5 May 2013

An extraordinary mushroom cloud appeared atop Mount Qasioun overlooking Damascus this weekend when the Israeli Air Force bombed munitions depots believed to be storing chemical weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is not the first time since Syria’s civil war broke out that Israel has intervened to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and it probably won’t be the last.

Initially both Hezbollah and the Syrian government denied the attack even took place. That’s exactly what the regime did in 2007 when Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor. .

No one can know for sure why they decided to stop playing coy and pretend nothing happened, but I can guess. Take a look at this extraordinary video some Syrian rebels uploaded to YouTube. That was one hell of a strike. And if the Israelis didn’t do it, that means the Syrian rebels would take the credit.

The Syrian rebels, of course, don’t have the ability to do anything of the sort. Bashar al-Assad would be in deadly serious trouble if they did. Nor can Assad afford to let anyone think they have that kind of firepower unless he can absorb even more defections and a loss of morale on his own side, which he can’t.

Whether for that reason or another, he and Hezbollah realized they had to admit the Israelis hit them and hit them hard where it counted.

But that’s not all they said. No, that would simply not do. Assad is also accusing the Israelis of coordinating their air strikes with terrorists from the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. That’s how he rolls. It’s how much of the Middle East rolls and has for decades.

It’s a simple to understand formula: Always point the finger at Israel. If a different enemy deserves blame instead, accuse them of collaboration with Israel. When Israel is clearly responsible (as it was in this case), accuse your enemies of collaboration with Israel just because and for extra credit.

The Syrian rebels are doing it, too. They condemned the Israeli strike. I’m guessing they’re secretly grateful, but they did issue a formal condemnation for public consumption, most likely to inoculate themselves from the accusation from Assad they knew for certain was coming. They couldn’t leave the extra credit there on the table, so they’re saying the Assad regime was complicit in Israel’s strike.

It’s complete nonsense, of course, but that’s how it works over there.

Assad is especially adept at this game. Everyone, especially journalists who quote people for a living, needs to understand that. Yet they don’t. The BBC let Assad write their headline. Israeli strikes on Syria ‘co-ordinated with terrorists’ it says. That’s the actual headline. It was literally written by Assad’s foreign ministry.

Of course the words “co-ordinated with terrorists” are inside quotation marks, and the article makes it clear that this accusation comes from the Syrian government, but most people who see the headline won’t read the article. Casual readers of the BBC Web site won’t even notice the quote marks. Israel is coordinating with Al Qaeda in Syria? Really, BBC? You’re broadcasting that ludicrous accusation with a straight face?

Look. Nothing Assad says in public has a damn thing to do with reality except occasionally by sheer chance. Every single one of his speeches is part of a well-crafted disinformation campaign. Even his silences are part of a well-crafted disinformation campaign. His is a government that “leaks” its own fabrications to Western journalists, then quotes the articles to make its ridiculous narrative look almost plausible. Even the regime’s grudging acknowledgement that Israel really did just bomb Damascus includes a lie in the very same sentence.

If there’s a more absurd place in the world than the Middle East, I’m not aware of it. Soviet propaganda was no less outlandish back in the day, but the Middle Eastern variety is somehow more transparently clownish and needs to be treated accordingly.




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