Rashidin bus bombing Syria Shia media hiccup
The aftermath of the Rashidin bus bombing, in which 126 Syrian Shia civilians were murdered by Western-backed "rebels," which CNN called a "hiccup"

Media whitewashes massacre of 126 Syrian Shia civilians as ‘hiccup’ while promoting Al Qaeda-linked rebels

A tale of two Syrian cities: Coverage of the Rashidin bus bombing versus the alleged Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack reveals media’s regime-change agenda. Western-backed “rebels” massacring Shia civilians is just a “hiccup.”

By Ben Norton / AlterNet’s Grayzone Project

Two April attacks, two weeks apart, exposed the moral hypocrisy and depravity of mainstream Western media reporting on the war in Syria.

In one instance, 126 civilians, including 80 children, fleeing Shia-majority villages that have been besieged for two-year by al-Qaeda and its extremist allies were massacred in a suicide bombing.

In the other, dozens of civilians were killed in an alleged chemical attack that the U.S. and its allies immediately blamed on the Syrian military, although no solid evidence of this has been presented by independent international observers, and experts have questioned whether or not the Syrian military was really responsible.

The former attack, in the rebel-held town of Rashidin on the outskirts of Aleppo, was even bloodier, yet Western reporters seemed to strain themselves to cover it at all. The identity of its likely culprits — hard-line Salafi-jihadist Syrian rebels who have for years been empowered by the U.S. and its allies — was omitted by major news outlets, and the victims were reduced to mere “regime supporters.”

Some pro-rebel pundits even tried to pin the suicide bombing (a favored tactic of extremist rebels) on the Syrian government, implying it bombed its own Shia supporters while they fled al-Qaeda, in an elaborate conspiracy.

By contrast, the preceding attack, in Khan Sheikhoun in the al-Qaeda-dominated province of Idlib, was on the front page of every newspaper. It was broadcast throughout the world, and used to justify a U.S. missile attack on the Syrian government, which destroyed some 20 percent of its planes, according to the Pentagon.

Details about both attacks were unclear. But media outlets, which often uncritically echo the U.S. State Department, jumped to conclusions about the tragedy in Idlib, and justified the Trump administration’s missile strike. The tragedy in Aleppo, on the other hand, was referred to by CNN as a mere “hiccup” — when it was even covered at all.

The greatly disproportionate responses to the attacks underscore the outrageous bias in how Western news outlets cover the horrific conflict in Syria, which, in six years of bloody fighting fueled by foreign powers, has displaced more than half of the population and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Media outlets whitewash extremist rebels, which are aligned with al-Qaeda and have been armed and trained by the CIA and U.S. allies, and downplay their crimes. At the same time, these same networks obediently rehash U.S. government talking points and portray Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a mustache-twirling cartoon villain, with the nuance of a Hollywood action movie.

Charles Dickens opened his opus A Tale of Two Cities writing, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.” This is A Tale of Two Syrian Cities: Rashidin and Khan Sheikhoun.

Rashidin suicide bombing

On April 15, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of buses carrying civilians from al-Qaeda-besieged Shia-majority villages, killing 126 evacuees, including 80 children, along with several aid workers and rebels. Dozens more were reportedly injured. Thousands of civilians were left stranded.

During the attack, the buses were on the outskirts of the Aleppo province, which was fully retaken by the Syrian government from hard-line Islamist rebels in late 2016. The suicide bombing took place in a small area known as Rashidin.

The buses had been stalled after a disagreement in the deal reached between the Syrian government and the armed opposition, mediated by their respective allies Iran and Qatar. According to the agreement, roughly 5,000 people, many sick and injured, would be allowed to safely leave the pro-government towns al-Fua and Kefraya, which have been besieged by al-Qaeda, in return for safe evacuation of some 2,000 people, including both militants and civilians, from the villages of Madaya and Zabadani, which have been besieged by the Syrian government.

A suicide bombing sabotaged this deal. The attacker reportedly drove up to the buses in a van that was supposed to carry aid, and slaughtered the Shia civilians.

Witnesses recalled, in what video of the incident later confirmed, that the bomber had been giving out chips, trying to get dozens of hungry children around him, before blowing them all up in a massacre.

