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International relations expert on chemical weapons in Syria and why the West are hypocrites

On 14 April, Syria was attacked by armed forces from the United Kingdom, the United States and France. They fired missiles to destroy what they argued were chemical weapons factories.

The air strikes were in response to a suspected chemical attack in an area called Douma.

It was the biggest military attack against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government by western powers in Syria’s civil war.

President Trump said: “The purpose of our actions [was] to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons.”

UK Prime Minster Theresa May said the Syrian government had shown a “persistent pattern of behavior” when it came to the use of weapons, and it “must be stopped.”

However, many people are unsure of the real motives behind the latest attacks by Western forces in the region. To what extent is this a proxy war between the United States and Russia? How is what’s happening in Syria impacted by its neighbors and external forces?

This is why we invited Dr. Scott Burchill to join us for an Ideapod webinar, exploring what’s really happening in Syria. Burchill is a senior lecturer in international relations at Deakin University.

He spoke with Ideapod CEO Justin Brown on Thursday 26th April, 2018. You can watch the full Ideapod webinar here, or read through the transcript below.

They covered the following:

  • Brief introduction to the conflict (00:04:35)
  • Two overlaying conflicts: the civil and international (00:07:46)
  • The interests of external powers in Syria (00:13:32)
  • The balance of power between the United States and Russia in the Middle East (00:16:25)
  • Why the US, France and the UK “intervened” in April 2018 (00:20:18)
  • Will external attack unite the competing factions within Syria? (00:23:50)
  • Domestic politics in the United States (00:25:07)
  • It’s an “escalation”, not an “intervention” (00:30:06)
  • What the West really thinks about chemical weapons attacks (00:34:31)
  • The impact of social media and civil society (00:37:17)
  • Noam Chomsky and the techniques for manipulating public opinion in a democracy (00:40:03)
  • How to bypass propaganda outlets to be informed (00:42:08)
  • Alternative sources to find out what’s really happening in Syria (00:43:17)
  • Is the conflict about oil? If so, should “ethical citizens” support renewable energy? (00:49:38)
  • The challenges faced by mainstream media in challenging conventional perspectives (00:53:16)
  • With an avalanche of information, you need to be discriminating (00:56:16)

Dr. Scott Burchill and Justin Brown discuss what’s really happening in Syria (full transcript)

Justin Brown: 00:00:00 Well let’s begin the Ideapod webinar with Dr. Scott Burchill on what’s really happening in Syria. I first want to take a moment to thank all of the Ideapod members who have contributed questions beforehand. Thanks so much for your support. If anyone loves what Ideapod is doing, please do consider becoming a member. It’s a new program for $4 a month. You get to switch off the advertising on the sites and you also can submit questions beforehand and help us design those webinars. Everyone is very excited about this Scott. I’m really happy that you’re here to join us.

Scott Burchill: 00:00:31 That’s great to do. It’s the first time for me. Bear with me if I get overwhelmed by the technology but I’ll do my best.

Justin Brown: 00:00:42 We’ll it’s your first time on an Ideapod webinar and probably a webinar like this but you have been lecturing for, is it over two decades now?

Scott Burchill: 00:00:51 Yes, over two decades. I’ve also had lots of the media interviews where I’ve had to stare down the barrel of a camera without knowing what’s at the other end. That’s the challenge when you do these sorts of interviews. This is great because I can see you at least and I can see the chat bar on the side. Normally maintaining your focus in the camera without knowing anything or seeing anything at the other end is really a challenge. This is an advance on that technology.

Justin Brown: 00:01:23 This is an Ideapod webinar. It very much is in the spirit of Ideapod which is all about collective intelligence. It’s not just two people up on stage and you are the expert here and what brought you in with that context to help us learn about what’s really going on in Syria. We see it very much as a running conversation with the community. Everyone that’s here please do leave your comments as we go on the chat bar. We’ve chosen to have that open. We will be looking at that as we go and hopefully incorporating your ideas as we all move through this together. One of the tag lines of the Ideapod is it’s a place for ideas to have sex. We really want to throw different ideas in here and just see what we can come up with. I will be asking Scott a number of questions about Syria to really go deep and figure out what’s going on. Dr. Scott Burchill is a senior lecture at Deacon University.

Justin Brown: 00:02:11 Before this he was a political officer at the department of foreign affairs and trade DFAT in Australia. He’s actually the author of an international relations theory textbook from quite a while ago as well as a number of other important books in international relations theory. For me I actually used to tutor for Scott a bit over 10 years ago at Deakin University. That was a really exciting time for me because Scott is a well known figure in the discipline. It was just amazing to come in and actually get a chance to learn about international relations theory and get the chance to teach with you. We’ve kept in touch since then. We’ve always quite regularly met for coffees in Hampton, Melbourne getting a chance to chat about what’s going on in the world. I’ve noticed I’ve got a few shared interests, shared passions for I guess piercing the veil behind propaganda in mainstream media and really helping people to understand what’s really going on in the world. Would you say that’s right or how would you describe one of our core focuses.

Scott Burchill: 00:03:12 Well indeed it was our loss that we couldn’t keep you on the staff. I think you went to Europe and initially joined a multinational corporation which we couldn’t compete with salary wise. It’s great that you’ve reconnected after a number of years in the United States. The great thing about the internet is that you can find ways and means of maintaining communication regardless of the distance. That’s why it’s really quite extraordinary to sit here in Melbourne and have people coming … Logging in from Peru and from the US without really having any disadvantage depending on where they’re located.

Justin Brown: 00:03:50 I know, it’s really amazing in utilizing technology to be part of this communication revolution. And Ideapod is about the place for quite meaningful conversations. Hopefully we can learn together in figuring out what’s really going on. With that in mind I’d love to turn to the topic of today which is what’s really happening in Syria. I’ll provide a very brief introduction just because a lot of the Ideapod community members that are coming in have actually said that they … We feel we know a little bit about what’s going on. I mean we read papers and we know it’s a very important part of the world and there’s a really big conflict going on. A lot of us are a little confused about what’s really happening, what are the real interests of the big super powers that are there. What’s going with the Syrian government, the people, the civil war and what can people do about it.

