The unleashing of the campaign of U.S. air strikes on terrorist targets throughout Syria last night may be the beginning of an offensive that will, as President Obama claimed this morning, “take the fight” to ISIS. If so, the bombings must be judged to be a commendable, if belated instance of presidential leadership. But as even the president’s cheering section at MSNBC and other liberal strongholds suddenly take on the appearance of being “war lovers,” it’s fair to wonder about one question that was uppermost on the minds of most of the media this past summer when other terrorists were being pounded from the air: what about the civilian casualties and infrastructure damage?
Accounts of the attacks on ISIS targets as well as those on the Khorasan group speak of strikes on bases, training camps, and checkpoints as well as command-and-control centers in four provinces and having been in the vicinity of several Syrian cities. Many terrorists may have been killed and severe damage done to the ability of both ISIS and the Khorasan group to conduct operations. The first videos of the aftermath of the bombings show members of the groups digging out the rubble and seeking survivors of the attacks. The surrounding area appears to be one of built-up structures. While some of these bases and command-and-control centers may well have been in isolated places, it is likely that many, if not most, were in the vicinity of civilian residences. All of which leads to the question that almost no one, at least in the American media, is asking today: what about civilian casualties or damage to infrastructure facilities that might severely impact the quality of life of those who live in these areas?
If we are being honest, the answer to such queries is clear: we don’t know. American forces conduct such operations under rules of engagement that seek to limit if not totally eliminate non-military casualties. But even under the strictest limits, civilians are killed in war. It is also to be hoped that all of the strikes were conducted with perfect accuracy, but that is the sort of thing that generally only happens in movies. In real life, war is conducted in an environment in which a host of factors make perfection as unattainable as it is in every other aspect of life. Which means it is almost certain that at least some Syrian civilians (a population that may include supporters of the terrorists and some who are essentially their hostages) were killed and wounded last night.
If anyone were thinking about that fact today, you wouldn’t know it from watching any of the cable news networks. The impact of the strikes on individuals in Syria or any potential damage to civilian infrastructure is of no interest to the commentators or the anchors. Instead, the conversation about the attacks on terror targets focuses solely on how effective the strikes have been, the role of U.S. allies, and whether these actions will be followed up with sufficient ground force actions that will make it possible to truly defeat ISIS or any al-Qaeda affiliates currently running riot in the region. The only criticisms being voiced are those about the president’s lack of a specific authorization from Congress for these actions, whether U.S. forces will have to fight on the ground there, or if the attacks have gone far enough.
All this is in stark contrast to the reaction to Israeli attacks on Hamas in Gaza this past summer.
Almost all of the targets struck by the Israelis were similar to those in Syria that were hit by the Americans. Moreover, unlike the case with ISIS and Khorasan, the Israeli efforts were not primarily preemptive in nature. After all, the U.S. is attacking ISIS in part because of its depredations in the region but also because of the very real likelihood that if they are left unmolested, they will eventually turn their barbaric attentions to attacks on the United States. Israel struck back at Hamas because the terror group doesn’t merely intend to destroy the State of Israel and slaughter its Jewish population but because it was launching thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and towns and seeking to use terror tunnels to kidnap and kill even more Jews.
But rather than give the Israelis the same benefit of the doubt about their good intentions and efforts to limit collateral damage, the international community denounced the Israeli counter-attacks. News coverage focused almost completely on civilian casualties and the impact of the war on ordinary Palestinians rather than, as is the case today with U.S. efforts, on the military question of how best Hamas might be defeated.
Why aren’t we talking about civilian casualties in Syria? There are a number of reasons.
The Western media has more or less ignored the horrific nature of the Syrian Civil War since its inception three years ago. Hundreds of thousands have already died but apparently the media sees little reason to start caring about it now just because Americans are involved.
Another is the lack of Western media on the ground in Syria. That is understandable given what has happened to some of the Western freelance journalists who were kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS. By contrast, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists welcomed Western journalists into Gaza and allowed them to do their jobs in safety provided, of course, that they concentrated their efforts on reinforcing the narrative about the conflict that told only of civilian casualties while largely ignoring the presence of armed fighters and their attacks on Israelis. That the entire Western press corps adhered to these restrictions is a testament to both the ability of Hamas to intimidate journalists and to the fact that many in the press were all too happy to follow these instructions since they were compatible with their own views of the conflict.
Let’s concede that the circumstances of these conflicts are not identical. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is more specific and related to the desire of the Arabs to refuse to share the region with a sovereign Jewish state rather than the more amorphous desire of the Syrian and Iraqi Islamists to set up a new caliphate. Hamas is also a bit more media savvy and has more experience in manipulating its message to appeal to Westerners who are willing to be fooled by terrorists.
But the real difference between the ways these two conflicts are covered has a lot more to do with the identity of the foes of the Islamists than to any of those distinctions. Muslims may slaughter Muslims by the hundreds of thousands, as they have done in Syria, without the world paying much notice. But if a fraction of that number are killed by Israeli Jews, even in a war of self-defense, that is considered intolerable by a world that has always judged Jews and their state by a double standard that has never been applied to anyone else, including the United States. Israelis, who have watched as their efforts to defend themselves have been answered by a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe, may be forgiven for no longer giving a damn about international opinion.
The media should continue to focus its coverage on Syria on the question of whether the president’s actions are effective, not whether some accidents or mistakes by U.S. personnel resulted in civilian losses. But you can bet that the same sources will revert to the same stances they took this past summer when Hamas resumes its fight against Israel, as it will sooner or later. When it does, don’t expect any admissions by journalists that they are applying different standards to Israel than they did to U.S. forces. But that is exactly what they will be doing. The term by which such prejudice is usually called is anti-Semitism.