Erasing Al-Qaeda

NPR reporter Alison Meuse was one of the only journalists to mention a crucial fact: “A powerful al-Qaida-linked rebel alliance holds sway over the region of northern Syria where the attack took place and was the key guarantor for the convoy’s safe passage.”

The hard-line Salafi jihadists who make up the bulk of the Syrian opposition consider Shia Muslims to be apostates. Shia and other religious minority groups have been violently attacked and ethnically cleansed from rebel-held territory in Syria.

Idlib, the northern area where the besieged Shia-majority villages al-Fua and Kefraya are located, is the last remaining rebel-held province in Syria. As AlterNet previously reported, even pro-rebel, regime change-supporting analysts have conceded that Idlib is the “heartland of al-Nusra” — a central hub of Jabhat al-Nusra, or Syrian al-Qaeda.

AFP simply referred to Syrian al-Qaeda and its extremist allies as “rebels.” The international news agency likewise said they were “besieged government-held towns,” without making it clear that it is al-Qaeda carrying out that siege. AFP echoed pro-rebel talking points, and even cited an anonymous “rebel source.” Not once did it acknowledge that those “rebels” are al-Qaeda and similar Salafi jihadist militants.

Reuters likewise failed to mention al-Qaeda. It described the extremist fighters merely as “rebels,” and referred to al-Qaeda heartland Idlib as “an insurgent stronghold.” Like other major Western news outlets, Reuters reflected the opposition’s perspective, and cited an anonymous “pro-opposition activist.”

To its credit, the BBC did eventually admit, “Foah and Kefraya, most of whose residents are Shia Muslims, have been encircled by rebels and al Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim jihadists since March 2015.” But this significant context was not added until the end of the story, after a video, several photos and a map, in the 22nd paragraph — where the vast majority of readers will not see it.

Most media outlets were not even this generous. The Guardian did not once mention that the rebels in the area are dominated by al-Qaeda.

In its lengthy report on the attack, CNN similarly failed to acknowledge this important detail.

False flags and blaming the victim

Rami Abdul Rahman, the man behind the pro-rebel monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, admitted to CNN that it was unlikely the Syrian government carried out the attack on its own supporters.

This did not stop regime change advocates from insisting otherwise, however. Immediately after the bloody suicide bombing, rebel supporters fabricated an elaborate conspiracy, insisting the government bombed its own supporters to distract from an attack 11 days before.

Pro-rebel analyst Charles Lister, who has repeatedly called for the U.S. to bomb Syria, spun an outlandish conspiracy, insisting that Bashar al-Assad could have potentially been behind the attack, even while he conceded that Rashidin is “controlled by Syria’s opposition forces.”

Hatching a crank false flag theory, Syrian activist Rami Jarrah, a darling of the Western media, claimed it “is highly likely” the government slaughtered its own Shia defenders in a false flag attack, in order “to turn the international communities attention to crimes committed by ‘opposition forces’ away from outrage of the chemical attack [sic].”

AJ+, the viral social media-oriented video arm of Qatari monarchy-funded Al Jazeera, also failed to provide context for the suicide bombing, implying the attack could have carried out by the Syrian government. The Qatari media outlet failed to mention that the victims were overwhelmingly Shia and were fleeing a siege imposed by Qatar-backed al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels.

In one viral video, AJ+ claimed the truck handing out chips to children just magically “exploded,” implying it was an accident. The Qatari media outlet completely left out the fact that the attack was an intentional suicide bombing intended to butcher Shia civilians fleeing al-Qaeda-dominated territory.

Ignoring context

While downplaying and outright erasing the key role played by al-Qaeda and similar Salafi jihadist groups, major corporate media outlets likewise failed to stress in their reports on the Rashidin suicide bombing that this was not the first time buses trying to evacuate civilians from these Shia-majority villages were attacked.

In a little-noticed article on December 17, The Guardian reported on “the refusal of al-Qaida-linked militants to allow the evacuation of wounded civilians from Fua and Kefraya, two Shia villages in Idlib province that have been besieged by Islamist rebels for years.”

The next day, on December 18, those extremist al-Qaeda-linked rebels attacked and set fire to six buses that the government had sent to evacuate wounded and injured civilians.

