Bruce Petty is a highly regarded political satirist and cartoonist as well as an award-winning film maker. He went to Syria in 2009 (before the war) on a project to interview Syrian intellectuals and university students about their political views. Dr Jeremy Salt is a former journalist, turned academic and is the author of The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands, (University of California Press, 2008). Until recently, Dr Salt was based in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey, where he ran courses in the history of the modern Middle East, in politics and in politics, propaganda and the media. The story behind this series: On 16 November 2015 a small group of concerned Australian citizens got together to talk about the problems of getting real information out to Australians and other US-NATO allies about war in Syria, in spite of mainstream press efforts to confuse the public. Bruce Petty and Jeremy Salt were part of that group. Inside is the transcript of the embedded video. (There are two other videos in this series: "Cartoonist Bruce Petty and Dr Jeremy Salt: Where news comes from: reporting on the Middle East." and "Does Bashar al-Assad really have to go? Cartoonist Bruce Petty talks to Dr Jeremy Salt")
JEREMY SALT: One of the claims is that Bashar al-Assad has killed in his political position more people than have been killed by Islamic state.
Well, who's saying these things? Bashar al-Assad hasn't killed anyone in his life as far as I know. He himself. But that's the way the media loves to do this.
BRUCE PETTY: He's representing the army.
JEREMY SALT: But how do they actually work out their calculus? Who is killing who and the numbers that are being killed by each person involved in this. There's no way they can do it. And so it becomes just a simple propaganda statement.
And the fact is that Syria has been targeted in what is the most extraordinary attempt in modern history to destroy an Arab state. That's it. It's worse than Iraq, worse than Lebanon, worse than anything that's happened before. Go all the way back to Algeria and 1830 with the French. It is the most relentless, remorse[less] attack on an Arab country in modern history.
And the fact is that Bashar, is the president - right - and he has a functioning government. I don't know what these people who use these expressions like 'dictator' are thinking. He has a foreign minister, he has an interior minister, he has a defence minister. He listens to them. He takes their advice. They're the ones who know. And they formulate strategies to try to fight off this attack. And they've been doing this for four years.
Now, of course, of course people are going to be killed. And civilians are going to be killed too. If you've got armed men who've infiltrated towns and cities, how can you get them out without civilians being killed? And there's a big difference between killing civilians, when you're trying to drive these people out, than what ISIS does, which is to pick them all up, round them up, and kill them by the hundreds. Because they don't like them - because they're Alawis, or because they're Christians, or whatever ... So, this is a war.
Proportion of Sunni muslims in army and government
One point to make, first, is the Gulf Arabs, Saudi Arabia in particular, and Sheikh Qaradawi and his cell mates or soul mates, perpetually say that this [Syria] is an Alawite state.
Well, excuse me, the Syrian government is multi-ethnic; it includes Christians, Sunni Muslims, Alawis, across the range. Who's got the talent gets into the ministry.
The Syrian army is more than 80 per cent Sunni Muslim. More than 80 per cent of foot soldiers are Sunni Muslim. The Alawis constitute about 10 per cent of the population of the country. So, what are these Sunni Muslims doing holding together? Because the army has held together. The media tried to drum up defections in the early stages - 'Oh, all these people are defecting!' There were hardly any. The army has just been rock-solid through this whole attack.
So, what are the Sunni Muslims doing? Well, they're not acting as Sunni Muslims, of course, they're acting as Syrians. And they're defending their country. And large numbers of them have died. Roughly about 60,000. Probably more. Out of the 200,000 or so we are told - who have been killed. So, that's one of the things that the media doesn't like to talk about.
Bashar al-Assad is popular and elected.
The second thing is that Bashar is popular. People like him. They might be critical of the system. They might not like the system. They might think the system should be replaced. They like Bashar. And this has been the case from the very very beginning. Something else that the media very rarely acknowledges.
Bashar al-Assad is popular and legally elected.
Third thing is that Bashar, over the last few years, has made very important steps in reforming Syria's constitution. Okay? They had a constitutional referendum. They changed the constitution. They took the Ba'ath party, removed it as a central pillar of state, they introduced a multi-party system, they had multi-party elections, they had observers from ... thirty countries observing those elections. They all said they were perfectly fair, perfectly free, and an overwhelming majority - this is for the presidential elections (they had parliamentary plus presidential) - voted for Bashar.
