RAND Corporation, a US think tank, The Utility of Military Force and Public Understanding in Today’s Britain is co-written by top British military historian Hew Strachan (currently professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews) and Ruth Harris (currently a researcher at RAND Europe, previously an RAF officer).

‘The government’s preference is to see both strategy and defence policy as areas to be settled between it and the armed forces, and so far as possible within the corridors of power’, the authors note.

The outcome of this largely unexamined agreement is that ‘the making of strategy in today’s Britain is an elite activity, hammered out by ministers, civil servants and chiefs of staff.’

This elite stitch-up works well for the government because it believes ‘the public is reluctant to support the cost of defence’ and ‘is unpersuaded of the utility of military force’, Strachan and Harris state. ‘The Whitehall mindset towards the public on matters of defence tends to be one of distrust.’

Why is the public not supportive of UK military action?

‘The prevailing conventional wisdom is that the wars in which Britain has engaged since 9/11 have created a public mood which respects the armed forces but doubts the utility of military force’, the authors explain.

Indeed, while it didn’t stop the UK’s involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, there is evidence the anti-war movement, by informing and mobilising the wider British public, had a significant constraining influence on the actions of UK forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Limiting Iraq

Discussing the UK military deployment to Iraq from 2003 onwards, major general (ret) Christopher Elliott notes there was ‘a cap on numbers, driven by political constraints rather than military necessity.’ The consequence of this was that the UK had ‘insufficient troops to be effective in the post-conflict phase in Iraq’, forcing ‘commanders in-theatre to react to events, and not to be able to shape them’. (RUSI Journal, 29 September 2016)

In addition, it is likely UK public opinion shaped the timing of the UK withdrawal from Iraq.

Contrary to claims from the UK government, a Telegraph report noted the US military ‘has no doubt’ the UK’s pull-out from central Basra ‘is being driven by “the political situation at home in the UK”.’ (Sunday Telegraph, 19 August 2007)

Speaking at the London School of Economics in May 2012, Greg Muttitt, author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (Bodley Head, 2011), argued the overall British pull-out from Iraq in April 2009 ‘was largely because their continued presence in Iraq was politically toxic’ in the UK.

Limiting Afghanistan

A similar dynamic was evident in Afghanistan, with US general Stanley McChrystal, then NATO commander in Afghanistan, pushing for British troops to be moved out of ‘harm’s way’ because the Taliban would target them in the lead-up to the 2010 British general election.

McChrystal held ‘the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties, including “capacity building”.’ (Observer, 8 November 2009).

Writing in 2013, Strachan provides an insight into the impact of public opinion on the British withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, announced by British prime minister David Cameron in 2010: ‘He [Cameron] explained his timeline not in relation to conditions which he saw as likely to prevail in Afghanistan but in terms of what the British public would demand.’

UK propaganda I

Aware that public opinion can hamper the actions of British forces, the UK military and government spent considerable resources trying to manipulate the public to increase the popularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This fear of the public manifested itself very early after 9/11.

Under the heading ‘Propaganda’, in a declassified October 2001 letter, British prime minister Tony Blair suggested to US president George Bush: ‘we need a dedicated, tightly knit propaganda unit for the war generally [against Afghanistan and later Iraq]’.

What followed in the lead-up to the 2003 US–UK invasion of Iraq was ‘a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world’, according to British historian Mark Curtis. (Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, Pluto Press, 2004)

More specifically, a November 2003 Guardian report revealed ‘a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War’.

According to leaked confidential papers ‘the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.’

In Afghanistan, the military tried to shape the narrative of the war by controlling the media coverage. ‘There is a general policy by the MoD to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons’, a senior officer told the Telegraph in September 2008.

‘If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.’

The Syria vote

The huge post-9/11 UK anti-war movement, peaking with the largest demonstration in British history on 15 February 2003, has had a long tail of influence on UK foreign policy going far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, in August 2013, the British government was set to support planned US air strikes in Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

However, unexpectedly, the house of commons refused to support a government motion endorsing the planned attack. This was the first time a British government had lost a vote on military action since 1782. The UK was forced to cease its involvement in the proposed strikes.

Public opinion was strongly opposed to military action, with a YouGov poll just before the vote showing opposition at 51 percent, and support at just 22 percent (Peace News, October 2013).

‘The spectre of the 2003 Iraq War hung over the Commons’ during the Syria debate. (Guardian, 30 August 2013) When Labour leader Ed Miliband met with the prime minister and deputy prime minister in Downing Street just before the parliamentary vote, a source reported: ‘Ed said to the Prime Minister: “You have to realize that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us”.’ (Guardian, 29 August 2013)

Professor Richard English, a historian at the University of St Andrews, confirms the link: ‘The decision in the House of Commons about Syria was really a decision about Iraq, but a few years late.’ (Guardian, 12 February 2014)

More importantly, in addition to stopping UK involvement in the attack, the parliamentary vote played a crucial role in halting the wider US air strikes.

The day after the parliamentary vote, officers on board US warships in the Mediterranean were expecting launch orders. (Wall Street Journal, 17 September 2013)

However, after speaking with advisers, US president Barack Obama decided to seek congressional approval for the air strikes, telling aides that ‘He had several reasons … including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.’ (New York Times, 31 August 2013)

With opposition building in the US congress, the attack was called off in favour of a joint US–Russian plan to force the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapon stockpiles.

John Kerry, US secretary of state at the time, confirmed this narrative at his farewell press conference in January 2017.

‘The president had already decided to use force’, he explained, but ‘the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval.’ (Guardian, 6 January 2017)

The government defeat – that is, the democratic process – created panic within the British establishment.

Alistair Burt, minister for the Middle East from 2010–2013, argued: ‘the UK finds itself in quite a mess.’ If the government has to convince a majority in parliament, he worried, ‘to what can government commit itself in discussions with allies, or prepare in advance for regional strategic defence?’ Burt continued: ‘Just occasionally politicians need space and time to take unpopular action that they believe in the long run is in their nation’s interest.’ (Guardian, 7 February 2014)

On 18 December 2013, the chief of the defence staff, general sir Nicholas Houghton, noted in a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute: ‘the purposes to which [the armed forces] have most recently been put has seldom been more deeply questioned. As a nation we have become a touch sceptical about the ability to use force in a beneficial way.’