After this December attack, Salafi jihadist militants vowed to attack buses in the future that again attempted an evacuation.

Few media publications mentioned this previous attack. In fact, very few news outlets have even acknowledged the multi-year al-Qaeda siege on these Shia civilians in Syria.

In January 2016, I published an article in Salon noting how the Western media had released a relentless stream of reports on the Syrian government’s siege on the town of Madaya, while ignoring the sieges on al-Fua and Kefraya by violent Sunni extremists. This is equally true today.

What explains the lack of attention on these villages, and the butchered reporting on the suicide bombing? They contradict the regime change propaganda the U.S. government and its allies have spread for years on the war in Syria. They inconveniently complicate the simplistic narrative that the Syrian government is the pure embodiment of evil, responsible for all civilian casualties, and the rebels are “moderate,” freedom-loving democrats.

The Rashidin massacre and the siege on al-Fua and Kefraya expose a harsh truth of the war on Syria: there is a strong contingent of the rebels that consists of murderous fundamentalists with a genocidal hatred of Shia and other religious minorities, and who would ethnically cleanse all of the diverse country if they could, as ISIS has tried to do.

The incredibly shoddy reporting on the incidents demonstrates that, while it is certainly true that the repressive Syrian government has committed war crimes, the war crimes also carried out by the extremist Salafi jihadist militants who dominate the opposition have been grossly downplayed.

In fact, according to CNN, the massacre of more than 100 Shia civilians was a mere “hiccup.”

Alleged Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack

The whitewashed media coverage of the Rashidin suicide bombing poses a stark contrast to the hyperbolic reporting on an attack 11 days before in the al-Qaeda-dominated Idlib province.

On April 4, a chemical attack reportedly killed dozens of people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which was under the control of rebranded Syrian al-Qaeda, known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

Immediately after the attack, the U.S. and its allies, the UK, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, blamed the Syrian military, claiming it used chemical weapons against civilians. The Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, denied that the incident was an intentional chemical attack by the Syrian military.

The Trump administration did not wait for evidence. On April 6, the U.S. military fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at the major Syrian air base in Shayrat, near the city of Homs, destroying roughly 20 percent of the Syrian government’s planes, according to the Pentagon. Immediately after the attack, which endangered civilians in the area around the base, the genocidal extremist group ISIS launched an offensive near Homs, effectively benefiting from the Trump administration’s strike.

Nearly two weeks after the U.S. attack, on April 19, the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Üzümcü, announced that the fact-finding mission had confirmed “sarin or a sarin-like substance” was used in the attack. The OPCW did not apportion blame, however. CNN asked who was responsible, and the organization — the mandate of which does not include apportioning blame — said it was still investigating.

Despite the lack of evidence from independent international bodies, media outlets totally uncritically accepted the claims of the U.S. government, much as they did with lies about supposed “weapons of mass destruction” in the lead-up to the illegal U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. They reported the claims of anonymous American, British, and Israeli government officials as facts, and entertained no skepticism whatsoever about the chemical attack.

Pundits and politicians filled the airwaves, condemning the Syrian government as the devil incarnate and calling for U.S.-led regime change to topple it. Many of these pundits and politicians would later fall totally silent about the massacre at Rashidin.

One of the primary sources for the emotionally charged, highly politicized news stories was a doctor named Shajul Islam. He tweeted photos and videos of what he said were victims of a chemical attack.

As AlterNet’s Grayzone Project reported, dozens of major news outlets covered Islam’s claims without criticism, but none acknowledged that he had previously been arrested and accused of being part of an extremist Salafi jihadist group in Syria that had kidnapped journalists. (The charges against Islam were only dropped because the journalists who were held hostage, and who personally named him as responsible, were unable to appear in court. One had been kidnapped by ISIS.)

It seemed that nothing could slow the pace of the mainstream media’s war drums. An analysis by the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) found that only one out of 47 newspapers’ editorial boards opposed Trump’s cruise missile strike on Syria.

Deja vu

While corporate media outlets constructed a pro-war echo chamber, discussing the Khan Sheikhoun attack based exclusively on the unsubstantiated claims of Western governments that have spent years trying to violently topple the Syrian government, several independent experts interrupted the official narrative.

