On Syria Analysts and “Experts” Who Have Never Stepped Foot Inside the Country

https://levantreport.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/phot0001.jpg?w=837&h=628Not an “expert” or “analyst”: Me (left) with my buddy Eugene on one of many visits to Maaloula.

Would you be surprised to learn the think-tank and media “expert” community is often dominated by people who have never stepped foot in the countries of their expertise?

I’VE BECOME INCREASINGLY ALARMED at the number of “experts” and professional analysts occupying influential positions in the public sphere, who supposedly help interpret Syria for us, but who have little actual experience (if any at all) in Syria. Add to that the fact that many of these very “experts” don’t speak Arabic (which should be the minimal requirement for being considered a Middle East expert or professional analyst), which for most respectable postgraduate Middle East studies programs is an absolute minimal qualification.

I myself would never claim to be an expert, but I do have something which I’m constantly surprised to learn that many of the foremost pundits and public experts lack: a significant amount of time spent in country.

A couple of years ago my colleagues and I began writing about Syria not necessarily because we were enthused to do so or had a lot of time on our hands (we all have busy teaching schedules), but because the narrative which dominated major media and other public forums was so atrocious, so full of very simple errors, that audible laughs would often result upon us hearing the reporter on the TV screen (whether this was a FOX, CNN, NBC reporter, etc…) offer up utter falsehoods alongside whatever think tank panelist happened to be there giving the lies “credibility” and air of authenticity (ex: “the Syrian regime is Shia” is something heard a lot back then.)

We would see deeply flawed “news” about events on this or that street inside this or that village in Syria and felt compelled to at least vent our frustration through writing articles which few might ever see. Our “expertise” was not bookish or necessarily based on formal credentials, but we simply tried to “write what we know” from having stood on “this or that street” many times or having lived in “this or that village” at some point a few summers prior.

For example, my colleague Dr. Tim Heckenlively one day saw one of Anne Barnard’s (Beirut bureau chief for the NY Times) standard propaganda pieces in “the paper of record” on the Battle of Maaloula and knew it to be false based simply on having physically stood in the town. At first we waited and figured that surely somebody working for a major newsroom who had been to Maaloula, and knew the topography there, would point out Barnard’s glaring errors concerning the source of the shelling and destruction of churches. Surely somebody out there personally knew Mother Pelagia Sayyaf (who had been held at gunpoint by rebels, and forced to make a propaganda video) and understood she was being paraded in front of the camera under duress (Barnard and others would promote the narrative that the FSA/Nusra forces were “liberating” the ancient Christian town).

But a much needed corrective never appeared outside of independent media. Tim knew Maaloula and Mother Pelagia quite well and was easily able to deconstruct Barnard’s false report (which she wrote far from Maaloula in Beirut). While Tim’s article never made it into papers or onto big news sites, it was promoted and appreciated by some true experts who’ve actually been to Maaloula (and ironically, the article was “favorited” by Barnard herself; it should further be noted that, as As’ad AbuKhalil routinely points out, Barnard doesn’t know Arabic). This case of Maaloula is but an old example of something I’ve seen play out many times since then.

Stephen Kinzer made waves recently for his article “The Media are Misleading the Public on Syria” published in The Boston Globe. Its brilliance lies in articulating how the media and experts keep getting Syria so wrong from a “media culture” perspective (for lack of a better term). Kinzer breaks down the corporate media “machinery” and its process which continues to ensure that bad analysis makes it to the top:

Under intense financial pressure, most American newspapers, magazines, and broadcast networks have drastically reduced their corps of foreign correspondents. Much important news about the world now comes from reporters based in Washington. In that environment, access and credibility depend on acceptance of official paradigms. Reporters who cover Syria check with the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, and think tank “experts.” After a spin on that soiled carousel, they feel they have covered all sides of the story. This form of stenography produces the pabulum that passes for news about Syria.

Yes, this means you too can be considered a Middle East “expert” so long as you get the right internship in the right DC beltway or NYC newsroom or think-tank. Forget about the days of getting your start trekking around the region of your expertise, getting to know the people, language, and customs…you can even become a media darling from the comfort of your own couch without ever having to apply for a passport!