Now, all these things Syria has done, are completely ignored or dismissed out of hand in the western media. Because it doesn't suit them. It doesn't suit them. The main point here, of course, this whole rhetoric about, you know,' we have to give the Syrians democracy, and we have to kind of give Syrians a transition to democracy' - was all nonsense. Because it was not the point at all. The whole point was to destroy Syria, and to divide destroyed Syria up, in particular. And to destroy Syria, that's what you have to do.
So, you know, the readers of the media, the print media, the viewers of television, are gulled and being played upon. And this is what happens in every war. This is what governments do, you know. They dehumanise, they invalidate; they set people up as worthy of being destroyed.
BRUCE PETTY: We don't want complicated issues. We don't want complicated events.
JEREMY SALT: Of course, if Australia ever got to the point where they were going to send troops to Syria, it's all set up. 'Oh, we have to - our boys have to go and fight and get rid of the dictator. And give the Syrian people democracy. They just fall into it.
BRUCE PETTY: The other claim is he had used chemical weapons on his own people. Is that true?
JEREMY SALT: Well, as far as I'm concerned, no. [inaudible] And before the big chemical weapons attack, apparently, round Damascus in 2013, there had been many many smaller episodes of chemical weapons being used. And one - where was it? In northern Syria - and I forget the person who it was - UN person - who concluded that, no, this wasn't the Syrian government.
VOICE OFF-SCENE: "Carlo Ponti."
JEREMY SALT: Was it Carlo Ponti? Right. And, when you come to the big one, round Damascus, well, we know what was behind that. Barack Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons - implicitly by the Syrian government - is a 'red line'.
Now, if chemical weapons had been used by someone else, probably there wouldn't have been a red line, but, implicitly, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government is a red line; [if] that red line's crossed, we'll be in there. That is a signal to outside elements. All we have to do is set it up to get him across the red line. So some of these earlier attacks had been set up for that reason.
And they didn't work. 'Okay, we have to try harder.'
So you get the big chemical weapons attack around Damascus - apparently - in August 2013, where sarin gas was used and there have been many many allegations that this came from Turkey and a large number of people killed - 1300 we were told by the media. Are those figures correct? We don't know what the truth is behind these chemical weapons attacks. We don't know much about it at all, because the media picked it up, used it - 'Look what he's done! This beast, this monster, this tyrant, is now using chemical weapons against his own people.' And they used it as propaganda, then they dropped the whole thing.
Then we saw pictures of children who had been killed. Who were those children? They were just kind of 'faces'. In a photograph. On television or in the media. And they were used for a few days and then dismissed. We never heard about them again.
Mainstream media did not try to identify the children in the photos, but a Syrian nun did
So ... and... a lot of people go into this, like Mother Agnes, the Syrian nun. I mean, she did the work the journalists should have done. She looked at the photographs and said, "Hang on, wait a moment, that photograph's taken here; and that photograph is taken there: and they've got the same people in it. And allegations that some of those children we saw actually come from Latakia, which is a heavily Alawi population. And the Takfiri [...inaudible] would have no hesitation in killing Alawi children. It might seem a terribly harsh thing to say, but that's them. That's what they're like. So, there are all kinds of questions to be asked about that chemical weapons attack which the media didn't even look at.
MIT scientific study of purported gas attack
And then we had more thoughtful studies, like scientists in America at MIT. They studied the trajectory of the rocket - where they would have had to have come from. No way, they couldn't have come from Syrian military positions. We had one person who came on television, a victim of a sarin gas attack, and whose report was that - I forget who got involved in all of this, but there was no sarin anywhere else in the environment. There was nothing on the grass, nothing on the [inaudible]; just this man saying, 'I've been a victim of a sarin gas attack.' And so the whole thing unraveled.
Mainstream media refused to publish contrary evidence
And Seymour Hirsh, the gun American reporter since Vietnam, he weighed in with his report, which the New Yorker would not publish, London Review of Books published. And he pulled a lot of this together.
And the conclusion that he came to was that Obama nearly fell into this trap and retreated just at the last moment because he'd been told by his own people, 'Actually, there's something about this that is not right. We're being set up. don't get involved here.'
Gas attack – if real - came from outside, not from Syrian military
And what Seymour Hirsch - the only conclusion in his article was that this had nothing to do with the Syrian military or the Syrian government. It was an attack by armed groups - if it was a real attack - with the support of outside governments.