No Friend but the Mountains

Regardless of what one thinks about President Trump’s planned drawdown in Syria, it undoubtably takes the wind out of the movement for Kurdish autonomy in some kind of devolved Syria. Facing the prospect of Turkish troops and Turkish-backed militants overrunning their positions, the Kurds had no choice but to ask the Syrian government for assistance. The Syrian government will oblige, as they have been asking Kurdish forces to relinquish territory and have threatened force if they refuse to do so.

The Kurdish situation lends insight into how complicated the civil war is and how allegiances can shift quickly. To sum up Kurdish positions during the revolution and subsequent civil war:

1: US-backed, Syrian government-backed, fighting ISIS.

2: US-backed, Syrian government-detente, fighting ISIS AND US-backed rebels.

3: US-backed, fighting ISIS, AND engaging in hostile skirmishes with Syrian government.

4: Syrian government-backed fighting ISIS and (possibly) Turkish forces.

There is a saying that the Kurds have “no friend but the mountains.” Their use and abuse during this civil war may prove that to be true but then again, it hardly seems like any party has a true “friend” in this conflict.

Who Gets Mourned?

In Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman's Manufacturing Consent, the authors demonstrate that with regard to US activities in Latin America and Vietnam, the massacres of the enemy are dutifully reported while massacres of the US and its allies are downplayed or ignored altogether. This still holds true today (as this blog has related time and time again). Another prominent example of this phenomenon occurred this week.    

Three recent events involving international conflicts were newsworthy: (1) On August 21st Saudi Arabian airstrikes killed about 70 civilians in Southwestern Yemen. (2) On August 16th Syrian regime airstrikes killed scores of civilians (possibly up to 100) in the rebel controlled Damascus suburb of Douma. (3) On August 22nd the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) murdered an 83-year-old archeologists and later destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra. 

If the United States had a "watchdog" media, the kind that does what it claims to do, the kind that files reports exposing the actions of governments for the benefit of the American people, there would be a clear justification for giving priority to each of the events in the above order (1,2,3). Although the death-toll of the Saudi strikes is less than the death-toll of the attack on Douma, the Saudi airstrikes were carried out with US intelligence support, US logistical support, and with US-manufactured weaponry. Saudi Arabia is a strong US ally, with whom the Obama Administration concluded the largest ever American weapons sale in 2010. The deaths in Yemen are appalling and have a clear connection to the actions of the US government, clearly making them a concern of the American people.  

Why the Douma massacre should take precedence over the actions of ISIL in Palmyra should be obvious. The death-toll is substantially higher with the former, while the latter concerns primarily ancient artifacts. There is no doubt that the destruction of Palmyra accords with ISIL's other actions aimed at eliminating any vestiges of opposing cultures but it should be a truism that human life should be valued above stones.  

If, on the other-hand the US has a media that serves primarily state-interests, through self-censorship, reliance on government reports and estimates, a profit motive, and a meta-framework that portrays only certain threats to human life as "dangerous," we would expect the news to reported in inverse (3,2,1). ISIL's actions are more newsworthy because it accords with the framework of "anti-Islamism," much like the news of the 1950's-1980's was reported within the framework of "anti-communism." The Syrian regime's actions should take precedence over the actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen precisely because of Saudi Arabia's status as "ally" while the status of Assad is officially one of "enemy." The Syrian regime's goal is obviously mass-murder while the goal of the US and Saudi Arabia in Yemen is to "restore" the "legitimate" government that was essentially hand-picked by the United States and its allies in the Gulf. 

A brief look at the evidence points to the latter hypothesis: a media that essentially serves US geopolitical interests. The Los Angeles Times filed a single report on the airstrikes in Yemen, and although it mentioned the humanitarian consequences it pinned the blame on both sides for the fighting, even though Saudi Arabia is the aggressor in the conflict and is solely responsible for the airstrikes. Additionally, Saudi Arabia's status as US ally is never mentioned, nor is it mentioned that every cluster munition (banned by almost every country in the world) fired in Yemen is manufactured by the United States. The Los Angeles Times also filed only one report on the Douma massacre. However, qualitatively the blame is placed squarely on the Assad government (as it should be). Other groups fighting on the ground are not mentioned. When it comes to the murder of an archeologist and the destruction of Palmyra, the LA Times produced an amazing 5 reports. Two of the reports surround the execution of the archeologist, three of the reports surround the ISIL demolition of Palmyra, linking it to prior incidence of the group's destruction of antiquities. 

The reports produced by The New York Times also conform to the latter hypothesis. Once again, a single report regarding the Saudi perpetrated massacre in Taiz was produced. The report blames both sides and makes no mention of Saudi military and political connections to the US, nor does it make mention of US-material support for the massacre. The New York Times reporting regarding the massacre in Douma is slightly more comprehensive. Three reports were published. The initial report is a short brief describing the massacre while the two later reports recount the massacre in greater detail and connect it to prior regime-perpetrated killings. Once again, the coverage of Palmyra significantly outstrips coverage of the massacres. The New York Times filed six reports on Palmyra, one reporting the murder of archeologist Khalid al-Assad, a few initial reports of the destruction, several follow-up pieces connecting the destruction to the anti-antiquity stance of ISIL, as well as a photo-blog post taking a look back at the ancient city and contrasting it to its current state.  

The post here is obviously not intended to be a comprehensive qualitative or quantitative analysis of international news coverage. However, given that two major US newspapers follow the same pattern of putting enemy actions first/US-sponsored massacres last, it is not unreasonable to think that the same pattern would likely be found with a more in-depth analysis. If victims of state and non-state violence wish for their plight to be publicized in the United States they should hope that (1) their plight is consistent with the prevailing US discourse and frameworks, and that (2) they don't find themselves victim to massacres perpetrated by US allies or the United States itself.