Seeing is believing Jobar, Syria, April 16, 2013. On the frontlines of Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Free Syrian Army rebels treat their exposure to chemical weapons used by the Assad regime with eye drops of prednisolone acetate, an anti-imflammatory drug.(Laurent Van der Stockt)
Coverage of chemical weapons in Syria is in some ways a story of redemption. For major news organizations, it’s a chance to shake free the demons left over from their reporting in the lead-up to war in Iraq. In the months before the large-scale chemical attack in Damascus that killed hundreds in August 2013, newsrooms went to great lengths to caveat any reporting about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, always cautious to stop short of confirmation.
When the world wanted clarity about chemical weapons use in Syria, newsrooms held back, hyperaware of the consequences of being wrong. But the media’s preoccupation with whether and how chemical weapons were used also stole attention from the brutality of barrel bombs, forced starvation, and other conventional weapons that have accounted for 99 percent of Syria’s war dead. The focus on the geopolitical ramifications of chemical weapons in some ways masked the true scale of the tragedy on the ground.
A decade earlier, the media reported freely about the likelihood that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. That reporting gave credence to claims by the Bush administration, Great Britain, and the United Nations that Hussein had lied about his chemical, nuclear, and biological arsenals, and that he posed an imminent danger to world peace. It took a brutal war and a bloody occupation to determine that Hussein had no WMD.
In the aftermath of that catastrophic war, the Western media’s gullibility swelled into one of its biggest blunders in at least a decade. The press wasn’t going to make that mistake again when allegations surfaced that Syria’s known stockpile of chemical weapons might be deployed in its escalating civil war. On August 20, 2012, President Obama issued a warning that echoed similar language in the run-up to Iraq: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Newsrooms were acutely aware of the parallels. “Given the American experience of the Iraq war, we did not want to build a case for war that, when looked at carefully, may have been based on faulty evidence,” said Peter Gelling, Middle East and Africa editor at the time at GlobalPost’s site devoted to world news.
Other editors and reporters overseeing coverage of Syria’s war when fragmentary reports of chemical use first surfaced exercised similar restraint. “There was kind of a consensus among us that we need to be really cautious,” said Joby Warrick, a former national security reporter at The Washington Post who covered the run-up to the Iraq war. The Iraq experience had left him and others at the paper with a sense of the pitfalls of overly definitive coverage
By December 2012, the first fragmentary reports emerged from Syrian activists and “citizen media” that small and moderate-sized gas attacks were being carried out in the context of a widespread, increasingly brutal, and complex civil war. Did the reports constitute a breach of Obama’s red line? Typically, the media might try to answer such a war-or-peace question independently. Yet early reports of chemical use arose at a time when kidnapping and violence made it difficult for US and European reporters to travel in Syria’s rebel-held zones, where most of the worst fighting raged.
Absent eyewitness accounts of their own, Western newspapers and broadcasters could draw on video and testimony from Syrian media. An analysis of citizen- and activist-media reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria between December 2012 and June 2013 found a dozen cases where multiple sources reported the same attack. Yet because most Western outlets had neither their own reporters on the ground nor any way to conduct medical or scientific tests of alleged victims, they often held back, sometimes citing “allegations” of attacks but often not reporting them at all.