A brief introduction to the conflict

Justin Brown: 00:04:35 I’ll provide got a very brief introduction then I’ll put a short video to show just to set the context then I’ll turn to Scott to hopefully help us a little bit more. In short the uprising began in 2011. There’s always a longer history but let’s start in 2011 when a number of young people were graffiting anti government slogans and were arrested and tortured. It resulted in some quiet live civil uprisings. Very long story short, in the last seven years now, over 465,000 Syrians have been killed. It may be more than that. Over 12 million people have been displaced but just to put that into context if these numbers were translated to the United States of America we’d have over six million people who would have been killed in the civil war. Whether you can call it a civil war we’ll learn about that today. Over 150 million people would have been displaced, would have actually left the United States because of what’s going on. Because it’s just so unsafe.

Justin Brown: 00:05:32 It’s just absolutely incredible in terms of the size of this conflict and what’s really going on for the Syrian people. It did begin when those 15 boys were detained and tortured. The Syrian government who’s led by president Bashar al-Assad, I’ll call him Assad from now on for short responded with a very brutal crackdown. It brought in a lot of conflict supposedly along sectarian lines where the majority of the population are Sunni and the government and the armed forces are predominantly Shiites. Russia entered into the conflict in 2015 back in the Assad government. Iran and Iraq also backed Assad. The US has been arming anti Assad rebel groups since 2014. Israel has also been carrying out air raids from time to time. During this time the government of the United States led by Obama were involved as we’ve just said backing rebel groups but didn’t technically intervene.

Justin Brown: 00:06:36 Although Scott’s going to help us understand that word and unpack it a little bit of whether they have been intervening or not. The use of chemical weapons was a line in the sand supposedly according to the US government. In April 2017, now the Trump administration launched 59 tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base that supposedly carried some of the chemical weapons that were there to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. One year later which is just a few weeks ago in April 2018, despite Russian warnings, the US has launched an attack with France and the UK at another chemical weapons site because according to them the chemical weapons have been used. That’s just a bit of the context. Just because everything we do on Ideapod is very focused on human beings and the fact that ideas can be shared by people. This is happening in Syria but we all are feeling what’s going on with social media and what’s really happening. I think that the context has been set. Scott can you help us understand what’s really happening in Syria.

Two overlaying conflicts: the civil and international

Scott Burchill: 00:07:46 Well I think the way I understand is to see it as two overlaying conflicts. The civil war is the one that we hear a lot about often obviously and the figures are very disturbing. There are so many deaths in the country that it appears the red cross isn’t no longer going to even try and count them. Some figures are as high as 600,000 dead, probably half a million internally displaced. Similar number or perhaps more have left the country. For a pre war population of 22 million, the country has been devastated. No one really believes it will ever return to what it was like seven years ago. There are two conflicts, obviously the civil conflict between Bashar al-Assad, his government and a range of rebel groups who are fighting for territory within Syria including some fundamentalists jihadi groups like ISIS. A whole range of them which confuses a lot of people because we’re not quite sure of their affiliation and the levels of cooperation between them.

Scott Burchill: 00:08:57 They’re all fighting each other as well as fighting the Assad regime. What has changed over the last 18 months however is that the civil conflict has been slowly but steadily won by the Assad regime. There is really a significant retreat by ISIS and the other jihadi groups to small pockets of resistance in some of the provinces. What’s changed is Russian assistance to a long standing ally, their only ally in the Middle East. What we need to do is understand the conflict has these two dimensions. The Assad regime is backed by Russia, by Vladimir Putin’s Russia but also by the Iranian regime which has connections with the Assad group, the Alawites who are a Shia sect within the country. We’ve also now got the intervention of Turkey which is more concerned about the rise of Kurdish militias who have been doing most of the fighting against ISIS over the last three years.

Scott Burchill: 00:10:07 On that side you’ve got Assad, the Russians, the Iranians and the Turks on one side. On the other side you’ve got the allied forces who have been trying to overthrow at least in the United States’ case, trying to overthrow the Assad regime prior to the civil war going back to about 2006, 2007. The reason for that of course is that Assad is not a pro American leader. Syria stands out in the region as being particularly anti western. It’s hostile to Israel, hostile to the United States. It doesn’t do the bidding of Washington. Most importantly it is very close to Moscow and it’s in fact Moscow’s only real ally in the Middle East. A lot of these conflicts has different layers being played out. Syria in some cases is of little concern to the external players. It’s simply the avenue through which they contest each other and the rivalries between external players.

Scott Burchill: 00:11:14 What’s really changed in the last 18 months is Assad has consolidated his control of the territory. The United States under president Trump has indicated that it wants to withdraw from Syria entirely once ISIS is defeated. Most military observers believe ISIS will be defeated by the end of this calendar year. On the one hand Trump is saying let’s get out. ISIS is our only interest there. We don’t like Assad’s regime but we’re not going to push for his removal because if he was going to go he would have gone by now. That particular objective has been lost. The problem for Trump is that he’s only one voice within the political establishment within Washington. He’s up against the political establishment and some people call the [inaudible 00:12:08] state which is much more concerned about retaining US influence in Syria.

Scott Burchill: 00:12:14 Many people believe that the circumstances surrounding the alleged chemical weapons attack two weeks ago is all about getting the United States to recommit to Syria. Making sure that something horrendous has happened but the US simply can’t abandon Syria as Mr. Trump would like to do. He’s also under pressure from allies particularly the French president Macron who is in Washington at the moment. Also had previously said that he wants Trump to commit to the long term to maintain US influence in Syria which is also what the Israeli’s want as well. There is a battle within a battle here if you like. Within the US political establishment there are tensions pulling in different directions. Trump saying and is consistently even when Obama was the president that he wants to get out of this. This is a dead end. The US can defeat ISIS and then it should withdraw whereas the political establishment, the diplomatic system and the intelligence service are saying that would be handing Russia and Iran a victory that not only is against our interests but against our closest allies interests which is Israel.

