How the story of the Syrian Civil War got so muddied

By Kit Roberts

SINCE 2011, the Syrian Civil War has become increasingly opaque, with conflicting narratives being spun out from the chaos.

As the conflict has escalated and become increasingly complex, it has become even more difficult to discern what is actually happening on the ground.

With few international journalists on the ground and the reliance on the internet and videos posted online for information, simply finding verifiable information about Syria is a huge challenge. 

The situation has been both started and exploited by the Assad regime, which recognises the value of information and more importantly of controlling the flow of information.

Both internally and internationally the narrative around Syria has become so distorted by the Assad regime and its allies that even documented events such as chemical attacks and the deliberate bombing of schools and hospital are thrown into doubt.

Redaction Report spoke with former Reuters foreign correspondent in the Middle East and lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies Dina Matar to understand more about how the narrative has been twisted.

“During the conflict there are several things that the regime did. First of all they allowed Facebook to be opened. 

“That’s not because they wanted freedom of expression, but because it’s a way to try and find out who is doing what because you can easily target people through facebook.

“Secondly, they banned international and foreign reporters, so there’s no way that independent reporters could verify what was happening on the ground.

“Thirdly they had their allies, including Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran, who were also involved in publishing the Syrian narrative. 

“There are a lot of interviews by Syrian regime officers and the president on different channels in Russia, in Lebanon, in Iran. All the time you could hear the arguments. 

“Lastly, they did target a lot of what is called citizen journalists, who were ordinary activists who were beginning to use their mobile phones to upload videos and so on. They were targeting journalists, they were targeting a cartoonist, he ended up in hospital after they crushed his fingers. Stuff like that. 

“The main thing is that citizen journalists were being targeted indiscriminately.”

But what singles out the behaviour of the Assad regime? In war, controlling the narrative both at home and against your enemy is of utmost importance.

“Remember that when you’re at war you’re trying to work on different fronts,” said Dina.

“There’s something to be said when people become slightly about whether they are seeing the truth and experiencing the truth, and whether they should go back to something that they have knowledge about, which is the regime.

“People have experienced the regime for a long time, there’s a sense of if we are going to change what is going to happen.”

Outside of Syria as well, bloggers around the world, including in the UK, have toed the regime line and pushed narratives that cast the regime in a positive light.

“The use of these foreign bloggers was quite important in trying to cause some doubt in the minds of other people outside of the people inside Syria,” said Dina.

“It caused some problems and issues for the Syrian diaspora for example, because they would be following these blogs or they would be following what they were saying and kind of it does sow some kind of distrust of other information that was coming.

“It created a sense of confusion. That particular context, with facts on the ground also moving ahead, it might have swayed people’s opinion in support of the regime rather than in opposition to it to prove the argument that media does coerce change in public opinion. 

“That is a very valid argument in media and communication, but it’s very difficult to prove.

“Public opinion is ephemeral. It changes with conditions and context. Unless you are ideologically linked to a particular opinion, you can change according to the context.”

And in Syria, the scale and brutality of how the regime controls narrative is staggering. 

Early in the conflict, the regime worked hard to effectively cut off foreign reporters from entering Syria, up to and including deliberately targeting them with lethal force as was infamously the case with reporter Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik, who were assassinated in Homs by regime artillery strikes.

Whilst it is possible that  the concern of the Assad regime is more focussed on maintaining Syria’s position within the Levant and in relation to its neighbours, there remains a strong contingent of westerners who paint Bashar Al-Assad as a strong figure of anti-imperialism. 

“Syria has been always talking about itself as being the only remaining Arab nationalist regime in the Arab world. 

“Syria has promoted itself as being the only remaining nationalist country that is still at war with Israel. That is an important thing and it does attract a lot of support across the Arab world.

“As part of that nationalism they are anti-imperialist, we are anti-American. The whole language that they use is the rhetoric of not being the only remaining Arab nationalist socialist country, but also anti-imperialist, anti-American. 

“How this came across particularly during the uprising, is that they branded the opposition as traitors, and as being influenced by the US and by foreign powers.”

This is a hugely important point in Western discussion of the conflict as well, which can steer towards viewing Assad as a positive figure in the region because of this self-declared anti-west policy which westerners from some ideological backgrounds view as an inherently positive force because of a commitment to anti-imperialism.

Presumably the suffering that Assad routinely visits on Syrians is lost here, or the suffering would be worse if it were inflicted by a western power. 

What is both extremely important, and which also should not need to be explained, is the agency of the Assad regime and its ability to catastrophically affect the lives of its citizens. 

“Syria does want to be part of the international order and to be respected, but at the same time in the current climate it is much more concerned with keeping the population together,” said Dina.

“Despite the fact that on the face of it we don’t hear anything, there’s potential unrest, of something happening.

“The question of when and how Syria will want to be part of the international order is an open question.”

Nonetheless, what the regime has shown is that it is capable of manipulating information to its advantage and pushing its agenda within political movements otherwise far outside its sphere of influence. 

Featured Image: Pixabay

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