Kinzer’s article has struck a deep chord (esp. as it was published in a visible, major paper) with biting lines like these:

Americans are said to be ignorant of the world. We are, but so are people in other countries. If people in Bhutan or Bolivia misunderstand Syria, however, that has no real effect. Our ignorance is more dangerous, because we act on it.

Kinzer is shining a spotlight on this whole sham enterprise from the perspective of a veteran foreign correspondent who has spent decades inside the media establishment (he himself is not claiming to be an expert on Syria, but he is an expert on the ills of newsroom culture). The whole process whereby a certain orthodox view of a foreign conflict gets entrenched, and from that point on must remain unquestioned, is indeed dangerous. As I wrote before: “American assumptions never line up with Eastern realities, yet our power combined with ignorance continues to sow disaster.”

Ironically, Kinzer’s point about reporters/analysts “not being over there” and the ignorance that results was given confirmation in the example of the very first person to attempt a point-by-point critical attack of Kinzer’s article. UK-based Kyle Orton wrote his “Assad and the Academics: Disinformation in the Modern Era” as a direct response to Kinzer.

Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprising), Orton has been published and quoted widely in multiple international and mainstream outlets. He recently had a New York Times op-ed piece called “How Saddam Hussein Gave Us ISIS” (which also ran in the print edition), wherein he argues that U.S. intervention and occupation in Iraq had little if anything to do with the rise of ISIS (elsewhere he’s argued the “Assad behind ISIS” conspiracy theory, long ago debunked by real experts).

Orton’s NYT bio is nice and official sounding: “Kyle W. Orton, a Middle East analyst, is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank.”  But a rebuttal of Orton’s NYT piece written in Foreign Policy has it right when it leaves him simply as “blogger Kyle W. Orton.” The FP article authors Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill used their knowledge of…ya know…Arabic to analyze Iraqi archives and quickly proved Orton’s claims to be baseless:

These depictions are inaccurate and dangerously misleading, as documents in the Iraqi archives and at Hoover Institution’s Ba’ath Party records make clear. Our rigorous study of those records has found no evidence that Saddam or his Baathist regime in Iraq displayed any sympathy for Islamism, Salafism, or Wahhabism.

I too was at first under the impression that Orton must have some level of serious training or knowledge of Syria or Iraq until I realized he’s stepped foot in neither country (which he in so many words admitted to me directly).

Orton’s own bio on his blog includes the following: “After a misbegotten degree in zoology (biology), I completed a social science Masters in Humanitarian Studies at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine…”. Little more needs to be said, other than the good news for anyone with aspirations of being published in the New York Times: at present they must be desperate for contributors, or at least writers that can tow the line. Again, one need not leave their couch.

I admit that finding in Orton a prime example of Stephen Kinzer’s fundamental point is perhaps going after “low hanging fruit” but I’ve encountered this too many times in Syria discussions (though the most absurd case confirming Kinzer’s article is “Rocket Man” Elliot Higgins…and yes the following are real sentences about him written in The New Yorker, not The Onion: “Although Higgins has never been to Syria, and until recently had no connection to the country, he has become perhaps the foremost expert on the munitions used in the war… When he doesn’t recognize a weapon, he researches it, soliciting information from his many followers on Facebook and Twitter.”).

I’ll leave off with the below exchange I had with Orton, wherein I realized that he was making simple mistakes for lack of direct experience that would be impossible to make for even the casual backpackers who used to fill up the youth hostels of Damascus back in better days. Anyone who has spent even as little as a week in Syria anytime in the past decade (or more) knows of a certain long-standing custom of the Syrian presidency on all major religious holidays like Christmas and Easter.

When I realized Orton’s confusion came from never having stepped foot in Syria, I said: “[You] Would know this if you had experienced Syria”…Orton of course changed the subject. And nothing more needs to be said.