The interests of external powers in Syria

Justin Brown: 00:13:32 I guess the question that comes to mind is why does Syria matter so much to all of these external powers.

Scott Burchill: 00:13:39 Well the answer is it doesn’t in one sense. In that there’s very little concern for the people of Syria. The statistics I mentioned earlier explain that. They’re not concerned so much with the casualties and the destruction of the country. It’s a geo political game. Syria has been as I said Russia’s only reliable ally in the Arab world for the best part of five decades. That’s not going to be easily relinquished by Moscow because they know if they’re cut out of that they’re going to lose all say within the Middle East. The significance of Syria to the Russians is that they have made a port a very important naval base and other air force bases. They want to retain those and they want influence in that country. Of course the United States political establishment thinks that whatever is good for Moscow is bad for us. We will pressure the Russians as much as we can into withdrawing.

Scott Burchill: 00:14:42 The problem of course is that because Mr. Obama was reluctant to put more than about 2000 troops into Syria, the Russians who were much more prepared to put military hardware in were quite decisive in turning the battle Assad’s way and also working cooperatively I guess cooperatively I guess with the Iranians. The two major concerns the US policy Iran and Russia are making gains in Syria, that’s the interest the United States has in the country. It’s not the welfare of the people and what they’re suffering it’s what is going on with these other players. Of course Israel is fundamentally concerned with Iran and Iran’s growing influence in Iraq as well and in Syria. Then you’ve got the added complication of Turkey which borders Syria but which has watched as the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Kurdish militias have made significant gains against ISIS. Much to the delight of the Americans I should say who have been supporting them.

Scott Burchill: 00:15:45 The last thing that Turks want is the establishment of the Kurdish state based on territorial gains made by their militias. They’ve already got problems in northern Iraq around [inaudible 00:15:56]. They do not want to see any gains by the Kurds. They actually entered Syria into the town of [inaudible 00:16:04] not long ago and murdered a whole bunch of Kurds to simply remind them that they need to do what they’re told. If you like Syria is caught in the middle of a great power struggle in the region. The fortunes of their own population is perhaps the least concerning of those players.

The balance of power between the United States and Russia in the Middle East

Justin Brown: 00:16:25 The question I’ve got when I hear all of this is and I come in it from the perspective of a concerned citizens. I think I might be quite naive. You’ve explained the jockeying for power amongst the great powers of the region and I guess the balance of power and things like that. Why does that even matter? Why does the US care about influence in the region? Is it as simple as access to oil and having control over oil supplies to make sure that your economy keeps on growing or is there something more? How do you explain that just to people like me that are just looking there going, Why? That’s all [inaudible 00:17:00] why? Why are we doing that? Why are we supporting them?

Scott Burchill: 00:17:03 Well the opinion is divided. I mean there’s what you might call the Trump isolationists who ask exactly that question. The answer that they come up with is it’s not in their interest to be there let’s get it out. US foreign policy has been based since the end of the Second World War on spreading US influence as far and wide as possible and particularly where it’s confronted by a hostile or another power which is pushing the other way. In many ways what we’re seeing in US foreign policy is a direction driven by the actions of others not so much the US. If there are gains being made by Iran, if Hezbollah are being sent into to help the Assad regime survive, if the Russian air force is coming into help bomb jihadi groups and resistance forces within the country. That is by definition a bad thing for the United States.

Scott Burchill: 00:17:56 Regardless of any material possessions in the region or any oil fields or anything else. They need to be confronted because what happens if they manage … If say the Iranians managed to be the dominant influence in three countries in that region. That’s going to be a loss for the US and the west generally and Israel. If you’re looking for a single reason, a single say, oil reserves or uranium deposit or something like that it’s more complicated than that. It’s a bit like whatever is bad for my enemy is good for me. If I can inflict a bloody nose on them, if I can drag them into a conflict which is really costly, in which they don’t win, that’s great for me. The problem for the United States is they found their influence in the region has waned. People don’t take as much notice of the US anymore. They have no idea to back in the civil conflict but being involved in supporting some very extreme groups who may or not have been responsible for chemical weapons attacks themselves. There are no … I think, Tony Abbott when he was prime minister of Australia said there are no good guys in this conflict. Perhaps that’s the most accurate thing he’s ever said. There is no one with clean hands in Syria. The US has found it extremely difficult to find a proxy who is reliable, who they can defend ethically and who they can arm effectively. What we’re saying is Trump saying, “Well we had our chance. We’ve been doing this for seven years. We’ve been trying to remove Assad for longer than that. We gave it a shot, didn’t work let’s get out and save our dollars.” Whereas the foreign policy establishment in Washington is saying you don’t do that. As soon as you withdraw the vacuum gets filled by your enemies and you’ll never get back into influence in that part of the world. Then what are you going to do if you can’t control Israel who wants to take on Iran in a direct conflict that could be a nightmare for everyone in the region.

Why the US, France and the UK “intervened” in April 2018

Justin Brown: 00:20:18 It just sounds really crazy with all of the different competing interests and what’s going on in the different factions. A question I’ve got is about the recent intervention by the US, France and the UK. My question is will it even work? Will an intervention and we’re going to get to whether it’s an intervention shortly. Will it have the desired effect or do you think it’s possible that it will increase the local support for Assad?

Scott Burchill: 00:20:48 Well the question is what was the intention? It certainly wasn’t to turn the course of the conflict and even the United States admitted that. This was about a moral outrage that they were responding to. A line in the sand is a toughened call and use of chemical weapons which is a [inaudible 00:21:04] which is a breach of international law and therefore requires a response. That’s the argument coming out of Washington. There’s a couple of problems associated with that. One is it’s still not clear whether a chemical weapons attack actually took place because the organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons were unable to get to the site before Washington attacked it or attacked bases in and around Damascus, the capital. We’re still not sure whether A, a chemical weapons attack took place, B if it did, who was responsible for it because it’s extremely difficult to trace the providence of the chemical weapons as well as the perpetrators.

