One of the major complaints I have made concerning the reporting of the fighting in Aleppo is that no Western journalists were there, and that they were reporting uncritically information obtained at second and third hand from Jihadi sources opposed to the Syrian government.
Patrick Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent of the Independent and a vastly better informed journalist about the conflicts in the Middle East than almost anyone else who writes in the West about the conflicts, has made the same point.
Cockburn provided on 2nd December 2016 a careful explanation of why eastern Aleppo was out of reach of journalists, and of the journalistic dangers in accepting uncritically information coming from there
[T]he jihadis holding power in east Aleppo were able to exclude Western journalists, who would be abducted and very likely killed if they went there, and replace them as news sources with highly partisan “local activists” who cannot escape being under jihadi control.
The foreign media has allowed – through naivety or self-interest – people who could only operate with the permission of al-Qaeda-type groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham to dominate the news agenda.
The precedent set in Aleppo means that participants in any future conflict will have an interest in deterring foreign journalists who might report objectively. By kidnapping and killing them, it is easy to create a vacuum of information that is in great demand and will, in future, be supplied by informants sympathetic to or at the mercy of the very same people (in this case the jihadi rulers of east Aleppo) who have kept out the foreign journalists. Killing or abducting the latter turns out to have been a smart move by the jihadis because it enabled them to establish substantial control of news reaching the outside world. This is bad news for any independent journalist entering their territory and threatening their monopoly of information.
This can be compared with my comment, made on 21st November 2016 (ie. before Patrick Cockburn made his), which specifically addressed the numerous reports in the Western media about the intentional bombing of hospitals in east Aleppo
There are no Western journalists in Jihadi controlled eastern Aleppo and scarcely anywhere else in Syria. The Western journalists that are in Syria largely stick to the government controlled areas. Very occasionally the odd Western journalist travels into Jihadi controlled areas, but it is a long time since any have visited eastern Aleppo, in fact – they have not done so since it came under siege…..
That is not of course surprising. Though the Western powers and the Western media pretend otherwise, there is no doubt that the dominant forces in the Jihadi controlled areas of Syria are ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Both are militantly anti-Western and any Western journalist travelling in the areas that they control would be at serious risk. If only for that reason few of them do so, though in truth the days when Western media agencies employed large numbers of special correspondents and on-the-spot reporters are long passed.
What that means in practical terms is that reports that come out of the Jihadi controlled areas of Syria – including eastern Aleppo – and which appear in the Western media, are reports made at second hand. Western reporters do not tour the sites of the allegedly bombed hospitals. Rather the Western media is simply passing on reports from eye witnesses or alleged eye witnesses of the attacks, and reporting them as true. The same applies to Western governments, including the US government.
There was once a time when the Western media was careful to say that it was unable to confirm the stories it was reporting itself, and that it was relying on local sources in reporting the news it was publishing. This at least provided consumers of news with a health warning, if the news came from one side or another in an armed conflict.
For quite some time now, the Western media has also stopped doing this. The result is that it requires a very high degree of attention on the part of the Western media listener or reader to know that the source of a story is not the media itself. Inevitably the number of people who are able or willing to give that amount of attention is very small.
What this means in the Syrian case is that all the reports of the attacks on the hospitals are provided by persons who to a greater or lesser extent operate under Jihadi control. In northeast Syria that essentially means Al-Qaeda contol.
This does not in itself mean that bombing of hospitals never takes place. However, what it does mean is that the scope for Al-Qaeda to manipulate the stories is boundless. In any war situation, the risk of accepting unconfirmed accounts of events by one party to the conflict is great. When the party in question is Al-Qaeda – a violent internationally proscribed terrorist organisation – the risk of doing so is even greater.
East Aleppo has now been under the control of the Syrian army for several weeks, making it possible for Western journalists finally to go there to see whether they can corroborate some of the claims of atrocities that they previously published.
I would add that it was always possible during the recent fighting for them to go to government controlled western Aleppo, which would have at least brought them close to the actual fighting. In the event only a tiny minority – notably the exceptional Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley – did so. Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley are however ignored by the Western media because they are considered to be sympathetic to the Syrian government. That this has meant that the Western media has preferred instead to rely on sources controlled by Al-Qaeda seems to have concerned few of them.
In the event, though Aleppo – both east and west – is now safe for journalists, the flood of journalists there that might have been expected has entirely failed to happen. The only well-known journalist I know who has actually visited eastern Aleppo since its recapture by the Syrian government is the Turkish journalist Fehim Taştekin, whose recent report can be found on Al-Monitor.
