Obscuring Assad's genocide in Syria

Denial and distortion: Obscuring Assad's genocide in Syria
7 min read
28 Feb, 2018
Comment: Indulging Russian and Syrian regime lies, quite literally paves the way for the murder of a people, writes Sam Hamad.
The Wafideen checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus neighbouring rebel-held Eastern Ghouta [AFP]
If there was one word, apt to summarise the speeches of both Bashar Jaafari, Assad's envoy to the UN, and his former Russian counterpart Vasily Nebenzya's speeches to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) regarding their current murderous efforts in Ghouta, it would be "denial".  

It's a cliché to say that truth is the first casualty of war, but the simple act of denying truth is an extremely effective weapon not merely of war, but of genocide and mass murder.

Both Jaafari and Nebenzya had one unified message on the situation: The victims in Ghouta, of which parts of the world have momentarily taken notice, are not really victims at all.  Jaafari claims the world has it topsy-turvy; the "massacre" isn't happening in East Ghouta at all, but rather in regime-held areas of Damascus.

The more than 500 innocents murdered in one week by Assad and Russia in East Ghouta this month, don't exist according to Jaafari, but rather have been concocted by the western media and a campaign of "fake news". Jaafari claims the people they are killing are "terrorists", who have been "recruited from all over the world by the US" to attack Syria.  

Again, taking aim at the "mainstream media" reporting on the massacre in Ghouta, Nebenzya claimed that there was "massive coordinated psychosis", which was "spread by global media outlets". The reporting was "clearly superficial", given it didn't report that Russia was not murdering civilians but doing the world a favour by killing "terrorists".  

One might think that this kind of propaganda is self-defeating, given its absurd nature in the face of the slaughter in Ghouta being documented incontrovertibly.

But we live in a post-truth world, where too often, truth does not function so much as a point of orientation, as it does as something to be embraced when it's convenient to a preconceived worldview, dogma or narrative. And it also denies and obscures when inconvenient.  

Assad, and especially Russia, go out of their way to saturate social media and the "alternative media" with misinformation and disinformation for one reason; they know it's effective. 

In the post-9/11 period, in the long ignominious shadow of the Iraq war and the "War on Terror", it might be said that there is an epistemological crisis, typified by the idea that whatever "the establishment" (of which the "mainstream media" is allegedly part of and serves), says is false.  

Everything the "mainstream media" or "establishment politicians" say can be discarded without refutation. This has created a vacuum that has, in part, been filled by Russian-funded and Russian-friendly media outlets, never mind the political ramifications.  

It's for these reasons that the denial of the crimes of Assad, Iran and Russia in Syria has been so profuse over the seven years of the conflict. 

Too often, truth does not function so much as a point of orientation, but as something to be embraced when convenient

At every step, the crimes of the regime and its allies have been obscured, denied and justified by formal and informal actors working in coordination - the pro-Russia dregs of internet trolling. The Max Blumenthals, Max Abrahms, Vanessa Beeleys, Tim Andersons and Rania Khaleks of the world probably aren't working for the Kremlin, but they're working towards the Kremlin.

Appealing to the vast reserves of Islamophobia that were built up in the West during the War on Terror era, Assad and Russia have with relative ease slandered Muslim men with guns as "al-Qaeda" and "terrorists". What they fear more than anything, however, is humanitarian forces such as the White Helmets or merely the everyday people of Syria who come to momentary prominence around the world by documenting genocide first hand.

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It's much harder to demonise volunteers who rush into gassed and bombed buildings, or kids documenting the apocalypse armed only with camera phones. These people represent precisely what Assad and Russia are trying to eradicate. 

While these forces want to keep people's minds on "al-Qaeda" - which has no presence in East Ghouta, while its former affiliate has just 300 members out of a population of 400,000 - and "terrorists", it's people like 15-year-old Muhammad Najem who explicitly present the human side of the atrocities taking place.

Najem takes selfies or short videos of himself against the backdrop of buildings that have just been hit by Russian and regime attacks. His technique is frighteningly austere, as is his calm as he observes and listens to the hell of rocket and bomb attacks around him, pounding his neighbourhood. 

It's not just the fact that as an observer, you know that at any minute he could be incinerated, but you know that he also knows this. 

In one video, after a nearby airstrike and the sound of sirens and the crying of children, Najem turns to the camera, to you, and says "we are killed by your silence". In another statement, he calls out those responsible, lamenting that "Assad, Putin and Khamenei killed our childhood" and "the children of Ghouta die every day by the bombing of Assad and Russia".  

Well, they can't have that. 

Cue the attack dogs, both state ones and the network of sleazy social media trolls. RT  carried a piece slandering both Najem and Bana Alabed, who live-tweeted the brutal fall of Aleppo. Bana was targeted by the same network of pro-Russia, pro-Assad trolls claiming that she was exploited by her "terrorist" father, made to lie about Russian and regime atrocities in Aleppo. These trolls claim Najem is Ghouta's version of Bana - a young media-friendly face who is distorting reality on behalf of "al-Qaeda" groups.  

Indeed, just a day before Najem's own home was hit by an airstrike, two RT employees accused Najem of being a "crisis actor", paid to portray a victim of a disaster.  

We saw similar treatment of the White Helmets, with the mobilisation of pro-Kremlin forces, from TV channels to trolls to "analysts" and "journalists", accusing them of everything from being supporters of al-Qaeda and "terrorism", to "shills for regime change" and the 'Illuminati'.  

Russia's distortion-and-denial-of-reality machine also kicked into gear after the Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad's film, The Last Men in Aleppo, which documents the life of White Helmet volunteers as they struggle to save civilian life in Russia-bombarded Aleppo, was nominated for an Oscar. As reported in The New York Times, the Russian media described his film as a "thinly disguised al-Qaeda promotional vehicle".  

During their most recent speeches to the UNSC, both Jaafari and Nebenzya singled out the White Helmets for attack. The latter claimed that they're "affiliated with terrorist groups" (which is how Russia justifies its vicious targeting of these first responders), and the former claiming that the White Helmets are training civilians in Ghouta to "act out chemical attacks".  

Russian state media followed suit, claiming that White Helmets were "planning another chemical farce" in "the last terrorist enclave" of Ghouta.

Here this slander acquires a more terrifyingly ominous quality, not simply given Assad's previous mass murder of people in Ghouta using sarin, but that this propaganda about the White Helmets staging chemical attacks preceded the most recent use of poison gas in Ghouta a few days ago, with one baby being suffocated to death. Indulging these lies quite literally paves the way for murder.

Russia wants to silence all coverage of the reality of its role in the Syrian genocide, but when it cannot silence, it seeks the next best thing, which is denial and distortion.

If this is monstrous when it occurs as historical revisionism, it's even worse when the genocide is unfolding

Genocide deniers, the most infamous of which are Holocaust deniers, do not seek merely to push crude propaganda for a political cause they support, but they seek to deliver a "final insult" to their victims by denying their victimhood.

If this is monstrous when it occurs as historical revisionism, it's even worse when the genocide is unfolding.  

While Assad and Russia seeks to literally eradicate people like Muhammad Najem and the White Helmets, and all those who seek to live free of him and his allies, they and their privileged mouthpieces seek to eradicate their voices and delegitimise their victimhood as they face what the UN secretary-general called "hell on earth".

It will be recorded in history as the "intellectual" dehumanisation and justification that necessarily accompanied Syria's genocide.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.