A lot is being shared on social media about Aleppo. On Monday I took to social media to express my heartbreak for the destruction of Syria and the innocent lives lost.
In general, I stopped discussing Syria publicly several years ago. My voice was lost in the noise and attacked by both sides. As an Iranian and a Shia, the prejudice of many would make them deaf to what I would say, jumping on any little point that they didn’t fully agree with. Some of the comments on my post on Monday showed the opposite to be true too. If I say something that doesn’t fully defend “the opposition of the opposition” under all circumstances I will be called a sell-out, Western stooge straight away.
Despite this, I feel compelled to write more; this time focusing on some issues of politics and media.
The who, what, where and why?
What has happened in Syria is the mismanagement of a genuine and sizeable protest movement, and the injection of a (mostly foreign) extremist element, followed by the hijacking of the national aspirations and progress of members of a society by “everyone else” – the dominant power player at home and more importantly many players abroad.
Syria has been the playing field to enact world war, power politics and its consequences on a tiny slither of land, leaving its people to face the full-force consequences of that global war in our place, whilst we watch from our homes.
Syria is a disaster. It is devastating. The lasting impacts will be felt for generations. The hate it has fostered and the divisions it has either exacerbated or created are seeds that will grow.
There are not just “two sides” in this conflict and there has been no outright victory. There are broadly two coalitions fighting a war and each coalition includes multiple sides. That is the most that can be accurately stated.
However, the closest thing to a winner is the side that has fulfilled the most of its objectives; destroy the country, divide the Muslims in a way that creates lasting hate and division, get others to be in this fight that maintains disunity, create another terrorist monster gang that can spread across the region and help lobby your domestic audience using fear. That’s most of the objectives checked off. Whilst this side would have preferred to get rid of Assad, given how things have developed, not reaching that objective is a blow they are willing to take. Overall it’s been enough of a success; they’ve managed to get enough of their objectives from the situation.
We (as a collective torn apart by the successful strategy of our enemy) have had to lose so much. That is why it becomes redundant to “celebrate” the sombre victory of taking Aleppo. It also makes it redundant to insist that anti-Assad sentiment there is either absolute or reflective of all Syrian people.
The narrow narrative expressed by two absolutist sides, blinded by subjectivity and emotion, are presented as the only two “truths” that you can have on this conflict (and, by the very nature of “truth” there can only be one, so you better chose).
But a more accurate political assessment on the state of Syria and the world, would take in to consideration the increasingly complex web of politics and propaganda in which these two sides exist.
Pick your label and shut-up
The feeling of living in these polarising times is nothing new. 2016 has shown us that. You are either a “racist, uneducated, tabloid-reading leaver” or a “rich, disconnected, terrorist-appeasing remainer”. You are either a “stupid, racist Trump supporter” or an “undemocratic, unpatriotic sore loser”.
You are either an “ISIS-supporting, Shia-hating, western-appeasing rebel” or you are a “dictator-loving, Shia-appeasing Russian stooge”.
You are either “Anti-Assad” or “Pro-Assad”.
Pick your label and shut-up. If you don’t so much abuse will be hurled your way, you’ll soon learn to keep your mouth shut.
So much dictatorship whilst we fight dictatorship.
That is the political reality…no…just the reality we live in today.
But, most of us know that these labels don’t fit. We are a “side” too, far more diverse, and completely unrepresented, and since nothing in this toxic environment makes us forthcoming, our numbers are just as elusive as how many people are in Aleppo, or how many people support Bashar Al-Assad. I could guess. That is basically what everyone else is doing.
We simply don’t know.
It is a "post-truth" world after all.
The point has been made to me several times, that realistically, at times of war you have to pick a side; war is messy, people die, politics is dirty, politicians won’t be perfect. We dissected the merits and flaws of the “lesser of two evils” argument extensively enough during the US general election, so I won’t delve in to it again here. However, as a principle, it is surprising that those who advocated for Hillary Clinton don’t somehow understand why on another political plane, others may chose to advocate for Bashar Al Assad. By the same token, making Bashar Al Assad the moral saviour of a terrorist-Western plot is about as principally sound as making Hillary Clinton the peace-loving innocent feminist victimised in a toxic general election.
The Media pulled the trigger
I’ve said this before, and I still maintain it to be true; I place a special and specific blame on the media for what is happening in Syria.
Social Media and alternative media broke the stranglehold of the mainstream narrative that had historically indoctrinated a slick propaganda to create a particular worldview and narrative for its domestic audience.
The principles of journalism were always noble, but in practise they were rarely exercised. Alternative media made us realise how rarely by showing us there was another side to the story. The glaring differences in the narratives suddenly available to us, made us realise how heavily editorialised our information actually was; it opened up the landscape and it gave us choice.
Social Media opened the floodgates. However, in this wave of positivity Syria was a turning point. Whereas on any other topic you could scan across the media landscape and find objectivity on one topic or another - usually by the outlet that had no vested interest – in Syria that simply wasn’t true.