Scott Burchill: 00:21:48 If that’s the case why would Assad who has not been deterred by action of a similar nature 12 months ago, almost exactly 12 months ago, why would he change course now? The question you have to ask yourself is this, if Assad is winning and he’s got a group that he wants to destroy, one of the jihadi groups in Ghouta where the chemical weapons attack allegedly took place, and his already winning the conflict. Why would he risk that kind of retaliation from the United States when the ongoing use of conventional weapons was doing the job? That’s the question. Why would he raise the stakes when he’s got lots to lose and almost nothing to gain? With the assistance of the Russian air force he would probably wipe these people out in the short term anyway. These are questions that have to be answered and we await for the report coming from the weapons inspectors. The other issue which I think relates to this is say you did get rid of Assad, have Damascus.

Scott Burchill: 00:22:53 I know, he’s not going anywhere in the short term. He’s more comfortable now than he has been for about five years. Who replaces him? What’s the post Assad strategy? When you ask diplomats in the United States these questions they have no answer. Everyone agrees Assad is a terrible, evil, nasty person who has done atrocious things to his own population. That’s not in dispute. The question is if you get rid of him who feels the vacuum. What is the post Assad scenario? No one has any even bad ideas about this little and good ones. No one can give you a coherent answer about what would follow. A lot of the realists in international relations around the world are saying we acknowledge that Assad is an awful creep but before you knock him off and remove him have a think about who’s going to take his place. Of course no one can tell you what would happen in that case.

Will external attack unite the competing factions within Syria?

Justin Brown: 00:23:50 This maybe another naïve question but what about the Syrian people want or is that just an impossible quagmire again because of all the different competing factions in civil war.

Scott Burchill: 00:23:58 What you often see when you get these external attacks is internal cohesion around the only central authority that exists in the country. Assad is undoubtedly popular within the elite circles that he’s been looking after for many years but there are a lot of people in the country who would do everything to get rid of him. When you’re faced with an external enemy it’s like a bonding by exclusion principle. You bring people together to face a common threat coming from outside and sometimes you can then at least temporarily, paper over the internal divisions to say we’ll look we’ve got our differences, we’ve got to sort them out at some point. Look there are people outside here dropping bombs on us who want to influence the direction of Syrian politics and they’re not Syrians. What the hell are they doing? Why should we take any notice of them and … They’re breaking international law in doing it. They’re not just breaking international law, they’re breaking the laws of their own countries in doing it because they haven’t consulted with their parliaments, their national assemblies, congress to do it.

Domestic politics in the United States

Justin Brown: 00:25:07 What that brings to mind for me is that a principle … When I studied international politics, it was [inaudible 00:25:13] that war very regularly has the effect of uniting a country behind a leader. Does that help to explain part of why Trump is getting involved at the moment. He has declining popularity, a lot of internal challenges with the investigations and everything? His popularity is now increasing [resulting from the attack]. I was reading a little bit about the New York Times never disagreed with a foreign intervention or foreign war. There [inaudible 00:25:40] always, they’re very left wing, and we think it’s terrible. We need to do something. We do but they’ve never actually disagreed with a war. Is the war there to help people get behind Donald Trump and the administration?

Scott Burchill: 00:25:53 Well certainly that’s been the short term effect of that particular strike because even those critics of Trump who say he’s got no idea of foreign affairs thought he was showing American resolve and strength in bombing even though it had no short term … Or even medium term or short term effect. Trump is [inaudible 00:26:14] playing a different game as well. You remember he’s under enormous pressure to sever links with Putin. There’s all sorts of legal action and Muller’s investigation into so called collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russians prior to the election and afterwards. What better way to kick them in the face is to say look what I’ve done here? I’ve bombed Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East. If I’m such a patsy for Putin why did I do that?

Scott Burchill: 00:26:45 Of course what he doesn’t say is he told them that he was going to do it two days before giving them enough time to get their people out so no Russian … As far as we understand no Russian or Syrian military casualties were the result of the bombing campaign because he basically told them on twitter that he was going to do it about 48 hours before he actually bombed them. He’s playing a domestic politics as well here. He’s playing into that pressure that’s on him about being too close to Moscow. Then he’s saying well look when Moscow doesn’t do the right thing here, its ally is using chemical weapons. I will respond and I don’t care what the Russians are doing. I may even impose additional sanctions on Moscow as a result of its cooperation with the Assad regime. You can’t separate the foreign policy from what the domestic policy pressures within Trump.

Scott Burchill: 00:27:35 The problem his got is it’s a short term fix for him because the Muller investigation goes on. All of his political enemies think he’s got some dirt on him that will be used to expose his collusion with the Russians and his family’s business connection with Russia. I’m not sure this will throw them off the center very long. It gave him about five days grace before things started to go back to normal. It wasn’t intended to change the course of the war; it was just intended to say Obama didn’t respond when chemical weapons were used by the Assads. I’m going to do it for the second time. I did it in April 2017 and I’m going to do it in April 2018. I’ll do it again next year if you do it again. That boosts his credentials with his base who believe that the United States has all this military power. What’s the point of having it if you don’t use it?

Scott Burchill: 00:28:34 He’s demonstrating that he can strike with allies. He’s cleverly he involved the British and the French in this at the same time. He can use this to demonstrate that the United States maybe withdrawing from Syria in the medium term but we can always strike back at a short notice whenever we need to remind anyone how powerful we are. If we want to really intervene we will.


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Justin Brown: 00:28:59 It’s just so scary to hear it spoken about it in those terms where its leaders jockeying for power for domestic reasons. Russia versus the US, influence of the region. The interests of Israel, Iran, Iraq. There’s just half of a country has been displaced. There’s no ability to actually unite cohesively and create it whether it’s a new government or support the existing government to move a society forward. It’s really scary to hear all of these things. I guess a question I’ve got is well the first one is one I wanted to touch on something you brought up before which is the idea of escalation versus intervention and it also touches on that shared interest I spoke about at the start around the way mainstream media works, the way language works. I mean vocabulary. We often just adopt things unthinkingly and repeat them over and over. We say those are a quick intervention a few weeks ago by the US or a year ago with 59 [inaudible 00:29:59] strikes. It’s not really an intervention is it when the US has been there for a very long time?

