An error in a front page article published by The New York Times has elicited strong condemnation from supporters of the Syrian opposition on Friday for what they see as a misrepresentation of moderate rebels in the Syrian conflict.
On Thursday, the Times piece "Brutality of Syrian Rebels Posing Dilemma in West" went viral with the help of a gruesome execution video showing Syrian rebels reciting a macabre poem before executing seven unarmed regime soldiers. The video dominated cable news broadcasts and proliferated on social media websites and the Drudge Report. It also elicited a response from the State Department and Secretary of State John Kerry.
It was a newsworthy in part because it appeared to chip away at claims by the Obama administration that the Syrian opposition is largely made up of moderate forces. As The Times reported, the rebel commander who oversaw the executions in the video, Abdul Samad Issa, received weapons from the Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC), according to its source.
But the Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based advocate for more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria, said Issa and his group, Jund al-Sham, has no connection to the Supreme Military Council and never did, in a statement to The Cable:
The article claims that the group has received supplies from the SMC command under General Idris, and that its relationship with national or international extremist groups is unknown. SSG has spoken to several of General Idris’s deputy commanders, including Ltc. Musa’ab Saad Eldeen, as well as information-gathering contacts in Aleppo and Idlib for more information on the group.
According to all sources, the SMC has no previous or current relationship with Jund al-Sham and, contrary to the New York Times article, the group is not shown within the SMC’s or SSG’s delivery records as having received supplies from the SMC command. Jund al-Sham is independent of the SMC and of extremist groups, operates primarily in rural Idlib, and has relied heavily on fuel smuggling to Turkey for its funds.
Sometime after the SSG issued this statement to The Cable, the Times posted a correction to its article noting that the execution video was not from this year. In fact, it was "made in the spring of 2012," according to a correction at the bottom of the article. In a statement to The Cable, the SSG’s media director Dan Layman said the correction further vindicated the group’s point. "The Times just corrected their article to show the time stamp on the video was the spring of 2012. Before the SMC even existed," said Layman.
Although it’s true that the SMC wasn’t founded until December 2012, the latest version of the Times story says the rebel group received arms from the SMC sometime this year, which the Times notes does not contradict its story.
"The date of the video has been corrected. The other facts in the article and video are not in dispute," Danielle Rhoades Ha, director of communication at The Times, told The Cable.
In any event, Layman and other members of the opposition lobby say presenting the year-old video in the middle of the Congressoinal debate over authorizing war was tendentious. "It really suggests how they’re willing to sacrifice truth for their own anti-war sentiments," he said, referring to the newspaper.
But regardless of when the execution video was made, it still happened, and offers a window into how some rebel groups operate or at least operated at one point in time. It’s also just one of many gruesome web videos with unconfirmed origins that have been used by both sides of the war for propaganda purposes. You can bet it won’t be the last.
Controversy over the video follows another meta-media story surrounding Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War cited this week by both Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain during congressional hearings. In particular, O’Bagy has been cited for her Aug. 30 Wall Street Journal column arguing that "moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces" of the opposition — a contentious assertion in the debate over whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria. What U.S. officials and the the Journal failed to mention is that O’Bagy is paid by the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a group that lobbies for greater U.S. intervention in Syria on behalf of the rebels.