 

 

FEATURED: A MARINE GOES TO SYRIA

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Brad Hoff Interviewed by ANC Report

 

Key documents and articles referenced in the show:

  1. My original report on the 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency ‘Islamic State’ document.
  2. 1980 DIA report “Assad’s Prospects” at CIA FOIA Reading Room.
  3. 1982 DIA “Special Analysis” entitled “Syria: Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies” (this was initially viewable at Foreignpolicy.com but is now not available at this location)
  4. DIA reports on Muslim Brotherhood/Syrian Government conflict from 1980’s are covered in an Oct. 2014 article by Sharmine Narwani
  5. An excellent little known background history of CIA/Western clandestine intervention in Syria going back to the 1950’s, and the regional “pressure cooker” that aided Syria’s formation into an authoritarian security state: “The Baby and the Ba’ath Water” by the BBC’s Adam Curtis
  6. 2011-2012 Arab League Observer Mission to Syria report documenting attacks and sabotage of Syrian resource infrastructure by unknown groups.
  7. For commentary and a selection of relevant passages from the Arab League report, see here.
  8. My December 2013 article covering mainstream media admissions of rebel chemical weapons possession and usage.
  9. Final United Nations report on chemical weapons usage in Syria.
  10. “Gay Girl in Damascus” hoax which was originally pushed in international media for propaganda purposes.
  11. CNN’s “Syrian Danny” hoax; also see Anderson Cooper’s final awkward interview with Danny in which Anderson asks him about the staged nature of Danny’s video reports from Syria.
  12. Wall Street Journal coverage of Joseph Schmitz and Blackwater (now called Academi) attempt to carry out a large scale private weapons shipment plan to arm anti-government fighers in Syria.
  13. For more about the “long war” for the identity of Syria, see Patrick Seale’s foundational work on modern Syria, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (1988). For scholarly discussion of the question of clandestine external support for the 1982 Hama uprising see especially chapter 19, “The Enemy Within.”

Brad Hoff Interviewed by TRUTH IN MEDIA on Syria, DIA Report, & Media’s Failure

Truth in Media/Joshua Cook — Military veteran and journalist Brad Hoff has a unique perspective of Syria after living there off and on for years.

“I ended up settling down in Syria, and loved the culture, loved the people,” he said to Joshua Cook in an exclusive interview.

Hoff said that of course he saw problems there, but the typical stereotypes that he had of the region shattered.

“Got really interested in how the media was covering Syria, and that’s what really got me involved in writing about the place,” he explained. “The mainstream media writing about the conflict in Syria just completely failed on so many fronts.”

The Daily Beast’s coverage of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report, Hoff said, was a hit piece

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW at Truth in Media…

The DIA Islamic State Story & Going Out on a Limb with Independent Muckraking

My reporting began going viral within days after being published on May 19. Investigative journalist and best-selling author Nafeez Ahmed,  whose counter-terrorism work gained official recognition by the 9/11 Commission, followed on May 22 with an excellent in-depth investigative piece on the DIA report at INSURGE intelligence, which greatly expanded on my report, putting it into full geopolitical context.

Most significantly, Nafeez was able to get a public statement from the British Foreign Office:

“AQ and ISIL are proscribed terrorist organisations. The UK opposes all forms of terrorism. AQ, ISIL, and their affiliates pose a direct threat to the UK’s national security. We are part of a military and political coalition to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and are working with international partners to counter the threat from AQ and other terrorist groups in that region. In Syria we have always supported those moderate opposition groups who oppose the tyranny of Assad and the brutality of the extremists.”

This carefully prepared, formal and to-be-expected denial managed to give the story more visibility. Over the following weekend, RT News, the flagship Russian network, which claims distribution reach to about 700 million households in over 100 countries, relied heavily on content found on LevantReport.com for its coverage of the DIA document as well as former Ambabassador to Syria Robert Ford’s prior relationship to ISIS-linked commander Col. Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi.

On the heels of Russian coverage, the story made headlines in national German news, carried across leading daily newspapers and in some of the top circulating political magazines. This included, among others: Junge Welt, Die Welt, News.de, General Anzeiger, FOCUS Online, WAZ (Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung), Hamburger Abendblatt,Ostthuringer Zeitung, and the German TV news channel, n-TV.

When news of the August 2012 DIA document swept Russia and Iran after that first weekend I must have popped up on DIA’s “radar”. Before this, I had contacted DIA Public Affairs on Friday, May 22, just prior to going on The Scott Horton Show, hoping to gain some kind of better context though which to understand the document, but got no response.

