News channels are currently filled with images of death and destruction from Homs, with estimates that more than 9,000 civilians have died in Syria so far.
We see protests – students and fighters, men and women – crying out for freedom. Yet the government continues the oppression with impunity, now seeming to move from town to town, making no distinction between civilian and combatant.
Arab media outlets such as Al Jazeera show us these images. With an ever-decreasing trust in British media and a growing public understanding of cultural distortion and bias, there is a thirst for something ‘real’. When we see Al Jazeera, Qatari-owned and serving largely Muslim populations, it appears to be the best way to access ‘reality’ in the drama of the Arab Spring. However, that thirst is not always shared by people in the Middle East, who are wary of an entirely different set of biases.
Sat in a barber’s shop in one of the oft-forgotten Palestinian refugee camps here in Lebanon, I have been talking to someone who explained to me why he supports Assad. It is his firm belief that the Syrian rebels are being armed by Gulf States who seek influence in Syria. He switched on the TV in the shop and, at that moment the Syrian state news was showing an apparently peaceful Homs, and interviews with locals who said things such as “God praise the army” and “now we are free from the terrorists”. The segment ended on a light-hearted scene, with the reporter signing off from inside the scoop of a digger helping to repair some of the damage. This is quite different from the panicked scenes that we are used to see from the media we have access to from home.
He also told me about another TV report that has been showing on Syrian news in the last few days. Purportedly the programme was showing Al Jazeera reporters adding drama to their reports in order to make them coincide with the sound of bombs, and even bandaging children in hospitals and telling them what to say in interviews.
Although it’s hardly surprising that the mouthpiece media of an oppressive regime seeks to manipulate opinion and discredit rivals, this episode reminds that, for many people here, Al Jazeera is seen as a pro-Gulf propaganda voice in a situation of many competing accounts. The diverse array of news outlets means that people can, and will, choose the narrative that best fits what they already believe.
On civilian deaths his response was troublingly blasé, regarding them as unavoidable collateral damage in a legitimate urban war against insurgency, something chilling that reminds oen of the official western line in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, his final point was something I couldn’t easily ignore. How can Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar demand democracy and representation in Syria when their own people do not have such privileges? And why do they urge a violent solution, seeking to arm the rebels, rather than pressuring for dialogue and reform?
My friend’s opinions were surprising – he’s a kind, calm and thoughtful guy, and not the deranged sort of fanatic we might expect a vehement Assad supporter to be. One fierce opponent of the Syrian regime I spoke to was much more violent in his language. When asked his opinion, he said: “[Assad] has to go. When they catch him, they should do what they did to Gaddafi and kill him. But before they kill him, they should fuck him. I should be there when that happens.”
Currently, It can be confusing living in the Middle East. The sheer number of narratives, identities and competing power interests mean it is difficult to settle on a firm understanding of events.
I have no doubt where my sympathies lie in Syria: with democracy, freedom, self-determination. I hope for change in what is undoubtedly a brutal regime. However it is increasingly unclear how best to get there. The case for an intervention seemed strong, but the nature of power and influence in the region means we run the risk of replacing one type of oppression with another. Alternatively, the slow transition to reform the Assad leadership has offered seems disingenuous and unlikely to lead to the sorts of freedom so desired by his opponents.
Ultimately, it is fear that keeps people killing. For soldiers on the ground, it may be the fear that defection would be suicide. For those seeking revolution, there is fear of destruction and continued oppression. But the supporters of the regime, many of them ordinary men and women inside and outside of Syria, have fears too. They fear violent retribution at the hands of the rebels should the regime fall. They fear the ulterior motives of foreign powers (Gulf States, Israel, the west), perhaps no surprise given the history of external control that has determined so much of people’s lives in the region. As the difficult rebirths of Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt show, finding a solution that can allay everyone’s fears will be very difficult indeed.