DAMASCUS, SYRIA – In late 2016, the Syrian city of Aleppo was the focus of an international “outcry” calling for an end to the Syrian government/Russian air strikes that were aimed at reclaiming the city from terrorist groups — depicted by the Western media as “moderate rebels.” Much of this outcry was fueled by the Western media’s frenzied coverage of the Aleppo siege. A large portion of this coverage relied heavily or exclusively on monitoring groups with close ties to these “rebels” and a vested interest in Western military intervention, such as the White Helmets and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Though many of the reports of airstrikes and many of the images purporting to show injured or dead civilians were later found to be fabricated, the call for foreign intervention to stem the tide of reported civilian deaths was fierce and very nearly successful in bringing about such intervention.
However, the situation in Aleppo is drastically different now, as it is back under Syrian government control and those once forced to flee are returning by the hundreds of thousands to the very government that was supposedly “indiscriminately” bombing them just months before. According to recent figures, over 600,000 civilians have returned to Aleppo since the year began.
Raqqa under coalition siege, rain of airstrikes
While Aleppo is rebuilding, Raqqa, its neighboring city to the east, has taken its place — as U.S.-coalition airstrikes rain down upon the city, claiming nearly a thousand civilian lives since the offensive began in early June. Recently, Amnesty International, along with other human rights groups, raised the alarm about the climbing civilian death count, noting that coalition air strikes are conducted indiscriminately, targeting any building believed to show a “hint” of Daesh (ISIS) activity.
Though the death count is hard to peg down, the airstrike monitoring group AirWars told Reuters that its findings have shown that between 725 and 993 civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes since the U.S.-backed Kurdish offensive to retake Raqqa began in early June. However, AirWars director Chris Woods noted that hundreds more civilians have reportedly died after being caught in crossfire, attacked by Daesh, or mangled by minefields.
The coalition refutes these claims, having listed only 16 reports of civilian casualties in or near Raqqa since June, according to data obtained by Amnesty. In that same time frame, however, an independent commission found that the coalition had claimed as many as 300 civilian lives. The coalition apparently stopped keeping track of civilian deaths after June 30, as they have turned down journalist requests for updated figures.
Despite coalition assertions to the contrary, and despite minimal direct news coverage, the civilian death count has risen so high that it has garnered international media attention. Last Thursday, the UN called for the U.S. to temporarily halt airstrikes to allow an estimated 20,000 trapped civilians to escape Raqqa, after coalition bombs claimed the lives of over 100 civilians in just 48 hours. U.S. officials, however, have rejected this call. Special Envoy Brett McGurk insisted that the U.S. coalition campaign against Daesh in Raqqa is going very well, adding that the “number one thing that we have to do” to assist Raqqa’s civilians is to continue the war.
Some have seen, in its bombing of the Euphrates River, evidence that the U.S. coalition is intentionally targeting civilians. Civilians who have managed to escape have nearly all done so by crossing the river in small boats, as the bridges were bombed earlier this year and are out of service. General Stephen Townsend, the U.S. commander of the coalition forces, recently stated “we shoot every boat we find,” despite the numerous reports documenting the river as the main path of escape for Raqqa’s civilians, estimated at 220,000 prior the war.
According to Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, Donatella Rovera, this policy is both “extremely worrying and absolutely unacceptable,” as it amounts to an on-the-record policy of indiscriminately bombing civilians.
In addition, the leaflets that have been dropped into Raqqa, supposedly to instruct civilians about how to evacuate, have been found to be in direct conflict with each other, leading to confusion and unnecessary deaths.
Speculation regarding the targeting of civilians has also been fueled by the Syrian Democratic Forces announcement that rule of Raqqa after the offensive will be given to an autonomous, Kurd-dominated “council,” not the Syrian government — allowing the city and its surrounding area to be annexed into the independent Kurdish statelet that has sprouted up in Northern Syria with U.S. assistance, a key step towards the U.S.-backed partition of Syria.
Given that Raqqa’s native population is largely Arab, it has been suggested that Raqqa’s demographic must be drastically altered if the city is to be annexed and ruled by the Kurdish minority.
Aleppo and Raqqa: ‘bad’ and ‘good’ bombardment
The current situation in Raqqa is remarkably similar to Western media characterizations of the Syrian government- and Russia-supported effort to reclaim Aleppo from U.S.-backed “moderate rebel” control. However, the media coverage could not be more different. Consider, for example, the coverage by The New York Times regarding the bombardment of both cities.
Last September, the Times ran a story titled “Syria and Russia Appear Ready to Scorch Aleppo.”
The authors of the piece described the situation as follows:
“Make life intolerable and death likely. Open an escape route, or offer a deal to those who leave or surrender. Let people trickle out. Kill whoever stays. Repeat until a deserted cityscape is yours.
It is a strategy that both the Syrian government and its Russian allies have long embraced to subdue Syrian rebels, largely by crushing the civilian populations that support them.
But in the past few days, as hopes for a revived cease-fire have disintegrated at the United Nations, the Syrians and Russians seem to be mobilizing to apply this kill-all-who-resist strategy to the most ambitious target yet: the rebel-held sections of the divided metropolis of Aleppo.”
This characterization of Aleppo — largely based on the reports of groups such as the discredited and pro-”rebel” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Al-Qaeda-embedded White Helmets — paints the Syrian government as the butchers of its own people
However, months later, we now know that much of the Western reporting regarding the retaking of Aleppo was dishonest, at best.