The following Monday, after the initial foreign media coverage, the DIA public affairs spokesman sent me an email, left a voice message on my phone, and said he was ready to receive questions. I was caught off guard by this unexpected development, as I represent no big network, am not a professional journo, and typically my analysis/editorial site does not even get much visibility.

I’m as independent as it gets. In fact, the night I wrote the story I had just finished grading stacks of final exams (as I am a teacher with a hectic schedule). A retired military intelligence veteran told me, in an online forum, that I must have “hit a nerve” in order for the DIA to contact me so quickly after the weekend (the DIA monitors foreign media as part of their intelligence collection mission).

The other factor must have been the sudden visibility in the U.S. that Nafeez Ahmed’s piece got when it was copied to Zero Hedge—the financial blog referred to by many as “the Drudge Report of Wall Street”—the report got 250,000 views in a matter of a couple days (and as of this writing has 350,000+). But again, it was likely the foreign coverage that gained their attention, and prompted the DIA to return my call.

This whole episode represents the complete failure of American mainstream media. That an invisible freelance writer with a day job, and with no broader backing of any kind, would have to nervously push this story because the mainstream media wouldn’t touch it, only using the Benghazi angle for the purpose of a partisan fight against Hilary, represents an indictment of all those organizations that are so concerned over their reputations, that they dare not “go out on a limb” in fear of being accused of dabbling in “conspiracies”.

I literally (and quite rudely) had to run out of a faculty meeting in order to take the DIA’s call. As I fired questions at DIA spokesman James Kudla, I remembered thinking… why had this fallen on me to do this, and not someone whose job it actually is to grill government agency officials? But I was reminded why I was doing it by DIA’s surprising responses, as a Middle East Eye column explains:

When asked repeatedly by journalist and ex-US marine Brad Hoff to dispel claims that the West aligned itself with IS or ISIS at some point in Syria, the DIA’s official response was telling: “No comment.”

A new day has dawned in America when a government agency representing the military can’t comment over whether its intel says “the West backed ISIS.” It should have been an easy denial—I expected to be told to pack up my tin foil hat and go home.

But that’s not what happened after pushing hard for that expected denial; and yes, it is telling when an America veteran is given a “no comment” to a question as simple as, “Are you able to at least deny that the DIA’s analysis revealed that the West backed ISIS at some point during the conflict in Syria?” But perhaps the DIA spokesman was just trying to be as honest as the original intelligence information report. It is simply something he can’t deny.

But I was never alone in my reporting. While FOX News and others refused to pursue the shocking contents of the particular DIA information report in question (though they had paid-staffers and reporters pouring through the collection of docs), it was non-mainstream outlets like Moon of Alabama, Antiwar.com, Foreign Policy Journal, the Scott Horton Show, and countless independent journalists and blogs that were the first to realize the newsworthiness of the contents.  To you all I say thank you.

Slowly, reporting of the document is creeping into the U.S. mainstream. “Headline & Global News” has published two reports (see here and here), while Breitbart.com has reluctantly acknowledged (beneath a Benghazi headline) that the report is “right on the nose” in predicting that a terror-driven “Islamic State” would arise out of militarized U.S. support to the opposition in Syria, and a May 28 Salon.com article pointed us to “The Benghazi outrage we should actually be talking about: Newly revealed documents show how the CIA stood by as arms shipments from Libya enabled the rise of ISIS.”

The stakes are high. On Monday, May 25, it was widely reported that the U.S. and Turkey reached some level of agreement for a planned no fly zone over Syria in support of the opposition insurgents each country has agreed to train and send into the conflict zone. This proposed strategy would see so-called “moderate” rebels attempt to fight both ISIS and the Syrian government at the same time (even as all “moderate” groups declare that their true ultimate goal is to fight the Syrian government). Such an escalation would be bad for the people of the region, bad for America, and bad for our long overextended armed forces.

But knowledge of the DIA ISIS document threatens to awaken the American people from their slumber. They have been told non-stop, from all corners, that Islamic State is the single greatest and most horrific terror threat that mankind has ever seen, representing a new and unique form of evil.