Taştekin’s report makes very interesting reading. He confirms widespread devastation. He also speaks of initial support in eastern Aleppo for the Jihadis when they first came there
In this neighborhood, a conservative lifestyle prevails. You see many women with Islamic garb. Shaar, Bab al-Hadid and Bab al-Nairab were former strongholds of the Muslim Brotherhood. The government may wish to blame foreign fighters and their external financial patrons for the uprising, but it can’t dismiss the societal base of the rebellion. The Muslim Brotherhood rebellion that was crushed in 1982 with incredible loss of life was repeated with the participation of new generations. The leading cause of the uprising was the poverty in the city’s slums, which grew with migration from the rural areas. It wasn’t all that hard to obtain the loyalty of poor people who needed the money coming from the Gulf countries to mini-emirates set up by Islamist organizations.
However it is striking that every single person Taştekin seems to have interviewed in eastern Aleppo – or at least those for whom he gives names – made clear their disillusionment and hostility to the Jihadis, as well as their intense anger towards Turkey, which was the Jihadis’ most important supporter
Umm Khatice, a woman in Bustan al-Qasr, said her family never left their house and lived in misery for five years, suffering from hunger. “We were the starving ones, not the armed groups. Those thugs confiscated relief supplies, distributed them to their supporters or sold them. Many people had no choice but to join them to survive,” she said.
An elderly couple in Bustan al-Qasr invited us into their house. The woman said when the armed men came to their neighborhood, she and her husband had to move to the Aleppo University dormitory, where they lived for five years.
Now they have returned to what is left. “They removed the doors of my house,” the husband said. “I made a door of chip wood and used cardboard to cover the windows. We have no water, electricity or heating.” I asked how could they live like this. The old woman said, “We have our home. It is enough.”
In Shaar, many buildings were leveled by air bombings. All streets were hit. Work to remove the rubble is slowly starting.
I encountered deep anger against Turkey. When people heard we were Turks, their attitudes hardened. The question we heard most was, “Why did Turkey did this to us?”
We also toured the Jibrin Industrial Zone, where people evacuated from eastern Aleppo were settled. Russians were distributing food. There were a few men in the camp, but not young ones. People do not want to talk of their life under armed groups. They might have relatives still there or with the groups. They told us that people joined armed groups for monthly salaries of $50-$100. Two middle-aged men told us they were working at a Sheikh Najjar leather products factory. They said armed groups dismantled the factory and sold it in Turkey. Another man said they experienced hunger and thirst under the blockade, but those who agreed to join the armed groups managed well. We were also told how armed groups did not allow civilians to leave the area under government blockade, and even fired on those who wanted to leave.
(bold italics added)
Of course it is possible that there are people in eastern Aleppo who were either afraid to speak out against the Syrian government or wary of doing so on the record. However if so then Taştekin gives no hint of this. On the contrary as the words in his report which I have highlighted show, it is the Jihadi groups rather than the Syrian government that people still seem to fear.
Taştekin also seems to have heard claims that most of the devastation was caused by the Jihadis, though he is careful to say that the Syrian government used heavy weapons in the city and is therefore at least partly responsible for the destruction there, and though it is important to say that his witnesses for these claims seem to be either Syrian officials or Syrian government supporters.
I slowly walked through side streets, with their once-magnificent structures now mostly in ruins. I spoke with Aleppo resident Abu Ahmed, who said, “I didn’t abandon my house. I had no money; I couldn’t leave. Armed groups occupied these parts. They are the ones guilty of destruction. They were supported by Turkey. They ruined us.”
He confirmed, though, that the army had used heavy weapons.
So, who was responsible for the destruction? Abu Zaid, another resident, said, “First of all, the armed groups. If they hadn’t come, nothing would have happened here. We had heavy clashes. The army used heavy weapons. No barrel bombs were used here.”………
Who was responsible for all this wanton destruction, I asked researcher Kemal Al Cafa.
“The army did not use barrel bombs and planes against the Old City,” he replied. “At the beginning, armed groups exploded bombs in tunnels to capture the area. That caused much damage. They used 500 kilograms [1,100 pounds] of explosives to blow up the Carlton Hotel. We had 13 such major explosions. Rebels used ‘weapons of hell’ against the army. Their targets were all in historic locations.”
I was terribly shaken by what I saw in Aleppo. It became meaningless to ask who was responsible and why.
A single journalist visiting eastern Aleppo cannot by himself either confirm or refute all the various claims that have been made about what happened there. However at least Taştekin has actually gone there and spoken to people there.
Isn’t it time that the BBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, the London Times, the Financial Times and Le Monde did the same and sent their own people there? Or are they afraid of what they might see and hear if they go there?