Cutting through media propaganda on the battle for Syria’s Eastern Ghouta

The corporate media has grossly distorted the battle for Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, which is occupied by extremist Salafi-jihadists funded by Saudi Arabia.

By Ben Norton

The Syrian government launched an offensive in February to retake Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the capital Damascus.

For years, Eastern Ghouta has been under the control of extremist Salafi-jihadist rebels. The most powerful rebel group in the area is Jaysh al-Islam, a Saudi-created far-right militia that has at some times allied with al-Qaeda and that is notorious for attacking civilians and even putting women and children from religious minority groups in cages.

Mainstream human rights organizations have documented how Salafi-jihadist militants have repeatedly prevented civilians from leaving Eastern Ghouta, effectively holding them hostage. The extremist rebels who occupy the area, who explicitly oppose democracy and pluralism and seek to create a homogeneous Islamic state, have likewise hoarded food and other forms of humanitarian aid and sold it at high prices to those living under their control.

If one were to only read corporate media reports on Eastern Ghouta, however, one would get the impression that the battle is between valiant “pro-democracy” rebels and a malevolent regime that just kills civilians for fun. Op-eds have hyperbolically likened the battle to the Srebrenica massacre. The reality is of course significantly more complex.

Hundreds of civilians have indeed been killed in bombing by the Syrian government, which has for years imposed a brutal siege on Eastern Ghouta. The bloodshed has been horrific. What has gotten much less attention in the Western media, however, is that civilians are also frequently being killed in Damascus. Extremist rebels in Eastern Ghouta have relentlessly shelled civilian areas in the Syrian capital, killing children on the way to school, in indiscriminate attacks that the United Nations has called apparent war crimes.

Western corporate media reports have fixated overwhelmingly on the crimes of the Syrian government and its allies while largely overlooking the crimes of the foreign-backed Salafi-jihadist groups that control and terrorize this area — when the existence of these extremist groups is even acknowledged.

Salafi-Jihadist Rebels’ Reign of Terror in Eastern Ghouta

There are estimated to be more than 20,000 armed militants occupying Eastern Ghouta. Most corporate media reports on the fighting Eastern Ghouta simply refer to these Islamist fighters as “rebels,” without naming them or describing what they are.

Eastern Ghouta is held primarily by two right-wing Islamist groups: Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam) and Faylaq al-Rahman (the al-Rahman Corps).

Both have created hyper-authoritarian and ultra-reactionary theocratic regimes in the areas they control. And even established human rights organizations that are supportive of the Syrian opposition have documented some of the horrific crimes these armed groups have committed.

Jaysh al-Islam was created in 2013 explicitly at the behest of Saudi Arabia, as Reuters reported openly at the time. The Gulf regime, an absolute monarchy that exports a far-right fundamentalist form of Islamism called Wahhabism, spent millions of dollars to unite Islamist militias in Syria under the banner of the Army of Islam, ensuring the powerful rebel group would be loyal to Riyadh.

Jaysh al-Islam is an explicitly anti-democratic militia that wants to turn Syria, a diverse country with a dozen different religious and ethnic minority groups, into a monolithic Sunni-supremacist Islamic state. It is not as extreme as ISIS, but shares many similarities.

Zahran Alloush, the leader of the far-right Islamist group, was the son of Abdallah Alloush, an extremist Salafi Syrian cleric who lives in Saudi Arabia. Zahran Alloush, who was killed by a Syrian military airstrike in 2015, was notorious for inciting genocide against Syria’s religious minorities. In speeches, Alloush called for ethnically cleansing Alawites and other Shia Muslims from Damascus, referring to them disparagingly as crypto-Persian polytheists.

Jaysh al-Islam has carried out numerous atrocities based on these genocidal sectarian tendencies. In 2015, an opposition media outlet posted video showing Jaysh al-Islam extremists parading cages filled with innocent Alawite women on top of cars around Eastern Ghouta, using the religious minorities as human shields.

Even The New York Times, which has been strongly pro-opposition, once produced a report on Jaysh al-Islam’s putting civilians in cages — but this quickly fell down the memory hole.

Jaysh al-Islam is also notorious for kidnapping and even killing other rebels who do not share its hyper-fundamentalist ideology.

The Salafi-jihadist militia’s main competitor for control of Eastern Ghouta is Faylaq al-Rahman, an Islamist militia with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Faylaq al-Rahman has marketed itself as a more “moderate” force, and received very sympathetic Western media coverage, it is still an ultra-conservative authoritarian group that has at times allied with Syrian al-Qaeda.

