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July 24, 2012

When hundreds of thousands die in Syria, who should be blamed?

For the second time this month, a senior U.N. official has taken the United States and its allies to task for not doing their part in stopping the war in Syria, blasting an incomplete portrayal of the war in Syria that fails to recognize that the anti-Assad opposition also is responsible for violence and the failure of a U.N. cease-fire plan.

Paulo Pinheiro, a Brazilian diplomat who is the head of the U.N. commission charged with investigating human rights violations in Syria, told the Spanish newspaper El Pais in an interview published Sunday that while there is a civil war unfolding in Syria, there is also a propaganda war that complicates efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

The interview is similar in tone to one Kofi Annan, the U.N.'s Syria envoy, gave the French newspaper Le Monde two weeks earlier.  And as in that interview, in which Annan said too much was being made of Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad when other countries (read the United States, France and Britain) had done nothing to persuade the opposition to come to the table and negotiate, Pinheiro criticizes the supporters of Syria's anti-Assad movement for not helping to resolve the conflict.

"it's wrong to say that the guilt is only Russia's," Pinheiro said. "There are five (permanent) members of the Security Council who could not agree. We're losing time and that means more deaths and more human rights violations. Here, the priority must be to stop the conflict. Afterwards, we can discuss everything, but the first step is stop the hostilities."

That's a certain reference to the position of the United States, Great Britain and France, who insist that that there can be no negotiation with anyone in the Assad regime, though such negotiations were certainly part of Annan's six-point plan that all three countries and the Syrian opposition agreed to (Assad two weeks ago named an interlocutor for such negotiations; less than a week later, the U.S. slapped the proposed interlocutor with sanctions, though even rebels agree he is not among the Assad government's human rights offenders).

As for who refused to go along with the cease-fire, Pinheiro leaves little doubt that in his opinion the opposition, and its sponsors, deserve at least some of the blame. (An Institute for the Study of War report on the rebels after the April cease-fire start notes that rebel attacks soared over the next two months; see graphic on Page 11. In contrast, the report says, the ceasefire "marked a reduction in major regime operations." A McClatchy take on the impact of the U.N. plan can be read here.)

"Everyone is responsible," Pinheiro is quoted as saying. "The government, of course, but also the opposition, which always works with this fantasy of a foreign military intervention, and that contributed to their non-implementation of the cease-fire."

Those sentiments closely parallel what Annan told Le Monde. "What strikes me," Annan said, "is that there are so many commentaries about Russia, a few less about Iran, and little is said about the other countries that send arms, money, and who influence the situation. All these countries pretend to want a peaceful solution, but they take steps that undermine Security Council resolutions."

If Annan's reference was too vague for one to be certain about which countries he was referring to, he made it clear in his next answer, where he decried the opposition's denunciation of a Geneva declaration issued June 30 that called for negotiations.

"It is a shame they reacted in that way," Annan said. "Eighty percent of the countries that put together the Geneva communique are members of the Friends of Syria group. It is bizarre to pretend that the opposition was 'betrayed' and 'sold out'. The Paris meeting is a perfect occasion for the 'friends' of Syria, which include France, the United States, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey, to explain that to the opposition and establish the facts."

Instead, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the Paris meeting, which took place the same day as the Annan interview, to once again blast Russia for its Syria position.

Pinheiro's interview in El Pais and Annan's with Le Monde are also likely to have something else in common: they'll get little notice in the U.S. news media.

With the exception of cursory mentions of Annan's acknowledgement that his cease-fire efforts hadn't succeeded (this Bloomberg story is typical), no news agency dealt with the substance of his interview -- even though it was surely his longest public statement on his peace efforts.

Late Monday, no U.S. news service had mentioned Pinheiro's interview – though last I knew both the AP and the New York Times still had bureaus in Madrid where their correspondents no doubt read El Pais, Spain's highest circulation daily.

Perhaps that's understandable, because among his targets for criticism as he discusses the propaganda war are the same sources that the news media have come to rely on unquestioningly for their account of what's taking place in Syria – opposition spokesmen (usually called "activists") and YouTube videos.

"There's a civil war, but also a propaganda war," Pinheiro said. "There are numbers that in no way correspond to reality, including in the accounting of the victims. There are organizations that have no way to corroborate the numbers. There's video that doesn't reflect the situation. Video that's already been seen that's repeated. YouTube is not a trustworthy investigatory tool."

The Syrian government, he said, "treats everyone as terrorist groups, and that's a complete distortion. On the other side, there's a tendency to ignore the actions of the opposition, as if they were incapable of committing them."

What he's saying is that for 16 months, readers of most American newspapers and viewers of the news channels have been getting an incomplete view of the Syrian conflict, without an appreciation for how complex the situation is. Even what we think we know about the May 25 massacre in Houla, where as many as 80 people, including children, were killed -- i.e, that it was the work of Assad supporters -- can’t be counted on, Pinheiro said: "In the case of Houla, it's not clear who exactly was principally responsible."

Then, lumping that case together with later allegations of a massacre at Tremseh, he explained: "There's no doubt that in the two cases, there was bombardment, but many of the deaths took place at close range, with small arms. Government security forces were present, but we can't discount the actions of other armed groups. This is the most difficult thing: to evaluate the presence of unidentified foreign armed groups that act in an opportunistic manner, whether they support the government or the opposition."

Given how many hundreds of thousands of words and hours of television have been devoted to Syria, it's disheartening to think that we're really just being subjected to a propaganda campaign. That's not what journalism is supposed to be about.

Pinheiro says the consequence of inaction is great. "I have no doubt," he said, "that there won't be dozens of thousands of victims, but hundreds of thousands. Because Syria is a mosaic. There is no clear separation of families by ethnicity or religion. They live glued together. There can only be a political solution."

Think of that next time the U.S. so quickly rejects negotiation.

Here's Pinheiro's interview in Spanish. And if you missed it, here's Le Monde's interview with Annan.


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Good article Mark, and nice use of ISW data. Depressing reading though: the refusal of the rebels and the Western powers to negotiate is so reminiscent of Libya last year. One thing that has gone almost unreported is the irresponsible behaviour of Amnesty International in this conflict.

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