How The New York Times distorts our view of Syria

By Robert Wright

The New York Times wants to make sure you know that Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria has strengthened US adversaries.

On Tuesday, after Kurds imperiled by the withdrawal cut a deal with the Syrian government to step in and protect them—thus expanding the influence of the Syrian regime and its allies, Iran and Russia—the Times featured two front page stories about Syria. Over one of them was a headline that said “Battle Lines Shifting to the Benefit of Iran, Russia and ISIS.” The other one said, in its very first paragraph, that Trump had “given an unanticipated victory to four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government, and the Islamic State.”

OK, we get the message. But there’s a problem with the message. These two stories are at best misleading and at worst flat-out wrong. And, sadly, they’re typical of much mainstream media coverage of Syria—and reflective, I think, of cognitive distortions that afflict many American journalists, warping our view of the world.

The first warning sign, in both of these stories, is a paradox: some of the parties they call beneficiaries of recent developments—Syria, Iran, Russia—are enemies of another party they call a beneficiary of recent developments: The Islamic State, or ISIS.

Now, it’s not impossible that a deal that strengthens Syria and its allies could also help their enemy. On the other hand, the Syrian regime considers ISIS a very threatening enemy, and can be counted on to try to destroy any remnants of ISIS within reach. And when these two stories appeared, that reach had just been greatly expanded, via the deal that the Kurds had cut with the Syrian regime. So isn’t it possible that the deal would actually hurt ISIS rather than help it?

I want to be clear: Trump’s original withdrawal of American troops had presumably helped ISIS by directing the attention of the Kurds away from ISIS and toward the Turkish incursion. I noted this effect in last week’s newsletter (qualifying it with “at least in the short run”).

But now we were seeing an influx of Syrian and Russian troops into Kurdish territory, and that could direct fresh and hostile attention toward ISIS. So, all told, this influx was cause to think that the previous week’s concerns about a resurgent ISIS (which the Times had spent plenty of ink on) may have been overblown. Indeed, was it even conceivable that the long-run consequences of Trump’s troop withdrawal could turn out to be, on balance, bad for ISIS?

To check this speculation, I emailed Paul Pillar, who from 2000 to 2005 was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, which means he was in charge of the analysis of those regions for the CIA and all other American intelligence agencies. I asked whether it was crazy to think that Trump’s withdrawal of US troops could wind up being a “net negative for ISIS”—since, as I put it, there would now be an overall increase in “the number of armed enemies of ISIS” in Kurdish territory.

Pillar replied that he wouldn’t jump to the “net negative for ISIS” conclusion just on the basis of the number of anti-ISIS troops in the area. He wrote, “Rather, the basic point is that those other players [Syria and its allies] have at least as much of a direct interest in combating ISIS as the United States does.” But then he added, “The one possible way you might get a ‘net negative’ out of it is that having the U.S. military on the ground as a foreign presence has been—as earlier events in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have demonstrated—a recruiting asset for radical Sunni terrorists.”

In short: the situation is complex—complex enough that the New York Times’s casual assertions about the impact on ISIS (which were basically just unreflectively recycled assertions from the previous week, when they’d made more sense) weren’t really up to New York Times standards.

And, anyway, leaving aside the question of the net impact on ISIS of Trump’s troop withdrawal, one thing is hard to deny: if you compare ISIS’s prospects the day before the Kurds OK’d the influx of Syrian and Russian troops to ISIS’s prospects the day after, they had gotten dimmer. Mightn’t the Times have at least mentioned this fact—since, after all, this influx was precisely the big development that was being reported and assessed in that day’s paper?

>No such luck. Neither of these two front page stories acknowledged that expanded Syrian influence should be expected to undo at least some of the damage done to the war on ISIS by the American troop withdrawal announced the previous week. Both stories (one by David Sanger and one by Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt) kept their preferred narratives—that the wind was in ISIS’s sails—unsullied by fresh analysis.

I don’t think any of these reporters are trying to deceive us. I suspect they’re victims of two cognitive distortions, and are inadvertently inflicting those distortions on us.

1) Crudely zero-sum thinking. There definitely are dimensions along which the US has a zero-sum relationship with Russia, with Syria, with Iran. But the trouble with the label “adversaries” (or, worse still, “enemies”) is that it suggests a zero-sum relationship along all dimensions. It keeps you from even entertaining the possibility that something that’s good for Russia, Syria, or Iran could be good for the US. But it could be. In the real world—whether we’re talking about a person’s relations with “friends” and “enemies” or a nation’s relationship with them—there are very few purely zero-sum or purely non-zero-sum relationships.

2) #Resistance thinking. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media outlets are working in a polarized political environment, which means they can best prosper by catering to one political tribe or the other. And they’re working in a technological environment that provides precise and instantaneous information about how many readers each of their stories gets—a fact that puts individual reporters and editors who want a big readership (and don’t all of us want a big readership?) directly in touch with this tribalizing incentive. Plus, of course, a lot of journalists have feelings about Trump that are strong enough to color their thinking without them realizing that.

