The Media Narrative on Syria: One-on-One with Brad Hoff

Photo- Brad Hoff

The mainstream media has been perceived to have blatantly aligned its own narrative on the Syrian conflict with Western policy on Syria. One of the underlying themes at the recent British Syrian Society (BSS) workshop was that the truth is the first casualty of war and that the dissemination of modern communications has led to a campaign of disinformation targeting Syria. One of the main problems the Syrian government faces is that it has no channel of communications with the Western media, whose narrative follows a purely accusatory tone. One discussion at the workshop focused on the role of journalists and whether they were adhering to the standards of professional conduct required of them. Criticism was also leveled against the Syrian government for failing to create its own media platform after nearly six years into the crisis to counter the one being promoted in the West. In fact, it was observed that one of the biggest detriments to the government’s narrative was restrictions on the media during the first two years of the conflict.

For further insight on this subject, the Syrian Law Journal spoke to Brad Hoff, one of the participants at the recent BSS workshop. Brad is an independent journalist, teacher and US Marine veteran who writes for The Canary. He is the founder and managing editor of Levant Report and has written for, Foreign Policy Journal, Assyrian International News Agency, Medium News & Politics, Strategic Culture Foundation, Commonweal Magazine, Third World Resurgence Magazine and others. His work has been referenced in publications ranging from The Huffington Post to The Daily Beast to Headline and Global News (HNGN) to Middle East Eye, as well as by RT News, CounterPunch, WikiLeaks, The Daily Mail Online (UK) and many others. After leaving the military, Brad began travelling around the Middle East and since 2004, has made Damascus his second home to a significant extent.

The Western media narrative has not been friendly or sympathetic towards the Syrian government’s position on the war in its country. Based on your reading of the conflict in Syria, is the Western media narrative justified or unfair?

The media narrative has been horrible, and this is due to a combination of things. First, I should clarify that the media shouldn’t necessarily be friendly or sympathetic to any side of this war, but should be critical of all sides. It’s especially in the midst of such a complex and ugly war as this one that people should be extra skeptical of what’s reported. If the government commits atrocities while taking back a city, journalists should cover it and ask tough questions of government officials. If the opposition commits atrocities, journalists should cover it. Journalists should be relentless in their investigation of all sides, but this hasn’t been the case.

What we’ve tended to see, especially in the first 3 or 4 years of the conflict, is overall media coverage which is merely critical of one side – the government side. It’s only been within the last year or so that major newspapers and TV networks began asking who the rebels actually are, and the picture that emerged hasn’t been pretty. So there’s been a bit less romanticizing of the rebels lately, but of course it hasn’t stopped.

I’d chalk up the abysmal coverage to both ideology and ignorance. Television pundits and newsroom editors very early on parroted the line of British and American political leadership – that the war was a simple as a dictator killing his own people. This narrative was in place for Western governments to sell regime change to the public. Like in Iraq and Libya previously, this requires the demonization of one man. Of course the Syrian state is much more than President Assad. But it takes real understanding of the complexities of Syrian society to grasp this, and the media doesn’t like complexity – they work in simple narratives. It’s especially US media – partly for cultural reasons – that likes to focus on a single boogeyman in the world at any given moment. Whether through movies or public schooling, Americans starting at a young age are indoctrinated with this idea that history can be understood in terms of pure good vs. pure evil. So Americans always require a supervillain and Assad has filled that role in Western media over the past few years. This came immediately after the era of Saddam, Gaddafi, and Bin Laden. And I suppose we are moving on to Putin next.

With Iraq and Libya, politicians and the media assured the public that all would be better with regime change. But both countries were plunged into chaos and mass killings once these societies were destabilized through external intervention. The inner complexities of these places were only acknowledged in the media once it was too late. It is the same with Syria – the media has invested in this regime change ideology, but will never acknowledge its own role in making matters inside Syria worse. Western media basically gave those countries which pursued regime change in Syria by arming proxies a free pass.

As for ignorance, the lack of real on the ground knowledge of Syria has made journalists in general willing dupes for whatever information that regime change enthusiasts want to feed them. Most reporting on Syria is done from far outside the country. Journalistic ignorance of the real complexities of the conflict means the knowledge gap will continue to be filled by ideology and false information. I don’t mean to imply that this whole process is merely accidental – there is a high degree of coordination between Western governments and the major media outlets. Both sides, government and media, play the game because it is mutually beneficial even down to the level of advancing careers.

During the workshop, criticism was leveled against the Syrian government for failing to create its own media platform and for imposing restrictions on foreign media outlets during the first two years of the conflict. How should the Syrian government go about creating its own media platform to counter the mainstream narrative?