Americans need to read about the origins of IS in the plain words of the internal Pentagon document. They need to know that a defense official couldn’t simply say that the idea of the West backing the Islamic State was ludicrous. They need to know that in America one is now forced by the realities of recent alliances to say “no comment” to such a question that only a few short years ago would be unthinkable to even formulate.

While the mainstream media will likely refuse to cover this, it is not going away. Rand Paul is in a fight with hawks in his own party. Very recently, Paul cryptically referenced the DIA document in support of his argument that it wasn’t U.S. troop withdrawal that allowed for IS’s rise, but the decision to arm and fund, and give political support to the Syrian rebels (he likely learned about this document through his father, see video above). As the campaign for the Republican nomination heats up, he is sure to reference the document more vocally. At that point, the mainstream will be forced to acknowledge the document, and it will become part of the national conversation.

More recently, The Huffington Post, The Guardian (UK), and Jacobin reported on the DIA document. No matter how much resistance there is in establishment discourse, this is not going away.

Will the DIA document on Syria be reported in the mainstream U.S. media?

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AS OF THIS WRITING our reporting on the newly declassified August 2012 DIA document has yet to make it into mainstream media in the West; it has however, made it into RT News. On Saturday, RT’s International English broadcast, based in London and Washington D.C., relied on Levant Report’s original reporting of both the DIA document and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford’s prior relationship to ISIS aligned militants.

Monday (5/25) and Tuesday will be significant days to see whether the story gathers enough momentum in the press to elicit an official response from Washington. For this to happen the DIA document would have to be covered in British media, or by an American newsroom with enough clout to attract attention, like McClatchy’s Washington Bureau or The Intercept, in order to get the ball rolling.

The well-known investigative journalist and best-selling author Nafeez Ahmed,  whose counter-terrorism work gained official recognition by the 9/11 Commission, published an excellent in-depth investigative piece on the DIA report at INSURGE intelligence.

Nafeez was recently a columnist for The Guardian, one of Britain’s big three national newspapers, and is still based in the UK. He took to Twitter over the weekend and announced that he is currently attempting to push the story into mainstream media, as the DIA document contains startling revelations that deserve the world’s attention and candid debate:

OF COURSE, MANY OF THESE  establishment media outlets have been so heavily invested in advancing a particular set of false assumptions regarding the dynamics of the conflict in Syria, that they would be loath to publish anything that damages their own credibility, even should clear evidence in official government documents contradict the prior reporting.

We are living in an age in which the unique propaganda system that operates in the West is so effective that it often doesn’t matter if government officials admit that they were purposefully promoting a false narrative, or were engaged in criminal conspiracy.

So long as their admissions come long after the fact, and so long as they occupy positions of prestige and respect, they can expect not to come under close scrutiny by a media establishment that itself was complicit in uncritically parroting their falsehoods all along.

We at Levant Report have been trying to shine a spotlight on former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford’s material support of Al-Qaeda for a long time. In February 2015, he openly confessed to having given support to ISIS and Al-Nusra terrorists after being questioned by Al-Monitor News journalist Edward Dark (a violation of Title 18 U.S. Code § 2339A – Providing material support to terrorists)—

Robert Ford Twitter Exchange                                   Click image for enlargement

THE TWITTER HANDLE, @fordrs58 is indeed Ambassador Robert Ford’s account, as was confirmed to me in a personal email by Dr. Joshua Landis, Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the most well-known Syria scholar in the United States.

Ford’s admission came after a lengthy Twitter conversation in response to an original Feb. 18, 2015 entry by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Aaron Lund. Though Ford might now claim “good intentions” or that he was merely following orders from the State Dept., this defense certainly didn’t work for the multiple FBI arrests and successful prosecutions of American citizens that arguably had even less involvement—and at lower levels—with rebels in the Syrian conflict.

While RT News broadcast the video evidence of Ford’s crimes, it remains for American media and US Congress to begin asking serious questions about the State Dept., DOD, and CIA’s relationship with confessed ISIS collaborators on the Syrian battlefield. At the very least, a serious Congressional investigation is warranted. Americans must demand this.

FEATURED FROM THE EDITOR

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