Syria, foreign policy, and the limits of journalistic impact

March 25, 2021
Idlib, Syria, March 2021: Two Syrian children take part in a mass demonstration held to mark the tenth anniversary of the Syrian civil war. Photo by Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In terms of raw footage, the Syrian civil war may be the most extensively documented conflict in history. Cellphones capture what TV cameras miss. Satellite imagery compares the state of military and archaeological sites before and after their destruction. Syrian journalists cut their teeth writing, filming, and photographing the conflict, while foreign journalists parachute into Idlib, all filing the same story about the “last rebel stronghold.” Not a few journalists, Syrian and foreign, have lost their lives.

When discussing Syria with reporters who have covered the country, I come across a common theme, namely a frustration that their work has done little to stop the bloodshed. As Arwa Damon, a CNN correspondent, wrote: “There were moments where I wished I could transport the decision-makers to Syria so they could bear witness to the extreme suffering and injustice. We tried to depict it, report it as best we could, as raw as we could, but it seemed not to phase them [sic]. Maybe living it for a brief moment would.” Josie Ensor, of the Telegraph, wrote that “it’s a hard thing for a journalist to acknowledge, looking back on a body of work, to realise it has had so little impact. At least, I try to tell myself, we have been on the right side of history.” In private conversations, I’ve often heard similar sentiments.

This phenomenon isn’t new. In 1997, a reporter named Warren Strobel wrote a study of the media’s effect on peacekeeping operations, Late-Breaking Foreign Policy. In the book, Strobel analyzes the so-called “CNN effect.” The theory goes that images of starving children and war victims push policymakers into taking actions that they wouldn’t have otherwise pursued. In turn, he writes, “many senior Western diplomats complain [that] the print and broadcast media can urge action without being responsible for the consequences.” But after a close look at humanitarian interventions just after the end of the Cold War, in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda, and northern Iraq, Strobel concludes that the CNN effect is not as powerful as it seems.

Strobel acknowledges that images have an impact on both policymakers and public opinion but argues that, by themselves, they are not enough to push either in favor of intervention in a conflict. They can also have the opposite effect: images of starving Somalis helped prompt a response from the White House in 1992, but the bodies of US soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, the capital, later helped turn Americans against the intervention. It is not the mere fact of military casualties that shifts public opinion, ultimately, but whether or not the public is persuaded of the national interest at stake. The American public was well aware of the deaths during World War II, for example, but accepted them as a necessary price to pay to defeat Nazism, a threat it saw as existential; during the US mission in Somalia, by contrast, policymakers and the media failed to make as clear and passionate a case for American involvement. Even Keith Richburg, a Washington Post correspondent who covered many of the events described in Strobel’s book, later concluded, in Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, that “in Somalia, there aren’t any good guys, just varying gradations of evil.” If that’s the view of a reporter covering events on the ground, it’s hard to blame the public for losing interest in a war as it became impossible to distinguish the good guys from the bad—or to know which the US was.


A few years after Strobel reached the conclusion that the press plays a minimal role in prompting peacekeeping operations, he was working for Knight Ridder, as part of a team covering the Iraq War for its newspapers. Ahead of other major media outlets, Knight Ridder understood that the Bush administration’s case for war had been built on faulty intelligence. In talking to midlevel analysts at the State Department and the CIA, rather than administration officials, the team was able to poke holes in the official story about weapons of mass destruction. The opening line of an article from October 2002 sums up the findings succinctly: “While President Bush marshals congressional and international support for invading Iraq, a growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats in his own government privately have deep misgivings about the administration’s double-time march toward war.”

The Iraq War was not a peacekeeping operation, but Strobel’s previous analysis is nevertheless useful in considering what went wrong in the lead-up to the invasion. Judith Miller, whose career at the New York Times ended because of misreporting ahead of the war, said in an interview with Jon Stewart that almost everybody got it wrong “except for Knight Ridder.” The Iraq War is indeed a study in the relationship between media and government—and also of the media itself. In the same interview, Stewart complained that the press had been manipulated, and Miller replied: “All journalists are manipulated, and all politicians lie.”