UK propaganda II

Just after the parliamentary vote on Syria, the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the power of the UK anti-war movement.

Under the headline, ‘MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public’, the report provided a summary of a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: ‘The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties’.

The article went on: ‘Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage “casualty averse” public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.’

Noting ‘the public have become better informed’, the report also recommended the armed forces run ‘a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.’ (Guardian, 27 September 2013)

Since then, UK military interventions have broadly followed these proposals, with Mark Curtis highlighting in 2016 that Britain was involved in at least seven covert wars in the Middle East: ‘Whitehall has in effect gone underground, with neither parliament nor the public being allowed to debate, scrutinise or even know about these wars.’ (Huffington Post, 18 October 2016) (The seven covert wars were in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.)

Chris Cole, director of Drone Wars UK, tells me: ‘The increasing use of air power by the UK rather than the use of ground troops has been remarkable.’

He continues: ‘In Iraq and Syria over the past five years, for example, there have been few troops on the ground but thousands of air strikes. And increasingly, drones are being used to undertake those strikes.

‘In its first five years in service, British Reaper drones fired just over 350 bombs and missiles. In the last five years, however, that has increased by more than two-and-a-half times to almost 1,000 – and that’s an aircraft we are told is primarily used for surveillance.’

Occasional isolated news reports have highlighted that British special forces are operating in Iraq (Independent, 6 November 2016), Yemen (Daily Mail, 23 March 2019) and Syria (Guardian, 7 January 2019), but there has been no sustained media coverage or parliamentary interest.

In September 2013, the New York Times reported how British intelligence had been ‘working covertly’ with Saudi Arabia ‘for months… quietly funnelling arms, including antitank missiles’ to the armed opposition to the Syrian government.

‘Britain’s special forces are more secretive than any of the UK’s Five Eyes allies’, investigative journalist Phil Miller, author of Keenie Meenie: the British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes (Pluto Press, 2020), tells me. (The Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance links the UK to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.)

Miller goes on: ‘This secrecy prevents transparency around unsafe equipment and training accidents, to the detriment of the soldiers themselves and their families. There is no need for this level of secrecy in a mature democracy.’

Ongoing struggle

While I’ve highlighted how the UK anti-war movement has played a key role in constraining, and even stopping, UK military action, it is important to understand these clear-cut successes are relatively infrequent – the government usually wins in this high-stakes confrontation.

In 2014, parliament voted in support of air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq, and then a year later against Islamic State in Syria. At the time of the two parliamentary votes, polls showed clear support for the air strikes amongst the public. (YouGov, 26 September 2014 and 25 November 2015)

The UK then took part in punitive missile strikes against the Syrian government in April 2018 without a vote in parliament.

The election of anti-war, anti-imperialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party represented the best opportunity in a generation to break the elite consensus on foreign policy. In response, large sections of the media waged an unrelenting war against him, with a ‘senior serving general’ even threatening a military coup should he be elected prime minister. (Independent, 20 September 2015)

The Labour Party’s defeat in the December 2019 general election was therefore a huge victory for the elite and their preference for excluding the public from foreign policy decision-making. Despite these setbacks British foreign policy continues to be highly contested, with an ongoing struggle over public opinion and military interventions.

As Curtis argues in his book, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003): ‘It is no exaggeration to say that Britain has visited widespread destruction on many parts of the world, overthrowing popular governments, trampling over human rights, undermining democratic forces in favour of repressive elites’.

The UK ‘gets away with this largely because of the domestic structures of power’, he concludes.

The extent to which anti-war and peace activists are able to effectively organise, shift public opinion and intervene in the elite decision-making process described by Strachan and Harris therefore has enormous ramifications.

How nonviolence reduces government-led mass killings: interview with Evan Perkoski

How nonviolence reduces government-led mass killings: interview with Evan Perkoski
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 April 2020

Ignored by the mainstream media, in 2018 Dr Evan Perkoski, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, and Erica Chenoweth, a Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, published a very important study titled Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings.

With commentator Gary Younge heralding the 2010s as the decade of protest, and huge demonstrations continuing in places such as India, Chile and Iraq, Ian Sinclair questioned Perkoski about his co-authored report.

Ian Sinclair: Your report is informed by the seminal 2011 Columbia University Press study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by your co-author Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. For those unfamiliar with the idea of nonviolent resistance, can you summarise the key findings of Chenoweth and Stephan’s book?

Evan Perkoski: Chenoweth and Stephan produced a ground-breaking book in 2011 that was the first to systematically compare the efficacy of violent and nonviolent resistance methods. In other words, it statistically evaluates how likely popular uprisings are to succeed – to remove a dictator from power or to gain territorial independence, for example – when using either violent or nonviolent strategies. They find that nonviolent strategies are nearly twice as effective. As to why, there are many possible reasons. Nonviolent uprisings tend to be bigger and more diverse since lots of people can participate; they are difficult to suppress owing to their size, but also because militaries might not follow orders to crack down on protesters;  and they are often seen as more legitimate by international audience. As a result, these uprisings can very effectively disrupt civic affairs and apply pressure to governments. Yet, Chenoweth and Stephan also find that nonviolent movements have to grow quite large if they are to succeed. Specifically, if 3.5 percent of a state’s population actively participates at a campaign’s peak, then success is almost inevitable. But that’s a lot of people: in the US, for example, that would require over ten million individuals to turn out.

IS: What does your report tell us about nonviolent and violent resistance and the incidence of mass killings during popular uprisings?

EP: We find that mass killings tend to occur less frequently when dissidents use strategies of civil resistance and nonviolence compared to violence. Specifically, nearly half as many cases of nonviolent resistance experience mass violence as do cases of violent resistance. There are a few reasons why. Nonviolence might seem less threatening to regime elites and their families, giving them a way out without using force. Nonviolent movements also probably make it easier for members of the regime, including soldiers, to defect to the opposition, which they might hesitate to do when the opposition is a violent insurgency. And nonviolent movements don’t give the regime any cover for resorting to violence. In other words, they make it hard for states to justify a crackdown to their domestic and international allies.

IS: What are the other key factors which influence the chances of government forces carrying out mass killings in response to an uprising?

EP: Overall, we find that the interaction between dissidents and states matters greatly when it comes to the onset of mass violence. For instance, while strategies of nonviolent resistance seem to be safer, so are movements that can elicit defections from members of the armed forces. We also find that those resistance movements seeking to overthrow the incumbent regime are at a greater risk of violence. Which makes sense: leaders in such cases have the most to lose – compared to a secessionist campaign, for instance.

