The Syrian Civil War is one of the most reported events in recent history and has caught the attention of a number of commentators and political leaders, as it is deeply influenced by world politics.
The Western media has failed, nevertheless, to fully make sense of this complex conflict that surpassed the borders of Syria since its beginning, as it was part of the so-called “Arab Spring”, and later became a stage of clashes between numerous regional and international players.
Edward Said argues in Orientalism that for most of the “experts” in the Middle East “only the Orientalist can interpret the Orient, the Orient being radically incapable of interpreting itself”. The international mainstream media that reported on the Syrian conflict could not be a better example of this trend popularised by the great Palestinian scholar.
The news framing adopted by the majority of newspapers during their coverage of events, especially after the rise of ISIS, limited itself to the “war on terror” narrative. Now that ISIS is theoretically defeated, the damage of having used the duality of “civilization against terror”, by media and governments alike, is irreversible and the fate of millions of Syrians is uncertain.
In the last ten days or so, more than five hundred people have died in Syria as a result of the clashes still occurring in many areas of the country. Most of the casualties are being caused by the heavy bombardments carried out by Russian and Syrian aircraft in rebel areas. Despite this dramatic situation, not many reports have been released about it. The interest of the Western media seems to lie mostly in the war against terrorism. But why is this occurring?
The coverage of the Syrian conflict can be divided into at least two phases; before and after the emergence of ISIS. We are probably experiencing now what could be the beginning of a third phase, the post-ISIS era. The way the mainstream media will portray it from now on is not yet clear. The Western media have generally been in consonance with the agenda and the discourse of most of the Western governments involved in this apparently interminable conflict that has taken the lives of approximately 500,000 people so far.
If we look back to the beginning of the protests in March 2011, we can see that many articles and opinion columns depicted them as being part of the so-called “Arab Spring”. Although limiting it erroneously to a struggle for democracy and excluding the uprising’s clear socio-economic background, most Western newspapers mentioned the protests in one way or another. One of the main problems of their coverage, however, was the excessive use of “experts” to “interpret and explain” to their audiences what was happening in the country.
Relying on experts is not a problem in itself. The media will always need to complement their coverage with information provided by scientists and scholars that have built a reputation and a career studying and researching specifics subjects or regions of the world. The problem lies in what kind of experts are chosen for carrying out this examination of reality. The use of experts has to be done very carefully. Most of the international media, however, with a few exceptions, have used Western experts to decode the Syrian conflict for the general public.
As the situation evolved from peaceful demonstrations to an armed conflict, becoming more complex and multi-layered, the media failed to analyse its development and started to describe it as a civil war in which all warring parties were equally to blame. This simplistic view assumed an even stronger form in July/August 2014, when ISIS emerged as an important player having conquered large portions of territory in Iraq and Syria. Some time after this, its campaign of terrorist attacks around the globe started and made the vast majority of headlines on the most important newspapers of record. The Western media gave much more attention to the attacks perpetrated in European soil, where the minority of the incidents took place. The principles and ethics behind this perspective can easily be questioned.
This change of paradigms, from a social movement news framing -protests against a dictatorship- to a “war on terror” news framing, followed the new stance adopted by the United States and most European countries involved in the conflict. For many Syrian analysts, the Ghouta chemical attacks undertaken by the Assad regime in August 2013 represented a turning point in the Western countries’ attitude towards the Syrian conflict, but at that point the media had not yet assimilated the regime’s discourse of war against terrorists.
This binary, orientalist discourse, and the subsequent recasting of Assad into the lesser evil, was fully adopted by the media when ISIS irrupted in the Syrian scenario. Accordingly, the period from August 2013 (when the Ghouta attacks took place and the Obama administration refused to take action) to July/August 2014 can be described as a transition between the two types of narratives used by the media to explain the Syrian uprising and war.
Unfortunately, the Syrian conflict is entering a period of uncertainty, as Assad and Putin declared victory over the “western-backed terrorist groups”, a victory that is widely questioned by numerous voices in the region and worldwide. The latest confrontations between rebels and the regime also contradict this claim. Furthermore, the peace talks scheduled for the end of January in Sochi and Geneva have, just like most of the previous talks already undertaken, almost no chance of success in reaching an effective peace agreement.
The Syrian and Russian regimes continue to frame the conflict as a “war against terror”. The Western governments maintain their narratives of Assad being the lesser evil in the face of a growing uncertainty in a strategic region for their economic and political interests. The Western mainstream media, on their side, is squeezed in-between these two narratives, incapable of producing an independent and free account of this terrible and disastrous conflict -one of the worst in the 21st century. If they had only allowed the Syrians to speak for themselves more frequently, putting the Orientalist lens aside, this story could have been very different.