The New York Times been continuing its wilful hiding of the political facts around the fighting in Syria’s Idlib province. In yesterday’s print edition, the paper had yet another humanitarian-only tearjerker, “reported” by Carlotta Gall (who should know better!) out of Reyhanli, Turkey. Her piece quoted some of the small numbers of people crossing the nearby crossing into Syria, along with a “mother of three” who was reached by phone in a Syrian village less than four miles from the front line, and “Fouad Sayed Issa, the founder of Violet, a Syrian nonprofit relief organization.”
Given that Gall almost certainly speaks little or no Arabic, she was presumably reliant on Saad al-Nassife, who was named in a footline, to conduct the phone interview, and maybe all the other interviewing, too.
Gall’s report– like the whole stream of humanitarian tearjerkers the NYT has published about Idlib over the past year– made zero mention of the force that has been controlling Idlib for the past few years, against which the Syrian army and its allies have been fighting. It is an alliance of genocidally takfiri*/jihadi militias led by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Today’s Washington Post carried an article that also, like Gall’s focused on the extreme challenges that humanitarian actors have been facing in Idlib. But at least this article, reported by Kareem Fahim out of Gaziantep, Turkey, did mention the political color of the forces “defending” Idlib from the Syrian government campaign:
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to retake all the country’s remaining rebel-held territory and defeat opposition militias in Idlib, including extremist militants linked to al-Qaeda who largely control the province.
That mention was a little caveated– the wording lets it seem as though this characterization of the opposition militias is only President Assad’s, and is not necessarily shared by Fahim. It was also brief, and buried deep down in the piece.
Why is it important that responsible journalists should mention the fact that the Idlib enclave is under the control of fairly heavily armed Al-Qaeda-affiliated militias? For a number of reasons:
- If zero mention at all is made of the fact that the enclave is controlled by armed militias, it makes it easier for journalists and those whom they misinform to believe that the Syrian forces and their allies are just gratuitously and cruelly targeting locations and facilities inside the enclave that are very frequently described as “hospitals”, “day-care centers”, etc. Of course, to target such facilities makes zero military sense (unless they are co-located with military installations, which they definitely should not be.) Yes, mistakes, excesses, and “collateral damage” occur in any war; and any war is always horrendous for the residents of the war zone. But if there is zero mention of the presence of any armed formations in the enclave, then the narrative of the Syrian army being gratuitously violent easily takes hold (reinforcing the regime-changers’ longstanding argument that the Syrian government is so uniquely evil that it needs to be toppled asap.)
- If the fighting is to be brought to an end, which I imagine all people of good conscience would desire, then the politics of war-termination are absolutely crucial. Will there be a negotiated end? I hope so! But if so, what are the political dynamics of that negotiation? To understand that, we would need to have a clear idea of who the relevant forces on the ground are. Yes, there are the armies of Turkey, Syria, and Syria’s allies. But there are also the forces that have been in control of Idlib. And as the well-informed Turkish journalist Fehim Tastekin noted in this recent article, HTS “has come to control 90% of Idlib, displacing factions that Ankara had incorporated into the Astana process. The group will not lose its jihadi character even if it rebrands itself again.” Should HTS be part of any negotiation? And if not, which of the other partioes mentioned needs to deal with it–and how? These are serious questions that those seeking to end the fighting need to understand. Those journos who fail even to mention the presence of this fighting formation in Idlib, let alone the degree of control it exercises over the enclave’s population or its takfiri/jihadi nature, are wilfully misinforming their readers.
- And HTS is not just “any” militia. Throughout its existence under various brand-names it has proven itself one of the most actively genocidal and intolerant of the forces in the anti-Assad opposition, with a well-documented record of having slain members of local minority (non-Sunni-Muslim) communities, rights advocates from within the Sunni Muslim community, and Westerners– often in an extremely gruesome way. It has also, just as ISIS earlier did over in northeastern Syria and western Iraq, actively encouraged foreign jihadis from all around the world (and oftentimes also their families) to come to Idlib to join their murderous project. This fact of the genocidal nature of HTS poses sharp legal and moral dilemmas for all aid organizations, as I have written about here and elsewhere. So when Western journos compose all their lengthy screeds about the humanitarian crisis in Idlib (from their at-a-distance reporting locations) without any mention of these dilemmas, which are faced by all legitimate– as opposed to HTS-auxiliary– aid organizations, then they’re doing another specific kind of dis-service to their readers.
I am planning to write more about these dilemmas very shortly. For the moment, though, as many of us consider the situation in Idlib and how to bring the intense suffering there to an end, maybe we should all be a lot more demanding of pillars of the Western corporate media like the NYT that have been wilfully misinforming/disinforming the public about the situation there and elsewhere in Syria, for many years now.
Just as a matter of contrast, I note that the NYT has recently carried two strong articles of reporting from troubled zones in the Middle East, written by reporters who took the risks and the time needed to do their reporting from on-the ground. The first was the piece that Alissa Rubin reported from Neptis (near Kirkuk), in Iraq, last week, in which she quoted numerous official Iraqi and local vox-pop sources as casting severe doubt on the Trump administration’s claim that a pro-Iranian militia had carried out the December 27 rocket attack that killed a US military contractor and sparked an extremely fearsome bout of escalation between the United States and Iran. The second came in today’s paper, David Kirkpatrick’s piece reported from inside the portion of eastern Libya controlled by brutal former CIA asset Khaled Hiftar. So it’s not that the NYT doesn’t know how to do real reporting. It is more like, in the case of Syria, they have for a long time deliberately chosen not to.
* I use the term “takfiri” to denote the most extreme and genocidal of the many Islamist political trends that are active today. “Takfir” is the Arabic word for, essentially religious excommunication. So a translation for “takfiri” as a political description might be “excommunicators” or perhaps “Inquisitors”. Some other people just call them “headchoppers.”