But we also find that outside actors can have a big effect. One of our most consistent findings is that highly internationalised conflicts, where foreign states are supporting dissidents as well as the regime they’re fighting against, are particularly dangerous.

But it’s not only the dynamics of the uprising that affect whether mass violence happens, either. Certain types of states are especially likely to kill their own civilians, and this includes non-democracies, military-based regimes (where the military controls the state), and those that are generally less developed.

IS: Can you give a real world example of this playing out in a recent struggle?

EP: One of the cases where we’ve seen some of these dynamics play out in a terrible way is Syria. In some ways it fits with our findings, and in other ways it doesn’t. In terms of it fitting, this is a highly internationalised conflict with foreign states supporting both dissidents and the regime in very overt ways. Syrian dissidents are also seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, which might explain why Assad is willing to use lethal force – specifically, to stay in power. Dissidents and the regime are also engaging in direct battles against one another which can help explain the high level of civilian victimization. Of course, dissidents initially began protesting the regime with nonviolent means and only escalated after the regime began its campaign of brutal repression. This shows how it is important to remember that cross-national statistical findings will not always explain every case perfectly, and they are instead most useful for identifying broader patterns that will generally – but not always – hold true across contexts.

IS: If resistance campaigns who receive external support are more likely to experience mass killings by government forces, are there any practical steps concerned citizens and organisations in the US and UK can take if they want to assist resistance campaigns in other countries?

EP: In our research we focus on a very specific type of foreign support: namely, overt material assistance. While we find that this particular type of engagement can make violence more likely, this does not necessarily mean that all forms of engagement should be avoided. States and other interested groups might therefore avoid sending money and arms, and instead provide training materials, to help develop organizational capacity, support dissidents through acts of diplomacy, and to use their leverage to isolate and sanction any regimes that resort to violence. Doing so would also send a powerful signal to other states that such behaviour won’t be tolerated.

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings is published by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, and can be downloaded for free from https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/nonviolent-resistance-and-prevention-of-mass-killings/.

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings by Evan Perkoski and Erica Chenoweth

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings by Evan Perkoski and Erica Chenoweth
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April-May 2020

Influenced by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s seminal 2011 study Why Civil Resistance Works, this short report looks at the circumstances surrounding mass killings – the intentional killing of 1,000 or more civilians in a continuous event – by government forces during popular uprisings.

‘The strategic interaction between dissidents and regimes is central to the occurrence of mass violence’, argue Evan Perkoski, an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut, and Chenoweth, a Professor at the University of Denver. In addition, they note the ‘characteristics… of campaigns play a significant role in explaining the likelihood of mass atrocities.’

Using a data set of 308 resistance campaigns between 1950 and 2013, and illustrating their findings with a number of case studies, they conclude ‘nonviolent uprising are almost three times less likely than violent rebellions to encounter mass killings, all else being equal.’ They put this down to a number of campaign-level factors: nonviolent resistance is less threatening to the physical well-being of regime elites, thus lowering the chances of violent retaliation; government crackdowns on nonviolent protestors often produce defections amongst the armed forces; and ‘the likelihood of mass killings is greater when foreign state provide material aid to dissidents’, something violent insurgencies tend to rely on.

There are, of course, structural factors which influence the likelihood of government violence – regime type and whether mass killings have occurred in the past, to name two – though the authors note these are ‘slow-moving’ and therefore provide ‘little actionable information’ for activists.

This ‘counterintuitive paradox’ – that those campaigns which remain nonviolent and unarmed with no significant foreign support are safest from mass killings – has huge implications, both for those participating in popular uprisings and for peace and anti-war activists in the UK. For example, the research suggests those who have supported sending arms to the Syrian opposition forces, including activists who would identify as being on the progressive left, are pushing for a course of action that increases the chances of the mass killing of civilians.

The report helpfully ends with several practical steps interested external parties could take when considering how to support popular uprisings. These include trying to steer protests “toward strategies, actions and dynamics that are associated with a lower odds of mass violence”, and sharing knowledge and skills rather than providing direct financial or material assistance. External forces can also undermine the cohesion of the repressing government forces by offering exile to leaders or supporting defections – a course of action more appropriate for powerful governments rather than grassroots activists.

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings was published by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in May 2018.

How the media covers-up the bloody reality of Western wars in the Middle East

How the media covers-up the bloody reality of Western wars in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
10 August 2019

From what I can tell a new report from monitoring group Air Wars, concerning US media coverage of the US-led military interventions in Iraq and Syria since 2014, has been ignored by the entire British media, except for the Morning Star.

“News reporting on civilian casualties from international and US actions, was found to be largely absent during key periods of the conflict”, the study concludes.

The extraordinary depth of this Western power-friendly journalism is highlighted by Airwars’s survey of more than 900 US Department of Defense transcripts of press conferences. Incredibly the research “found that [US military] officials were… the first to raise civilian harm in three-quarters of the press conferences or briefings in which the issue was broached since 2014.”

This lack of coverage was linked by US journalists themselves to a variety of factors, including “the limited presence of reporters on-the-ground”, a news cycle dominated by US domestic politics and credibly sourcing claims of civilian casualties. However, these justifications ring somewhat hollow when you consider arguably the most interesting finding of the study: “Major US media were… five times more likely to report on civilian harm from Russian and Assad regime actions at Aleppo than they were from US and allied actions at Mosul” (the report notes “civilian harm outcomes” in Aleppo and Mosul “were often similar”).

So it turns out the US media does report on civilian casualties – as long as the civilians are harmed by Russian and Syrian government forces.

US writer and media critic Adam Johnson has humorously coined The North Korea Law of Journalism, in which “editorial standards are inversely proportional to a county’s enemy status”. If journalists are considering crimes committed by the US and its allies then “rock solid, smoking gun evidence” is usually required to run a story. In contrast, journalists can “pretty much make up whatever [they] want” with little or no evidence to back up their claims if they are criticising North Korea, and nations like Iran, Russia and Syria.

Though the Air Wars study only looked at US media, there are indications the British media also acts as a defacto “propaganda system” when it comes to reporting on Western intervention in the Middle East.

