Who supplies the news? Patrick Cockburn on misreporting in Syria and Iraq

by Patrick Cockburn

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The nadir​ of Western media coverage of the wars in Iraq and Syria has been the reporting of the siege of East Aleppo, which began in earnest in July and ended in December, when Syrian government forces took control of the last rebel-held areas and more than 100,000 civilians were evacuated. During the bombardment, TV networks and many newspapers appeared to lose interest in whether any given report was true or false and instead competed with one another to publicise the most eye-catching atrocity story even when there was little evidence that it had taken place. NBC news reported that more than forty civilians had been burned alive by government troops, vaguely sourcing the story to ‘the Arab media’. Another widely publicised story – it made headlines everywhere from the Daily Express to the New York Times – was that twenty women had committed suicide on the same morning to avoid being raped by the arriving soldiers, the source in this case being a well-known insurgent, Abdullah Othman, in a one-sentence quote given to the Daily Beast.

The most credible of these atrocity stories was given worldwide coverage by Rupert Colville, the spokesman for the UN High Commission for Human Rights, who said on 13 December that his agency had received reliable reports that 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, had been killed by pro-government forces in several named locations in East Aleppo. The names of the dead were said to be known. Further inquiries by the UNHCHR in January raised the number of dead to 85, executed over a period of several days. Colville says the perpetrator was not the Syrian army, but two pro-government militia groups – al-Nujabah from Iraq and a Syrian Palestinian group called Liwa al-Quds – whose motives were ‘personal enmity and relatives against relatives’. Asked if there were other reports of civilians being executed in the final weeks of the siege, Colville said there were reports of members of the armed opposition shooting people trying to flee the rebel enclave. The murder of 85 civilians confirmed by multiple sources and the killing of an unknown number of people with bombs and shells were certainly atrocities. But it remains a gross exaggeration to compare the events in East Aleppo – as journalists and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic did in December – with the mass slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994 or more than 7000 in Srebrenica in 1995.

All wars always produce phony atrocity stories – along with real atrocities. But in the Syrian case fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the First World War. The ease with which propaganda can now be disseminated is frequently attributed to modern information technology: YouTube, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter. But this is to let mainstream media off the hook: it’s hardly surprising that in a civil war each side will use whatever means are available to publicise and exaggerate the crimes of the other, while denying or concealing similar actions by their own forces. The real reason that reporting of the Syrian conflict has been so inadequate is that Western news organisations have almost entirely outsourced their coverage to the rebel side.

Since at least 2013 it has been too dangerous for journalists to visit rebel-held areas because of well-founded fears that they will be kidnapped and held to ransom or murdered, usually by decapitation. Journalists who took the risk paid a heavy price: James Foley was kidnapped in November 2012 and executed by Islamic State in August 2014. Steven Sotloff was kidnapped in Aleppo in August 2013 and beheaded soon after Foley. But there is tremendous public demand to know what is happening in such places, and news providers, almost without exception, have responded by delegating their reporting to local media and political activists, who now appear regularly on television screens across the world. In areas controlled by people so dangerous no foreign journalist dare set foot among them, it has never been plausible that unaffiliated local citizens would be allowed to report freely.

In East Aleppo any reporting had to be done under licence from one of the Salafi-jihadi groups which dominated the armed opposition and controlled the area – including Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly known as the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. What happens to people who criticise, oppose or even act independently of these extremist groups was made clear in an Amnesty International report published last year and entitled ‘Torture Was My Punishment’: Abduction, Torture and Summary Killings under Armed Group Rule in Aleppo and Idlib. Ibrahim, whom al-Nusra fighters hung from the ceiling by his wrists while they beat him for holding a meeting to commemorate the 2011 uprising without their permission, is quoted as saying: ‘I heard and read about the government security forces’ torture techniques. I thought I would be safe from that now that I am living in an opposition-held area. I was wrong. I was subjected to the same torture techniques but at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra.’

The fact that groups linked to al-Qaida had a monopoly on the supply of news from East Aleppo doesn’t necessarily mean that the reports in the press about the devastating effects of shelling and bombing were untrue. Pictures of flattened buildings and civilians covered in cement dust weren’t fabricated. But they were selective. It’s worth recalling that – according to UN figures – there were between 8000 and 10,000 rebel fighters in East Aleppo, yet almost none of the videos on TV ever showed any armed men. Western broadcasters commonly referred to the groups defending East Aleppo as ‘the opposition’ with no mention of al-Qaida or its associated groups. There was an implicit assumption that all the inhabitants of East Aleppo were firmly opposed to Assad and supported the insurgents, yet it’s striking that when offered a choice in mid-December only a third of evacuees– 36,000 – asked to be taken to rebel-held Idlib. The majority – 80,000 – elected to go to government-held territory in West Aleppo. This isn’t necessarily because they expected to be treated well by the government authorities – it’s just that they believed life under the rebels would be even more dangerous. In the Syrian civil war, the choice is often between bad and worse.

