PHOTO: Victims of chemical weapons attacks near Damascus, August 21, 2013
At first glance, this headline in The Atlantic might seem a welcome shot across the media’s bows over coverage of conflict and human rights: “Obsessing About Gaza, Ignoring Syria“.
Setting aside for the moment the provocative claim about Gaza, who could disagree with the cry for recognition of those — mostly civilians — who have died in the Syrian conflict since 2011?
No one should. Which is why, when I read Jeffrey Goldberg’s article below the headline, I realized that I had been deceived.
This was not a remembrance of the dead. This was not a defense of their lives against repression and violence.
This was a further degradation. Far from being exalted, Syria’s dead are being distorted and twisted, tokens for a writer’s concerns which have little to do with them.
1. USING A DISTORTION IN THE NAME OF CRITICIZING IGNORANCE
Goldberg’s focal paragraph on the slain Syrians:
I was struck, over the weekend, by the lack of coverage of the Syrian civil war, in which the death count recently passed 170,000. By Sunday night, it had become clear that the weekend in toll in Syria would stand at roughly 700 dead — a larger number, obviously, than the weekend toll in Gaza (and more than the total number of deaths in this latest iteration of the Gaza war to date.) I tweeted the following in response to this news out of Syria: “I sincerely hope the @nytimes covers the slaughter in Syria – 700 dead in 48 hours – in tomorrow’s paper. Very important story as well.”
Yes, a very important story, but one which deserves consideration before using it as a device to fire off a tweet to The New York Times.
Take that 170,000 number. No one knows the actual census of death since March 2011 — the UN stopped its attempt a year ago, when its estimate was near 100,000, and the most diligent of Syrian organizations such as the Violations Documentation Center only post those deaths whose details they can confirm beyond doubt.
The 170,000 is the media-bait figure disseminated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has never provided verification or methodology for any of its claims. No list of names, no locations, no cause of death. Just an overall number which may or may not reflect reality.
In some cases, the SOHR could be overstating casualties. In others, it has definitely — with great fanfare — understated them, notably in its portrayal of the civilians killed by the Assad regime’s chemical warfare attacks near Damascus last August.
The “700 deaths in a weekend” line also come from SOHR. That number includes the unsupported claim that the Islamic State murdered 270 staff at the al-Sha’er gasfield, which it captured on July 17. The jihadists themselves have posted the photos of 72 dead. What happened to the other 260 people at Al-Sha’er is unknown: they could have been killed in battle or executed, but they could also have been abducted, survived, or fled.
To grab the media’s attention, it was in the SOHR’s interest to build up the total. In the process, they again belittled the chemical weapons attacks — claiming the 700 figure is greater than the “500 deaths” of last August, a total less than half the documented casualties from the Violations Documentation Center.
This criticism of Goldberg’s numbers, plucked from the SOHR air, in no way diminishes the tragedy or minimizes the crimes of the Assad regime, the Islamic State, or others. Instead, it is to prevent the cheapening of deaths through unsupported declarations.
2. ERASING SYRIANS WHO HAVE DIED COVERING THE CONFLICT
Beyond his numbers, Goldberg’s attention to Syria is limited to this sweeping paragraph:
In Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, the closest Arab ally of America’s main Middle East adversary, Iran, wages a brutal war against his country’s Sunni Muslim majority, a war that has prompted, in turn, the explosive growth of Al Qaeda-style Sunni extremist groups that now control broad swaths of both countries….The Syria conflict is also one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of the post-World War II era.
At least Goldberg offers one-sentence recognition of the “humanitarian”. Otherwise, he trots out the sectarian caricature of the conflict — ignoring the non-Sunnis who have protested against the regime and those Sunnis who have supported Assad — and rewrites the entire insurgency, or at least the part that matters, as “Al Qaeda-style” extremists.
Having put all Syrians in their place, Goldberg does the same for all “Arabs and Muslims”: “One explanation for this lack of coverage is a relative lack of interest in the Syria/Iraq theater…or at least relative lack of interest in comparison to the obvious interest in the Gaza crisis.
It is not apparent which Arab media Goldberg has been reading, since his only evidence is a tweet from journalist Joyce Karam about “no protest in Pakistan”. However, Al Jazeera Arabic has not stopped covering Syria. Nor has Al-Arabiya, The National, The Daily Star, As-Safir and Al-Manar (albeit from staunchly pro-Assad perspectives), Al-Hayat (for whom Goldberg’s token source Joyce Karam works), and numerous other outlets.
More importantly, Goldberg erases all those journalists who have worked — and continue to work — in Syria, despite great risk. No mention here of the Violations Documentation Center, Local Coordination Committees, Shaam News Network, those in Homs who documented the carnage for more than two years, Tahrir Souri, or the media outlets of blocs such as the Islamic Front and of individual brigades.
Although the coverage has been affected by the hundreds of reporters and cameramen who have died, been detained, or fled the country — basic impediments that Goldberg somehow fails to note — the efforts continue.
Goldberg does not see them because they get in the way of his real narrative.
3. USING SYRIAN DEATHS TO DIVERT FROM ISRAEL AND GAZA
Syria does not appear until the middle of Goldberg’s article. His primary concern is in the opening three lenghty paragraphs: media attention to Gaza.
Goldberg postures that he is not criticizing those who cover the conflict — “I tend to think that journalists from American outlets are doing a fine job in dangerous conditions of covering a horrible war” — but it is clear that he is unsettled by the reporting.
He never mentions Israeli airstrikes and ground operations — instead, the references are to “Hamas fighters” and “command bunkers under hospitals” — but his worry about the bad publicity over the hundreds of dead civilians is between his lines: “The Muslim world does seem more interested in Arabs who are killed by Jews than in Arabs killed by Arabs.”
How can you make that go away, given that there is no prospect of a halt to the killing?
You shout, “Don’t look here! Look over there!”
I have often seen the tactic in the past decade. When the US Government was criticized over occupation of Iraq or Guatanamo Bay, it complained that no one was looking at Iran. When Tehran was scrutinized over its repression of mass protests in 2009, it told journalists and activists to look at Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. When Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi was under pressure in 2011, he said focus on Palestine. When Israel was criticized by the UN Human Rights Council, it said pay attention to every other country in the Middle East.
Today the Assad regime is saying, “Don’t look at supposed repression. It’s Gaza that matters” — a mirror image of Goldberg’s position.
The situation in Syria “should be covered with the same focus and intensity that is applied to the war in Gaza”.
Absolutely. But it should be covered not because it is less painful — for Goldberg, not the Syrian people — than the scrutiny of the death and destruction in Gaza.
Both Gaza and Syria deserve that coverage because those who suffer should be recognized, not because it is politically expedient to raise one as a distraction from the other.
And those who have made that effort, sometimes dying while doing so, merit more than erasure because they do not serve that distraction.