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Rania Khalek: Aleppo And Western Media’s Whitewashing Of Rebel Groups

The following is from this week’s “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast. One of the show’s hosts, Rania Khalek, recently returned from a trip to Lebanon. She traveled to Syria twice and spent time producing journalism on the crisis and war in Syria. In response to events in Aleppo over the past days, Khalek breaks down media coverage, especially how Western media outlets no longer report the rebel groups in Aleppo are al Qaida-style groups the West has backed. 


I know there’s a lot of people, who—if they haven’t necessarily been following everything that’s been happening in Syria—don’t really understand what’s happening in Aleppo. They just see these horrifying stories, like the Daily Beast posted something about all these women committed suicide because they’d rather kill themselves than be raped. There’s these crazy claims going around, and I’m not saying anything and everything the Syrian government has done is fabricated. They’ve obviously committed atrocities. But the kinds of things that have floated around and become news headlines, there’s no evidence.

There’s no evidence for these things except for the claims of rebel media people, like rebel activists on Twitter and other places. It’s utterly shocking that a handful of tweets about Hezbollah burning children in Aleppo can suddenly turn into headlines. It’s really disturbing, especially in light of all this controversy about fake news. When you see major media outlets pushing and disseminating claims that have yet to be a little clarified—like there’s literally zero evidence to prove this happening. And it really has been shocking. You could probably tweet out anything, like Russia just nuked Aleppo, and the New York Times might run the headline. Who knows. The point is what’s happening in Aleppo is actually similar to what’s happening in Mosul at the moment, which is that you’ve got rebels.

And here’s another thing I do want to point out. This week, with all the media around Aleppo, the one thing I’ve noticed is major media outlets are failing over and over. They’re not providing any context or any details about who the rebels are in Aleppo. They’re just saying the Syrian rebels. They used to specify what that meant, and this week they haven’t. And I think that’s very, very deliberate, and I think the reason is the Syrian rebels are al Nusra, which is basically al Qaida’s branch in Syria. They’re Ahrar al Sham, which is a Syrian rebel group that is armed and funded by Qatar and is really, really hardlined jihadist. It has killed minorities, has used caged minorities as human shields proudly on video. It’s not just me making that up. These are the two dominant fighting forces among the Syrian rebels.

In Aleppo, Jaysh al-Islam or the Army of Islam, which is another group of rebels. I think it’s a bunch of rebel groups under one name that has committed atrocities that would give chills to people. All of these groups have al Qaida-style ideologies and have been running Aleppo. We see reports out about the behavior of these groups. They run Sharia courts, where they sentence people to die for minor things. They’ve summarily executed people. They’ve looted. These rebels under the banner of the FSA [Free Syrian Army], which later turned became al Qaida, Ahrar al Sham and all these other groups—They invaded Aleppo in 2012.

When you hear about rebels in Aleppo, it’s important to understand that, yes, there was an uprising in Syria of different kinds and different parts of Syria; some of them calling for democracy, some of them calling for not-so-democratic ideals. Regardless, there was an uprising. Aleppo didn’t really experience an uprising. There were a few university protests but nothing major. The vast majority of Aleppo has always been pro-government from the beginning. And so, Aleppo was actually pretty secure through 2011. Then, come 2012, the rebels that were armed through Turkey and had a lot of foreign fighters among them as well—But also a lot of them were Syrians from the countryside, from rural areas. They basically invaded the city of Aleppo and forcibly with arms took over neighborhoods.

If you look back at Western media reports during that time, they’re pretty honest about that because at that time there were still journalists able to be on the ground in east Aleppo. So they took over all these neighborhoods in east Aleppo, and in fact, many of the people who lived in those neighborhoods fled when armed groups took over. They didn’t want any part of it. It was like a nightmare, and they surrounded Aleppo and placed it under siege. So the government-held area of Aleppo was under siege. They were cut off from food and water. Nobody gave a crap because it was U.S.-backed rebels doing it..

