As I’ve noted, the Syrian war and the entry into a 21st century cold war with Russia and China created a great expansion of Washington’s propaganda power. In 2013, right before the Western media propagated a major story about Assad having supposedly committed a chemical attack, the U.S. repealed a ban on domestic government propaganda. The full potential for covert CIA messaging in the media was unleashed, letting the U.S. carry out a proxy jihadist war against the Syrian government, replace Ukraine’s democratically elected government with a fascist anti-Russian regime, and impose a myriad of sanctions against Russia and its allies.
Yet despite the empire’s best efforts, its lies about key geopolitical issues have been exposed as false, and its efforts to dominate Syria and other Middle Eastern powers have either failed or experienced setbacks. This is what the fall of the American empire looks like: a superpower that’s losing its influence while the narratives that have maintained its reputation unravel.
At the center of much of the empire’s perception management around Syria, and around the new cold war in general, has been the claims about Bashar al-Assad committing gas attacks. The multiple reports of such attacks over the years, which have largely originated from the Syrian White Helmets, set up the empire’s cinematic portrayal of a heinous dictator being resisted by brave “moderate” rebels and heroic “humanitarian” White Helmets members. The propaganda has at times literally taken the form of a movie, with 2016’s film The White Helmetsreceiving great critical acclaim for its portrayal of what’s made out to be an inspirational group. Similarly, the film Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World, which praises Bellingcat even amid its multiple instances of distorting facts to advance Syria regime change narratives, won an Emmy last year.
Despite all of these efforts from the media and other powerful institutions to legitimize the sources of Western propaganda around the Syrian war, the atrocity stories these sources have put out keep falling apart. The Western media of course hasn’t amplified these revelations about Syria, but the information they consist of has become very much open to the public, and it’s forced the Syria narrative managers to try to cover their tracks or distract people with new sensational claims.
Fairly quickly after the supposed Assad-created chemical incidents in 2013, 2014, and 2017, undeniable evidence emerged that the White Helmets and other Western-aligned entities had lied about these events. Weapons experts found that the missile that delivered the sarin in the August 2013 chemical attack had a very short firing range which placed its origin in rebel territory. Throughout April 2014, several alerts about imminent government chemical attacks were issued even though no incidents with chemicals took place. A testimony from two people has shown that anti-government aircraft spotters didn’t show an early-morning warning of a flight leaving the Shayrat Syrian military base on April 4, 2017, contradicting claims from Al Qaeda allies who sought to confirm accusations of a government gas attack.
Since the supposed Douma gas attack from April 2018, the propagandists and their claims have faced more intense scrutiny. Immediately, the Western account of the Douma incident was challenged by the journalist Robert Fisk, who provided an explanation for the fact that the White Helmets were shown handling supposed gas attack victims without protective gear. Fisk quoted doctors who said that the victims on the scene had suffered from dust inhalation instead of gas exposure, and that a White Helmets member had deliberately caused panic by falsely shouting “gas!” This account was supported by Douma witnesses who testified that they hadn’t experienced gas poisoning.
Since then, there’s been a series of reckonings with the lies, corruption, and atrocities that the White Helmets have engaged in to carry out their goals for proxy warfare. In December 2018, two experts who’d conducted numerous interviews with people who’ve interacted with the White Helmets testified at the United Nations and said they’d gathered ample evidence of organ theft and strategically staged attacks by the White Helmets. The imperialist media responded to this simply by declining to run any coverage of it.
Managing the Syria narrative became a little harder when in May, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media published an internal document from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that showed the official account on Douma didn’t scientifically hold up. It concluded about the materials which had supposedly been debris from a government chemical attack: “In summary, observations at the scene of the two locations, together with subsequent analysis, suggest that there is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.”
Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins could best respond to this revelation by making a series of fallacious arguments to cast doubt on the document’s creator while not addressing its substance. Regime change propagandist Idrees Ahmad did the same. Otherwise, pro-imperialist figures didn’t mention anything about the OPCW report. So the empire’s propaganda machine went basically unharmed, and it could easily divert attention towards 2019’s upcoming series of cold war hit pieces on China.
What’s made things still more difficult is when last month, Wikileaks published multiple documents that proved the OPCW’s efforts to suppress findings from researchers in its organization who challenged what the U.S. government wanted the group to say. This leak confirmed that the symptoms of the supposed chemical attack victims were inconsistent with chlorine poisoning, that the OPCW’s team found that the victims were either poisoned with something different from chlorine or they weren’t poisoned at all, and that OPCW inspectors couldn’t find evidence that the gas cylinders had been dropped from a plane. This week Ian Henderson, a member of the OPCW’s Douma team, spoke at the UN and corroborated these findings by saying there was a “complete turnaround in the situation from what was understood by the majority of the team.”
Higgins and Ahmad have again been lashing out against the story’s reporters, but their tweets can’t stop the decline of U.S./NATO imperial power in the Middle East. All hope for Syrian regime change disappeared years ago, with Washington having resorted in recent years to mainly using sanctions to try to weaken the Syrian state. Aid from the rising superpowers Russia and China has stopped Syria from being economically or militarily defeated, and in the last few years the country has been largely rebuilt. Trump’s partial withdrawal of troops from Syria, despite its follow-up of an illegal move to steal Syria’s oil, has let Assad’s forces regain control of northeastern Syrian towns and villages. It’s also cost America its Kurdish allies in Syria.
These events reflect an uneven, but still massive, decline in American influence over the Middle East. Iraq’s government, once an American proxy state, has reconciled with Iran and become one of the avenues for Iran’s exponentially growing regional influence. As Russia has begun to fill the vacuum from America’s lost troop presence in Syria, anti-imperialist movements have been gaining strength within Syria’s neighboring countries. The Palestinian resistance movement and BDS have put Israel’s settler-colonial project under stress, and in the last year the Iraqi communist movement has been rising amid vast protests against the country’s neoliberal regime.
In the last month, Washington has displayed a series of reactions to these developments that have only backfired. After the U.S. falsely accused the Iran-backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah of firing missiles at an Iraqi air base, the U.S. launched airstrikes against the militia. Furious Iraqis then descended on Washington’s embassy in Baghdad, damaging the building while chanting “Death to America!” The U.S. then tried to leverage this by blaming it on Iran, and by using it as justification for its illegal assassination of the Iranian general Soleimani.
After Iran retaliated by firing missiles at Iraqi air bases containing U.S. forces, the Iraqi government voted to remove all American troops from the country in response to Trump’s provocation. This has prompted the U.S. to effectively invade Iran again by refusing to remove its troops, further damaging Iraq’s relationship with Washington and inflaming further anti-U.S. sentiment.
Washington’s efforts to retain its control over the Arab and Persian worlds can’t ultimately succeed, whether they consist of propaganda campaigns, economic warfare, resource grabs, support for genocidal apartheid regimes, or grand displays of military aggression. Let’s wish a swift death for the American empire, and let’s keep trying to put its narratives to rest.
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