It’s an “escalation”, not an “intervention”

Scott Burchill: 00:30:06 Yeah, so thanks to WikiLeaks and some of the published documents and tables that they came up with. We now know that the Americans and Saudis in particular were pushing to get rid of Assad for a long time. I haven’t mentioned the Saudis up at this time, but they’ve also got an interest here because they’re competing with Iran for influence in the region. Whenever Iran makes a gain in a country like Syria, the Saudi’s get nervous because they want … They see Iran as the leader of the Shia world, they see themselves as the leaders of the Sunni world and don’t want Iran’s influence spreading in countries around the same time. We now know that the Americans and the Saudis were using covert intervention back in 2007 to try and get Assad out of power. When you talk about … When the mainstream media talks about Trump’s suddenly intervening in Syria, they’ve forgotten the background here and that is they’ve been intervening in Syria for many years.

Scott Burchill: 00:31:11 Quite explicitly since 2007, quite openly actually to get rid of him. All this is, is a symbolic attack in a defense so I guess as a principle chemical weapon should be outlawed and not be used in the prosecution of conflicts. It didn’t stop them doing it, if they did in fact do it, it didn’t stop them when they bombed them in April 2017, so why would it stop them now a year later. It has no effect, literally no effect on the course of the war. The hard nosed realest within the US political establishment know that Assad has won that conflict, they can’t admit it publicly but they know he has. That the shrewd thing to do is to work and plan on the fact that he’s not going anywhere, and the Russians are making sure he doesn’t go anywhere. The time that he … There was a time three years back, could have gone either way. He was in real trouble, he lost so much territory.

Scott Burchill: 00:32:10 In fact Isis had literally rubbed up the barrier, the border between Northern Iraq and Syria. Literally just bulldozed it, so you couldn’t tell which country you were in at one stage. That has been reversed, thanks to the air power and military support given by the Russians which is decisive. Of course Putin wants a political payoff for this. The political payoff for putting Russian troops at risk is that Assad does what he’s told by the Russians, and that they are free to use airfield bases there, ports when they can, and consolidate their influence that way. It’s no doubt that the American Saudi western side iS in retreat. The Turkish Russian Iranian side has been, and will be soon victorious.

Justin Brown: 00:33:07 It sounds like it’s very … It’s a symbolic strike recently by the Trump administration according to what you’re saying. That from your perspective the course of the war is running itself out with perhaps people are accepting or the elites are accepting that Assad will stay in power supported by Russia. First of all is that the case and secondly I guess is that how you see it?

Scott Burchill: 00:33:37 Well there are a couple of points. One is what happens is the chemical weapons report argues that there was no chemical weapons attack. That’s the first question which must be keeping policy planners and political advisors awake at night in Paris, London and Washington. What happens is the organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons says we can’t establish that there was chemical weapons attack, and we suddenly can’t prove that it came from the Assad regime. That would be a nightmare scenario. Just as it would be if they can’t find who killed the … Who attacked the [inaudible 00:34:13]. The Russian dissidents in the UK which triggered a tit for tat expulsion of diplomats not just between the UK and Moscow but other western countries in sympathy, and that’s the nature of these attacks. They’re very very difficult to establish the truth of.

What the West really thinks about chemical weapons attacks

Scott Burchill: 00:34:31 If you look back at how the United States and the UK reacted previously to chemical weapons attacks, it tells you something about just how insincere the concern really is. Because in March 1988 when Saddam Hussein dropped mustard gas and chlorine gas and others, on the Kurds of Halabja, the United States and the UK rewarded him with trade concessions, additional technologies to keep developing these weapons, and that’s only because he was at war with Iran that they had a common enemy in. You need to find out what United States and the UK really think about chemical weapons attacks. You need to see how they reacted to the Halabja attack which is not in dispute. 5000 people murdered one morning in a Kurdish village in Northern Iraq, by Saddam’s forces dropping chemical weapons on them. What did they do? Absolutely nothing except made him a closer ally, assisted him with trade concessions as I said, and technology transfer.

Scott Burchill: 00:35:36 All of that concern about Assad’s use of chemical weapons as if it was a line in the sand, and behavior beyond the pale is … I think needs to be calibrated against how they responded to chemical weapons attacks in the past. We have to be … It sounds cynical, it sounds like we’re paying incredibly suspicious in motives here. You can only compare those events and see which actually engendered a concern and which didn’t. In the case of when chemical weapons were used by Saddam Hussein which ultimately the United States removed from power, in 2003 they were not just unconcerned but actually quite supportive. Because they also had used them against Iranian troops which the United States was happy to see.

Justin Brown: 00:36:29 Luis has just dropped in a chat [inaudible 00:36:31] comment to say, well the United States have caused [inaudible 00:36:33] in the Vietnam War. That also shows I guess, it’s indicative of their real opposition to chemical warfare. I think that-

Scott Burchill: 00:36:42 In fact if you want to look at the Atlantic I think there’s a new edition of the Atlantic magazine which carries a very good story. About someone who suffered birth defects as a result of that chemical weapons attack in Vietnam, the incredible achievements against the odds as a result of those attacks. I think we need to take the moral concern about chemical weapons with a grain of salt when it comes to those who’ve not only use it themselves, but being quite phlegmatic and in fact supportive of their use by allies in the past.

The impact of social media and civil society

Justin Brown: 00:37:17 Well I guess what that tells us is that governments seek to build up their power. Let’s adopt a realest perspective of international relations and say that, that tends to play itself out. What about the fact that the United States is a democracy with a civil society, with a media system in place. The difference now, between now and the late 1980s because you gave the example of use of chemical weapons in Iraq and the US supported them. In this day and age, are do have social media. There’s a lot more information being spread. As soon as chemical weapons used the public of the United States can hear about it, and can therefore lobby the government to actually change policy. That might be a big difference now to them.

