‘We Must Bomb Syria’: The Media go to War


Those who still think that the way to respond to the threat of terrorism is with large scale bombing of populated areas should look at the following graph, tracking terrorist attacks since 2000:

Terrorism Since 2000 Graph

The result of the West’s ‘war against terror’ so far, aside from trillions spent and several countries wrecked, is a 500% increase in terror attacks, mostly taking place in the four countries we (The US and Britain) have been intervening in.

None of this should be a surprise to anyone. Analysts have been pointing out for years that responding to terrorism with indiscriminate bombing, drone strikes, violent intervention and war is a tremendous gift for extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, since it radicalises entire communities around them and works as a vital recruitment tool for these groups. This is not only obvious, but underscored by mountains of evidence and testimony from the field: consider the open letter to Obama penned by dissenting members of the US air force, or the testimony of a young Yemeni, who told the US Senate how one drone attack succeeded where extremists had failed for years in turning his entire village against the Americans.

Nicolas Henin, a highly regarded French journalist who was held hostage by ISIS last year tried to warn Western governments against bombing Syria for precisely this reason, describing strikes on ISIS as a “trap” that would play directly into their hands:

“The winner of this war will not be the party that has the most sophisticated weaponry, but the party that manages to have the people on its side… At the moment, we are pushing people into the hands of ISIS.”

Iraq, as a stunning example, had no record of suicide bombings at all before the 2003 invasion. Since then, we have already seen 1,892 suicide attacks, killing almost 20,000 people, and what the UN now describes “staggering violence” in Iraq. It is (lagely) out of the Iraq invasion that ISIS has emerged in the first place, as virtually everyone concedes, including Obama, Tony Blair and US intelligence. Al-Qaeda strategist Abu Musab Al-Suri went so far as to comment that “the war in Iraq almost single-handedly rescued the entire Jihadi movement.”

This is a fact we’re able to recognise quite easily when others are doing the bombing.

Only months beforehand, David Cameron spoke out against Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria, pointing out that airstrikes “will only lead to further radicalisation and increased terrorism”. Curiously, this concern did not apply to Cameron and other MPs when they made their own moral case to bomb Syria in order to “make us safer”. As Philip Sandifer joked, perhaps this is because unlike Russian bombs, British bombs are made of British values and therefore blast democracy into cities and villages when they explode.

While claiming to be fighting Islamic extremism, we continue in our dedicated support of the Saudi regime, who may be the most extreme fundamentalist state in the world. They are, as Robert Fisk points out, not only committing atrocities worthy of ISIS, (47 executions in a day and ongoing war crimes against Yemen), but are the financial hub and main exporter of ISIS’ extreme Wahhabi jihadi ideology. If our opposition to Islamic extremism was serious, a strategy might include looking at this relationship, and at the sources of funding, weapons and logistical support going to ISIS, coming in no small part from Saudi Arabia (and Turkey, another ally). Yet our government recently completed the unprecedented sale of £1b worth of arms to Saudi Arabia in a single 3 month period, before our Foreign Office Minister publicly urged the Saudi dictatorship to do a “better job of trumpeting its human rights successes”.

Cameron Saudi

A Martian looking at this fiasco from afar might expect details like this to be at the centre of debate. Yet you would be hard pressed to find discussion of any of this during the mainstream media’s massive coverage of ISIS and the UK’s Syria vote. What we got instead was almost wall to wall cheerleading for war, and scornful dismissal of counter-arguments much as we did over Iraq 13 years ago.

“We Must Overcome our Squeamishness”

Leading up to the Syria vote, experts and politicians were rolled onto the pages of newspapers and into TV studios to inform us that bombing Syria was both crucial to our national security, and the only way to avoid a Paris style attack (or worse) on our own doorstep. Often, these ‘experts’ were the very same people who had supported, voted for and marketed the Iraq war in 2003 – something that passed without comment wherever they appeared.

In a news article titled “Pass the Snooper’s Charter now, or London will be next”, Dan Hodges tells us that “If we are serious in our sympathy and solidarity with the victims of the Paris attacks, we must overcome our squeamishness — and act now… We must support those strikes. We must demand those strikes”. No evidence or argument is presented showing how the Snoopers Charter, or earlier airstrikes in Syria might have saved Paris from November’s terrorist attacks, (France were, in fact, already bombing Syria in September). The Times’ lead column Nous Sommes Tout Francais explains that the Paris attack “demonstrates there is no means of pacifying jihadists by failing to project force” – as if Western countries have so far been failing to project force in the region; and argues that “Coexistence with theocratic fanaticism is impossible”, presumably not referring to our dedicated support of theocratic fanaticism in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, (which it doesn’t mention). Con O’Coughlin of the Telegraph stresses in his piece that “the threat posed by the Islamic State can no longer be ignored”, before writing two paragraphs later that it is now “more than a year since coalition warplanes began bombing ISIL positions”. All of this is presented with a straight face as high-brow, respectable journalism.

The treatment of counter-arguments during this period was also interesting. Showing their appreciation of democratic values, The Telegraph’s headline reads that “Jeremy Corbyn Cannot be Allowed to Stand in the way of Military Action in Syria”, describing his position as “heinous” before arguing that Cameron “should exercise his clear constitutional right to order action without consulting Parliament”. Opponents such as Corbyn, despite raising specific and rather widely held objections to this particular war, were frequently framed as die-hard pacifists who oppose all military action anywhere, and would happily put the country in danger for the sake of their unbending pacifist beliefs. A Politico headline for example asks “After Paris, will Labour’s leader stick to his pacifist principles, or bend to the public mood?” though nowhere in the article is any evidence provided that the public mood is for war.

BBC War Graphics

Throughout this coverage, impressive, romanticised images of ‘our’ firepower: fighter jets in the sky, sunset backdrops, slick war graphics depicting GR4 Tornadoes and Brimstone missiles are abound:

Guardian War Graphics

The impartial BBC’s This Week programme tastefully captured the mood in the title sequence of its programme on the imminent Syria vote; opening to the sound of the movie Top Gun’s Take My Breath Away.

*Following is the second part of this blog post, which looks at the media’s awestruck reaction to Hilary Benn’s speech for war.  

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