Intercepting Rania Khalek’s Yellow Journalism on Syria Sanctions

“U.S. and EU Sanctions Are Punishing Ordinary Syrians and Crippling Aid Work, U.N. Report Reveals,” declares The Intercept’s emotionally charged and gripping headline. But buried at the very end of Rania Khalek’s story is the truth which completely contradicts that headline: “The report referenced was prepared for the U.N. and does not reflect the U.N.’s official position.”

The difference in meaning between “U.N. report reveals” and “report prepared at U.N.’s request” is enormous. But thanks to The Intercept, Khalek’s lie sprinted around the world while the truth was putting on its shoes.

Khalek makes two central claims about U.S. and European sanctions on the regime of Bashar al-Assad “imposed in 2011 in response to the Syrian government’s deadly crackdown on protesters,” as she put it. Her first claim is that these sanctions are “punishing ordinary Syrians” and her second claim is that they are “crippling aid work.”

The problem is that the report prepared at the U.N.’s request that Khalek builds her case on does not support either contention. Instead, the report’s Executive Summary declares:

“… the impact of sanctions will last well after the sanctions are either removed or modified and may create a new catastrophe in terms of crippling economic and humanitarian effects.”

Again, the difference in meaning between “may create a new catastrophe in terms of crippling economic and humanitarian effects” and is “crippling” is the difference between potential and actual.

There are only two possibilities explanations for this discrepancy: either Khalek fails to understand the difference between potential and actual or she does understand the difference and decided to mislead her readers by making claims that are as hyperbolic as they are unfounded.

Given Khalek’s demonstrable contempt for factual accuracy and proven record of misleading readers, it is hard trust her account of the following:

“An internal U.N. email obtained by The Intercept also faults U.S. and EU sanctions for contributing to food shortages and deteriorations in health care. The August email from a key U.N. official warned that sanctions had contributed to a doubling in fuel prices in 18 months and a 40 percent drop in wheat production since 2010, causing the price of wheat flour to soar by 300 percent and rice by 650 percent. The email went on to cite sanctions as a ‘principal factor’ in the erosion of Syria’s health care system. Medicine-producing factories that haven’t been completely destroyed by the fighting have been forced to close because of sanctions-related restrictions on raw materials and foreign currency, the email said.”

Two points need to be made here. The first is that internal emails are not vetted by experts, analysts, and fact-checkers for accuracy because such emails are not meant for public consumption. The second point is Khalek’s context-free assertion that U.S. and European sanctions are the “principal factor” in the erosion of the country’s health care system.

Really?

So we are supposed to believe what an anonymous internal U.N. email allegedly said over the words of Dr. Michele Heisler, a professor at the University of Michigan Medical School and board member of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) who concluded, “The systematic targeting of hospitals is the biggest impediment to providing health care in Syria. The physicians I met want one thing — for the bombing to stop so they can do their work.”

We are supposed to believe what an anonymous internal U.N. email allegedly said over a PHR report that found, “In the past three years, Aleppo has suffered 45 attacks on health care facilities, more than two-thirds of hospitals no longer function there, and roughly 95 percent of doctors have fled, been detained or killed.”

We are supposed to believe that the documented deaths of 687 medical personnel and 329 attacks on medical facilities from the beginning of the conflict through October 2015 had less of an impact on the Syrian health care system than U.S. and European sanctions, some of which predate the conflict by decades?

Shoddy reporting aside, Khalek’s concern about aid work in Syria appears to be wholly insincere when we recall the fact that Russia deliberately bombed a Red Crescent convoy on September 19, killing the organization’s director in Urum al-Kurba and destroying 18 aid trucks. In response to Russia crippling aid work by murdering aid workers and blowing up their trucks, all she could muster was an uncritical repetition of the Russian government’s mendacious denial of responsibility for the attack. Perhaps this was just message discipline on her part. Perhaps she realized that publicly condemning the Russian government for slaughtering aid workers (which led to the suspension of aid work in Syria, the very definition of crippling) would undermine her forthcoming story about U.S. and European sanctions “crippling” aid work. The Intercept published her story on September 28, roughly one week after Russia’s Red Crescent massacre and three weeks later still has not changed the headline that the publication openly acknowledges is wrong.

But Khalek’s credibility problem on the issue of Syria sanctions is not restricted to Syria. She has penned dozens of articles at Electronic Intifada supporting the movement targeting Israel for boycotting, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). So when Israel kills unarmed Palestinians, violates international law by engaging collective punishment, and forcibly displaces Palestinians from their homes, Khalek is in favor of BDS but when the Assad regime kills unarmed Syrians in prisons, violates international law by collectively punishing Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp through mass starvation, and forcibly displaces Syrians from their homes, Khalek opposes BDS.

When it comes to doublethink and yellow journalism, Khalek is really giving her partner Max Blumenthal a run for his money.