Scott Burchill: 00:38:01 I think you’ve actually hit on a really important point. The reason the United States responded to this recent chemical weapons attack, is exactly because of social media. Because that’s the only evidence they had at the time. A lot of the groups lobbing for US … For the US intervention in Syria including the White Helmets group and others who want the US not to withdraw, found that the chemical weapons attacks was a God sent because it gave the United States the excuse to escalate their intervention. The question is would you commit to a military strike on air force bases in another country, on the basis of some footage that was recorded on social media? When Jim Mattis, the defense secretary gave a conference immediately after the strike on Syria, he was asked, “How is it that you yesterday you were not sure about the validity of the evidence and today you are?” Basically he couldn’t explain why they … What additional evidence they had received, and they certainly hadn’t put it on the public record. It looks as if the influence of social media and this is perhaps something will become more obvious in the next few years that this big event was triggered by scenes that may or may not be genuine, recorded in social media and presented to the western media, and the western public as evidence or barbaric behavior by someone who’s moral campus has completely gone haywire, and is beyond the pale and therefore needs a response. [inaudible 00:39:39] least you know you don’t start bombing other countries until you’re pretty clear what the evidence is. As I said they take a great risk in triggering such an attack on the basis of that evidence only so they don’t have anything else. We’re going to find out probably in the next two weeks. Whether that was based on truth or whether it was propaganda.

Noam Chomsky and the techniques for manipulating public opinion in a democracy

Justin Brown: 00:40:03 I think that’s the flip side of living at an age of social media and a huge communication increase that connect almost everyone on earth or at least anyone with an internet connection. Is that, yes truth can spread but so can fake news, so can manipulations so can propaganda. Noam Chomsky for example and his ideas on “manufacturing consent”. When you hear people asking, “Well is the internet changing the way the media works in empowering people?” He says well, not really. Because when you look at a Facebook newsfeed it’s still the mainstream media networks like CNN, New York Times, Fox News and whatever. It’s their context that’s appearing in the news feeds that’s just changing how we access information, but we can still be duped just as easily.

Scott Burchill: 00:40:43 Well as Noam Chomsky has argued really for about 30 years, the means to change an influence public opinion and in democracy, are not the same as in a totalitarian society where you can use coercion and outright violence to change people’s opinion. In democracies and free societies you need much more sophisticated techniques, in order to influence public opinion. That’s why [inaudible 00:41:09] manufacturing consent lists the way in which subtle propaganda is used to influence people’s ideas. Just the tyranny of concession, where I can come on a program like this and say Assad is a brutal dictator, and I don’t have to say anything more. Everyone agrees and nods and thinks, well that’s … No more explanation is required. If I come on and say, the United States has a long history of supporting countries that use chemical weapons, the audience will go hang on a minute. Where is your evidence? Explain this in detail.

Scott Burchill: 00:41:45 You can do this in a webinar, you can’t do it on a 20 second sound bite on the nightly news, or on the program like Fox News. The techniques for changing and manipulating public opinion in democracies, has to be quite sophisticated, but it’s quite successful as we know from evidence in recent times.

How to bypass propaganda outlets to be informed

Justin Brown: 00:42:08 I guess the question I want to get to before I turn to the user questions and the member questions, is with that in mind … I think that’s a good way that round it up. Let’s assume that the majority of people tuning in from one of these democracies where consent can be manufactured. Where perhaps we still can’t trust the government just as we can’t trust it in a dictatorship, what can we do? Because we’re seeing the footage of what’s going on in Syria, we care. We’re living in a day and age where we’re part of a nation but, we see ourselves as members of a human race. What should people do?

Scott Burchill: 00:42:43 Well we should take advantage of the technologies that we do have and use them to inform ourselves, in ways which bypass some of those most obvious propaganda outlets. My information on Syria comes from alternative sources that I could not have accessed without the internet and without knowing the names of people who have a track record of speaking the truth even though it’s extremely unpopular, within their own constituencies. Now that’s trial error. Well in the case of-

Alternative sources to find out what’s really happening in Syria

Justin Brown: 00:43:17 Can you list your sources?

Scott Burchill: 00:43:20 Yeah, there’s Christopher Phillips in the UK who’s … May be listening to this at the moment, he’s written a book on The Battle for Syria. It’s a definitive text on the extent to which outside influences have determined … Used Syria as their play thing for their own interest. Max Blumenthal writes for Alternet. There are a number of journalist, even Robert Fisk who used to work … I think he still works for Independent in the UK. Who has cursed out on the actually issue of whether the weather chemical weapons attack in Ghouta two weeks ago. The only way to know who these people are is trial and error. You subject their views to critical analysis in the same way you would subject the views of mainstream commentators to critical analysis. Use your commonsense to say, do these people have a motive for saying this?

Scott Burchill: 00:44:20 Are they representing the interests of groups? This is what hasn’t happened with say White Helmets which I think won an academy award as a documentary group for … If you subject some of the history of that organization to critical analysis it raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions. About why this [inaudible 00:44:43] for the west to bomb Syria, and where they’re locates and the fact that they’re headed by a former member of the British Intelligence Services. You just got to subject all sources to critical evaluation and ask yourself, who they represent, what’s their motive. Have they got a … Have they got some argument to run for other purposes or are they simply using their own observation, their own critical faculties to try and make sense of what’s going on here? Then, it’s a slow process, there’s no secret quick fix for this.

Scott Burchill: 00:45:18 It’s a case of putting … My view I take perhaps two or three hours out of my day reading media which includes the mainstream and the alternative. By the end of the say I’ve got some ability to make an independent evaluation of what I think is really going on here. Doesn’t mean I get it right. Just means that I’ve got a range of views to evaluate what I think might be actually occurring. Then you start to follow people on Twitter or on [inaudible 00:45:46] or wherever, who have got something interesting and original to say, and they’re not pushing some burrow for a company or for a lobby group, or for another country representing another country. Those sorts of issues are really important because if you … If you just take one source or two sources, then clearly you’re going to reflect the views that you cover in reading those. You just got to … There’s no shortcuts unfortunately.