Aron Lund, a fellow for the Century Foundation and former associate at the U.S. government-funded Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a widely cited observer of the war in Syria who is sympathetic to the opposition, noted, “Both factions rule their areas in an authoritarian fashion, enforcing conservative religious laws and repressing dissidents who show support for the government or for their local rivals.”

Lund noted that Syria’s rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the Salafi-jihadist militia Ahrar al-Sham also control smaller parts of Eastern Ghouta. Both of these extremist militias are informally allied with the more “moderate” Faylaq al-Rahman, given their shared rivalry with Jaysh al-Islam.

Extremist Rebel Attacks on Civilians in the Capital

The far-right Islamist rebels occupying Eastern Ghouta are launching constant attacks on Syria’s capital. Aron Lund observed, “Although the rebels have much less firepower than the pro-regime side, their mortar and rocket fire into Damascus seems equally indiscriminate.”

Syrian government bombing has been responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties in the bloody battle for Eastern Ghouta. But extremist rebels have also killed significant numbers of civilians in their indiscriminate shelling of Damascus. And the U.N. high commissioner for human rights has also accused both sides of war crimes.

AFP published a rare newswire that provides a glimpse at the other side of the war. Titled “Braving rebel shelling, students back to Damascus schools,” the story noted how families in Damascus are terrified that their young children might be killed by Salafi-jihadist shelling while they are on the way to school. Schools have been shut down and parents have kept their children at home to keep them safe.

“Damascus is regularly bombarded by armed opposition factions based in nearby Eastern Ghouta,” AFP wrote — acknowledging a reality that is almost never mentioned in corporate media reports.

This AFP newswire got very little attention in the corporate media, and was only republished by small number of media outlets.

The Associated Press likewise produced a report titled “As deadly shells fall, fear spreads anew in Syrian capital Damascus,” which said, “As the Syrian Government escalates its attacks on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus, rebels in outlying towns are retaliating with volleys of mortar shells and rockets into the capital, killing more than 25 civilians in the past two weeks and spreading fear among its 4 million residents.”

The report continued: “Since February 18, militants in the rebel-held suburbs have hit back hard, sending dozens of shells and rockets to Damascus each day, striking in markets, residential buildings and near schools.”

Compared to major U.S. newspapers, which uniformly echo the Syrian opposition, the AP has been quite fair in its reporting on the battle in Eastern Ghouta.

Salafi Rebels Preventing Civilians from Leaving Eastern Ghouta

The areas in the Damascus suburb that these extremist rebels control are also bitterly oppressive.

While the Syrian government has blockaded and bombed Eastern Ghouta, extremist rebels have prevented civilians from leaving. Jaysh al-Islam has been effectively holding civilians in the area hostage.

A Syrian teacher who has been trying to get his family out of Eastern Ghouta told renowned Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn that extremist Salafi militants “prevent all families leaving.” A local rebel commander told him, “You should stay here and support our fight against the regime, and you should not even send your wife and children away. If we send our families out, our morale will go down and we will lose.”

This tactic goes back years. Extremist rebels in Eastern Ghouta have long blocked civilians from leaving.

In a 2015 report on human rights abuses in Eastern Ghouta, Amnesty International mentioned that “the predominant armed group in Eastern Ghouta, the Army of Islam, has also prevented civilians from leaving Eastern Ghouta to seek refuge elsewhere.”

A resident of Eastern Ghouta told Amnesty in a 2015 interview:

“I wish I could leave. My family and I have no food, water or electricity. The food aid from local organizations does not last more than a week or two. But even if I managed to bribe the Syrian authorities, Zahran Alloush’s men [the Army of Islam] will never allow me to leave. People who tried to request permission from the Army of Islam to allow them to leave were arrested as a result.”

The report continued:

“Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, along with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (Commission of Inquiry), established by the UN Human Rights Council, have documented grave human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law committed by non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta. These include summary killings, abductions, and indiscriminate attacks on neighbouring or nearby government-held territory.”

Amnesty international cited the U.N.’s August 2014 Commission of Inquiry, which detailed how Jaysh al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra (Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate) killed civilians, abducted civilians, and committed other war crimes in Eastern Ghouta.

The human rights organization’s report likewise confirmed that rebel groups were “shelling government-held territory concentrated with civilians neighbouring or near to Eastern Ghouta, including with improvised mortars and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs).”

It furthermore noted that “non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta were restricting access to food and basic goods by selling goods and life-saving necessities for inflated prices.”

A 2016 Amnesty International report on the extremist rebels in Idlib and Aleppo acknowledged similar crimes. A lawyer in Salafi militant-occupied Idlib told the human rights organization, “I was happy to be free from the Syrian government’s unjust rule but now the situation is worse.”