Take three well-known commentators working at two respected newspapers: The Times’s David Aaronovitch and Jonathan Freedland and George Monbiot at The Guardian. Monbiot is arguably the most radical journalist working in the mainstream media. No doubt all three of these experienced journalists see themselves as critically-minded, free-thinking writers.

Their Twitter feeds suggest a different story.

Culminating in December 2016, the battle for Aleppo involved Syrian government and (from September 2015) Russian forces unleashing hell on areas held by assorted rebel groups in the northern Syrian city.

Aaronovitch has tweeted about Aleppo 13 times. “Aleppo is Stalingrad” and the “destruction of Aleppo” is “awful” were two of his outraged hot takes.

Freedland tweeted about Aleppo six times up until December 2016.

Monbiot has tweeted about Aleppo nine times, according to Interventions Watch blog. “A monstrous crime against humanity” and “a crime beyond reckoning”, the enraged Monbiot commented.

Monbiot’s “response to events in another Syrian city, however, was markedly different”, Interventions Watch explains.

From June to October 2017 the US (with British support) led an intense assault on Raqqa, targeting the city being held by Islamic State with airstrikes and artillery barrages.

An April 2019 investigation by Amnesty International estimated the US-led coalition killed over 1,600 civilians during the assault. “Never before have I seen a city so completely devastated. Not just in one district area, but almost entirely”, Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, reported after visiting the city. “Think Dresden and you’d be close.”

“The intent may have been different … but through modelling the impacts, we have determined that there was not a huge difference in terms of civilian harm between the coalition in Raqqa and Russia in East Ghouta and Aleppo,” Airwars director Chris Woods told The Times in December 2018.

Monbiot’s response to this slaughter? Tumbleweed. “Monbiot *said nothing*. Not a word of condemnation, not a single attempt to highlight the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding, not even a passing mention, either as it was happening, or afterwards”, Interventions Watch note.

Likewise, Aaronovitch and Freedland have not tweeted one word about the US-UK bloodbath in Raqqa as far as I can tell.

This brief Twitter review echoes the findings of Dr Florian Zollmann, Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University, who analysed US, UK and German newspaper coverage of human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2004), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013) for his 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention.

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, he notes. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

This systematic bias can only increase the worrying level of ignorance of UK foreign policy amongst the British public – a status quo the government and military will be more than happy with.

“There is a general policy by the MoD [Ministry of Defence] to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons”, a senior British officer told the Sunday Telegraph in 2008. “If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.”

With the media providing such poor, power-friendly coverage, how is the general public supposed to gain an accurate understanding of the world? How can politicians make good decisions when it comes to future votes on war and peace? And what chance does the public have of understanding why many people in the Middle East and beyond have an unfavourable view of the UK?

Rather than being the tenacious Woodward and Bernstein-style Fourth Estate of journalists’ fantasies, it’s clear that when it comes to the Middle East the US and British media have, by and large, given their own governments and their militaries a free pass, shamefully helping to hide the bloody reality of Western military action from the American and British people.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

 

Does Britain have any influence on US foreign policy?

Does Britain have any influence on US foreign policy?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 July 2019

Replying to a May 2019 tweet from Momentum which criticised ex-Labour Party spin doctor Alastair Campbell for his leading role in the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, James Bloodworth countered “the war was led by the Americans and would’ve happened anyway” – i.e. without UK involvement.

Bloodworth, the former editor of Left Foot Forward website, likes to position himself on the left. He has certainly done important work highlighting the dark reality of low-wage Britain in his 2018 book Hired, but when it comes to foreign policy he is often a cheerleader for Western military interventions.

In 2013 Bloodworth proposed military action by the West in Pakistan and Afghanistan in support of female education (he has since deleted the tweets where he stated this, though I wrote an article about it at the time). A year later Bloodworth called for the intensification of the US-UK military campaign against ISIS in Iraq.

Back to his May 2019 tweet: that the UK doesn’t have much influence over US foreign policy is a common belief (conversely, there is a broad understanding the US dominates and defacto directs UK foreign policy). However, it’s worth taking time to seriously consider the relationship because if the UK does have some level of influence on US foreign policy then a number of important opportunities and questions arise.

In his 2003 book Regime Unchanged: Why The War On Iraq Changed Nothing, Milan Rai argues Tony Blair was “politically indispensable” to the US drive to war on Iraq. He quotes Republican Senator Chuck Hagel from 2002 (Hagel went on to serve as Defense Secretary under President Obama): “I don’t think it is in the best interests of this country… or any of our allies for us to act unilaterally.” Polls provided more evidence of the importance of UK support, with an August 2002 survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and German Marshall Fund finding only 20 percent of Americans supported a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Echoing this, a January 2003 survey by Princeton Survey Research Associates found 83 percent of Americans supported going to war if the United Nations backed the action and it was carried out by a multinational coalition, but without UN approval and allies this figured dropped to a third of the American public.

“Did we need the British troops to be there?” Andrew Card, President Bush’s Chief of Staff in 2003, rhetorically asked journalist Andrew Rawnsley in this 2010 book End of the Party. ”We needed them in the context of the world, but we didn’t necessarily need them in the context of the military action.”

Bloodworth’s dismissal of British influence on the US also ignores influence which may not have stopped the US war against Iraq but did impact the timetable for the invasion and how the war was eventually fought.

For example, it is likely the US and UK’s failed attempt to get United Nations authorisation for the war, a drawn out process which was likely a response to opposition in the UK and around the globe, delayed the invasion. This influence was illustrated by a 17 February 2003 Guardian report, which noted though “ministers and officials insisted the [15 February 2003] protests… would not delay military preparations for the war… a joint US-UK resolution authorising war… has been put on hold while Washington and London rethink their tactics.”

Indeed, Turkish-US relations at the time suggests less powerful nations can have big impacts on US foreign policy – as shown in the 2012 book Public Opinion and International Intervention: Lessons From the Iraq War. The US expected to stage the northern part of the invasion from Turkey, offering $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loans, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Turkish government had decided to cooperate with the US. However, the US and Turkish governments had failed to factor in the Turkish public, which polls showed was massively opposed to the war. With the Turkish constitution requiring parliamentary support for foreign troops to be deployed on Turkish soil, this public opinion was translated into a 1 March 2003 parliamentary vote against US troops being stationed in Turkey for the war. Blocked by Turkish democracy, the US had to change its plans at the last minute, with all its ground forces now entering Iraq from Kuwait in the south.