But that’s what happened in Aleppo. These rebels were never popular in Aleppo. Anybody who tells you that this is a free or liberated area of Aleppo is lying. That’s just not true, especially if you talk to the people from those neighborhoods. So the point is this context is missing from the mainstream media.

It’s really shocking. We’ve just spent the last 15 years with our government invoking al Qaida to go to war around the globe endlessly, and now, all of the sudden, al Qaida are the good guys in Aleppo and the U.S. has basically outsourced it’s war on Syria to al Qaida. The U.S. media is not only whitewashing and sanitizing them, but they are romanticizing them as some sort of liberation force. It’s really, really shocking.

Beyond that, what’s happening now in Aleppo and why I say it’s like Mosul is because al Qaida is not that different from ISIS. They’ve behaved in similar ways, where they’ve come and taken over areas. People flee. Some people, who stayed, get stuck there. Or maybe they wanted to stay, but for the most, they get stuck there. They’re held hostage. They don’t want people to leave, and basically, they’re used as human shields for their own agenda.

What you have now in Mosul, where you have Iraqi forces on the ground backed up by U.S. airstrikes that are basically taking back neighborhoods from ISIS in Mosul, east Mosul, and east Aleppo was the same thing. You have Syrian armed forces on the ground backed up by Russian airstrikes that are taking back parts of east Aleppo.

Now, you can argue. I would agree with you, if you want to call the way that the U.S. and Russia have gone about doing this. They’ve both destroyed these cities, whether it’s been taken over by ISIS or al Qaida. They’ve destroyed cities as they’ve gone to take them back from these groups. But regardless, you can talk about how they’ve done that and the atrocities they’ve committed to do that. Regardless of that, it really is striking to see the U.S. media losing its shit over east Aleppo being taken back by al Qaida groups versus their celebration of areas of Mosul being taken back by ISIS. The double standard is so jarring.

That’s why you see people panicking and freaking out. People who are very pro-opposition, who want to pretend the opposition is some democratic force—it’s not—who support the Syrian rebels, which is most of the U.S. media. They’re losing their shit and freaking the fuck out and just throwing anything they can during a moment when the side that they’ve supported and romanticized is losing. And the reason they’re losing is because their benefactors have stopped supporting them. That means Turkey has stopped giving them whatever they want through the border. And so that’s why these Syrian rebel al Qaida groups have collapsed so quickly.

Whenever this kind of stuff happens, the rebel media that the U.S. and U.K, have largely helped train and fun goes ape shit and starts throwing any sort of accusations against the Syrian army that it can; anything to try and provoke Western intervention or even Gulf state intervention to help save them. They’re desperate. They’re losing very, very badly. And so that’s why you hear these unverified stories about massacres of children and women in Aleppo, burning people and raping women, that haven’t been verified.

Right now, in west Aleppo and even people who’ve left east Aleppo and managed to get out of east Aleppo, these are people, many of them who are pissed off at the government. Some think the government did not do enough to save them from al Qaida. They really do. That’s the sentiment I got from people when I was there is they were pissed off. They wanted the government to crush the rebels harder. And then, there were other people who had families on the other side and they hadn’t seen them for three years or four years. So there’s been a lot of celebration in west Aleppo and some of the areas that have been taken back despite all of the horrors that have taken place.

The government has committed atrocities. The rebels have committed atrocities. A lot of people are dead. People are just exhausted, and they’re happy it’s over. That’s the sentiment I’ve been seeing and getting. That to me makes sense. Just like when ISIS is removed from an area people celebrate, despite the horrors.

I was really disappointed to see a lot of people pointing to those celebrations and making the people who were doing it, painting them as Assadist shills who all hate their own people. Or like they’re Israelis who celebrate when Gaza gets bombed. People weren’t celebrating east Aleppo being bombed. They were celebrating the end of what has been a nightmare for them.

*To listen to the full episode of this week’s podcast, go here.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."