Justin Brown: 00:46:16 I think it’s a really important point. Unfortunately I think one of the challenges is that people live busy lives. People have jobs, people have families. People want to get kids to school, and we’re stressed. We’re running around. It’s really hard to spend an hour or two, to actually critically analyze something. I think we spend the majority of our time as passive creatures that just take in information. I’ve created Ideapod but I’m exactly the same. I just love to relax. I love to pick up the paper, pick up the sports pages and just see what comes in. It’s one of the challenges. That’s why I think getting someone like you Scott on an Ideapod webinar to actually let us know what your sources are. It gets people started. We don’t need to do those few hours ourselves. We can actually listen to you speak in this webinar and do the best we can to evaluate your approach to the issues. Then get started in accessing some of these sources.

Justin Brown: 00:47:05 It’s great that you’ve listed a few to get us going. You’ve mentioned some of the media companies, the publishers being Alternet. I know that you’re a fun of Democracy Now, we spoke about that before we went on air. Are there any other people that … People should just follow on Facebook to start changing their newsfeed or something like that? What’s the easiest quickest way to get started?

Scott Burchill: 00:47:29 Well probably the easiest thing doing is to … Maybe we’ll post up a list of these to click on. I think the … As you say time is a real issue, and how much time you can spend on these things is … This is why you get increased specialization particularly in university system. Where, you get someone who’s an absolute specialist on Russia or Iran or Syria, but they know nothing much about anything else, because they haven’t got the time there’s just too much information flowing around. One of the things I use twitter for, is to try and aggregate to me in a convenient format, the people’s whose view I’m interested in. One of the great things about the internet is, if you think someone has got an opinion, and has written a really interesting book. People in the academic world I found, not just because I’m an academic myself.

Scott Burchill: 00:48:19 If you found someone who’s written a really good book, and there’s been a significant development in the area since the book was published, it’s not hard to find an email address at a university and ask them have you followed this up in any subsequent … Have you updated this in an article somewhere that I haven’t found you or something like that. 9 times out of 10 that will respond really very politely and helpfully. With, yeah I’ve just finished this, have a look at this and tell me what you think. It’s a case of … It’s the interaction, it’s not just passive learning, it’s about finding the people whose views you found interesting and insightful, and then approaching them and saying look, “I really want to know … I’ve got this thing I just can’t resolve myself or an issue that I can’t understand properly. Can you just explain it in a few sentences. I just said, 9 times of 10 it might be 90 times out of 100 or more.

Scott Burchill: 00:49:14 People will respond generously with their insights, because they’re interested to have that conversation. That’s the value of these webinars is, you don’t just sit there passively writing down notes or listening. You can actually contribute. You have insights and views that I won’t have come across. My learning and understanding of the subject improves and expands simply by interacting with people.

Is the conflict about oil? If so, should “ethical citizens” support renewable energy?

Justin Brown: 00:49:38 I’m happy to help you improve your understanding of what’s going on in Syria. I’m kidding, I don’t know anything [inaudible 00:49:43]. We’ve got a great community in Ideapod, we’ve got some writers as well. I think we’ll publish some articles resulting from this webinar. I’m going to go through the question in a moment, but there is one question from Louise Fletcher, an Ideapod member, that she posted a few days ago. It is that, she asked about renewable energy sources and if oil is a factor. I think from what you said that there are so many different factors that it’s hard to pinpoint one thing. If the presence of oil in the region is significant, as concerned citizens, do you think its incumbent on us to try to use renewable energy sources where we can or to support companies that are producing renewable energy to help get us off this reliance of oil in the Middle East?

Scott Burchill: 00:50:29 Well, I think the added new dimension to this is not just we need to get to renewables because finite fuels don’t last, but we now know what the impact on the climate is, of consuming that energy. Particularly coal and oil. Yes, as a logical step it makes sense to depend on energy which will have an infinite source, rather than something that … In Australia particularly which was traditionally just dug out of the ground, and exported to other countries to fuel their industrial development. That’s China and Japan in particular. The importance of understanding the oil issue in the Middle East, is to understand the relationships between states that it has influenced. There’s two obvious examples here. One is, the only reason why Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the United States, given its extreme form of Wahabi fundamentalists Islam, is because it sits on the largest known supply of oil under the ground.

Scott Burchill: 00:51:33 If it didn’t, it would just not count, and United States would not invest the time and the effort into cultivating and maintaining that relationship. Secondly the Iraq war can’t be understood properly without oil being a consideration. It wasn’t that the United States wanted access to the oil, it was that they did not want Russia’s … The US rivals like China Russia and France to a lesser extent signing contracts with Saddam that would come into affect once the sanctioned regime was lifted or collapse. Because Iraq has the … That stage had probably the second largest non supplies of oil, and the largest known areas of unexplored territory for oil. Since that war, the United States has increased its production of oil. Venezuela is a major oil supplier as well.

Scott Burchill: 00:52:27 There has been a change in the dynamics of who supplies oil, but the important thing about oil is that you can’t understand the relationships between governments if you don’t understand the oil issue. Because a country which has no oil in the Middle East may be of no interest to the United States, one that has the largest supply of oil is a crucial player. Even though the United States claims to be confronting fundamentalist Islam in that part of the world, its closest relationship in the Arab world is with the most extreme fundamentalist Islamic country Saudi Arabia. That relationship cannot be understood if you take the oil question out of the equation.

The challenges faced by mainstream media in challenging conventional perspectives

Justin Brown: 00:53:16 I think that it just gets back to the amount of rhetoric that’s out there. The way unfortunately the mainstream media works where it’s just … People in the mainstream media are under so much pressure to produce content just to write things over and over. It’s so much easier to do things that fit with the prevailing narrative that fit with sound bites. That get the message out, that can get clicks and views and generate advertising revenue. It’s a real challenge, but I think we’re generally pretty informed, we’re quite cynical government when you look at things like the US supporting Saudi Arabia while having a war against Islam or whatever is going on.

