North Africa, West Asia

Let’s talk about the civilians dying in Syria

While recent violence in Eastern Ghouta has made international headlines throughout the first months of 2018, it has not been the only display of force by the Syrian regime.

Jens Renner Kylee Pedersen
3 April 2018

Screenshot from the @syrianpresidency instagram account.Recently an Instagram account posted a photo of a soldier, his back to the photographer, pointing a gun to the sky. He is in the center of the dimly lit frame, as he looks out over a darkening vista and a setting sun. The caption: “Safe you... for you... and for all Syrians”. Then come a handful of hashtags, #honor, #brave, #EasternGhouta.

The photo belongs to an Instagram account with over 100.000 followers. It has images accompanied by hashtags such as #photooftheday, #instagood, #mondayblues #goodmorning, and even #throwbackthursday, but it is not curated by the usual millennial. The account holds the handle @syrianpresidency and belongs to Bashar Al-Assad. Mostly, it exhibits photos of the president himself and first lady Asma Al-Assad taking care of their daily duties. Asma appears as an empathic first lady and mother figure as well as a style icon. Bashar follows suit. When not captured in an interview situation or signing a document, he is walking hand in hand with his wife, posing with Syrian kids or writing autographs on the shirts of the national football team.

While other major actors in the Syrian conflict, such as ISIS, have been shut down multiple times due to posting disturbing content, @syrianpresidency sticks to social media etiquette by exhibiting pleasant photos and catchy hashtags and has thus been updated regularly since 2013. Operating behind a guise of transparency, Bashar al-Assad and his regime are portrayed as just crusaders, determined to lead their population to safety, as a quote accompanying one of the pictures outlines: “When a ship is in the eye of the storm, the captain doesn't jump but rather faces the dangers to steer the ship back to safer shores.”

The UK-based NGO Syrian Network for Human Rights is one of few widely quoted NGOs monitoring the Syrian war. At times referenced by the UN, the network lists Syrian regime forces and Iranian militias as accountable for more than 90% of the killings in the Syrian conflict. A conflict that according to them has claimed more than 217.000 civilian lives. In February alone, 1389 people were left dead. 67% of these were killed by regime forces in Al Ghouta, according to the network.

The violence in Syria is undoubtedly complex and nuanced, with many different actors and agendas involved over the years. This makes it difficult to grasp the toll the war has taken so far, especially on civilian populations. Since ISIS has been weakened, swinging the momentum of the battle in Assad’s favor, civilians in Syria are now left with a regime whose declared mission is to re-establish absolute control over the country by seizing territory and defeating any remaining rebel groups. Trying to understand why recent months have been amongst the most devastating for civilians during the whole Syrian conflict, despite a significantly weakened ISIS, is a difficult road to go down - one with many questions.

Aarhus, Denmark

We’re meeting Nagieb Khaja at a café right next to the train station. As we arrive, two other journalists are finishing an interview with him - taking a few pictures and saying thank you for your time. The look on Nagieb’s face is hard to decipher. Perhaps working in Syria has made interviews in Denmark trivial. Probably. It looks like the other journalists bought him a coffee, and we decide to do the same.

Thousands of innocent people have had to suffer for the sake of a few

Nagieb is in Aarhus to talk at a conference about his work in Syria, where he has been several times since 2011. The Danish journalist, film-maker and author is internationally admired for having both the contacts and the courage to embed himself with the Taliban in Afghanistan and with foreign fighters in Syria. As with Afghanistan, he explains, his goal in Syria has been to bring new perspective into the coverage of the war. To tell the stories that are not being told. 

“During the Syrian conflict we’ve had a very disproportionate focus on IS… the Syrian government has been behind the vast majority of civilian killings.”, Khaja notes. “The reason is that the Syrian government is not a direct threat to western security, and IS, you know, is a direct threat.”