Beyond these constraining influences, the most compelling evidence of decisive UK influence on US foreign policy in recent years was the proposed military action on Syria in 2013.

Following claims that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Ghouta on 21 August 2013, the US moved to conduct punishment airstrikes on Syrian government forces.

By 25 August the US Navy had five destroyers in position in the eastern Mediterranean ready for the attack, according to a September 2013 Wall Street Journal report. In December 2013 the Guardian noted that Obama had let Cameron know that the US might take military action between 30 August and 1 September.

The UK government supported the US plans but, unexpectedly, on 29 August the House of Commons refused to support a government motion endorsing the planned attack. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the commons”, the Guardian reported. Prime Minister David Cameron was immediately forced to concede that “the government will act accordingly” – i.e. the UK would not take part in the airstrikes.

And here is the crucial point: this momentous vote – the first time a British government had lost a vote on military action since Lord North in 1782 apparently – had a huge impact on the Obama Administration.

The next day US warships were “expecting launch orders from the president at between 3 pm and 4 pm”, with the Pentagon conducting a practice press conference about the airstrikes, noted the Wall Street Journal.

However, “the lack of a British blessing removed another layer of legitimacy” for the Obama Administration, the New York Times noted. After speaking with advisors Obama decided to seek congressional approval for the airstrikes, telling aides “he had several reasons… including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.” With opposition building in Congress, the attack was cancelled in favour of a joint US-Russian plan to make sure the Syrian government gave up its chemical weapon stockpiles.

John Kerry, US Secretary of State at the time, confirmed this narrative at his farewell press conference in January 2017. “The president had already decided to use force”, he noted, but “the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval.”

Of course, contrary to Bloodworth’s certainty, we will never know for sure whether or not the US would have invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 without British support. Certainly if British support had been withdrawn days or weeks before the invasion date – Blair’s position was far more precarious than most people understood at the time – it seems likely the US’s momentum for war would have been too great to stop. But what if the UK had pulled out of the invasion plans in summer 2002? Or when Blair met Bush at Crawford in April 2002?

Bloodworth’s dismissal is ultimately a disempowering analysis. In contrast, the historical record shows, especially with regard to Syria in 2013, that the UK has had a significant influence on US policy. Moreover, it is also clear British public opinion and anti-war activism can, in the right circumstances, decisively impact not just UK foreign policy, but US foreign policy too.

It’s a hopeful and empowering lesson we would do well to remember the next time the drums of war start beating again.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

 

‘Simply not very bright’: the latest Corbyn smear

‘Simply not very bright’: the latest Corbyn smear
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 March 2019

Fuelled by charges of anti-semitism, Brexit and the breakaway Independent Group of MPs, we are in the midst of another anti-Corbyn media feeding frenzy.

As with the British press coverage of Jeremy Corbyn analysed in the 2016 London School of Economics study, the current attacks are often highly personalised, such as the Daily Mail’s serialisation of Dangerous Hero, Tom Bower’s “exposé” of the Labour leader. The book includes such “bombshells” as Corbyn apparently liking to eat baked beans straight from the can, and that he was on the brink of retiring to Wiltshire to keep bees before he was persuaded to run for the leadership.

However, as media analysts Media Lens highlight in their new book Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality, it is important to understand the liberal media have also played a central role in attacking Corbyn. For example, while she dismisses many of the accusations presented in Dangerous Hero, in her recent review of the book in the Guardian former Observer political editor Gaby Hinsliff argues some “charges… are harder to dismiss.”

“Perhaps the most telling criticism is that Corbyn is simply not very bright, or certainly not as bright as leaders are traditionally expected to be,” she notes, her words positively dripping with contempt and condescension.

“A teacher’s son, educated at a fee-paying grammar, he nonetheless scraped only two Es at A-level before dropping out of a course in trade union studies at North London Polytechnic because the academic work (at least in Bower’s telling) was beyond him.”

And here is the similarly disdainful Oxford-educated novelist Martin Amis speaking to the Guardian Weekend magazine in September 2017: “Two E grades at A-level. That’s it. He certainly has no autodidact streak. I mean, is he a reader?” (Answer: yes, Corbyn has publicly, repeatedly and extensively discussed his love of literature).

I really didn’t expect to ever write an article explaining how problematic it is to uncritically elevate “intelligence” and formal qualifications.

Mainly because I’ve always found most people with a pulse have a broad understanding that “intelligence” is difficult to pin down; that there are many different types of intelligence; that IQ and exams are a pretty bogus way of measuring anything; that some people who don’t seem intelligent may well be, and vice versa etc. Indeed, does anybody, other than A-level students in the halcyon days between getting their exams results and the first insecure weeks at university, actually give two shits about what grades someone got for their A-levels?

There are, of course, many other problems with Hinsliff’s argument. The importance she clearly gives to the head of a political party being “bright” assumes a very conservative, simplistic view of the world — that it is great leaders and their personality and intellect which make history. Very obviously, Corbyn, whether as leader of the Labour Party or the next prime minister, is not running the show on his own, but works with a close unit of advisers, a core group of supportive MPs, teams of press, campaigns, strategy and admin staff, and a broader movement keeping his back.

Luckily, what the vast majority of the 500,000-plus Labour Party members seem to realise is that Corbyn — intelligent or not — is pretty much the surfer on top of a gigantic wave, with all this implies.

What all this shows is whether Corbyn is the smartest guy in the room or not isn’t that important to whether Labour win power, or its ability to institute significant, progressive change if they do form a government.

And anyway, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron all went to Oxford, and therefore are presumably considered “bright” by Hinsliff. Need I bother saying anything more?

So how should we begin to understand this fetishisation of “intelligence” and formal education being propagated by elite university graduates?

Though their target is nominally Corbyn, I would contend their contempt — and fear — is actually directed at the mass, grassroots movement he heads. “You can do analysis of Corbyn and his ‘movement’ (I have done it) but the essence of the whole thing is that they are just thick as pigshit,” tweeted Financial Times political columnist Janan Ganesh (Warwick University and UCL) in 2016.

This elitist contempt for mass participation — democracy, really — has been amplified by the Brexit vote and Trump’s election in the US.

“That nobody could possibly do a better job than the professionals is a core belief of elite liberalism,” Abi Wilkinson wrote in Jacobinin 2017.