No Accurate Estimates of Civilian Casualties 

There is no question that the Syrian military’s bombardment of Eastern Ghouta has led to large numbers of civilian casualties. Hundreds of civilians have apparently been killed by the bombing.

The precise numbers used in many media reports are unverifiable, however. Corporate media outlets typically cite casualty figures from opposition figures who are described as “activists” in extremist rebel-held areas, who have a vested interest in inflating the numbers.

The United Nations stopped calculating a death count in Syria in January 2014, because of its inability to accurately and neutrally gather figures. Researchers and journalists on the ground in opposition-held territories have been routinely kidnapped by extremist rebels, including al-Qaeda.

Thus the only major monitoring groups reporting on civilian casualties in Syria are blatantly partisan and staunchly pro-opposition. And they are not even on the ground; they are based in Europe and the U.S.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson Rupert Colville said in January 2014 that the U.N. did not endorse the casualty figures released by other monitoring groups, including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Reports on Eastern Ghouta, like reports on other extremist rebel-held areas, have almost uniformly relied on reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a monitoring organization that is explicitly pro-opposition and anti-government. Before redesigning its website after February 2017, SOHR had a Syrian rebel flag featured prominently at the top of its homepage.

SOHR was created by one man, Rami Abdul Rahman, who has not been to Syria in 18 years. Abdul Rahman compiles reports on casualties in Syria by calling people from his home in Coventry, England.

In a 2013 article titled “A Very Busy Man Behind the Syrian Civil War’s Casualty Count,” The New York Times conceded:

“despite its central role in the savage civil war, the grandly named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is virtually a one-man band. Its founder, Rami Abdul Rahman, 42, who fled Syria 13 years ago, operates out of a semidetached red-brick house on an ordinary residential street in this drab industrial city.”

And despite its clear pro-opposition bias, SOHR is still significantly more fair in its reporting than the competing monitoring group the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).

SNHR is notorious for downplaying the crimes against humanity committed by ISIS and al-Qaeda, outlandishly claiming that these extremist groups are responsible for just 2 percent of civilian deaths in the war, whitewashing their crimes.

SNHR has been accused of fabricating its figures. Its methodology is not transparent and few international experts trust it. It has at moments been cited by corporate media outlets, but even many pro-opposition journalists have conceded that it is unreliable at best.

Although SNHR is completely nontransparent, the U.K.-based organization has quietly admitted in internal reports that it is funded by “states.” The putative monitoring group has not disclosed what those governments that fund it are.

These pro-opposition monitoring groups have a long history of exaggerating and inflating the civilian casualties in extremist rebel-held territory, while simultaneously downplaying or outright ignoring rebel attacks on civilians in government-held territory.

So while there is no doubt that the Syrian army’s attacks on these extremist-held areas have resulted in significant civilian casualties, the numbers reported by these pro-opposition monitoring groups are highly suspect.

Double Standards on Iraq vs. Syria

While corporate media outlets in the United States and Europe have largely failed to take into account this crucial nuance, the bias in their reporting is even more outrageous when one compares it to the reporting on a much bloodier affair: the battle for Mosul.

Over nine months, from October 2016 to July 2017, Iraqi and Iranian forces led an assault to retake the major Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS extremists. This battle was backed by an international anti-ISIS coalition, led principally by the United States. For months, the U.S. incessantly launched air raids.

Thousands of civilians were killed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. The exact number is contested, but Kurdish intelligence sources estimated more than 40,000 civilians lost their lives in the gruesome U.S.-backed battle.

Unlike with Eastern Ghouta, no major media outlets compared the U.S.-backed assault to the Holocaust or to Srebrenica, even though it is was significantly more murderous.

Patrick Cockburn has noted that, in comparison to the Syrian government’s sieges, the U.S.-backed siege of Mosul “was probably the bloodiest of all these sieges.”

But because the United States was responsible for these civilian deaths, corporate media outlets were much more balanced in their reporting on the horrors of war. They were suddenly willing to tolerate violence when their own government was administering it.

These double standards are even starker when one considers the fact that some of the pro-opposition pundits and activists shouting most vociferously about Eastern Ghouta are simultaneously silent about or even actively supporting NATO member Turkey’s unauthorized invasion of northern Syria.

In January, the Turkish military launched a bloody attack on the Kurdish-majority area of Afrin, in alliance with former ISIS fighters and extremist rebels from al-Qaeda-linked militias and the so-called Free Syrian Army. This Turkish assault has received the blessing of pro-rebel experts at Gulf-funded think tanks in Washington, D.C., who spill oceans of ink on the Assad regime’s crimes in Eastern Ghouta while turning a blind eye to Erdogan regime’s crimes in northern Syria.

