From Gaza to Syria, from Fallujah to Homs: the short-term memory of the western media

Matt Carr -

On 7 February, the Guardian had a terrible editorial on Syria and the ongoing siege of Homs, which summed up so much of what is corrupt, servile and deferential about the western media in general – regardless of its political orientation – when it comes to dealing with the foreign policy objectives of their own governments.

The editorial condemned what it called ‘ a dismayingly reactionary decision’ by Russia and China to veto this weeks’ Security Council draft resolution on Syria, which it claimed was  ’lamented not just by predictable western nations but also by many in the region who saw the resolution as a chance to underscore the regime’s isolation and boost UN credibility in the wake of the Arab spring.’

Instead, in the Guardian’s view

Russia’s and China’s vetoes did the precise opposite. Most lethally, they gave the Assad regime a green light to intensify its assault on its own people. The voting in New York launched the mortars against Homs. Responsibility for the renewed bloodshed therefore lies with Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao as well as with President Assad himself.

The editorial notes that Russia was anxious to avoid a repetition of last year’s Security Council resolution on Libya, which moved seamlessly from a no-fly zone to regime change with no questions asked, before asking ‘Does Russia really want to be the global protector of tyrants who turn their guns on their own people simply in order to get one back against the west after the overthrow of a worthless leader like Gaddafi?’

This is  pretty dim and bombastic stuff – and not only because the assault on Homs was already underway before the resolution was rejected.   The suggestion that the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are attempting to ‘boost the credibility of the UN in the wake of the Arab spring’ does not hold up to a milisecond of scrutiny.

The Guardian‘s uncritical celebration of the overthrow of Gaddafi – and its suggestion that it should be a model for Syria – ignores the  fact that the civil war in Libya killed  at least 30,000 people, and the increasingly unavoidable evidence that the rebel opposition has no more commitment to human rights and democracy than Gaddafi did himself.

More generally, the Guardian‘s criticisms of Russia and China reflect a widespread assumption that the foreign policies of western democracies are driven by high moral and humanitarian objectives, compared with the  ’dismayingly reactionary’ states that oppose our good intentions, and who have now given the Assad regime ‘a green light to intensify its assault on its own people’ in Homs.

If the Guardian and many other commentators  are to be believed, the governments who framed the resolution are motivated solely by outrage and disgust at what Barack Obama called an ‘unspeakable assault’ being directed at Homs.   There is no doubt that what is taking place in Homs is brutal and horrific, but it is difficult to see how it differs from the two coalition assaults on Fallujah in 2004.

Many of the components of the current siege were present then: poorly-armed resistance fighters fighting against the overwhelmingly superior weaponry of a modern army which also used snipers, mortars, artillery bombardments and helicopter gunships against densely-populated urban neighbourhoods.

The same applied to Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon in 2006, and its ferocious punishment of Gaza in 2009, when the IDF bombarded a largely defenceless population with high-tech weapons that included DIME weapons that sliced off arms and legs.

Yet on these occasions, the western media responded very differently to the way that it has in Homs.  In Fallujah, western reporters were embedded with the besiegers not the besieged.  In Gaza, most reporters watched the bombardment from southern Israel.

Then, no-one talked about ‘brave’ resistance fighters; no one broadcast poignant messages from Gazans or Fallujans asking for the world to come and help them or described what was taking place at Fallujah and Gaza as a ‘genocide’, a ‘horror’ or an ‘existential hell’.

Fallujah, we were told,  was the lair of the terrorist wild man Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi; a lawless and diseased city infested with jihadists, ‘ foreign fighters’ and al Qaeda fanatics that could only be tamed by violence, where brave young marines would have their manhood and willpower tested.

Gaza was similarly portrayed as the fiefdom of Hamas, a wild place inhabited by Muslim fundamentalists,  suicide bombers and terrorist fanatics who fired missiles at Israeli schoolchildren for no reason, where it was difficult if not impossible for the Israeli army to distinguish between civilians and the fighters who concealed themselves amongst them.

Operation Cast Lead might be ‘heavy-handed’, as a few daring commentators suggested, but it was nevertheless understandable.  After all, what else could Israel do?   And what else could the US Army do in Fallujah, faced with diehard religious fanatics who were impervious to democracy and who – it was sometimes suggested, wanted to die?

There were no news anchormen and reporters demanding international action to stop these assaults.   Nor were western politicians standing up to condemn atrocities and crimes against humanity.   When Israel was raining bombs all over Lebanon – deliberately targeting civilians in an attempt to terrorise the population into turning against Hezbollah –  Britain and the US vetoed UN resolutions that might have brought the war to an end, thereby deliberately extending the violence in order to allow Israel to achieve its war aims.

Yet no newspaper or reporter suggested that these countries had given Israel a ‘license to kill’, as many commentators have accused Russia and China of doing in Syria.

In pointing out these discrepancies, I’m not trying to argue that the Syrian assault on Homs is somehow more legitimate or acceptable – though it is worth noting that there are armed rebels in Homs and that they also have mortars – something that I have yet to hear from any major western media outlet.

Those of us who wish to halt the insane rush from one war to the next that western governments are currently embarked on,  or oppose the lies, manipulation and duplicity that underpin this process, cannot condemn acts of state terrorism in one country and then find excuses for it in another.

But if we are ever to see a world in which the concept of ‘international community’ has real meaning,  rather than a arbitrarily evoked construction to suit the immediate priorities of  powerful democracies, then we cannot allow our governments to get away with using humanitarian R2p rhetoric as a smokescreen for geopolitical objectives and resource wars that have nothing to do with democracy, human rights or saving lives.

Of course they have their own reasons for doing this, but it is alarming and depressing to see how easily and willingly even supposedly independent media outlets abandon their critical faculties and recycle the same lies and narcissistic myths of western goodness and virtue.

Yesterday’s editorial is just one more example of the same bleak tendency.

Matt Carr blogs regularly at Infernal Machine. He is the author of The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism