CNN anchor Jake Tapper promoted 7-year-old girl Bana Alabed and a shady opposition lobbyist as his go-to regime-change talking heads on Syria.
By Max Blumenthal / AlterNet’s Grayzone Project
This is part two in a three-part investigative series on Jake Tapper. You can read parts one and three here.
While posing as a dogged critic of the Trump administration in cable news, CNN’s Jake Tapper has emerged as one of the American national security state’s most loyal conduits. Tapper broke into the media covering politics for the progressive outlet Salon.com, where his editor, David Talbot, described him in part one of this series as a cynical careerist and a “groupie” of the Senate’s most militaristic member, John McCain.
These days, scarcely a single episode of Tapper’s “The Lead” goes by without an extended segment promoting regime change in one of the countries in Washington’s crosshairs.
In the final months of the Obama administration, as the Syrian government and its Russian allies appeared poised to retake eastern Aleppo from a collection of Salafi-jihadist insurgents, Tapper became a one-man Mighty Wurlizter for the Syrian opposition and interventionists seeking war against Damascus. For months, the CNN host spouted off a stream of half-truths, deceptions and straight up falsehoods, while leaning on a 7-year-old girl and a shady opposition lobbyist as his go-to regional experts.
Tapper launched his first salvo in support of a US-led war on Syria on September 8, 2016, in a segment mocking the marginal Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson for not knowing what the city of Aleppo was.
The segment began with Tapper claiming the entire city of Aleppo had been destroyed, when, in fact, the majority of its population of 1.2 million inhabitants lived outside the five eastern neighborhoods taken by force by Islamist rebels, in areas controlled by the government that were still fully intact. Tapper next claimed that “300,000 [people] were trapped in that hell with no way out,” overstating the population of rebel-held eastern Aleppo by at least 250,000. (The population of eastern Aleppo was at most 40,000, with most original inhabitants having fled the rebel onslaught.)
Finally, the CNN personality asserted without evidence that the Syrian government had carried out a chemical attack in September against Aleppo, an uncorroborated claim transparently aimed at ramping up pressure on the U.S. to intervene. (Serious allegations by international monitoring bodies of chemical attacks by the Syrian government against armed opposition took place in August 2013 and April 2017, and neither occurred in Aleppo).
At no point did Tapper mention the dominance of the Al Qaeda-allied rebels that had taken over sections of Aleppo — “It’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren said at the time — nor did he present a single piece of history on the Syrian civil war. Context like this might have complicated an interventionist narrative centered on a cartoon villain dictator irrationally slaughtering his own people.
Tapper closed his segment not by citing any accredited expert on Syria, but by quoting Greg Gutfeld, the right-wing satirist who hosted a late-night talk show for Fox News: “What’s worse? Not knowing about Aleppo, or knowing all along and not acting on it?”
But “acting” in Aleppo indisputably required the enforcement of a no-fly zone. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that such a policy would “require war with Syria and Russia” — a hot war with a nuclear power. As usual, Tapper failed to provide his viewers with inconvenient details like these, painting military intervention instead as a cleanly exercise in freedom spreading, and the U.S. military as a savior of the world’s oppressed.
Three months later, as Aleppo was being cleared of Salafi-jihadi insurgents, paving the way for the Syrian and Russian militaries to take on ISIS across the country, Tapper launched into a tirade against the Obama administration and Congress for refusing to authorize an Iraq-style invasion with American boots on the ground. Describing the Syrian civil war as “a genocide by another name,” Tapper claimed that Obama is “going to have to reckon with” the legacy of his refusal to intervene “in the way that President Clinton had to reckon with an action in Rwanda.” (Outside of a handful of radical neoconservatives and Islamists, almost no one has repeated this accusation about Obama since he left office.)
“There are not a lot of profiles of courage on the other side of Pennsylvania Ave when it comes to Syria,” Tapper lamented. “We didn’t see a lot of members of Congress saying, ‘We need to send troops and this is why we need to do it.’”
According to Tapper, “courage” flowed from the impulse to authorize wars of choice against countries that posed no threat to the U.S., not to resist the overwhelming tide to plunge another Middle Eastern state into chaos. In the rare instances when he has challenged lawmakers on issues of war and peace, they have not been McCain clones like Rep. Kinzinger, but iconoclastic figures like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the Democrat and Iraq war veteran who introduced a bill that would have cut off covert US support for extremist rebels in Syria.
Tapper’s 7-year-old Syria expert
When Tapper hosted Gabbard following her trip to Syria in January, he prepped the interview with a lengthy segment on a little Syrian girl named Bana Alabed. “She has become the face of innocent civilian suffering in Syria,” Tapper intoned before reciting a tweet from the girl’s Twitter account beseeching Trump to “do something for the children of Syria.” (Tapper then read off a tweet by Kinzinger slamming Gabbard for engaging with the Syrian government.)
Bana Alabed was a seven-year-old who gained international celebrity by publishing video messages and pleas for intervention from her Twitter account in Aleppo (“it’s better to start 3rd world war,” read one of her tweets). Though she faked it as best as she could, Bana had no ability to understand English; her mother and a collection of helpers appeared to be writing her tweets and scripting her video soliloquies. (Bana’s father, a former insurgent named Ghassan Alabed, carefully avoided the spotlight.)
After Aleppo was taken from the insurgents, Bana was passed through Al Qaeda-controlled Idlib and into Turkey, where she became a centerpiece of state propaganda and was made a citizen following a bizarre photo-op with its Islamist premier, Tayyip Recep Erdogan. She was also granted an audience at Erdogan’s palace with American actress Lindsay Lohan, who spoke in a bizarrely put-on Arabic accent.
"I love you": Bana Alabed, the 7-year-old Syrian girl who brought attention to Aleppo, met Turkey's Pres. Erdogan https://t.co/AVIKW1iBTz pic.twitter.com/FWjqWqg4FN
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) December 21, 2016
Though Bana could not read, write or speak English, Simon and Schuster granted the girl a major book contract following dealings with the literary agency of J.K. Rowling, who had helped promote Bana’s Twitter account and cultivated the child as a global celebrity.
Tapper had not only been taken in by an elaborate and obviously contrived propaganda stunt, he has even taken to Twitter to recommend Bana as a source of information on Syria: “For more on Syria, follow @AlabedBana,” Tapper tweeted this April. After a deluge of mockery and criticism, he deleted the tweet. But another Tapper tweet promoting Bana from last October remains live.
As I previously reported, Tapper offered his show as a platform for his colleague, CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward, to present a nakedly pro-opposition special report that was produced with the paid assistance of a top Al Qaeda “media man” in Syria, an American named Bilal Abdul Kareem. CNN has yet to comment on its employment of a jihadist propagandist who was accused by Abdullah Abu Azzam, a Syrian rebel activist, of direct membership in the Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.
Tapper’s Syrian “activist” friend
Ironically, it was Tapper’s sworn nemesis, Trump, who fulfilled his wishes for a U.S. strike on the Syrian government. When Trump authorized a cruise missile strike on the Shayrat airbase near Damascus in April, Tapper joined in the festival of elation that erupted inside liberal interventionist circles in the Beltway.
Hours after the U.S. attack on April 6, Tapper tweeted, “Syrian activist texts me: “Finally thank God!!!!”
The following day, Tapper revealed the identity of the activist by inviting him on for an interview: He was Mouaz Moustafa, the State Department-funded opposition lobbyist who took Sen. John McCain on his illegal 2013 boondoggle into Syria, where the senator posed for an embarrassing photo-op with two rebels accused of kidnapping Shia pilgrims. In an unintentionally revealing documentary that was supposed to be a self-promotional vehicle called “Red Lines,” Moustafa was filmed smuggling fighters into Homs, attempting to negotiate with international arms dealers to arrange weapons shipments to the rebels, and returning to Washington to lobby politicians like McCain for a war of regime change.
After arranging a July 2013 meet and greet with Syrian rebels for Rep. Ed Royce and his then-aide, Evan McMullin, Moustafa complained that the State Department had classified Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate as a terrorist group. “It was a mistake,” Moustafa told Foreign Affairs. “The feeling among Syrian fighters was, ‘Why are you telling us what we can or can not do when you should be doing so much more to help us?’”
This Syrian opposition operative’s apparently friendly relationship with Tapper raises serious questions about what role he played in shaping CNN’s one-sided, hyper-interventionist coverage of Syria.
De-escalation and network frustration
Despite Trump’s one-off strike on Syria, the situation on the ground has stabilized. According to the International Organization for Migration, 603,000 Syrian refugees returned home in 2017, with 67 percent heading back to liberated Aleppo.
Since the city was cleared of Salafi rebels, even the Qatari state media organ AJ Plus has reported, “Signs of life are returning to Aleppo, as residents start rebuilding Syria’s war-torn city. The sound of shells and gunshots has been replaced with music.” The AJ Plus report highlighted the joyous reaction of local residents as Aleppo’s historic citadel hosted its first concert since the start of the civil war.
The story of Syria recovering from years of war assisted by Western powers was not one CNN was eager to tell. An August 4 segment on Tapper’s “The Lead” demonstrated the lengths that the network would go to frame the war’s de-escalation as a new crisis.
CNN correspondent Frederik Pleitgen appeared live from Damascus to report that Russia was “brokering local ceasefires with rebels” in Syria. Pleitgen then explained that the ceasefire in the Syrian city of Homs “frees up some of those Syrian army forces” and the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah “to go on and fight ISIS, where they Syrian army has been making some significant gains over the past couple of weeks…with the help of Russian airpower.”
The news of the Syrian and Russian governments engaging in a peace process with rebels while crushing ISIS across the country was so inconvenient to the narrative Tapper had spun out for at least a year that his producers framed the report behind a banner that read, “Russia’s Growing Influence.” CNN thus undermined its own correspondent, couching his factual, on-the-ground reporting within a propagandistic and hyper-partisan narrative of Russian interference.
Syrians might have been celebrating the end of the civil war, but for Tapper and his employers, the country’s stabilization was a frustrating, even depressing development. Luckily for the corporate media’s war party, there were other evildoers on the regime change target list, new countries to sanction and more governments to subvert.