The BBC loves to boast about how “objective” and “neutral” it is. But a recent article, which it was forced to change, illustrates the lengths to which the British state-funded media outlet will go to protect one of the U.K. government’s closest allies, Saudi Arabia, which also happens to be one of the country’s largest arms purchasers (just this morning, the Saudi ambassador to the U.K. threatened in an op-ed that any further criticism of the Riyadh regime by Jeremy Corbyn could jeopardize the multi-layered U.K./Saudi alliance).
Earlier this month, the BBC published an article describing the increase in weapons and money sent by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf regimes to anti-Assad fighters in Syria. All of that “reporting” was based on the claims of what the BBC called “a Saudi government official,” who — because he works for a government closely allied with the U.K. — was granted anonymity by the BBC and then had his claims mindlessly and uncritically presented as fact (it is the rare exception when the BBC reports adversarially on the Saudis). This anonymous “Saudi official” wasn’t whistleblowing or presenting information contrary to the interests of the regime; to the contrary, he was disseminating official information the regime wanted publicized. This was the key claim of the anonymous Saudi official (emphasis added):
The well-placed official, who asked not to be named, said supplies of modern, high-powered weaponry including guided anti-tank weapons would be increased to the Arab- and western-backed rebel groups fighting the forces of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian, Iranian and Lebanese allies.
He said those groups being supplied did not include either Islamic State (IS) or al-Nusra Front, both of which are proscribed terrorist organizations. Instead, he said the weapons would go to three rebel alliances — Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Southern Front.
So the Saudis, says the anonymous official, are only arming groups such as the “Army of Conquest,” but not the al Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front. What’s the problem with this claim? It’s obvious, though the BBC would not be so impolite as to point it out: The Army of Conquest includes the Nusra Front as one of its most potent components. This is not even in remote dispute; the New York Times’ elementary explainer on the Army of Conquest from three weeks ago states:
Who are its members?
The alliance consists of a number of mostly Islamist factions, including the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate; Ahrar al-Sham, another large group; and more moderate rebel factions that have received covert arms support from the intelligence services of the United States and its allies.
The Telegraph, in an early October article complaining that Russia was bombing “non-ISIL rebels,” similarly noted that the Army of Conquest (bombed by Russia) “includes a number of Islamist groups, most powerful among them Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. Jabhat al-Nusra is the local affiliate of al-Qaeda.” Even the Voice of America noted that “Russia’s main target has been the Army of Conquest, an alliance of insurgent groups that includes the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, and the hard-line Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, as well as some less extreme Islamist groups.”
In other words, the claim from the anonymous Saudi official that the BBC uncritically regurgitated — that the Saudis are only arming the Army of Conquest but no groups that “include” the Nusra Front — is self-negating. A BBC reader, Ricardo Vaz, brought this contradiction to the BBC’s attention. As he told The Intercept: “The problem is that the Nusra Front is the most important faction inside the Army of Conquest. So either the Saudi official expected the BBC journalist not to know this, or he expects us to believe they can deliver weapons to factions fighting side by side with an al Qaeda affiliate and that those weapons will not make their way into Nusra’s hands. In any case, this is very close to an official admission that the Saudis (along with Qataris and Turkish) are supplying weapons to an al Qaeda affiliate. This of course is not a secret to anyone who’s paying attention.”
In response to Vaz’s complaint, the BBC did not tell its readers about this vital admission. Instead, it simply edited that Saudi admission out of its article. In doing so, it made the already-misleading article so much worse, as the BBC went even further out of its way to protect the Saudis. This is what that passage now states on the current version of the article on the BBC’s site (emphasis added):
He said those groups being supplied did not include either Islamic State (IS) or al-Nusra Front, both of which are proscribed terrorist organizations. Instead, he said the weapons would go to the Free Syrian Army and other small rebel groups.
So originally, the BBC stated that the “Saudi official” announced that the regime was arming the Army of Conquest. Once it was brought to the BBC’s attention that the Army of Conquest includes the al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front — a direct contradiction of the Saudi official’s other claim that the Saudis are not arming Nusra — the BBC literally changed the Saudi official’s own statement, whitewashed it, to eliminate his admission that they were arming Army of Conquest. Instead, the BBC now states that the Saudis are arming “the Free Syrian Army and other small rebel groups.” The BBC simply deleted the key admission that the Saudis are arming al Qaeda. As Vaz told The Intercept:
This is an incredible whitewashing effort! Before they were directly quoting the Saudi official, and he explicitly referred to “three rebel alliances,” including “Jaish al-Fatah” [Army of Conquest]. There is no way a journalist was told “other small rebel groups” and understood what was written before. In their reply to my complaint they said the mistake was an “editorial oversight,” which is truly laughable. What we saw was a prestigious western media outlet surrendering the floor to an anonymous official from the most medieval of regimes, the official pretty much saying that they were going to supply (more) weapons to an al Qaeda affiliate, and instead of pointing this out, the BBC chose to blur the picture and cover the terrorist-arming/funding activities of the Saudis/Qataris/Turkish.
I personally don’t view the presence of al Qaeda “affiliated” fighters as a convincing argument against supporting Syrian rebels. It’s understandable that people fighting against an oppressive regime — one backed by powerful foreign factions — will align with anyone willing and capable of fighting with them. Moreover, the long-standing U.S./U.K. template of branding anyone they fight and kill as “terrorists” or “al Qaeda” is no more persuasive or noble when used in Syria by Assad and the Russians, particularly when used to obscure civilian casualties. And regarding the anti-Assad forces as monolithically composed of religious extremists ignores the anti-tyranny sentiment among ordinary Syrians motivating much of the anti-regime protests, with its genesis in the Arab Spring.
But what this does highlight is just how ludicrous — how beyond parody — the 14-year-old war on terror has become, how little it has to do with its original ostensible justification. The regime with the greatest plausible proximity to the 9/11 attack — Saudi Arabia — is the closest U.S. ally in the region next to Israel. The country that had absolutely nothing to do with that attack, and which is at least as threatened as the U.S. by the religious ideology that spurred it — Iran — is the U.S.’s greatest war-on-terror adversary. Now we have a virtual admission from the Saudis that they are arming a group that centrally includes al Qaeda, while the U.S. itself has at least indirectly done the same (just as was true in Libya). And we’re actually at the point where western media outlets are vehemently denouncing Russia for bombing al Qaeda elements, which those outlets are manipulatively referring to as “non-ISIS groups.”
It’s not a stretch to say that the faction that provides the greatest material support to al Qaeda at this point is the U.S. and its closest allies. That is true even as al Qaeda continues to be paraded around as the prime need for the ongoing war.
But whatever one’s views are on Syria, it’s telling indeed to watch the BBC desperately protect Saudi officials, not only by granting them anonymity to spout official propaganda, but worse, by using blatant editing games to whitewash the Saudis’ own damaging admissions, ones the BBC unwittingly published. There are many adjectives one can apply to the BBC’s behavior here: “Objective” and “neutral” are most assuredly not among them.
Caption: Fighters from al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front drive in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo flying Islamist flags as they head to a front line on May 26, 2015.