Amongst journalists and editors it is well-known that the closer a topic is to its audience, the more interested the audience will be in the topic. In recent years, ISIS has claimed responsibility for terror incidents in the Middle East, but also for attacks in Europe. Thus the narrative that we in the west are in a war against terror has been easy to transfer to the Syrian conflict, something that might have skewed the public understanding of who’s responsible for what. Nagieb makes the point, that the proximity of ISIS for western audience might help to explain the unbalanced focus on ISIS during the Syrian conflict by western media, despite data documenting how the Syrian regime is responsible for most suffering. We prompt Nagieb to elaborate his point, and he says that the Syrian conflict is permeated by lopsided understandings such as this.

Back in late 2015 when Nagieb was in Syria the last time, he travelled through Aleppo, Idlib and other areas labelled by the Syrian government as “rebel-held”. A dangerous job, but one that exposed him to the puzzling realization that in many of the places, where recent bombings had occurred, he was only meeting civilians. Lots of civilians. Many of them told him the same: “Who are they calling terrorists? It’s a market. There are women here, and kids walking to school.”

Determining whether these testimonies are true - that some bombed areas had no rebels and only civilians - is impossible. It’s word against word. But the large number of civilian deaths in different cases of the conflict, including currently in Eastern Ghouta, raises questions about the necessity of this suffering. Thousands of innocent people have had to suffer for the sake of a few.

In the social sciences, there are theories that attempt to investigate reasons why governments target their own populations. In his widely acclaimed analysis of state-building in the ‘third world’, the international relations scholar Mohammed Ayoob makes the case for a nuanced view on human rights violations in relatively new states that are establishing themselves after colonial oppression. His theory, which he calls ‘subaltern realism’, argues that these fragile nations need room for “state-building” in order to consolidate their power, which is a polite way of opening the door for a certain extent of state-inflicted violence.

Ayoob stresses that there are boundaries to the type of violence states need to deal out to achieve their goals, but that these lines are hard to define. We weren’t satisfied with this explanation of the actions of the Syrian regime, but when we dug deeper into the literature, we did find a concept that resonated: the concept of state terrorism. 

Eastern Ghouta, Syria

While recent violence in Eastern Ghouta has made international headlines throughout the first months of 2018, it has not been the only display of force by the Syrian regime. Living in Syria and looking at the conflict from the academic lens of international relations, author and commentator Christopher Phillips has become well-versed on the socio-political interplays of the region. His work has been published in the Guardian and the Washington Post, and he has appeared on various BBC programmes. In an excerpt from his book “the Battle for Syria,” it is outlined how Assad’s army set a precedent early on for how it would react to citizens taking to the streets:

“The regime deployed cynical and brutal tactics. Agents provocateurs were placed among peaceful protesters to fire at regime troops, allowing them to justify replying with lethal force. In some cases the regime’s secret police, the mukhabarat, were placed within military and security units to threaten execution if soldiers refused to fire on civilians. False reports were delivered to Syria’s religious minority groups, claiming that the protesters, who were mostly from the 65% of the population who were Sunni Muslim Arabs, were Islamist radicals determined to slaughter them, which scared many into backing Assad. Tens of thousands were arrested and tortured, while female protesters reported sexual assault by regime thugs, the shabiha.” 

According to Philips’ analysis, from the beginning of the conflict the regime sought to dismantle the Syrian societal fabric as a means to maintain power and quell rebellion. It did so by turning groups against each other based on ill-founded fears. In response to this, civilian militias eventually formed to protect protesters. When thousands of Assad’s military members defected and joined civilian militias in the late summer of 2011, the strength and organization of the opposition grew. The civil war would begin soon after. The tendril of hope provided by the Arab spring has become smoking rubble and killed voices, and has been responded to by a regime that seems to go above and beyond in its attempt to reinstate order.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

As the world was getting ready to crash into a new millennium with the binary apocalypse coined Y2K, Egyptian born political scientist and journalist Ibrahim Helal was getting ready to go to work. Transferring from BBC Arabic to the still fresh Al Jazeera, Helal would soon spend most of his waking hours at the headquarters in Doha, Qatar, helping the network to establish itself as counter-weight to western media. In those years, the network became internationally known for being the only in the world covering the war in Afghanistan live and on location. Ibrahim Helal ran the editorial line.