“Suspicious of mass democracy and emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, elite liberals came to assume that we’d reached the end of history — that every other social order had been tried and proven inferior. Capitalist democracy, stewarded by sharp, well-intentioned experts, had allegedly emerged from the scrum as the unquestioned victor.”

“For people like this, it’s been hard to understand the increasing rejection of the political and economic consensus as anything other than an outbreak of irrationality and self-sabotage,” she continues. “While there may be room to fine tune, why would anyone want to tear down or significantly alter something as good as what we’ve got?”

In 2017 a Sutton Trust report found 54 per cent of the country’s leading news journalists were educated in private schools, even though privately schooled individuals account for just 7 per cent of the school population.

Speaking to Andrew Marr (Cambridge University) in 1996 for the BBC’s The Big Idea programme, US dissident Noam Chomsky explained the significance of so many influential members of the media being educated at elite institutions.

“There’s a filtering system, that starts in kindergarten, and goes all the way through, and it’s not going to work 100 per cent but it’s pretty effective. It selects for obedience, and subordination,” he argued. He went on to highlight George Orwell’s suppressed introduction to his 1945 book Animal Farm as a good summary of why the mainstream media tends to reflect the interests of elites.

“Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban… not because the government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact,” Orwell wrote.

“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question.”

Like Chomsky, Jeff Schmidt, former editor of Physics Today magazine, believes the education and employment systems in capitalist democracies generate a conformist professional class trained to work within a very narrow political framework — Disciplined Minds he called them in his 2000 book of the same name.

How disciplined, you ask? Here are just a few examples of the power-friendly ideological blinkers a top education can provide. Commenting on the recent debate about Winston Churchill’s legacy, in January comedian and writer David Baddiel (Cambridge University) described the former British Prime Minister as “the man who saved Jews from complete destruction,” which is, er, certainly an interesting take on the second world war.

In a lengthy 2013 essay about democracy in the Guardian, David Runciman (Eton and Cambridge University, where he is now Professor of Politics) repeatedly referred to the UK as a “democracy” during World War One — news, I’m sure, to the women and millions of poor men who didn’t have the vote at the time.

And Hinsliff (Cambridge University)? A few months after admitting she got Corbyn’s electoral viability completely wrong, in January 2018 she tweeted the following canard about Syria: “I honestly don’t know if intervention would have made things better or worse. Not intervening has been pretty bloody dismal tho.”

In the real world, by 2018 the US and UK had carried out hundreds of air strikes against Isis in Syria, the US had 2,000 troops occupying parts of the country, and the US and UK had been working closely with Saudi Arabia and others to send massive amounts of support to the rebels fighting Assad, with the CIA having trained and armed 10,000 rebels, according to the Washington Post.

Further reminders — if any more were needed — that members of the liberal commentariat such as Hinsliff are the last people who should be questioning how “bright” the Labour leader is.

Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.

Where is the outrage over the Raqqa bloodbath?

Where is the outrage over the Raqqa bloodbath?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 February 2019

I’m guessing very few readers of the Morning Star read The Times. This is understandable but it’s important to remember even Tory-supporting newspapers often publish useful information.

For example, Morning Star readers will have found much of interest in Anthony Loyd’s dispatch from Raqqa in Syria subtitled “Civilians Bore the Brunt of Allied Bombing,” published in The Times just before Christmas.

The report concerned the US-led military operation undertaken between June and October 2017 which drove the Islamic State (IS) from the northern Syrian city, which it had taken control of in early 2014.

The US-led coalition carried out airstrikes and artillery barrages in support of Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground as part of what US defence secretary James Mattis stated was a larger war of “annihilation.”

Speaking to Reuters at the beginning of the incursion, United Nations (UN) humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said the UN estimated 160,000 people remained in the city.

The First Response Team Loyd spoke to in Raqqa said they had recovered 3,280 corpses since January 2018, including the bodies of 604 children.

“In some instances it can be difficult to tell the exact manner of death,” explained first responder Riyad al-Omeri, who is responsible for the organisation’s records. “But let’s be clear about this. Most of the dead are civilians killed in airstrikes.”

“Islamic State was cruel to all but the coalition used airstrikes against us as if we were animals,” Hannan Mukhalf, who lost 11 members of her family in a coalition airstrike, told Loyd.

“I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare,” coalition commander Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend stated at the time of the offensive.

A plethora of sources corroborate Omeri’s and Mukhalf’s testimonies rather than Townsend’s fantastical claim.

“The intensification of airstrikes … has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced,” Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the UN independent international commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, noted early on in the assault.

In addition, the Guardian reported on footage showing the coalition firing white phosphorus into built-up areas, while Amnesty International has noted the so-called battle for Raqqa destroyed 80 per cent of the city.

According to independent monitoring group Airwars, “Most damage to the city — described in January 2018 by USAid chief Mark Green as devastation ‘almost beyond description’ — was the result of US air and artillery strikes.”

In February 2018 the Marine Corps Times provided more detail about the offensive, reporting that “a small marine artillery battalion,” using M777 howitzers, fired 35,000 rounds in Raqqa — “more rounds than any artillery battalion since Vietnam.”

The newspaper helpfully put these numbers in context: during the whole of the 2003 invasion of Iraq just over 34,000 artillery rounds were fired by all US forces.

Amnesty International also provided helpful context in its June 2018 investigation into the attack on Raqqa: “Given that standard artillery shells fired from an M777 howitzer have an average margin of error of over 100m, launching so many of these shells into a city where civilians were trapped in every neighbourhood posed an unacceptable risk to civilians.”

Based on fieldwork in Raqqa, including visits to 42 sites of air strikes, artillery and mortar strikes, Amnesty concluded the coalition strikes detailed in their report “appear either disproportionate or indiscriminate or both and as such unlawful and potential war crimes.”

Responding in part to the brilliant investigative work done by Airwars and Amnesty, in July 2018 the US military conceded its aerial bombardment of Raqqa “unintentionally killed” 77 civilians, in addition to 23 civilian deaths they had already admitted to.

Incredibly, the British military maintains they are not aware of any civilian deaths caused by the 275 airstrikes Loyd reports Britain carried out in Raqqa. “We conduct detailed assessments after every strike and we have not seen any evidence to suggest there were civilian casualties as a result of RAF strikes in Raqqa,” a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson told me.

