From Fallujah to Homs: are media perceptions of war clouded by geopolitics?
Those reporters, who do get in to the country, often do so illegally at great peril – as evidenced in the recent tragic deaths of several Western journalists. Inevitably, they are limited to reporting on the bloodshed from behind rebel-held lines. Their coverage largely focusing on the horrific human toll of the siege, often told from the eyes of the opposition.
The crisis in Syria continues to escalate as the forces of President Bashar Al-Assad ramped up their siege of Homs, now the hub of Syria’s opposition. The Syrian government’s refusal to grant foreign journalists unfettered access has deepened the fog of war. Those reporters, who do get in to the country, often do so illegally at great peril – as evidenced in the recent tragic deaths of several Western journalists. Inevitably, they are limited to reporting on the bloodshed from behind rebel-held lines. Their coverage largely focusing on the horrific human toll of the siege, often told from the eyes of the opposition.
This is in stark contrast to another brutal siege: Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq. Back in 2004, some 50,000 citizens were trapped by coalition forces, cut off from food, water and medical supplies. Countless civilians were killed, injured or sickened by toxic U.S. munitions. But their side of the story was all too often ignored.
The two wars are different, but share more in common than meets the eye.
Homs is now known as the capital of the revolution. Fallujah was once the capital of terror. Each is the third-largest city in its respective country, and each is the site of a bloody urban guerrilla war. One of the conflicts now rages on the pages of history books, while the other continues to escalate as we speak.
In Homs, as in Fallujah, poorly-armed insurgents faced off against superior modern forces – well-equipped militaries armed with mortars, airpower and tanks.
And in both cases, officials claimed that only heavy handed force could bring peace to an area teeming with “criminals” and “terrorists.”
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt was the chief Military spokesman for Coalition Forces in Iraq.
"We will hunt down the criminals," Kimmitt said in Baghdad. "We will kill them, or we will capture them. And we will pacify Fallujah."
And here is President Bashar al-Assad, speaking in Damascus last month:
“Our priority now is to regain security which our country has enjoyed for decades. This can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand,” the Syrian president said. “This can only be no leniency for those who are using weapons to kill our civilians.”
In both countries, that “iron hand” targeted a Sunni Muslim opposition. And the wars took on increasingly sectarian tones. In Fallujah, U.S. forces along with Shia Iraqi military recruits came to be seen as infidels. In Syria, the religious wrath of the opposition is aimed at Assad’s Allawite forces.
And amid the violent clashes, civilians suffered most. The difference between Homs and Fallujah is that the civilian suffering in Syria is broadcast to the world, while the stories of Fallujah’s innocents remain largely untold. In 2004, most reporters embedded with U.S. forces. Today, the few western journalists who sneak into Syria end up seeking the protection of the opposition. The resulting coverage reflects the differences.
In Iraq, outlets who showed civilian casualties resulting from the Second Battle of Fallujah were dismissed as propagandists. The senior U.S. military spokesman, Mark Kimmitt, suggested that Iraqis who saw civilian deaths on AlJazeera, “change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station. The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources. That is propaganda, and that is lies.”
Echoing eerily similar accusations by the Syrian government.
It is often said that perceptions form reality, and nowhere does this seem to ring more true than in Syria and Iraq. In one battle, the press told the story of the besiegers. In the other, that of the besieged. In both cases, it would seem that the truth suffered.