Everyone had a stake, and all bets were off. Media outlets no longer even pretend not to have an editorial anymore. Instead we have just decided to simplify the equation; the editorial is the truth, the viral video is the best emotional propaganda tool of war and your social media circle is the universal opinion.
Syria is the ultimate, modern-day example of “truth is the first causality of war”.
All this outrage or celebration and all we have really learnt is that if there would be another Syria starting tomorrow, we could get to this point quicker; pick sides quicker, emote quicker, hate quicker, kill quicker.
Having said all this, there are certain points I bare in mind when I see posts and coverage on Syria that I want to share.
On the Syrian People:
“The Syrian people hate Assad.”
“The Syrian people want the terrorists destroying their country out”.
These are two statements you hear all the time. The reality is that, mostly, others are speaking on behalf of the Syrian people. There is no substantial evidence that the Syrian people want these advocates. Most importantly, the Syrian people are not a singular; their opinions are also split.
“Most Syrians hate Assad” and “Most Syrians want Assad” are also two on the whole unquantifiable statements.
There was an election in 2014. The opposition decried its legitimacy, the government saw it as proof of legitimacy. The reality wasn’t an absolute of either, but it would be silly to continue to maintain that Assad has no support amongst Syrians. That is an invalid starting point. The debate can only be how much support he has and the reality is that there is no credible evidence whatsoever to suggest that there is overwhelming opposition. On the flip side there is evidence that he won an election overwhelmingly, though the credibility of the election is clearly questionable and it is not something we can use as a credible anchoring point of substantiated fact. The conclusion is; we simply don’t know. What we can say is that a starting point that maintains Bashar Al Assad has no support or legitimacy amongst his population is not realistic. How we feel about this fact has nothing to do with its merit as a fact.
The resistance to asking “how much support does Assad have” is because the mere question is an automatic concession for an opposition that have anchored their position in the absolute illegitimate mandate of Assad. Beyond that, it's important to remember, that neither side really cares. Bashar Al Assad wouldn’t care if the majority of his country didn’t support him if he had maintained power and the opposition want him gone regardless of whether he has majority support or not. The moral argument of either side fails in the fact that their respective objectives is a priority over of the opinions of the people.
Many protested against Bashar Al Assad and may have subsequently concluded that they would rather keep him than what has unfolded in the country. Some will be willing to die fighting to get rid of him, others will be willing to die fighting to keep him. Many would have been protesting for progress not annihilation. What we can’t do is take the portion of the domestic population that fits our view and advocate for them as if they are the entirety of the country.
With far less bloodshed, I saw the same political complexities with my own eyes in Iran. In 2009 there was a contested presidential election and mass protest. Millions turned out on the streets. For both sides. The opposition said pro-government supporters were fake; opposition protesters were called spies and lies. Neither was true. The majority of the protesters were highlighting genuine grievances and there were plenty of die-hard regime supporters. When violence broke out both sides were killed; innocent protesters as well as police. The thing with propaganda and media is that it takes the realities being suffered by people on the ground and uses it – not for the sake of the people – but for the sake of the agenda. I saw and spoke to so many opposition protesters that withdrew back in to their homes when they saw what was spiralling out of the situation. One told me “I wanted change but I didn’t want this”. Her grievances didn’t disappear, her momentum and her voice were merely hijacked. Slow-clap for that too, because crackdowns are always easier after security threats. That’s the truth all over the world, although only certain countries get the “special treatment” – the magnifying glass.
The fact of the matter is, when it comes to countries that are already under the political magnifying glass, the starting bias means you will never really know. Because one side will lie, the other side will become defensive, both will start the propaganda war and counter-war. That’s the reality. The people who should have the real agency end up having it taken away by a plethora of well-meaning and bad intentioned people.
On Bashar Al Assad
Touched on a lot of this already. When this conflict started Bashar Al Assad was an authoritarian rules. He also was a key component of a political coalition of anti-Imperial countries. The US tried to bring Syria in from the cold, as long as he dropped support for Iran and Hizbullah. Syria declined. The US said Syria will get what’s coming to it. It made good on that promise. In the run up to the conflict, Iran, Hizbullah and Russia kept warning they wouldn’t stand by and watch a move against Syria happen.
The problem with dictators is that they usually are unjust enough for things to ignite on their own at some point. It’s a waiting game, there doesn’t need to be too much interference to get it all going. However, to make it simply and only “Assad’s fault” for a crackdown on domestic protest is simply not factual. To make it simply the “fault of Iran and Russia” for backing him is not factual. For making it only the fault of protesters and takfiris is not factual either. Assad dealt with the protests badly, and we will never know how much of what has happened since he could have averted. He should have called quicker elections, he should have given concessions, he should have been less bellicose. None of these things are really typical dictator-type behaviour and equally if not more importantly, as I have always maintained, you can stop giving excuse to leadership when you stop giving them a legitimate enemy.
Bashar Al Assad wasn’t the worst dictator in the region or the world. By far. That is still true today. As non-Syrians you are more than welcome to prioritise him on your list of causes for a plethora of political reasons, but to suggest that these started off as humanitarian priorities is simply nonsense – you are either lying to us or yourself.
