In April 2011, when the Syrian army fired on crowds protesting against the Ba’ath government, Western nations pledged their support for the demonstrators. They condemned Bashar al-Assad’s regime, citing its many human rights abuses.
But this support quickly evaporated. After David Cameron lost a House of Commons vote proposing potential military action, Barack Obama’s ‘red line’ became opaque.
The cost of inaction in Syria is still being debated – particularly now Assad has declared “a turning point in the crisis”, having retaken another batch of rebel-held towns. With the prospect of Assad remaining in power for the foreseeable future, the reputation of countries like the US and UK for maintaining international order and moral standards has been called into question.
The response of these nations has been to distance themselves politically, as well as militarily, from the uprising. By highlighting abuse by the rebels, rather than the regime, they are absolved of the need to intervene.
Less than a month after the Commons voted against military intervention, IHS Jane’s – a defence consultancy firm – released a study estimating that nearly half of the rebel fighters were hardline Islamists.
More recently, the EU’s Counter-terrorism Coordinator warned of the threat from Westerners who travel to Syria to fight with rebel groups and “return radicalised”.
Both articles joined an influx of anti-rebel rhetoric in national UK newspapers.
This marks a sharp contrast to the discourse when intervention was still possible, which had focused on the ordinary people brutalised by Assad’s chemical weapons, and the apparently noble cause of the Free Syrian Army.
Noam Chomsky warns of governments’ use of handpicked ‘experts’ and ‘consultants’ to spread a particular message in the media. In Manufacturing Consent, he calls it ‘propagandizing the corporate viewpoint’ (24). It’s often in the best interest of experts, academics and other influential voices to support the authority’s argument because of funding, or less direct means.
In the case of IHS Jane’s, the organisation counts several ‘government clients’ amongst its patrons. This does not mean its data is inaccurate, but it clearly has a responsibility to support its clients.
Propaganda tools have transformed Syria from a symbol of Western impotence to a place where the rebels are as undesirable as the regime – where intervention is impossible, and the lack of it understandable.
It’s easier for a government to turn its back on heart-eating Jihadists than burned children.