“Through our rigorous targeting processes we will continue to seek to minimise the risk of civilian casualties, but that risk can never be removed entirely, particularly given the ruthless and inhumane behaviour of our adversary, including the deliberate use of human shields.”

In October, Amnesty described the MoD’s continued denial of civilian casualties as “a clear statistical improbability.”

In contrast to the public statement from the US and Britain, as of March 2018 Airwars had tracked “1,400 likely coalition-inflicted deaths” during the four-month assault.

“The intent may have been different … but through modelling the impacts, we have determined that there was not a huge difference in terms of civilian harm between the coalition in Raqqa and Russia in East Ghouta and Aleppo,” Airwars director Chris Woods told Loyd.

“In the end there does not always seem to be so much difference in harm caused by dumb weaponry versus smart weaponry when you are intensely bombing an area with a high civilian concentration,” he added.

As predicted by sharp media analysts like Media Lens and Dr Florian Zollmann, the mainstream media’s coverage of US and British actions in Raqqa has been woeful.

“Despite the horrors experienced by civilians during recent fighting, press reports from Raqqa have been filed far less regularly than its status as the former ‘Isis capital’ might have suggested,” Airwars noted in March 2018.

The de facto silence surrounding the West’s attack on Raqqa mirrors how the media has downplayed the West’s involvement in Syria since 2011.

The “Western democracies” have been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria,” was Simon Tisdall’s expert take in the Observer in February 2018.

In reality, “Washington did provide aid on a large scale to Syrian armed opposition,” Steven Simon, the senior director for Middle Eastern and north Africa affairs on the US national security council during the Obama administration, wrote in the New York Times in January.

Robert Malley, who served in the Obama administration as the White House co-ordinator on the Middle East, north Africa, and Gulf region, echoed Simon’s analysis on The Real News Network in August 2018: “We became part of the regime change — by definition, even if we denied it — once we were supplying the armed opposition which had only one goal … which was to topple the regime.”

The deaths of four Americans — two US soldiers, a civilian Department of Defence official and private contractor — last month in the northern Syrian town of Manbij confirms the US is very much involved in the Syrian war.

Indeed, before President Donald Trump’s recent withdrawal announcement, the US military had 2,000 troops stationed (illegally) in Syria, according to a November 2018 New Yorker article: “The United States has built a dozen or more bases from Manbij to al-Hasakah, including four airfields, and American-backed forces now control all of Syria east of the Euphrates, an area about the size of Croatia.”

As ever, where the US goes, Britain blindly follows. In March 2018, a British soldier from the Parachute Regiment was killed by an improvised explosive device while embedded with US forces in Manbij and last month two British Special Forces soldiers were seriously injured in an IS missile attack in eastern Syria, according to the Guardian.

Where is the media scrutiny into British forces fighting on the ground in Syria? Where are all the investigative journalists focusing on Britain’s laughable claims about civilian deaths? And where are the outraged editorials and comment pieces denouncing Britain’s involvement in the slaughter in Raqqa?

Fallujah in 2004, Sirte in 2011 and Mosul in 2016-17: is Raqqa destined to become another forgotten US-British bloodbath in the Middle East?

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
5 June 2018

Ian Sinclair interviews Dr Florian Zollmann, a Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University and author of the recent book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention (Peter Lang, 2017). Zollmann starts by setting out the main findings of his study.

Florian Zollmann: Leading news organisations in liberal democracies employ a double-standard when reporting on human rights violations: If countries designated to be ‘enemies’ of the West (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2012) conduct human rights violations, the news media highlight these abuses and report demands for action to stop human rights breaches. Such measures may entail policies with potentially serious effects for the target countries, including sanctions and military intervention. If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the US-led Coalition in Iraq in 2004 and Egypt in 2013) are the perpetrators of human rights violations that are similar or in excess of those conducted by ‘enemies’, the news media employ significantly less investigatory zeal in their reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are suggested.

My study shows, on the basis of an assessment of extensive quantitative and textual data, that the news media utilise different journalistic norms in terms of how they convey emotional sentiment, handle facts and evidence, use sources and perspective and classify events. These journalistic double standards, then, translate into a radically dichotomised news framing of problem definitions, responsibility of actors and policy options in response to what constitute relatively similar human rights violations: Official ‘enemies’ are depicted as pariah states, facing international condemnation and intervention. Western states and their ‘allies’ are depicted as benign forces, which may at best be criticised for using the wrong tactics and policy approaches. The dynamics of such dichotomised propaganda campaigns have had the effect that only some bloodbaths received visibility and scrutiny in the public sphere.

In Libya, conflict between government and opposition groups erupted on 15 February 2011. By 23 February, Western newspapers had provided generous space for quotations by US, UK and EU government spokespersons as well as partisan actors who demanded intervention in Libya in accordance with the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. The dominant news media discourse depicted the actions of the Libyan government as atrocious crimes, ordered by the highest levels of governance. The United Nations Security Council eventually authorised the 19 March 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.

Yet, whilst the International Criminal Court estimated that about 500-700 people had been killed in Libya in February, no independent investigation into the incidents had been conducted at the time of the NATO onslaught. As my study shows, the international press had acted as a facilitator for intervention in Libya. This so-called ‘humanitarian’ intervention was far deadlier than the violence that had preceded it. According to Alan J. Kuperman, ‘NATO intervention magnified the death toll in Libya by about seven to ten times’. Moreover, it turned out that Libyan security forces had not indiscriminately targeted protestors (see here). My study also shows how the pretext for intervention in Libya was discursively manufactured.

Another case study in my book looks at news media reporting of so-called US-Coalition ‘counter-insurgency’ operations during the occupation of Iraq. In October 2004, the respected medical journal The Lancet published a studysuggesting that 98,000 people had been killed during the US-Coalition invasion-occupation of Iraq between 19 March 2003 and mid-September 2004. The authors of the study wrote that the violent deaths ‘were mainly attributed to coalition forces’ and ‘most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children’. On 8 November 2004, US-Coalition forces attacked the Sunni city Fallujah, the centre of Iraqi resistance against the occupation. US-Coalition air and ground forces used an array of heavy weaponry including artillery, tanks, helicopters, jets, heavy bombs, and other devices, like explosive coils to clear minefields, in residential areas. Fallujah was treated largely as a ‘free-fire zone’. It is estimated that during this assault between 800 and 6,000Iraqi civilians were killed.

