Washington, DC (TFC) – TIME ran a piece on 16 August entitled “Russia and Iran Fly Across a Key Threshold in the Middle East” which opens with the following quote: “Looks like the U.S. and its allies have a new “axis of evil” in the Middle East: Syria, Iran and Russia.” A desire for an attention-grabbing opening line notwithstanding, this sort of propagandist statement only serves to cloud the already murky waters of the Syrian Civil War and reveals the Western bias of the mainstream media. The problems don’t end at the first line, but let’s unpack that first, and perhaps along the way we can find a more salient discourse on the Syrian conflict.
The phrase “axis of evil” is an echo of a speech by then President George W. Bush, who named Iraq, Iran, and North Korea in the positions TIME writer Mark Thompson assigns to Syria, Iran, and Russia. It’s hardly a surprise that Iran again made the cut; the demonization of that country in the West has continued virtually without pause in the intervening years. The phrase is in itself a reference to the Axis Powers of World War Two, a rhetorical device designed to associate the named countries with Nazism, genocide, and the ever-amorphous “Evil.” The veracity of this comparison has to be called into question, however.
Syria and Iran are hardly the most repressive regimes in the region. Indeed, both were far better places to live then North Korea, which Thompson bumped off of the “Big Three Evil Powers” list. In any analysis, we must acknowledge that yes, democratic institutions, free speech, and general liberty are major issues in both Syria and Iran. But Syria was also an economically sound and largely safe society prior to the civil war, with a large degree of religious freedom. Iran, for all its repression of certain religious minorities and general theocracy, is similarly diverse and provides a much higher quality of life to it’s citizens then, say, Afghanistan. The elephant in the room which Thompson fails to mention is the great US ally, Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi government regularly beheads their citizens, it still has one of the worst records in women’s rights despite recent reforms, and is carrying out a vicious and one-sided war on Yemen with US and Western backing. The fact that this aggressive and belligerent country isn’t included in this “axis of evil” is revealing: Saudi Arabia is a source of oil for the West, so they get a free pass; Syria and Iran have aligned with Russia, so they are condemned. The phrase is meaningless, except as propaganda, and this is exactly what Time and much of the mainstream media are doing: providing a propagandist narrative of Syria to serve corporate interests.
What are those corporate interests? The key is energy, as is common in Mideast conflict. For some full details, see this piece; in a nutshell, the Western powers and their corporate energy backers want to build a pipeline through Syria from the Gulf State of Qatar. This would enrich those oil companies and relieve Europe from the burden of reliance on Russia for it’s energy needs. None of this is mentioned in the Time piece, but it does bring us to the next wrongful assertion:
Relations between Iran and Russia continue to warm. Moscow recently provided Tehran with a sophisticated air-defense system after Iran agreed to international curbs on its nuclear-development program. It’s another poke at Russia’s growing influence in the region at the expense of the U.S., which has steadfastly declined to involve itself in the bloody Syrian civil war. [Emphasis Added]
Note the bold text. This is an absurdly false statement; the US has been steadfastly calling for Assad to step down since 2011. United States troops have been involved in training “moderate” resistance fighters and US planes consistently bomb targets within Syria. Indeed, far from being a neutral actor or positioning itself as a broker for peace, the United States has resolutely blocked any attempt at a diplomatic solution that would include Assad, as Jeffrey Sachs points out in this HuffPost article:
In 2012, [then Secretary of State] Clinton was the obstacle, not the solution, to a ceasefire being negotiated by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. It was US intransigence – Clinton’s intransigence – that led to the failure of Annan’s peace efforts in the spring of 2012, a point well known among diplomats… there was (of course) no 2012 ceasefire, only escalating carnage. Clinton bears heavy responsibility for that carnage, which has by now displaced more than 10 million Syrians and left more than 250,000 dead.
The TIME piece paints the United States and NATO as rational actors attempting to restore peace, while Assad and Russia are unreasonable and – indeed – downright evil. Evidence of this slant can be found in the next quote, “The U.S. has accused Russia of indiscriminate bombing in Syria.” TIME does not go on, however, to discuss the ramifications of US bombing in Syria. The US – led airstrikes have also killed civilians, and to not point this out in context leads the reader to believe that Russia is solely responsible for what military leaders call “collateral damage.”
In short, reporting a single side of the Syrian conflict – and declining to mention the complex web of alliances and geopolitical interests in the region – doesn’t present the full picture, nor does it serve the interest of Western readers or the Syrian people. It is hard to find a “good guy” in the Syrian Civil War, but it is clear that the involvement of Imperialist powers – both the Russian alliance and the United States led coalition – has done little but cause widespread destruction in a country that was relatively stable five years ago. To ignore the overarching issue of global thirst for energy resources and reduce the situation to “US vs Them” serves only the interests of the powerful, at the peril of everyone else.