By the same token, we don't really know what progress the Syrian people could have achieved in these few years, if ISIS hadn't been sent over to butcher. If you have convinced yourself that ISIS is a better compromise than Assad, you really have no moral argument against a side that has simply concluded differently than you.
It was quite obvious that it would end up like this. The power players didn’t really care about the loss of life on either side. Those matters are calculated before hand. Perhaps they underestimated how invested Russia would become, but the red line was drawn before it was crossed. Even if we are going to blame it entirely on the Russians, we have ALL been playing Russian roulette.
On “facts” and death toll
We don’t know. We just don’t know. Keep repeating that. Please. Some statistics are more reliable than others. Some respected doctors and field workers can give relatively accurate information about small pockets of people. But on the whole we just don’t know. It doesn’t matter if the facts are coming from the UN. The Syrian Observatory Mission gives statistics to the UN. You can keep quoting them and you can keep attacking me for saying they are not credible. But they are not credible. Under any other circumstance their statistics would not be used. The fact that they are still being used is a clear indication of bias and the international double-standards at play. Consequently this gives impetus to Assad and his allies. As I said earlier; you can stop giving leaders excuses when you stop giving them a legitimate enemy. Also The White Helmets. Not credible. They might arguably do some amazing work on the ground, but they are not apolitical and have seriously dubious funding. Also the Syrian government is not a credible source. The Russians are not a credible source. Turkey. Not credible. It’s just a fact. There is no credibility. Full stop.
So we have sketchy and unreliable information from both sides. Does that mean people are not dying? No. It’s very obviously clear that there are atrocities happening on the ground and that far too many people are being killed. Both sides are complicit. There is no point using proven falsification by the opposite side to try and deny the fact that your side is killing. Mostly people are dismissing “evidence” from the opposite side saying its all fake, whist simultaneously bombarding us on social media with content that is just as likely to be fake. There is a complex dynamic of subjective editorialising going on. It’s this hardening of positions on both sides that has got us to this level of death. It will continue as long as we continue.
The “final messages” coming out of Aleppo
On my newsfeed, opinion is split between “they are all fake” and frantic posting about innocent people dying. Are there fake videos? Yes. Can we tell if the videos are real? Sometimes if we know the person, or know someone who knows the person, but mostly we can’t tell. Does a real video mean an objective video? No it does not. Does it really matter if there are some fake videos? Yes and no. No, it doesn’t matter if some of these videos are fake if you are using that to deny the fact that there are innocent people stuck needing safe passage and that war and bombing areas where there are civilians is all very awful. Yes, it does matter if you are trying to ignore the fact that there has been an unprecedented level of falsified news proven to have come out of Syria.
Videos of people celebrating
The videos I’ve seen so far seem to be just handfuls of people – mostly kids on the streets. Sometimes it’s the army. There will be Syrian people celebrating inside the country and other Syrians will be disgusted by this fact. Personally I understand both emotions. I would hope that even if my side won in a war that had such catastrophic consequences, I would be sombre and philosophical. But I have never been on the ground, so I will not take too much moral high ground on the matter. Syrians can do whatever they want. It would have been nice if that was the case from the start. The videos reminded me of when they filmed the fall of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad and they kept putting it on the news as “Iraqis celebrating US liberation of the country”. It was like a dozen people, I don’t know where they got them from. That doesn’t mean most Iraqis weren’t at home, scared to death of US bombs but glad that Saddam Hussain was gone. Ponder that for a moment. Talking of Saddam Hussain, another good parallel. He was a dog. I was glad he was gone, but I was against the war. By the same token, I felt sick watching his execution. It did not feel like victory or justice at all.
On the death of innocent civilians
Bad. Always bad. It is ok to say this is bad, even if there is a war and you take a side in that war. It is ok to cry for innocent civilian deaths, even if in your eyes they are an unfortunate reality of war or they've occurred at the hands of your side. In general little babies aren't shia scum or takiri terrorists.
There is no point of denying innocent civilian deaths. There is no point in trying to highlight double-standards and uncertainties by basically coming across as a cold-hearted, crazy, dick, or even worse slowly becoming a cold-hearted, crazy, dick.
This isn’t some hippie-dippie “peace man” concept that you can brush off as well-intentioned but misguided. This is rooted in Islam that has principles on warfare; one being that compassion is not mutually exclusive to the act of war.
Pressure to stop deaths is also good. Would be much better to do so without the politicking. Then we could have real solutions.
On how Syria compares to other wars
All wars are bad. Comparing them seems distasteful and wrong. Given the lack of objective credible information we don’t know who has done what. We know it’s bad. Maybe even US-goes-to-war level bad.
Another stark point. Social media means we see the realities of war now. This is what war has always looked like. The red is never roses. It is always blood.
Ceasefires are always good. Any solution that involves people not dying is always a better solution. It shouldn’t matter which side the people dying are on. That is the point of ceasefires.