The partisan reporting of the siege of East Aleppo presented it as a battle between good and evil: The Lord of the Rings, with Assad and Putin as Saruman and Sauron. By essentially handing over control of the news agenda to local militants, news organisations unwittingly gave them an incentive to eliminate – through intimidation, abduction and killing – any independent journalist, Syrian or non-Syrian, who might contradict what they were saying. Foreign leaders and the international media were at one time predicting slaughter on the scale of the worst massacres in postwar history. But, shamefully, by the time the siege came to an end they had completely lost interest in the story and in whether the horrors they had been reporting actually took place. Even more seriously, by presenting the siege of East Aleppo as the great humanitarian tragedy of 2016, they diverted attention from an even greater tragedy that was taking shape three hundred miles to the east in northern Iraq.

The offensive against Mosul, the biggest city still held by Islamic State, began on 17 October when Iraqi army troops, with the support of US-led air power, entered the city’s eastern districts. Expectations of a quick victory were soon disappointed when Iraqi soldiers began to suffer heavy casualties as small but highly mobile IS units of half a dozen fighters moved from house to house through hidden tunnels or holes cut in the walls to set up sniper positions, plant booby traps and bury IEDs. Local people whose houses were taken over say that the snipers were Chechens or Afghans who talked in broken Arabic. These fighters were supported by local IS men who also helped hide the suicide bombers who were to drive vehicles packed with explosives. There were 632 vehicle bombs during the first six weeks of the offensive. An IS squad would use a house until it had been pinpointed by Iraqi government forces and was about to be destroyed by heavy weapons or US-led airstrikes. Before the counterattack came they would move on to another house. IS has traditionally favoured fluid tactics, with each squad or detachment acting independently and with limited top-down control. Adapted to an urban environment, this approach allows small groups of fighters to harass much larger forces, by swiftly retreating and then infiltrating captured neighbourhoods so they have to be retaken again and again.

The Iraqi and US governments had every reason to play down the fact that they had failed to take Mosul and had instead been sucked into the biggest battle fought in Iraq and Syria since the US invasion in 2003. It was only in the second week of January that Iraqi special forces reached the River Tigris after ferocious fighting: with the support of US planes, helicopters, artillery and intelligence they had finally taken control of Mosul University, which had served as an IS headquarters for the eastern part of the city, along with the area’s 450,000 inhabitants. But reaching the Tigris was far from being the end of the fight. On 13 January, IS blew up the five bridges spanning the river. The city’s western part is a much greater challenge: home to 750,000 people, many of whom are thought to be sympathetic to IS, it’s a larger, poorer and older area, with closely packed streets that are easy to defend. Only the aid agencies, coping with the heavy civilian casualties and the prospects of a fight to the death by IS, appreciated the scale of what was happening: on 11 January, the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, said the city was ‘witnessing one of the largest urban military operations since the Second World War’. She warned that the intensity of the fighting was such that 47 per cent of those treated for gunshot wounds were civilians, far more than in other sieges of which the UN had experience. The nearest parallel to what is happening in Mosul would be the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995, in which 10,000 people were killed, or the siege of Grozny in 1994-95, in which an estimated 5500 civilians died. But the loss of life in Mosul could be much heavier than in either of those cities because it is defended by a movement which will not negotiate or surrender and kills anybody who shows any sign of wavering. IS believes death in battle is the supreme expression of Islamic faith, which fits in well with a doomed last stand.

