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A Greater Threat than ISIS? - Western 'Public Opinion'

Convincing the western public that the West needs to change course on Syria may be a monumental task

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Following the Paris attacks, the World now sings in unison - 'Islamic State terrorists are a danger to us all'. Putting aside our differences and special interests in the Middle East, and avoiding a blame game on who is most responsible for creating this new monster, some unity of purpose has arisen amongst the leaders of the G20 countries - decisive action will now be taken against the terrorist armies of Da'esh.

This is a bitter pill to swallow for everyone involved - not least Russia, who is portrayed as 'joining the French-led bombing campaign against ISIS/Da'esh'. And it's bitter for France, who must fight in cooperation with Russia - and one assumes under the direction of the Russian military - as one of the strongest supporters of the insurgency against the Syrian government and army.

This development, of a joint anti-terrorist operation that involves some 'former' supporters of groups Syria considers 'terrorist', is also hard for Syrians to accept; how can such states now be taken at their word? This is particularly so if one listens to their leaders and commentators, who seem unable to talk about fighting terrorist groups without adding some caution on the 'question of Bashar al Assad'.

What is more, the new resolve following the Paris attacks is not so new, though much more intense; a similar situation occurred following the sudden surge of migrants into Europe 'fleeing Islamic State' and worldwide outrage over the drowning of Aylan Kurdi.

Many questions have been asked over the causes of that refugee flow, and reasonable inferences made on Turkey's role, given its government's support for terrorist groups in Syria. And similar questions are now being asked over the Paris attacks - by those who dare; the mere suggestion that the attacks had some context - that they could be understood - has provoked outrage.

But questions on the origins and role of 'Islamic State'/Da'esh/ISIS/ISIL, or on how we can 'degrade and destroy its forces do not concern me here; there is another far greater threat to peace and stability in the region and the wider world - 'Western public opinion'.

When the Aylan Kurdi story motivated huge numbers in the Western world to rally in support of Syrian refugees there was a strange disjunction in the narrative. We heard from our leaders that these people were fleeing from ISIS - presumably because this was their necessary pretext to pursue long-standing plans to 'intervene' in Syria.

But this didn't make sense to ordinary people, who had been told for four years that refugees were fleeing from  the 'murderous tyrant Assad'. This idea was reinforced at that time by new (though convincingly false) reports of 'regime barrel bombs hitting markets and schools', and targeting 'mostly women and children'.

Tellingly perhaps, the 'ISIS is the problem' theme was rapidly replaced by 'Assad is the problem', and public commentary turned to discussion on regime change, again. Even while our leaders continued to talk up the threat of ISIS, the public mood focused on the 'threat of Assad', and the leaders then had to follow the public.

Quite alarmingly, this transition from a focus on Islamic State to a focus on regime change has happened in only days since the Paris attacks. ( for which incidentally there is little evidence that IS was directly responsible) While much discussion has taken place at international fora on tackling the apparently escalating threat to the West from IS terrorism, fundamental disagreement on the future and legitimacy of President Assad has almost overshadowed it. Again, the calls for a 'political solution' - meaning one without Assad - have come from all quarters.

Partly one feels, in response to public sentiment, commentators have sought the views of Syrian opposition figures, who have been quick and shameless in pushing their partisan agenda. While their claim that combatting ISIS will enable the Syrian army to concentrate on fighting 'moderate opposition forces' is ludicrous - 'moderate' forces wouldn't be fighting the Syrian army - it is sadly a claim that almost all the 'Western public' will believe. ( and those same commentators show no interest in the opposite viewpoint any Syrian government spokesperson could give them)

It may be hard for those not under the spell of the  Western media narrative to understand its all-enveloping power over public opinion; anyone with regular access to reliable non-Western news sources can see it for what it is - 'propaganda'. But as has been said before about Russia and other countries that had directly State-controlled media - Syria for instance - their citizens never really believed their news services in those days, unlike now.

And this I believe is a major problem for Russia in 'selling its case' to the Western public. That public believes the fundamental lies that are at the base of the Syrian crisis - the lie that Bashar al Assad has 'murdered his own people', and the lie that there was a 'peaceful Syrian uprising'.

And because the public's opinion has been formed and manipulated, and the false ideas believed and reinforced by so many agencies in the West who are trusted and respected, it just cannot be dislodged by any 'reasonable argument'. Even if Western leaders were to come to their senses and abandon their regime-change plans and self-interest, their publics would not allow it.

And so there we have it - the legitimisation of an illegal war 'due to public demand'.

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