When the White House released a brief report accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons at Khan Sheikhoun, a prominent arms expert accused the Trump administration of “politicizing” the intelligence.

“I have reviewed the [White House’s] document carefully, and I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack,” wrote Theodore Postol, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a withering assessment.

Postol, who has previously served as a scientific advisor at the Department of Defense, added that the source the White House used in its report “was very likely tampered with or staged, so no serious conclusion could be made from the photographs cited.”

The expert’s report was ignored by the vast majority of major English-language media outlets.

Russia and Iran were not the only government to call into question the U.S.’s claims. Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sacha Llorenti, gave a compelling speech recalling the history of the U.S. government lying to justify foreign invasions.

“It’s vital for us to remember what history teaches us,” Llorenti said, while holding up a photo of former secretary of state Colin Powell, who falsely claimed at the UN 14 years before that the U.S. had irrefutable evidence Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Likewise, Scott Ritter, a former weapons inspector for the United Nations, spoke out about Khan Sheikhoun in a lengthy article titled “Wag The Dog — How Al Qaeda Played Donald Trump And The American Media.” Ritter established a trustworthy reputation as one of the most outspoken truth-tellers in the months before the Iraq War. He repeatedly called out the Bush administration for peddling false intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent WMDs. At the time, Ritter was harshly castigated for standing up for the truth, yet he has since been vindicated.

In his latest article, Ritter noted that no solid evidence had been presented conclusively showing the Syrian government had used chemical weapons at Khan Sheikhoun. He added, “chemical attacks had been occurring inside Syria on a regular basis,” and, “International investigations of these attacks produced mixed results, with some being attributed to the Syrian government (something the Syrian government vehemently denies), and the majority being attributed to anti-regime fighters, in particular those affiliated with Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.”

“Al Nusra has a long history of manufacturing and employing crude chemical weapons,” Ritter emphasized. He poked many holes in the narrative that had been constructed, and also recalled a recent historical event that will give readers déjà vu.

In 2013, hundreds of Syrians were killed in a sarin gas attack in Ghouta, Syria, in the suburbs around the capital, Damascus. The U.S. government and its allies, once again, immediately blamed the attack on the Syrian government. The Obama administration was on the verge of using the attack to carry out regime change in Syria, at it had two years before in Libya (with utterly disastrous, bloody results). Yet it did not go all the way — and President Obama later admitted that the intelligence the U.S. had at the time was not solid.

Since then, multiple reports by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, citing U.S. government documents and intelligence officials, have exposed that the Ghouta attack was likely carried out by Syrian al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, not the government, using weapons the extremist group obtained from NATO member Turkey.

And yet again, arms expert Theodore Postol called into question the U.S. intelligence on the Ghouta attack. He published another report, along with former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd, concluding that, based on the information the Obama administration provided, the range of the rocket used in the chemical attack was not long enough to have been fired by the Syrian government.

Echoing Al-Qaeda

Instead of providing any of this crucial context in reports on the Khan Sheikhoun attack, the former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter pointed out that “media outlets like CNN embrace at face value anything they are told by official American sources.” He added, “To sustain this illogic, the American public and decision-makers make use of a sophisticated propaganda campaign involving video images and narratives provided by forces opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, including organizations like the ‘White Helmets,’ the Syrian-American Medical Society, the Aleppo Media Center, which have a history of providing slanted information designed to promote an anti-Assad message.”

What’s more, many of the pro-rebel groups Western media outlets cited as supposed impartial observers of incidents in Syria have in fact received funding and support from the American and British governments and their allies. The Aleppo Media Center, for instance, has been funded by the French government through its Syria Media Incubator.

Ritter stated clearly: “Mainstream American media outlets have willingly and openly embraced a narrative provided by Al Qaeda affiliates whose record of using chemical weapons in Syria and distorting and manufacturing ‘evidence’ to promote anti-Assad policies in the west, including regime change, is well documented.”

This extremely distorted coverage poses a stark contrast to the sparse and unusually passive coverage of the Rashidin suicide bombing. When it comes to anything related to Syria, the Western media and foreign policy establishment has adopted an attitude that trusts al-Qaeda and asks questions later.