behind the news

The ghosts of Iraq

In the wake of the Iraq WMD debacle, the press has been hesitant to report decisively on violence in Syria
June 5, 2014

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.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.

As late as April 2013, after multiple allegations of chemical weapons use, the editorial board at The New York Times urged restraint, calling the evidence against Assad thin and reminding readers of the false claims made before the Iraq invasion. The Times was heavily criticized for inadequately challenging the Bush administration’s “evidence” during the Iraq debate. In an extraordinary editors’ note in May 2004, the paper acknowledged that some of its reporting was less than rigorous, insufficiently qualified, and too reliant on sources with a strong tilt toward regime change. Redemption for Iraq came by way of an abundance of caution in Syria.

New media and old

The Syrian conflict has played out in a very different media environment than the one that prevailed in 2002 and 2003. The barriers between citizens and professional journalists have collapsed. Much of what the world knows about the Syrian conflict has come from unverified videos, social-media postings, and citizen-media accounts. Monitoring groups like the Violations Documentation Center and the Syrian Network for Human Rights document the war from the ground. Other organizations, like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Brown Moses blog, report from outside Syria but leverage contacts within the country and technology platforms like Google Earth imagery to verify the raw content they receive.

Yet newsrooms have struggled with how to apply traditional verification standards to volumes of content from unknown sources. “I can’t look at a video and know when it was shot, where it was shot, who was shooting it, whether what I’m looking at was really there or planted there,” said Michael Slackman, deputy foreign editor at The New York Times.

Citizen reporting from inside Syria could be thorough and convincing. But it could also be biased, because many of the citizen journalists were also activists seeking Assad’s overthrow.

In spring 2013, when the French and British governments said they had biological evidence that chemical weapons had been used, the Times tried to independently verify the claims by sending a reporter to southern Turkey to assess the chain of custody for material leaving the country for testing. (“Chain of custody” refers to the collection and transport of biological samples that may contain evidence of a chemical attack; such samples have to be handled according to certain protocols to be considered reliable.)

The Times‘ reporter couldn’t confirm that the samples were legitimate, so the paper decided not to report that chemical weapons had been used. Instead, it described the underlying facts about the alleged use of chemical weapons as far from clear. That became the media’s approach: report the allegations but heavily qualify them.

The Assad government rarely granted visas, and when it did, it monitored and restricted the movements of reporters it allowed in. And travelling unauthorized over the border through Turkey had become a deadly game of journalistic roulette. Sixty-four journalists have been killed in Syria since 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, making Syria the deadliest country in the world for reporters.

Three news organizations–Le Monde, the BBC, and GlobalPost–managed to get reporters into places where chemical weapons allegedly were being used. Their reporting last year was more vivid and more detailed than their competitors’. Yet even these intrepid reporters typically had to qualify their reporting because of the difficulty of establishing scientifically that chemicals like the highly lethal sarin had been used, as witnesses and victims described.

Tracey Shelton had been sneaking in and out of Syria for months reporting for GlobalPost when she filed a story in late April 2013 claiming that chemical weapons had been used in Sheikh Maqsoud, a neighborhood on the northern edge of Aleppo. Her editors scrolled through cellphone images and interviews Shelton had conducted with eyewitnesses and fighters, all of which provided a hideous account of violence and suffering. Fully aware of the consequences of reporting definitively that chemical weapons had been used, Shelton’s editors brought in medical experts to evaluate the symptoms described in the reporting. They concluded that it seemed unlikely that the attack involved sarin, a banned chemical weapon believed to be prominent in Syria’s arsenal.

Tremors and constricted pupils–a condition called myosis–are the primary indicators of sarin exposure. While some victims described tremors, no one, including the doctors Shelton interviewed, had reported myosis. They also confirmed that a sarin gas attack, as was alleged in the reporting, would affect anyone who had come into contact with it, including rescue workers. A small amount could be lethal. The number of survivors seemed inconsistent with a sarin attack. The headline on Shelton’s story reflected the lingering doubts: “Syria: The horrific chemical weapons attack that probably wasn’t a chemical weapons attack.”

Ian Pannell, a reporter at the BBC, snuck into Syria in May 2013. He went to Saraqeb to investigate the alleged April 29 attack. Pannell met with victims who claimed that a government helicopter dropped at least two chemical canisters on the town. He was shown videos of the attack and its aftermath. He interviewed residents and rebel fighters extensively, and sent all of the footage to a former British military officer with expertise in chemical weapons. That expert had also reviewed evidence collected from other alleged attacks and believed that, taken together, it was likely that sarin or another nerve agent had been used. The BBC reported all of this at the time, but also included the caveat that it was impossible to verify the victims’ accounts.

It took two courageous French reporters to break through the fog. Jean-Philippe Remy and Laurent Van der Stockt, reporters at Le Monde, snuck into Syria in April 2013 and did not resurface for two months. When they did, they carried urine samples that a French laboratory later confirmed contained evidence of exposure to chemical weapons. After months of qualified reporting, Le Monde reported–conclusively–that chemical weapons had been used.

On August 21, 2013, hundreds of people died in a chemical attack launched outside Damascus. Doctors treating victims who arrived choking at local hospitals concluded that a nerve agent had been used. Videos showing mass burials of shrouded corpses rocketed around the world. Eventually, the United Nations affirmed that the attack involved chemical weapons banned under international law. The United States, Britain, France, and other governments today assert–and most media accounts of the August 21 attack now report as fact–that Assad’s forces were responsible for the atrocity.

The attack changed the course of the Syrian war. To avoid intervention by the West, Assad agreed to place his chemical weapons stocks under UN control and export them for destruction. Assad seemingly capitulated on chemical weapons in order to continue prosecuting a grisly conventional war that has claimed the lives of 150,000 people and displaced over nine million.

For some of the war’s chroniclers, Obama’s focus on chemical weapons remains frustrating. “They’re completely destroying a city of three million people with these barrel bombs,” said Liz Sly of The Washington Post, referring to Aleppo. “That’s not banned, nobody’s called any red lines, and people think that somehow something has been done because chemical weapons were solved.”

Many editors and reporters echoed Sly’s frustrations. While a shaky compromise may rid Syria of chemical weapons, the conflict has devolved into an appalling war of attrition. Conventional weapons, such as barrel bombs dropped indiscriminately from airplanes on civilian neighborhoods, have overwhelmed a traumatized Syrian population. Casualty counts from conventional fighting have far exceeded the damage done by chemical weapons. Citizen media have lately flooded the internet with reports that the Syrian government is loading barrel bombs with chlorine gas and dropping them from helicopters. Western reporters are doing what they can to verify these latest alleged atrocities.

In May, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, declared during a visit to the White House that, “We have at least 14 indications that in recent weeks new chemical weapons in a smaller scale have been used–in particular chlorine.” He made no mention, however, of any red line.

This piece is part of a four-month study, completed by the author and 26 of his fellow students, of the media’s coverage of chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian war. The entire study can be found at John Albert, Pierre Bienaimé, Portia Crowe, Joanna Plucinska, Ameena Qayyum, Younjoo Sang, Marie Shabaya, and Manon Verchot contributed reporting to this article.

An earlier version of this story ran online before it was published in the July/August issue of the magazine. That version has been replaced with this one.

Chris Mossa is freelance journalist and a student at the Columbia Journalism School