Reprinted from Consortium News
Coverage of the breakdown of the partial ceasefire in Syria illustrated the main way corporate news media distort public understanding of a major foreign policy story. The problem is not that the key events in the story are entirely unreported, but that they were downplayed and quickly forgotten in the media's embrace of themes with which they were more comfortable.
In this case, the one key event was the major offensive launched in early April by Al Nusra Front -- the Al Qaeda franchise in Syria -- alongside U.S.-backed armed opposition groups. This offensive was mentioned in at least two "quality" U.S. newspapers. Their readers, however, would not have read that it was that offensive that broke the back of the partial ceasefire.
On the contrary, they would have gotten the clear impression from following the major newspapers' coverage that systematic violations by the Assad government doomed the ceasefire from the beginning.
Corporate media heralded the ceasefire agreement when it was negotiated by the United States and Russia in February, with the Los Angeles Times (2/3/16) calling it "the most determined diplomatic push to date aimed at ending the nation's almost five-year conflict." The "partial cessation of hostilities" was to apply between the Syrian regime and the non-jihadist forces, but not to the regime's war with Nusra and with ISIS.
The clear implication was that the U.S.-supported non-jihadist opposition forces would have to separate themselves from Nusra, or else they would be legitimate targets for airstrikes.
But the relationship between the CIA-backed armed opposition to Assad and the jihadist Nusra Front was an issue that major U.S. newspapers had already found very difficult to cover (FAIR.org, 3/21/16).
U.S. Syria policy has been dependent on the military potential of the Nusra Front (and its close ally, Ahrar al Sham) for leverage on the Syrian regime, since the "moderate" opposition was unable to operate in northwest Syria without jihadist support. This central element in U.S. Syria policy, which both the government and the media were unwilling to acknowledge, was a central obstacle to accurate coverage of what happened to the Syrian ceasefire.
Shaping the Story
This problem began shaping the story as soon as the ceasefire agreement was announced. On Feb. 23, New York Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar wrote a news analysis on the wider tensions between the Obama administration and Russia that pointed to "a gaping loophole" in the Syria ceasefire agreement: the fact that "it permits attacks against the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate, to continue."
MacFarquhar asserted that exempting Nusra from the ceasefire "could work in Moscow's favor, since many of the anti-Assad groups aligned with the United States fight alongside the Nusra Front." That meant that Russia could "continue to strike United States-backed rebel groups without fear ... of Washington's doing anything to stop them," he wrote.
On the same day, Adam Entous of the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama's "top military and intelligence advisers don't believe Russia will abide by a just-announced ceasefire in Syria and want to ready plans to increase pressure on Moscow by expanding covert support to rebels fighting the Russia-backed Assad regime."
For two of the country's most prominent newspapers, it was thus clear that the primary context of the Syria ceasefire was not its impact on Syria's population, but how it affected the rivalry between powerful national security officials and Russia.
Contrary to those dark suspicions of Russian intentions to take advantage of the agreement to hit U.S.-supported Syrian opposition groups, however, as soon as the partial ceasefire agreement took effect on Feb. 27, Russia released a map that designated "green zones" where its air forces would not strike.