Reports by independent journalists on the ground in Syria at the time, particularly Vanessa Beeley, highlighted that many of these “moderate rebels” were actually terrorists, who were depriving the civilians in the areas they controlled of water and other basic needs. Many of the civilians who have since returned to Aleppo have confirmed that these so-called “moderate rebels” were anything but, and that many of them shared deep ties with Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, al-Nusra.
In addition, the most famous photo used to push for intervention, that of the young boy Omran Daqneesh, was found — months after it had been plastered across media outlets throughout the world — to have been partially fabricated. Omran’s father, upon returning to Aleppo following its liberation, told numerous media outlets in Syria and Lebanon, as well as independent Western journalists, that the “rebels” had contrived to use his son to justify foreign intervention.
He also stated that he had not heard a plane above his house before the strike that allegedly was the source of Omran’s injuries captured in the photo. He also said that he had received and rejected offers to leave Syria from parties wishing to damage the reputation of the Syrian government, and had even changed his son’s name and hairstyle to protect him from those who had threatened to kidnap him.
— Walid (@walid970721) June 5, 2017
Now, with the mounting civilian death toll resulting from U.S. airstrikes in Raqqa, the Times has struck a very different tone in its assessment of the situation. In reporting on the civilian death toll in recent weeks, the Times chronicled the U.S.’ killing of an estimated 170 civilians within a single week, citing war monitors and testimonials of Raqqa refugees.
However, turning a blind eye to the U.S.’ manifest “kill-all-who-resist” strategy, the Times article prominently features the coalition’s official position — informing readers that “The U.S.-led coalition says it is careful to avoid civilian casualties in its bombing runs against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, and investigates any allegations.” Despite such planted propaganda, however, human rights groups such as Amnesty International have found investigations to be minimal and have also noted that the U.S. is deliberately using munitions that are hardly precise.
In addition, the article failed to associate the suffering of Raqqa’s civilians with the destructive results of U.S coalition bombing. For instance, while noting that “an activist-run group, ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,’ said it had documented at least 946 civilian deaths since the Raqqa offensive began in June,” it failed to mention that most of these deaths have been the direct result of coalition airstrikes.
Other reports from the Times, such as its coverage of the Amnesty International report, blamed the casualties on the coalition’s “reliance on ordnance” as opposed to its policy of indiscriminate bombing, a major focus of Amnesty’s report.
Other major Western media outlets, such as CNN, have largely been sympathetic to the coalition in their reporting. Many of them have cited the slow pace of the offensive or blamed Daesh for the civilian deaths.
Conclusion: geopolitical goals change the propaganda and media lens
Behind the disparate responses to Aleppo and Raqqa is an interventionist narrative that supports regime change. The “outcry” surrounding the Syrian government operation to retake Aleppo was created in order to generate the pretext for the military intervention long desired by Western governments, Israel and the Gulf monarchies — using the same “humanitarian” justification that led to invasions of nations like Libya, Iraq and others.
As independent journalist Vanessa Beeley noted at the time, after having traveled to Aleppo during the height of the siege, “the Western media is selling the public a humanitarian war” through its biased coverage of the operation to retake Aleppo.
One of the key revelations that has exposed this outcry as having been largely manufactured – aside from those reports and photos later found to be fabricated – is the fact that the refugees who had left Aleppo, supposedly fleeing Assad, were actually fleeing the “moderate rebels” and have since returned by the hundreds of thousands to Aleppo.
This despite the fact that Aleppo is now under full control of the government that allegedly murdered its own civilians with cluster bombs.
The return of civilians to Aleppo has also been notably absent from mainstream Western coverage.
The situation in Raqqa is depicted in stark contrast to that of Aleppo — a reversal of perspective due mainly to the identity of the power conducting the airstrikes. The U.S. largely gets a free pass from the Western press regarding any war crimes it commits. In this case the pass is conferred irrespective of the fact that the U.S. presence in Syria is technically illegal, given that the Syrian government never approved their operations within the country. As another example of this egregious double standard, the U.S.’ indiscriminate use of white phosphorus, a chemical weapon, in Raqqa was hardly the subject of “outrage” it was for the Syrian government’s alleged and now debunked use of chemical weapons on civilians.
There is, however, an underlying motive for the carnage in Raqqa, one that also explains both the Western media’s silence on the climbing civilian death toll as well as the U.S.’ refusal to halt air strikes despite the UN’s pleas. As MintPress previously reported, the ultimate goal of the U.S.’ involvement in Syria is the partition of the country with a large portion of the country’s North, including Raqqa, under the control of an independent Kurdish state.
The Kurds, who dominate the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leading the U.S.-backed invasion of Raqqa, are seeking to bring Raqqa into their fold following the conclusion of the current offensive. The SDF announced months ago that they would hand control of Raqqa to an autonomous “council” largely composed of Kurds.
However, as MintPress has also previously noted, a major obstacle to Raqqa’s inclusion in the Kurdish autonomous region is the population of Raqqa itself, which is predominately Arab. As journalist Andrew Korybko noted, it is highly unlikely that any Arab, or non-Kurd for that matter, living in Raqqa would freely choose to live in a “Kurdish-dominated statelet” as a second-class citizen instead of choosing to have equal standing within the Syrian Arab Republic. Raqqa’s pre-siege population would essentially prevent the annexation of Raqqa by the Kurds.
Yet, now with over 200,000 civilians having fled and nearly 1,000 killed by coalition airstrikes alone, this geopolitical pipe dream is quickly becoming a reality, as only 20,000 of Raqqa’s previous population of 220,000 remain. Though this is ethnic cleansing by any other name, the Western media is busy keeping the focus away from Syria, particularly Raqqa, in order to achieve the long desired partition of Syria — without a peep from the public and without concern for the thousands of innocent Syrian lives lost in the process.
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