Here we are nearing the end of 2016 and we certainly feel like we are living through momentous times, what with a coming US president of whom no one has any idea what he may do, the looming end of the five-year civil war in Syria that has engaged the attention of the whole world for so long, and the continuing development of surveillance techniques that now enable our governments to watch over our every action, and to know more than they need to know about what we think and what we do.
The old adage that truth is the first casualty of war has never been more clearly expressed than in the divergent views about what has been going on in Syria. For some months I have been watching quite a lot of the TV channel RT (Russia Today), a channel owned by the Russian government just as the BBC is owned by the British government and the CBC by the Canadian government.
To watch RT is a salutary experience, for it has its own alternative view of global events, and in fact, watching has made me even more conscious than I have normally been of the extent to which news presented by our Western, so-called “free” media, is engaged in putting out to the world its own slant on events.
As a fairly regular watcher of RT I find suggestions being made in the United States, from the President on down, that the channel is a pure source of Russian propaganda, to be entirely ludicrous. That is surely more true of the United States than any other country, for the team that RT has assembled in its American operations is almost impeccably comprised of journalists with excellent reputations, and, even among those who are just making their reputations, of young, vigorous, opinionated people who give every appearance of being completely on the ball, and of believing what they say.
Among the luminaries of the RT team are Larry King, with an early evening interview programme, Thom Hartmann, with a programme covering the news in some depth, Ed Schultz, an old-style progressive who makes of his newscast every night a vigorous argument with interlocutors from both sides, and Chris Hedges, who has spent much of his life as an international correspondent for the New York Times, and whose emergence as a leading voice of liberalism in the United States arises from his upbringing in a Christian environment that lies at the base of his world-view. Although there are other programmes that are somewhat more strident in defence of the Russian position, to describe any of these forenamed contributors as pawns in a Russian propaganda game is beyond absurd.
On the other side, however, misplaced hysteria seems to on the point of becoming the posture du jour of the American authorities. As the celebrated journalist Robert Fisk (who probably knows more about the Middle East than any other journalist in the world) has pointed out, the tirade issued by US representative at the UN, Samantha Power against all Russian and Syrian actions on the ground, comfortingly ignored the long history of the United States in carrying out or conniving in exactly the same brutalities in many parts of the world, and in providing the weapons with which these brutalities have been carried out. Her outburst was slyly referred to by the Russian representative Vitaly Churkin, as delivered, apparently, by Mother Teresa.
RT has not been alone in pointing out that the reported terrible Russian actions in Syria have to a large extent been based on circumstantial evidence, much of it from doubtful sources, yet that evidence has been unquestioningly seized and trumpeted around the world by the Western media. I could direct anyone’s attention to a debate on Democracy Now on Dec 14 between Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, and Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies at New York University and Princeton University. Roth launched into a full-scale assault on Russia along the line so familiar from what we read in the press, that 250,000 people have been literally bombed and starved into submission by the Syrian government that have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian institutions in a “war crimes strategy… to make life so miserable that people either flee or the enclave ultimately topples.”
Professor Cohen, a notably coherent man who could not be accused of being soft-headed, had a different view from Roth. Since his attitude is not being endlessly propagated in western media, I give this fairly lengthy version of what he said:
“The account Mr. Roth just gave is only one of two or three competing narratives….. He says that the Russians joined with the Syrians in deliberate war crimes. This is based on very selective reports that come from sources that cannot be verified. For example, the White Helmet man, that you had testify to this, didn’t tell us how he knew that, how he observed it, how he escaped with his own life. Moreover, there are people who doubt the reports that come from the White Helmets, that they have an agenda. So the rest of us are left here trying to weigh the different narratives. Mr. Roth’s is a very extreme set of accusations. What Samantha Power has said at the United Nations, over a long period of time, can’t be taken at face value, because she has performed there not as an ambassador, but as a propagandist for a certain point of view.
“….The reality is, I think—at least this is what the United States government told us until September—that terrorists were holding large parts of eastern Aleppo. They were not letting innocent civilians use the multiple corridors out of the city that the Russians—yes, there’s plenty of testimony to this—had opened up and guaranteed, that people could not escape the city because of these terrorists. Then, suddenly, when the American-Russian—Obama’s plan to cooperate with Putin there disappeared, apparently all the jihadists and the terrorists disappeared.
“So we’re left today in a fog of war. Perhaps Mr. Roth is correct, but I don’t think he’s fully correct. And we have two narratives. Either we have witnessed the liberation of Aleppo, and then we would say this is a good thing, or we’re witnessing war crimes by the Russians and the Syrians in Aleppo, which is a bad thing. So, I would ask Mr. Roth: If the Russians hadn’t done what he alleged they would do, what was the alternative to setting the people of Aleppo free?”
That the mainstream Western media speaks with almost one voice can hardly be doubted, especially after its behaviour towards this Syrian civil war. I have no doubt that Bashar al-Assad is not a nice man. Canadians have more reason to know this than most Western citizens, because we have had three Canadians who were infamously rendered by the United States to Syria in the full knowledge that they would be tortured in a Syrian prison. They were eventually released when nothing could be found against them even under torture, and Canada has paid a substantial sum to at least one them as compensation for his ordeal. But this torturer’s country appears to have been in most respects a more secular and progressive place than most of the Middle Eastern satrapies that the United States (and even Canada) is so busy arming so that they can keep oppressing their own populations, and interfering in the governance of neighbouring countries.
It does strike me as odd that the very Middle Eastern countries that appear to have progressed furthest in the direction of providing a free education for their peoples (men and women both), and to have moved in the direction of freeing women from the worst shibboleths of religious oppression, should have been those chosen to be attacked by Western arms ---- Iraq, Libya, Syria, being the most notable examples.
As to what is going to happen next, one would need to be a soothsayer to offer an opinion. At time of writing it appears that among the proxy powers that have torn Syria apart, only Turkey and Russia seem willing to put aside differences between them in a conference to be held in Kazakhstan in an effort to bring the war to a conclusion, whereas the latest offering of the United States has been an announcement that it is making more weapons available to the combatants, an action that seems likely to add to the number of deaths, both civilian and military.
One cannot but shrug, and hope for the best.