I don’t feel comfortable advising any government, other than to say the press should always be free, independent, and unencumbered by regulations and government oversight.

As for the recent workshop, I think I was the first person, during a Q&A session, to level criticism against the Syrian government for its restrictive policies toward Western journalists, especially in the early years of the war. This lack of access helped ensure that journalists would increasingly rely exclusively on opposition sources for their news of events on the ground. Of course, many of the major outlets were already ideologically aligned with their sources in the armed opposition to begin with.

But then there developed this awkward reality that Western reporters were being kidnapped by the very armed groups they sought to embed themselves with. One of the last high profile kidnappings was the case of NBC’s Richard Engel, who was kidnapped by the FSA. Engel had been very vocal in his praise of the rebels, but they kidnapped him and blamed Assad. Even after NBC uncovered information that it had in fact been the rebels who kidnapped and held Engel, the network continued to publicly promote the narrative that it was pro-Assad fighters that did it. This is but one example among many which illustrates the absurd contradiction of an international press which has consistently romanticized the armed groups as freedom fighters, but which now considers these very groups too dangerous to be embedded with. And yet, for the most part, mainstream media continues to be uncritical of rebel sources. So I do understand that the Syrian government probably felt it was simply going to get trashed no matter what if it had let in more journalists near the start of the conflict.

But I still think the government could have helped level the playing field in terms of where reporters received their information if it had allowed more in earlier on. If a journalist is honest, their ideological blinders will melt away upon seeing something first hand. Many journalists entered Damascus for the first time during the recent conference. For the most part, their coverage of the war got better and more complex – no more simplistic good guy vs. bad guy narrative.

One of the stark contrasts in the mainstream media’s recent reports was its coverage of the Battle of Mosul in Iraq in relation to the Battle of Aleppo in Syria. In Mosul, the mainstream media shaped the narrative as a battle targeting terrorists holed up in the city whereas in Aleppo, it portrayed it as a battle against the so-called “moderate” forces. Does this reflect honest and impartial reporting on the part of the media or is it blatantly pursuing a political objective?

In my daily interactions with other Americans, it seems most don’t even know the siege of Mosul is underway. It’s really been barely reported lately. And yet you had Hollywood actors and actresses tweeting constantly about Aleppo – a place that few can find on a map. Yes, the lack of consistency in coverage is obvious. At this very moment coalition airstrikes over Mosul are killing civilians, but the average American doesn’t know this.

The parallels between Aleppo and Mosul are striking indeed. In both instances, state armies and allied militias on the ground receive air support from allied foreign fighter planes. But Syria is condemned for having foreign allies like Russia join the fight. In Aleppo it was Nusra that dominated the insurgency while in Mosul it’s ISIS. In terms of ideology and brutality there’s really no difference between the two terror groups.

But with Aleppo the Syrian Army and its allies were likened to Nazis, while in Mosul the US is considered a liberator bringing hope and democracy. This exposes the sad fact that Western politicians and mainstream media aren’t actually driven by humanitarian concerns. Civilian suffering should always be investigated and highlighted no matter the perpetrators of violence. But what Aleppo and Mosul reveal is that coverage is determined according to geopolitical ends. This is of course the thesis of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s classic book, Manufacturing Consent, which I recommend to anyone in order to understand the way propaganda works in the West.

There are allegations on social media and other forums that a number of journalists have been propagating a false narrative on Syria with the aim of prolonging the conflict in order to reach a desired political and military outcome. Some journalists have actually been accused of inciting or at least encouraging violence whether directly or through dishonest reporting in this respect. If this is the case, can an argument be made that these journalists should face legal accountability in the civil and criminal courts for incitement? Given the media’s power to influence public opinion, should specific legislation be introduced in various countries to address these rather disturbing concerns?

No, I think it sets a dangerous precedent to pass legislation which puts journalists in the hot seat based on the content of their reporting. I mean who gets to decide what constitutes incitement and what doesn’t? I think backlash from the public is more effective anyway. There’s been deeply irresponsible reporting on Syria, but the problem didn’t start with journalists. When it comes to foreign policy and war, journalists tend to follow the lead of their own governments. Accountability should start there. The external actors handing out weapons to groups their own governments have designated as terrorists should be investigated.

You have been visiting Syria since 2004 and you clearly have a frame of reference on the country. What were your impressions when you recently visited Damascus and had the opportunity to see the city and interact with the people firsthand? What is your message to journalists who report on Syria from a distance and especially to those who have never set foot in the country?

