The Syrian Civil War: The Current Situation and Why Western Media Interest is Waning
In this briefing, third-year BA History student Geena Dhillon discusses the current situation of the Syrian War and highlights the perspectives taken by Western media that perpetuated the conflict. This briefing was edited by Sumru Nur Elden (Co-Editor).
Background to the Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Civil War emerged as part of the Arab Spring, a series of protests and uprisings against various issues such as authoritarianism, economic stagnation, sectarianism and corruption. The initial protests started in Tunisia in December 2010 and eventually spread through countries such as Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. The Arab Spring reached Syria late in March 2011, triggered by the torture of children, protesting for the fall of the regime, by government forces in the southern town of Dar’a. The local grievances in Der’a resonated with the majority of the country, sparking further demonstrations across the country in cities like Damascus, Aleppo, and also amongst the Kurdish population of the north-west regime. The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in response, promised reforms to douse his regime of its historic corruption and authoritarianism in a speech on 30th March 2011 yet largely referred to the opposition as a “foreign conspiracy.” Indeed, the reforms promised, such as the lifting of the Emergency Law in April of that year, were largely seen as performative gestures by Syrian opposition figures such as Haitham al-Maleh and Ammar Qurabi, who called for further reforms such as curbs on the power of Syrian security forces and the release of prisoners detained in the unrest.
The inadequacy of the government response led to further opposition building - with the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July 2011 - a group consisting of defected officers from the Assad army - and the Syrian National Council (SNC), an Istanbul based opposition coalition, in October 2011. This sparked further government oppression, notable of which was the Houla massacre of 2012, wherein 108 civilians were murdered by the pro-Assad mercenaries, Shabiha. The bloodshed across the country was taken advantage of by Islamist groups such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and Daesh, who began fighting the opposition. The Syrian government enjoyed Russian backing, and the repeated narrative that all opposition was Islamist terrorists began to form. 2013 marked a sectarian proxy element to the war also, with Sunnis aiding the opposition and ISIS, and Shi’ite individuals arriving to fight on the government side - with the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hizbullah supporting the government, perceiving their support as part of a straightforward political alliance against American and Israeli hegemony. 2014 marked US support against ISIS, with Obama enlisting 9 countries to form a military coalition to fight the terrorist group in September and the first military strikes being launched in Syria against the terrorist group later that month. Already by the end of 2014, over 200,000 Syrians had died; 2.3 million had left the country and 6.45 million had been internally displaced with a further 4.6 million under siege or in areas that the fighting had made difficult to reach.
The Current Situation
Fighting in the civil war has waned in the past few years - Assad now has control of the majority of the region, with the exception of the volatile North-West region, and the Kurdish-controlled Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. The US continues sporadic airstrikes against ISIS in the country, but activities are notably reduced with only a small contingent of troops conducting limited counter-terrorism missions, and with the withdrawal of the country from the North-West region.
Syrians in the country are suffering, with the conflict creating remarkable poverty, and food and energy shortages - not helped by a recent earthquake and current Western sanctions against Damascus. Before the earthquake in February 2021,the United Nations stated 12.4 million people, or 60% of the country, don’t have enough to eat.
The anti-Assad opposition is also suffering the detrimental effect of Turkish moves towards rapprochement with the Assad government. Turkey, the only remaining powerful backer of rebel factions, is being impacted by the rise of anti-Syrian refugee sentiment in the country. Erdogan, facing an election later in June, is co-opting the opposition’s popular anti-refugee sentiment. Therefore, Turkey, though most likely unwilling to remove its troops from the north of Syria against Kurdish forces, will be involved in a meeting with Syria and Russia’s respective foreign ministers later this month.
Thus, it appears that Syria has markedly fallen off the international agenda. Turkey’s actions towards normalisation of relations with Assad are not unique; there has been a recent flurry of pro-Assad gestures by countries such as Jordan and the UAE. The popular perception that Syria is now safe enough for refugees to return is being touted in both Turkey and in countries such as Lebanon, where the head of the Maronite Church Bechara Boutros al-Rahi called for the return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon back to their home country - arguing that the Sunni Muslim religion of the majority of the refugees also places Lebanon’s constitutional balance between Muslims and Christians in jeopardy.