Figures for wounded civilians in Mosul over the last three months may well exceed those for East Aleppo over the same period. This is partly because ten times as many people have been caught up in the fighting in Mosul, whose population according to the UN is 1.2 million; 116,000 civilians were evacuated from East Aleppo. Of that number, 2126 sick and war-wounded were evacuated to hospitals, according to the WHO. Casualties in the Mosul campaign are difficult to establish, partly because the Iraqi government and the US have been at pains to avoid giving figures. Officials in Baghdad angrily denounced the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq when it announced that 1959 Iraqi soldiers, police, Kurdish Peshmerga and their paramilitary allies had been killed in November alone. The UN was forced to agree not to release information about Iraq’s military casualties in future, but US officers confirmed that some units in the 10,000-strong Golden Division – a US-trained elite force within the Iraqi army whose soldiers get higher pay – had suffered 50 per cent casualties by the end of the year. The Iraqi government was equally silent about the number of civilian casualties and emphasised its own great restraint in the use of artillery and airpower. But the doctors in Iraqi Kurdistan treating injured people fleeing from Mosul were less reticent: they complained that they were being overwhelmed. On 30 December, the Kurdish health minister, Rekawt Hama Rasheed, said his hospitals had received 13,500 injured Iraqi troops and civilians and were running out of medicines. The extent of civilian losses hasn’t ebbed since: the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Iraq said that over two weeks at the turn of the year, some 1500 Iraqis from Mosul suffering from trauma injuries had reached Kurdish hospitals, mostly from frontline areas and ‘with most of these injuries occurring just after the fighting intensified at the end of December’. These numbers only give a rough idea of the real losses: they don’t include the dead, or the wounded in western Mosul who didn’t want to leave – or couldn’t, because they were being used as human shields by IS. The UN says that many people were shot by IS fighters as they tried to escape.

A large number of these losses were inflicted even before Mosul was fully surrounded: the last passable main road to Syria, down which have come food, medicine, fuel and cooking gas since IS captured the city two and a half years ago, was closed in November by Shia paramilitaries. Tracks are still open, but they are dangerous and often can’t be used during the winter rains. As a result, prices in the markets in Mosul have soared: the cost of a single egg has jumped five times, to 1000 Iraqi dinars. In the main vegetable and fruit market there are only potatoes and onions for sale, and at high prices. As cylinders of cooking gas run out, wood taken from abandoned building sites is selling at a premium. The siege is likely to be a long one: if IS is going to make a stand anywhere, it is better from its point of view to do so in Mosul, where the Iraqi government and the US military may be more restrained than elsewhere in Iraq in the use of their firepower. The precedents are ominous: in 2015-16 airstrikes and artillery fire destroyed 70 per cent of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which had a population of 350,000. IS has every reason to fight to the end in Mosul: aside from being the second biggest city in Iraq, it has iconic significance for IS. It was here, in June 2014, that a few thousand of its fighters defeated an Iraqi government garrison of at least 20,000 soldiers; and it was on the back of this miraculous victory that IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his caliphate. Those who are trapped in Mosul aren’t optimistic about their chances: ‘What we feared is happening,’ a woman in her sixties who gave her name as Fatima, told the online newsletter Niqash, which published an account of conditions in the city. ‘The siege is starting for real. From now on every seed and every drop of fuel counts because only god knows when this will end.’

Despite the ferocity of the fighting in Mosul, and warnings from the UN about casualties in the city potentially surpassing those in Sarajevo and Grozny, international attention has been almost exclusively directed at East Aleppo. It wouldn’t be the first time in the region that the Western press corps turned out to have been watching the wrong battle: I was in Baghdad in November 2004 when most Western journalists were covering the end of the siege of Fallujah. The Marines ultimately captured it, but the American generals understandably played down – and the media scarcely noticed – that while US troops were fighting in Fallujah, in central Iraq, insurgents had seized the much larger city of Mosul, in the north. That victory turned out to be significant, because the US army and the Iraqi government never truly regained uncontested control of the city, with the result that the predecessors of IS survived intense military pressure and re-established themselves, waiting until the revolt in Syria in 2011 gave them fresh opportunities.

There are many similarities between the sieges of Mosul and East Aleppo, but they were reported very differently. When civilians are killed or their houses destroyed during the US-led bombardment of Mosul, it is Islamic State that is said to be responsible for their deaths: they were being deployed as human shields. When Russia or Syria targets buildings in East Aleppo, Russia or Syria is blamed: the rebels have nothing to do with it. Heartrending images from East Aleppo showing dead, wounded and shellshocked children were broadcast around the world. But when, on 12 January, a video was posted online showing people searching for bodies in the ruins of a building in Mosul that appeared to have been destroyed by a US-led coalition airstrike, no Western television station carried the pictures. ‘We have got out 14 bodies so far,’ a haggard-looking man facing the camera says, ‘and there are still nine under the rubble.’

Originally published in the LRB, on 2 Feb 2017

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