During my recent visit, I did expect some level of normalcy to exist in a place like Damascus, but nothing prepared me for what I saw. Damascus is teeming with life and a general feeling of optimism. While everyone I spoke to had a personal story of suffering and loss during this terrible war, there seemed to be a sort of stubborn willingness to just proceed with life as normal no matter what. It was explained to me on multiple occasions that people on all sides of this war just want it to end. And this wasn’t just native Damascenes saying this.

Outsiders don’t realize that the biggest refugee population consists of the internally displaced within Syria. Most of the displaced go to government areas seeking stability, utilities, and the necessities of life. So when I say Damascus is teeming with life, I mean it is bursting with people in every street and on every corner – many of which are from different cities from across Syria. There were times I felt like I was on a busy New York City street – I didn’t feel like there was a war surrounding us. People were going about their daily lives with purpose, and with smiles on their faces. Businesses like clothing stores and restaurants seemed busy in spite of sanctions and economic hardship. Syrians seem to be making things work even in the midst of an impossible situation.

Obviously during my short trip in November I could only get a very limited view of things, but wherever I saw Syrian military personnel whether they were manning checkpoints, security checks, or just going from one place to another, they seemed genuinely popular among the civilian population. People greeted the Syrian Army with smiles and words of camaraderie. Civilians seemed to not only have a high degree of patience and understanding for the heightened layers of security, but they positively welcomed it after years of things like suicide bombs and mortar attacks.

This is a side of the war that just hasn’t been covered. Journalists need to see it for themselves. Most reporting has tended to dehumanize any voice coming out of government held areas, but this is to dehumanize the majority of Syrians. The heavily populated urban areas of Syria continue to be held by the government. The fact remains that there are some popular figures in the media and analyst community who speak and write frequently about Syria, and yet have never spent a significant amount of time in the country. Some have never been to Syria at all. That much of the world actually considers these people as authorities on what’s happening in Syria is a joke – it’s beyond absurd.

President Bashar Al-Assad argues that without the public support of a significant majority of Syrians for whatever reasons they may have, he could not have lasted in his post after six years of war. The mainstream media tells us that he has managed to survive because of the backing of his foreign allies including Russia, Iran, Hizbullah and so forth. Why do you think he has defied the odds set for him and remained in office?         

Every single year since the war began, there’s been constant predictions coming out of think tanks and the analyst and pundit community warning of the imminent fall of Assad. At one point a couple of years ago the Washington Post ran an article chronicling how the president and his family were hiding in fear and full of paranoia. Of course the entire thing was vaguely sourced to opposition figures and to unnamed US officials, who couldn’t possibly have any idea about the inner workings of Assad and his advisers.

The pundits have been wrong in their every prediction about Syria. Again this is because they only know the country from afar, and what they have is a caricature. Their false assumptions constantly lead to embarrassingly wrong conclusions. For a prime example, early on there was this constant refrain in the media that claimed the government is an “Alawite regime” and that Syria’s Sunni majority wanted to throw off this supposed Alawite rule. So the media pundits predicted that it was only a matter of time before this minority religious group would lose its hold on power. Anyone who knows Syria firsthand, or who has close relationships to actual Syrians, knows this sectarian scenario is laughable. Walking the streets in almost any major Syrian city, nobody knows the religious background of anyone else. All that I hear from people is “I am Syrian”. The Syrian nationalism that has defined modern Syria is still very strong, and President Assad is a symbol of this identity. Few Syrians that I’ve encountered have some kind of blind personal loyalty to Assad like the media constantly portrays. Instead, they choose what he represents – secularism, nationalism, and pluralism – over the fanatic Wahhabism and Takfirism that defines the armed opposition.

Some of Syria’s most famous generals and government ministers in history were Sunni and Christian, and public life is genuinely pluralist and secular. A mere five minutes in Damascus make this evident to anyone. But even some of the most prestigious academic and military institutions in the US have acknowledged this.

A 2015 study published by West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center completely obliterated the myth of Alawites vs. Sunnis in Syria. It’s so important that I’ll go ahead and quote it. The title of the study is “Syria’s Sunnis and the Regime’s Resilience” and is available online. It concludes that the Syrian Army, which has been the glue holding the state together throughout this war, remains primarily a Sunni enterprise because its guiding ideology remains nationalism and not sectarianism. The study says, “Sunnis and, more specifically, Sunni Arabs, continue to make up the majority of the regular army’s rank-and-file membership.”

Syria’s state institutions, especially the army, have never fragmented and collapsed. If Assad didn’t have popular support, this would have happened a long time ago. Of course, it’d be very unpopular for media figures to admit this. Again, they are driven by ideology and ignorance, not by realism. But little has improved in terms of media coverage even after failed predictions at every turn.