Scott Burchill: 00:53:53 Just to show how frustrating the media can be, I’ve been on The Project a few times and they’ll come to your house and they’ll say I want you to comment on the bombing of Syria, and they rearrange the furniture in your house, and set up cameras and videos. They film for about 30 minutes, and then you put your house back together and you go, let’s see what they make of this on the program, and it will be 15 seconds of comment from me. [inaudible 00:54:22] with a narrative which has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. This is what I mean by the tyranny of concession. I can repeat well known assumptions and phrases which everyone will nod about, and don’t need any further detail about. If you’re challenging conventional wisdom, if you want to take on that narrative and offer an alternative, you can’t do it in a 20 second sound bite. It’s actually impossible to do. [inaudible 00:54:50] how good your communication skills are, you actually need time to explain the dynamics. That’s just not available in a commercial environment like that, it’s just not possible to do it.

Justin Brown: 00:55:02 Yeah, that’s why I think podcasts and webinars and things like that are really great new medium to go a deeper with ideas and get them out there. Hopefully others can do just some work reporting on them and creating different stories and things like that. It’s also why we’ve got the membership program. We are part of this system. We are driven by advertising revenue ourselves right now, and we feel those pressures. We look at things like average sessions duration on the website, we try to get our traffic up, we try to get clicks, and we’ve done everything. We’ve felt the pressures of having headlines that are quite sensationalist to bring people in, but we’ve made the decision over the last few months to create a membership program that will mean that we are reader supported, user supported, and I hope that that really helps us going in the direction of more webinars like this and being able to challenge conventional wisdom.

Justin Brown: 00:55:52 I think we’re running out of time Scott. There’s a lot more questions in the chat box. Unfortunately we cannot get to them all, but it’s a real sign that it’s a great … It’s a really important topic. I’m really glad and happy that you came on board and helped share a lot of your wisdom and expertise in the region. Are there any final messages that you want to get across before we come to a close?

With an avalanche of information, you need to be discriminating

Scott Burchill: 00:56:16 No, just that with all that information, all those information sources around, you need to be discriminating. There is a limited time in the day that you can spend. There’s nothing more frustrating as a student reading a book coming to the end of it and realizing there’s nothing of values you can use in an essay, and it’s the same with the media. It saves time if you can find a small number of very reliable sources of information that you won’t get broadcast at you relentlessly during the day. If you can do that, then you’ll not only be better informed, but you’ll be able to evaluate what you’re being exposed to, and break through some of those myths, some of the propaganda that is endlessly repeated. Give you one quick example just to finish off. There’s been a war in Yemen by Saudi Arabia which has been absolutely atrocious. It led to a cholera outbreak, and human rights violations that rival Syria’s over the last seven years, in some cases worse. Not many Australians would know that their foreign minister has never mentioned the war.

Scott Burchill: 00:57:25 Not mentioned it, zero in a speech, in a media release, in an interview, nothing. The other example is the last four weeks we’ve had the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli snipers. I think we’re up to about 40 deaths and a thousand injured, right on the so called border between Gaza and Israel. A very, very sensitive issue which could have really explosive implications for politics in the region. Neither the foreign minister, the prime minister the opposition leader or the opposition foreign minister has mentioned it. I mean, nothing, zero. Nothing on Facebook, Instagram nothing on Twitter, no speeches, no media releases. No expressions of empathy for the victims or concerns that this might escalate to another level which would concern others. Not mention by the Austrian ambassadors Twitter account, nothing. These are the challenges for people like you and I and all the listeners. It’s not just what you’re exposed to which you’ve got to figure out and evaluate, it’s what you don’t hear. It’s what’s not covered at all.

Scott Burchill: 00:58:36 You have to ask why are we not hearing anything about this? What is the reason? There’s got to be a reason why no comment is being made about these conflicts. That’s even sometimes harder than working through what you’re exposed to. That’s the other side of the coin. What is it that you don’t know and don’t hear about and what can we do to stay informed as well? To participate fully in a democracy you need to be well informed. Otherwise you’re an outsider and then you can’t complain if no one takes any notice of you.

Justin Brown: 00:59:08 I think that’s a really important message. I think it’s important for people to take responsibility and inform themselves. That’s a part of being an active member of civil society. Scott thank you so much. Any one that wants to get to know Scott better and his perspectives and what he’s reading and following and things like that, I think Twitter is great place to come to. Your handle is IRanalyst. It’s twitter.com/iranalyst and then you can … It’s probably a good place to get started. You can even go to Scott’s Twitter and look at who he’s following, and you’ll find some of those names that have been mentioned. How else can people keep in touch with you? Is that the best way?

Scott Burchill: 00:59:46 Well I’ll send some stuff through to Ideapod which we can put up with the recording of this video. If the people want to do it before that goes up, then Twitter is probably the easiest way to see the people I’m reading. It doesn’t mean they have to agree with me, but they’ll see … They might come across sources that they hadn’t thought about before.

Justin Brown: 01:00:06 I think it would be more fun if they didn’t agree with you, and they’d help let you know about other sources and say-

Scott Burchill: 01:00:12 Absolutely.

Justin Brown: 01:00:12 [crosstalk 01:00:12] about this. That’s what it’s all about, it’s those conversations, we’re here to explore truth together and bring a community of really informed people around having great discussions about this stuff, and we’re just the same. Thanks everyone for joining us. I love all the chats that have come through. I’m sorry didn’t get to all the questions. It was just so interesting just to keep on going deeper with Scott and learn as much as we could. We will send out a recording very soon, and it’s going to be edited. That error with the video won’t appear for anyone that wasn’t live. Make sure you watch it again and you can actually see that video that I had recorded. Thanks Scott, thanks everyone, we’ll be in touch soon.

Scott Burchill: 01:00:12 Okay fantastic. See you.

Written by Justin Brown

I'm the CEO and co-founder of Ideapod, a platform for people to connect around ideas. I'm passionate about people thinking for themselves, especially in an age of information overload.

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