Amid reports that Turkish forces had begun mounting an attack on Syria, two separate news outlets reported that United States officials had contradicted U.S. President Donald Trump’s declaration that American troops would be vacating the Syria-Turkey border — leaving a major information vacuum that is almost guaranteed to be filled by all sorts of weaponized disinformation, misdirection, and propaganda as different geopolitical interests interpret the events to best suit their own narratives.
According to both the Huffington Post and the Abu Dhabi-based National, fifty special-operations troops would be leaving from the area where Turkey would attack Kurdish forces, but not leaving Syria itself. “They will move to more secure areas over the next several days,” one official told The National, which also reported that the United States had blocked Turkey from access to Syria’s northeastern airspace. The troop movement, the official said, did not constitute a “pullout.”
The news coming out of the region is already fragmented and confused. At least two separate accounts of bombing by the Turkish military were deleted, citing a wish to not spread further disinformation regarding the situation. But the unidentified officials’ remarks run counter to Trump’s posts on Twitter on October 7 2019, which said, “it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”
Trump’s remarks came a day after a reported phone call between himself and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The decision also means that Turkey will have a clear lane to attack the Kurdish group the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — which has been a valuable ally to the United States in the region in fighting the Islamic State terrorist group.
“We at the SDF believe that everything we achieved in the last five years, and all the sacrifices we made to defeat ISIS will all be destroyed with the latest American decision,” SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali told NBC News.
The decision by Trump also led to criticism of him from GOP lawmakers from whom he usually enjoys unalloyed support, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who called it “a disaster in the making” and said he would introduce a Senate resolution seeking to overturn it.
Media reporting on this topic should be aware of the possibility of weaponizing disinformation during conflict, especially when there is a dearth of vetted information and reporting, as pointed out in an October 2013 paper on this very topic:
Warfare and violent conﬂict have assumed an increasingly psychological dimension that relates to the way in which people cognitively and emotionally process information. In particular, given that at least some competing parties in a conﬂict are likely to engage in propaganda that is not bound by the rules of truthful discourse, warfare is also an issue of how people respond to misinformation — information presented as truthful initially but that turns out to be false later on— and disinformation — outright false information that is disseminated for propagandistic purposes but may be identiﬁable as false later on.
In other words, misreporting and passing along rumor as fact could potentially exacerbate a situation that is already very fluid, fragile, and confusing, so it is best to seek out reporters and analysts who have direct experience in the region and a track record of passing along already-vetted information.