When footage of an alleged chemical weapons attack was beamed out of Douma, Syria, it set off an outcry and lit the fuse for counterstrikes. The narrative in much of the western mainstream media echoed their own governments': a red line had been crossed, it was a transgression that could not go unpunished.

Those demanding evidence that Bashar al-Assad's government was behind the chemical attacks, the sceptics questioning the rush to launch, were given short shrift.

The question of waiting for evidence "seems to be missing from much media discussion," points out Tara McCormack, an academic at the University of Leicester. "What we have seen in Syria is footage taken by people on their mobile phones. But there does seem to be a total abandonment of any kind of critical scrutiny. An idea almost that it would be immoral to question these images. I think that's quite a serious failure on the part of a lot of western media."

A big part of this geo-political showdown is being fought out over the airwaves, and when it comes to state propaganda, Russia is contributing its share. If only their media could bring the same scrutiny to bear on the Kremlin that they do on the White House.

Unfortunately, a lot of the discussions on media around Syria have little to do with Syria, and they have much more to do with geopolitical struggles.

Omar al-Ghazzi, professor of media and communications, LSE

"The main point made in the Russian media was that there was no chemical attack, that there was no need for it and that Russia was being blamed for something it had no role in," explains Marianna Belenkaya, a Russian journalist at Kommersant newspaper.

"When the Western media talked about the chemical attack as a fait accompli, the Russian media, not just the state ones, but more liberal, balanced outlets were trying to understand what the reasons for such an attack would be. Our western colleagues don't even want to hear this kind of questioning," she adds.

Syria's civil war has claimed half a million lives and displaced millions more, but the United States and its allies have chosen to intervene, publicly, only when the fighting is alleged to have gone chemical.

Chemical weapons are politically beyond the pale. Almost 200 countries have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 which outlawed their production and use.

The way allegations of chemical warfare are reported - the way it looks on screen - triggers a response. The footage is horrific, the suffering evident. And once these images turn up in Washington and other western capitals, the politics and the accepted rules of war do the rest.

According to Omar al-Ghazzi, professor of media and communications at LSE, "it is not about images specifically, it is about the politicisation of images in relation to political agendas. The attention that chemical warfare gets in relation to Syria has actually less to do with Syria than western European history and European publics. Because suffering by bombings and by barrel bombs arguably can be more damaging and kills more people."

Contributors:
Omar al-Ghazzi, professor of media and communications, LSE

Tara McCormack, academic, University of Leicester

Adam Johnson, contributing analyst, FAIR.org 

Marianna Belenkaya, journalist, Kommersant newspaper

Source: Al Jazeera