All told, media sites tend to move toward one of two camps—Trump or the Resistance. I don’t think the New York Times is as much in the Resistance camp as, say, Fox News is in the Trump camp. But I think it leans in that direction, even if that’s not the conscious intention of its reporters and editors. Possible bad consequences of Trump policies come more readily to mind than possible good consequences.

My speculations about the Times’s institutional psychology aside, there’s no doubt that a Times story saying Trump has delivered a victory to our enemies, like a Fox News story saying he has vanquished our enemies, will draw a bigger audience than a story saying the truth is more complicated than either of those narratives. Yet complicated is what the truth often is. And I think our foreign policy would be less destructive than it’s been in recent years if our most important media outlets did a better job of conveying the complexity.

Robert Wright is editor of Nonzero Newsletter, where this article originally appeared, and the author of The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Nonzero, The Moral Animal (named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review), and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller Why Buddhism Is True.  He is visiting professor of science and spirituality at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

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  1. **…four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government, and the Islamic State**

    The latter is the enemy of the other three. Logically, therefore ISIS must be an ally of the US, which in fact is the case. The US spawned and supported ISIS in western Iraq and eastern Syria in order to create a Sunni buffer state and blunt Iranian influence, as Sy Hersh reported years ago. General Flynn was the chief of DOD Intel at the time, and also reported on it (Flynn will soon be off to prison).

  2. Actually Syria is even more complex than the author or the previous comment offer. No mention of the fact that while brutal against any rival or enemy, the Assad regime since 1970 has always protected minorities, including Kurds. Remember the Assad family are Alawi minority themselves. They massacred thousands of militant Sunnis in Hama in 1983. Assad never fired a shot at Israel. The choice was never between Assad and democracy, but like Egypt, between Assad and militant Islam. We got it wrong back in 2011-2012 and still seem to be.

  3. What George W. and Trump showed through their victories is that dumb down analysis of results is the way to go. GW’s mini phrases with one focus bite was the staple of his success and appealed to the masses. Trump showed that what people believe and reality have nothing to do with one another. NYT after all is trying to sell papers and not impress the elite.
    Great article on why I religiously read LL.

  4. I entirely agree with Wright’s opinion. Not only the NY Times, also some of the Pentagon advisors and former generals have been iteratively claiming the ISIS ‘threat’ in Syria after the retreat of the U.S. troops. I wrote a comment to the NY Times about this, which was after all published. Good sign. But, still, several publications about Kurds claims, point to the same direction. Now, it was clear that both Kurds and U.S., with the fighting against ISIS, were mutually profiting in a very opportunistic manner. First, the development of ISIS was an outreach that the U.S. was incapable to forecast, the C.I.A. being deeply involved in the training and financing of many of the future ‘warriors’ that went for the Caliphate. It was only when the crude brutality of the jihadists showed up even in front of U.S. nationals that the U.S. government reacted. Then the Syrian Kurds saw with an ‘alliance’ with the U.S. the possibility to advance in their own ambitions for independence from Syrian rule and extend their positions. Let’s not be naive… the Kurds in the fight conquered territory belonging to no-Kurds Syrians. Branding the ISIS threat the Kurds play the same cord.

    Against the interests of U.S. army officials wanting to keep forces in Syria at any price with the clear purpose to counter Iran, is the clever and consistent presence of Russia. Any international informed observer could easily see this unfolding years ago. Russians don’t like to improvise.

    The picture is nevertheless not rosy for anybody because of the new ambitions by Erdogan who saw the doors opened for his Ottoman dreams and pushed down the border. What’s predictable though is the regrouping of Kurds with the Syrian official army seconded by Iran’s militias and Russia air cover. And, contrary to the U.S. this whole set of forces includes capable and redoubtable ‘boots on the ground’. U.S. risks now to become just a nervous spectator and nothing else for a while.

  5. The political landscape in the ME has changed and the West including the US turned out to be on the wrong side of history!
    The terrorist group commonly called ISIS was deliberately or accidentally formed by Paul Bremer when letting Saddam’s army personnel imprisoned during the invasion of Iraq to escape. This terrorist group was financed by the Saudis and protected by the US to take down the Assad’s legitimate government in Syria. ISIS was the true alley and not the Kurds! The Kurds were giving the US a lip service that they had the same objective as ISIS had but in reality the Kurds were looking beyond the removal of Assad and their help was mainly to create a new Kurdistan state in Levant!
    Fortunately ISIS was destroyed by the Russian,Iranian, and Syrian forces and not by Americans! In fact decimating ISIS was a big blow to the US and Turkey. With the three strong forces of Russia, Iran and Syria the Kurds had to get closer to Assad and change their attention to Turkey.
    The US had no more interests in Syria to protect and it had to pack up and leave Syria upon which time Turkey had to create a buffer zone at its borders with Syria. Additionally the Kurds had to be squeezed out of Syria by Turkey, Syria and Russia back into Iraq without accomplishing their wishful objective of creating a state.
    For the next few months the Kurdish corrupt leaders are going to pay the price dearly for relying on unreliable allies like ISIS and the US.

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