As I document in my book, the Western press hardly reported these figures. The findings of the Lancet study were largely ignored and not linked with US-Coalition warfare in Iraq. In fact, the press depicted civilian carnage as ‘casualties’ – the tragic outcomes of ‘war’. Whilst the press included indignant statements by Iraqi actors and human rights organisations, there were almost no reports of any statements conveying policy options that would have put a constraint on the US-Coalition’s use of military force such as sanctions or measures in line with ‘responsibility to protect’.

IS: Why do elite newspapers in the West report foreign affairs in the way you describe?

FZ: The Western elite press draws heavily from government officials to define, explain and accentuate events. Such performance results from institutional imperatives: newspapers have to operate cost-effectively in the market system. The institutional requirement to make profits compromises journalistic standards, such as to report accurately and in a balanced way, to search for the ‘truth’, or to monitor the powerful. Markets incentivise the use of pre-packaged information provided by governments and powerful lobby groups. Nurturing such official news beats decreases the costs of newsgathering and fact-checking. Official statements are regarded as authoritative and their publication does not lead to reprimands.

Additionally, there has been a vast increase in government and corporate propaganda activities that feed into the news media cycle. If newspapers engage in critical investigations that undermine the official narrative, they face costly repercussions: denial of access to official spokespersons, negative responses by think-tanks and actors as well as the threat of libel suits. Because small losses in revenue may threaten their economic survival, news organisations are driven towards the powerful in society.

Commercial constraints are augmented by the integration of newspapers into quasi-monopoly corporations. According to the Media Reform Coalition, ‘Britain has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world, with 3 companies in control of 71% of national newspaper circulation and 5 companies in command of 81% of local newspaper titles.’ Such levels of media concentration encourage ideological homogenisation. For example, market concentration allows media owners to synchronise the news agenda and incentivises the recycling of information across different platforms. Corporate consolidation establishes market-entry barriers and prevents the launching of alternative newspapers. Finally, the commercial press is dependent on corporations that act as major advertising sponsors. The research I discuss in my book suggests that news organisations are inclined to not undermine the interests of their sponsors. Moreover, work by James Curran highlights how advertisers act as de-facto licensers: without advertising support, commercial news organisations go out of business.

IS: Did you find any significant differences between the US, UK and German press?

FZ: On a macro-level, there are strikingly similar reporting patterns in the US, UK and German press. This means that the dichotomised reporting patterns outlined above are replicated across countries independent of a newspaper’s national or ideological affiliation. Such a performance can be explained by the fact that US, UK and German news organisations are subject to the same economic constraints. Furthermore, US, UK and German governments share a similar ideological outlook in terms of US-led Western foreign policy objectives. We have seen numerous examples in recent years when the UK and German governments have supported US foreign policies, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The news media broadly reflect this alignment. Of course, there are also differences. National political interests manifest in reporting as well. For instance, the German press included tactical reservations about using military force in Libya. This appeared to reflect national elite disagreements, as German politicians preferred other policy options. There were also differences in the quantity and detail of coverage. The US press arguably provided the most comprehensive coverage in terms of the amount of published material. The ‘liberal’ UK press reported in more detail on humanitarian issues and was more critical of US-Coalition actions in Iraq – albeit not in a way that substantially challenged policy.

IS: The ongoing war in Yemen is not one of the case studies you analyse in your book. From what you have seen of the media coverage of the Yemen conflict, does it conform to your thesis?

FZ: As I have written elsewhere, the Yemen case fits well in the framework of my study. The humanitarian crisis is largely a consequence of the blockade and invasion of Yemen orchestrated by a Saudi-led military coalition. Saudi Arabia has been a close ally of the West. During the war in Yemen, the US and UK have provided substantial diplomatic and military support to Saudi Arabia. Consequently, there has been no willingness by the so-called ‘international community’ to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its actions in Yemen and R2P and related doctrines have not been seriously evoked. This, then, has been reflected in muted news media coverage. Whilst reports and critical discussions about Saudi Arabia’s military conduct and the way civilian areas have been systematically targeted in Yemen have been published by the press, there has been no sustained campaign in the news media aimed at seriously constraining the Saudi military’s ability to use force. Comparing this with reporting on Syria, where the Western news media have been constantly featuring reports that include discussions about military and other forms of intervention, the double standards could not be more obvious.

IS: What advice would you give to interested citizens keen to get an accurate understanding of world affairs?

FZ: I am hesitant to recommend specific news outlets. It is important to draw from multiple and diverse sources of information and to question official announcements, narratives and ideologies, independent of where they come from.

Book review: Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Florian Zollmann

Book review: Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2018

‘The biggest immediate single problem we face… is mainstream media reporting’, British historian Mark Curtis recently argued in an Open Democracy interview about UK foreign policy.

Florian Zollmann’s deeply impressive first book – which expands on his PhD, supervised by Professor Richard Keeble – goes a long way in engaging with this long-running issue for peace activists.

‘The news media in liberal democracies operates as a propaganda system on behalf of state-corporate elite interests’, he argues, using Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model as the foundation of his study.

Analysing elite newspapers in the UK, US and Germany, Zollmann, a lecturer in journalism at Newcastle University, compares and contrasts nearly 2,000 news, editorial and comment items covering human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2004), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

Zollmann’s findings are deeply worrying, with huge ramifications for journalists, activists and British democracy itself. ‘If countries designated to be “enemy” states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses’, he notes. ‘If, on the other hand, Western states or their “allies” are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.’ The level of indignation, the seniority of the officials blamed, and whether the media call for sanctions, action from the United Nations or so-called humanitarian military intervention – all largely depends on the identity of the perpetrators. It isn’t included as a case study, but the media’s (lack of) coverage of the Western-backed assault on Yemen is a further damning illustration of Zollmann’s thesis.

In addition to extensive quantitative and qualitative evidence, a wealth of references and an in-depth bibliography, the book also includes important accounts of the two devastating US-led assaults on Fallujah in Iraq, as well as critical facts and arguments effectively excluded from the mainstream media’s reporting of the West’s interventions in Libya and Syria.

At £29, this is a pricey purchase, and though it is clearly written and logically argued, the academic style may make it a little dry for some readers. However, I would strongly recommend peace activists get hold of a copy of Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention as it is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the media’s propagandistic role in the West’s often deadly and counterproductive foreign policy.