The Effect of Western Media
It is clear that the media portrayal of the Syrian civil war has helped push the issue out of the international agenda and has strengthened the Assad regime. This section will explore three ways in which the media has done so: (1) through the Orientalist portrayal of Arabs, specifically Muslim Arabs, as antithetical to democracy, (2) through the demonisation of refugees and Syrian people as possible terrorists, (3) the wider portrayal of the conflict as an Islamic struggle.
The portrayal of Arabs, specifically Muslim Arabs, as antithetical to democracy has bolstered a narrative which limits the chances of any change from the Assad regime. Slash Alzyoud, analysing New York Times coverage of the Syrian refugee war, notes two prominent perspectives of Muslims; firstly that they are “outcasts not in line with a global identity of civic peace and religious and sectarian tolerance” and secondly, “the objective narrative that Muslims should obtain religious freedom and that any persecution of this freedom is a violation of the values of the tolerant world.” One can argue that these perspectives harmonise to place the Syrian people in a state of limbo - even if they wanted freedom, their religion and background means that they are not predisposed to it. This is congruent to the ignorance of the oppression currently occurring in Syria, the belief that the Syrian refugees can easily return and live peacefully now, and also the limited coverage of the recent anti-government protest in the southern Syrian city of Sweida. Alzyoud’s analysis of the portrayal of Muslim Arabs as outcasts in comparison to Western democratic values is in line with a Western portrayal of the Arab people as a whole. Aouragh and Hamouchene argue the historic understanding that “Arabs and Muslims are not fit for democracy and are incapable of governing themselves.” Thus, during the Arab Spring, the predominant narrative of the protests as predominantly youth uprisings spread by social media contributed to a view of the demands as infantile. Jack Shaheen argues that the Western media have entrenched a distance between the Western reader and the Arab people, seen for example with the reporting of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War as the Israeli name “Yom Kippur War,” with no mention of the Arab labeling “Ramadan War.”
The delineation of the us vs. them narrative concerning Westerners and the Middle East, has filtered into demonizing refugees and the Syrian people as possible terrorists. This helps the Assad regime’s propagation that the opposition is mainly Islamists, and thus his government is helping expunge extremism. The New York Times, for example, whilst describing President Obama’s speech regarding allowing the expansion of the military campaign against ISIS, resorted to using the phrase “against rampaging Sunni militants in the Middle East. The majority Sunni-Syrian refugees are further demonized through the historic association of Sunni Islam with extremism, shown by the New York Times’ consistent use of “Sunni” in talking about the terrorism charge of two Lebanese and a German in Germany.
By placing this emphasis on Sunni Islam as extremism, the media also contributes to a simplistic portrayal of the conflict as an Islamic struggle or various other dichotomous terms, ignoring wider class, sectarian and historic analyses. Aouragh and Hamouchene believe class and sectarian elements were ignored during the Arab Spring, wherein there was an understanding of the revolts as simply against authoritarianism, and as mentioned, an emphasis on the social media elements of the revolts - adding to the dismissal of historic inequalities. As seen in a BBC article on the historic sectarianism in Syria, if sectarianism is mentioned, there is a simple understanding of the Alawite-Sunni dimension or the ISIS persecution of the Druze, which harmonises with the demonization of Sunni Islam in the media to ignore the historic hegemony of the Alawite region stemming from the French mandate.
In conclusion, the Syrian Civil War and the atrocities of the Assad regime have lamentably been diminished in the international agenda. One must expose how our understanding of the regime, as filtered through the news, has contributed to our waning interest in the civil war. Whilst the West officially opposes the Assad regime, as seen with the continuation of sanctions, and the added anti-Russian element concerning the Russian-Ukraine war, there must be recognition of how the narratives we hold about the Arab World and Islam have strengthened the Assad regime’s hold over the population.