In his book, Strobel attributes much of the manipulation of the media to the ethics of journalism, which create a “prison of our own making.” Reporters, in theory, are not supposed to insert their own opinions or analyses into stories, so they are instructed to rely on others’; if they doubt a story, they need a source who can express that doubt. “My colleagues and I perform our adversarial role, of course, challenging official statements during press briefings—and challenging them even more harshly in later conversations among ourselves,” Strobel explains. “But the actual reports we file usually reflect only in pale form the private doubts of highly knowledgeable and experienced correspondents.” He adds, “We know when we are being used, and we resent it.”

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That level of introspection is rare. Two administrations ago, Ben Rhodes, a top White House official, made waves in conservative media when he said that the Obama administration had created an “echo chamber” during the run-up to the Iran nuclear deal. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he told the Times. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is twenty-seven years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.” 

It wasn’t just the press that struggled to understand the specifics of the nuclear deal: when it was being debated, I was in my late twenties, working as a Senate staffer, and I felt entirely unable to wrap my mind around the specifics. I imagine many congressional staffers felt the same in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Of course, the daunting task of understanding complex subject matter does not excuse the media’s lack of scrutiny when it comes to the Iraq War, the Iran deal, or anything else. And staffers like Rhodes, in trying to advance a certain narrative, are, as expected, doing their job. But journalists have to be clear about doing theirs.


W hen it comes to Syria, the biggest problem with the coverage has been quality, not quantity. Over time, the press has found itself increasingly removed from the complexities of the story. At the beginning, in 2011, when the first protests broke out, journalists were able to write from Damascus and other cities. Many of the correspondents were in the country to learn Arabic, as I used to be. But then those people had to fly home; gradually, reporters only ventured to opposition strongholds like Aleppo and Idlib. Today, though a few journalists still go to the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo and Idlib, most travel almost exclusively to northeastern Syria, which is run by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Only a handful of these reporters speak Arabic or another local language; few, in my encounters with them, know the basics of Syrian history, such as how the country was governed before the Assad regime took over, in 1970. In the northeast, they arrange meetings through a translator with the Autonomous Administration or, occasionally, through outspoken opponents of the regime. But rarely does the press get the opinions of hotel managers or shopkeepers or schoolteachers—people who tend to be less dogmatic about any given side of the conflict. If journalists travel to government-controlled areas, they are likely prevented from speaking to anyone expressing pro-opposition sentiments, yet cautious supporters of the government probably receive the least amount of coverage—despite being perhaps the most decisive demographic in securing the reign of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad.

Journalists who lament that their work has not changed the outcome of the Syrian conflict would do well to recall Strobel’s analysis. When it comes to humanitarian interventions, he wrote, “the rules of wartime—where Congress, the public, and even the media suspend doubts for the greater national good—do not apply.” Had the US sought to remove Assad from power, images of human suffering alone would not have sufficed to justify military intervention in an ongoing conflict where America had not been attacked. Only when Americans saw the spread of ISIS, a maniacal terrorist group, did the goings-on in Syria seem an obvious threat to their interests; when the Obama administration intervened, the action was met mostly with support. 

During the Cold War, when global Soviet influence was seen as detrimental to the US, American ideas about foreign intervention made a dramatic shift; sending out soldiers was portrayed as being a matter of national security. That left open many questions—where, how, why, whose lives would be lost—that it fell to the press to answer. But as Strobel put it, after the Cold War ended, “neither the Clinton administration nor the foreign policy establishment, by their own admission, has come up with a satisfactory replacement for the doctrine of containment as a guiding principle for U.S. foreign policy. New rules for American military intervention are still being fleshed out.” Today’s press would be wise to look back on this recent past—and accept that the pursuit of truth does not lead to a particular outcome. Acknowledging that is the first step to restoring a healthy relationship both with the public and with policymakers. Building the necessary expertise to challenge official narratives should be journalism’s first priority.

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Sam Sweeney is a writer and translator based in the Middle East. He is a former Capitol Hill staffer and has a Master's degree in Islamic-Christian Relations from l’Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut. He is also the president of the Mesopotamia Relief Foundation, which works in northeastern Syria.