Outlandish Comparisons to Gaza

Supporters of the Syrian opposition have claimed that these groups are a form of legitimate resistance, likening them to Palestinian resistance groups. The situation in Eastern Ghouta is completely different, however. Israel continues to effectively occupy Gaza, in violation of international law; its attacks on Gaza constitute an attack on effectively occupied territory, whose civilians Israel has a legal obligation to protect.

The Syrian army, on the other hand, is the internationally recognized military of the Syrian state, which is still the internationally recognized government at the United Nations.

Hamas, the most powerful political force in Gaza, is indeed a right-wing Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party with reactionary tendencies, but it does not share the same ultra-fundamentalist ideology of the far-right Salafi-jihadist militias that control Eastern Ghouta.

And the fighting in Eastern Ghouta is not comparable to the bloodshed in Gaza. In Israel’s 51-day war on Gaza in 2014, Palestinian armed groups killed just six civilians in Israel, whereas Israeli forces killed nearly 1,500 civilians; the difference is several orders of magnitude. The death figures in Syria are certainly disproportionate, because the Syrian government has an air force and the opposition does not; but there is still no comparison to the exorbitant difference in Gaza.

Likewise, Palestinian militants have access only to few, mostly small weapons. The extremist rebels in Eastern Ghouta on the other hand are heavily armed. Many of their advanced weapons came from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and other foreign states that have backed the Syrian opposition.

The battle in Eastern Ghouta is in no way similar to the wars in Gaza.

Lessons from Aleppo

The hyperbolic media outrage seen over Eastern Ghouta is eerily similar to the media outrage over eastern Aleppo, which was similarly under the control of extremist far-right Islamists with close links to al-Qaeda.

The 2016 battle to retake eastern Aleppo from ultra-sectarian Salafi-jihadists was, too, ludicrously and grotesquely likened to the Nazi Holocaust — even though it was rebel-held eastern Aleppo that was in reality much more fascistic: a far-right authoritarian regime ruled by supremacists who oppressed and ethnically cleansed ethnic and religious minorities.

In fact, after Aleppo was retaken, the New York Times’ Robert F. Worth published an article that provided a rare glimpse into this much more complex political reality:

In March, I met a lawyer named Anas Joudeh, who took part in some of the 2011 protests. Joudeh no longer considers himself a member of the opposition. I asked him why. “No one is 100 percent with the regime, but mostly these people are unified by their resistance to the opposition,” Joudeh told me. “They know what they don’t want, not what they want.” In December, he said, “Syrians abroad who believe in the revolution would call me and say, ‘We lost Aleppo.’ And I would say, ‘What do you mean?’ It was only a Turkish card guarded by jihadis.” For these exiled Syrians, he said, the specter of Assad’s crimes looms so large that they cannot see anything else. They refuse to acknowledge the realities of a rebellion that is corrupt, brutal and compromised by foreign sponsors. This is true. Eastern Aleppo may not have been Raqqa, where ISIS advertised its rigid Islamist dystopia and its mass beheadings. But as a symbol of Syria’s future, it was almost as bad: a chaotic wasteland full of feuding militias — some of them radical Islamists — who hoarded food and weapons while the people starved.

Of course this acknowledgement came too late to actually change anything, but it reflects an indisputable truth that, during the battle for Aleppo, was intentionally obfuscated in corporate media.

Today one can see very similar bias and unfairness in the hegemonic discourse on the battle for Eastern Ghouta. Although a few scattered reports have managed to break through the groupthink and complicate the narrative.

During the battle to retake Aleppo, pro-rebel pundits took to the corporate media to spew elaborate conspiracies and fables. They claimed the Syrian government was burning women alive, and would ethnically cleanse the inhabitants when the area was retaken from Salafi-jihadist extremists. In reality, their histrionic claims never materialized. In fact, the opposite happened: hundreds of thousands of Syrians were finally able to return home.

But the pro-opposition pundits were never fact-checked. Their outlandish claims had been politically useful at the moment. When their beloved Western-backed rebels lost the battle, the pundits moved on to another issue; their flagrant inaccuracies did not matter.

The predominant narrative on Eastern Ghouta is not much different. It is rarely acknowledged that Eastern Ghouta is controlled by a coterie of foreign-sponsored Salafi-jihadist extremists who have committed egregious crimes against the civilian population.

But when the battle is over and the horrendous war in Syria finally winds down, one can be confident that many of the same snake-oil salesmen in the media who peddled half-truths and recycled government press releases during Eastern Ghouta, and Aleppo — not to mention Libya, Iraq, and Yugoslavia — will move on to selling the next war.