The perception of terrorism that we - the western public - have developed today is one that is mostly concentrated on individual acts of violence

We met Ibrahim late last year at the News Xchange conference in Amsterdam. News Xchange is the largest annual conference on news journalism in the world, where a blend of journalists, researchers and other people involved in the industry meet and talk news. Not the actual news, but how to do them. Helal was invited to join a panel in a debate discussing the concept of terrorism and how to cover it.

From the start of the session, it became clear that Helal is the one to ask, if you want a strong opinion about the coverage of terrorism. An outsider’s opinion, one might say, and an opinion backed by practice. Just like Nagieb Khaja, he believes that actually being where the situation unfolds enables one to communicate with context. In publishing stories about terrorism on western soil next to stories about the Syrian civil war, he feels that context somehow got lost:

“They [western media] ignore the different kinds of terrorism and terrorist attacks, especially in the Middle East. Because of a lack of context, they don’t know exactly what happens. Some attacks, they just say are “explosions”, “bombings”, “bloodiest days”, without saying “terrorism”.

Examining linguistics, the myth that terrorism is exclusively the activity of non-governmental forces is ironic. The actual word “terrorism” is derived from the French “terrorisme” referring to the systemic employment of violence and the use of the guillotine by the Jacobin and Thermidorian regimes in France, which gained their time period the title of the “reign of terror”. While the general debate about the exact definition of terrorism is ongoing, most experts interpret it to include two viable elements: That the act is politically motivated (this includes ideological motivations) and that the victims of the act matter, as well as the wider audience.

The perception of terrorism that we - the western public - have developed today is one that is mostly concentrated on individual acts of violence. A bombing, a shooting, a religious extremist, a madman. These are the events and the characters shaped by the media, politicians, and our own identifications in the west of what we consider to be a threat; of what we consider to be an act of terrorism, or a terrorist. However, academic research allows us to challenge this arguably one-sided perspective.

Various scholars emphasize the fact that there is not only one type of terrorism. The concept of terrorism is rather a wider concept with varying courses of action, carried out by different actors for different purposes. One of these branches is state terrorism. In American academic Michael Stohl’s definition, state terrorism is enacted by regimes in order to “create or enforce obedience, either of the population at large or within the ruling party.” Other definitions also include the distinction that state terrorism is intended to create fear and force individuals within the targeted population to behave in a certain way. Whereas the concept of state terrorism itself is not regarded in international law as illegal, actions associated with it, in many cases, are. Targeting and killing civilians for example is considered to be a war crime, as is the use of chemical weapons.

When we spoke with him, Ibrahim spoke in his own words about the misunderstandings of terrorism, and how it could relate to the state: “If you go back to the academic description of terrorism, it’s a violence or threat of violence in order to achieve religious, ideological or political aim,” he told us. 

“This is exactly what the Syrian government is doing to their people. When the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons against their own people, it’s not to kill their own people, it’s to terrify them, to move them to do something different – which is a typical identification of terrorism. However, nobody cares to say ‘terrorist regime’, they cannot say it. Only less than 2% [of civilians] were killed by ISIS. But everyone believes that ISIS are the terrorists, not the regime.” 



Screenshot from the @syrianpresidency instagram accountOne of the recent instagram posts on @syrianpresidency is a photo of Bashar al-Assad, in a tailored blue suit and a muted blue-grey tie. The frame catches the president of Syria in motion. He is looking away from the camera, his index finger extended, as if making a point. He could be in mid-speech. The caption of this photo speaks for itself. “The war on terrorism will not stop as long as there is one terrorist desecrating the sanctity of Syrian soil. And at the same time, we will continue to fight against all the western scenarios that want to break the unity and sovereignty of our country”. The captain will not abandon his ship, no matter how many are drowning.

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