North Africa, West Asia

Syria: when representational violence is as ruthless as political violence

Our representations of what happens in Syria contribute to the ongoing violence. The rhetoric allows the self-nominated international community to rationalise an ongoing structure of suffering, done with the best of intentions.

Estella Carpi
23 April 2014

The way violence in Syria has been represented in the international media has sadly run in parallel with the spiralling political violence. All media by now represent the Syrian conflict as nothing but a war entering its third year. The “what bleeds leads” journalistic maxim now predominates and has long since overshadowed the peaceful demonstrations that three years ago took place in many of the main Syrian cities.

Even international campaigns that have also involved Syrian nationals – like the very popular #withSyria – have actually imported the western language of human rights, viewing the victims themselves as unlikely to verbalize their suffering. Such a representational intervention has fed into a politics of de-subjectified victimization.

Similarly, humanitarian organizations have sometimes undertaken solidarity campaigns by resorting to a language of neutrality: the focus is on the victims of massive-scale crimes, and less and less on the perpetrators. The replacement of awareness campaigns with international philanthropy has contributed to blurring the historicity of the Syrian events.

Also, the humanitarian apparatus that has settled in neighbouring countries to the conflict - primarily Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey - has widely contributed to the depoliticized representation of its refugees, who are never considered as the erstwhile makers they often were of current and unfolding events.  Indian scholar Gayatri Spivak has often denounced the way specific patterns of knowledge can arbitrarily monopolize the understanding of particular realities, especially when they have an orientalist tenour.

The most blatant example in covering Syria is what has been defined without qualification as a “three-year old civil war”, when it was still feasible to separate out the civil actions from the military. Moreover, sectarianism was soaking people’s preconceptions long before it actually became tangible in the conflict and, in turn, before it began to affect the endemic etiology of the Syrian scenario: confessional belonging has now turned into an all-embracing defining category in the attack and the defense of confessional groups. As anthropologist Thomas Eriksen sums it up, in fact, “if one goes out to look for ethnicity, one will find it and thereby contribute to constructing it”.

To a great extent the 'longstanding ethnic hatreds' explanation has served very well to redeem the international spectators as well as the regime’s deeds. Confessional explanations have helped the Syrian government to perpetuate the myth that mass violence is merely used to fight threatening terrorist militias. At the same time, the fact that the regime was the one that harshly repressed peaceful protests, armed many, and released criminals, is increasingly obscured in recent narratives around the conflict. Such a rhetorical strategy has helped to dismantle the need for the regime’s supporters to have to deal with a fully-fledged political opposition since the very early stages of the conflict.

On one side, Syria's refugees are homogenously portrayed as miserable and innocent; on the other, representational violence has been distorting the positions of Christians, Alawites and other numerical minorities by depicting them as terrified groups quaking at the thought of Sunni bogeymen whose goal is to eliminate them, even when segments of the minorities themselves have wanted to identify with the overall Syrian interest.

The imagined public sphere, which defines itself as an “international community”, advocates for universal piety towards homologated victims: whatever their political stance might be, all of them have finally been depoliticized in order to be assisted.

Yet, the Syrian humanitarian subject has been constructed over the events according to the Syrian government logic: victims deprived of their political inputs, hopeless amid acts of political terrorism, and fleeing bombings that are tolerated with post-moral determinism.

Whoever still opposes the regime, however pitted against the currently rampant actions of Al-Qaeda, has been sharply defined as extremist. This arbitrariness has undoubtedly helped to unearth a high degree of international Islamophobia.

Furthermore, the conflict, chronically represented as civil strife, is simply described in terms of total chaos, where nothing can be understood and where it is inadvisable to intervene, neglecting the fact that once identity is construed as alien in this way, it swiftly acquires the autonomous power of enemy images to extend the conflict further. The megaphones of international diplomacy constantly declare the “intractability” of the Syrian conflict, as though ultimate irresolvability were inherent in the culture of the region.

The only Syrian suffering that has remained visible to us is indeed the televised, gut-wrenching images of massacres, or, likewise, the image of a “savage” soldier biting into pieces of human heart, to exhibit the “lost humanity” of the diabolic psychologies that combatants and civilians develop alike in war time: anything in short able to horrify the “western” public. Such a televised “pornography of suffering”, as foregrounded by Susan Moeller in the 1990s, has made the public forget why those individuals, now provoking their compassion, first turned into such victims.

People should rather be differentiated in their refugee experience, if only because of the fragmented nature of the habitus of repression used by the Assad regime over the decades in diverse settings.

Another pattern of knowledge that western media have applied to the Syrian conflict is a sort of “necropolitics”, shrugging off the thousands of lives hit by war that, at the end of the day, are still seen as expendable. The latter representation is underpinned by the logic of “acceptable deaths”, recalling western superiority over the barbaric wars fought by “extremists”, “Islamists”, “dictators” and “terrorists”; terms that, in fact, have given rise to the key vocabulary used to discuss the Syrian conflict.

To corroborate this sort of hierarchy of lives, the international prioritization for regional stability and state security in Syria has been disguised as the international care for a displaced population, while the “West” keeps tightening its immigration policies and discouraging influxes of people coming from the global South.

The violence in Syria has paradoxically shown us that international diplomacy seems now to focus on the importance of state security, which made of Syria an imploding laboratory of international tolerance. Veterans of a foreign intervention culture, the Syrian conflict, instead, seems to have dragged us back to a culture of international impunity, as suggested by the several decisions of non-intervention. Thereby, the international community’s focus seems to have shifted from the condemnation of a failing government to pitying and assisting the hoards of individuals coming out of Syria, classifiable as traumatized apolitical victims.

The western way of rationalizing Syrian suffering has mostly consisted of graphic images posted on our Facebook pages, piety for the victims of a civil war in which we believe they all found themselves embedded, the closure of our national borders, the idea of creating camps for the displaced inside Syria, and, sometimes, even the call for more state centralization to assist in aid distribution within the conflict-ridden country.

The label of the “three-year old civil war”, the homologation of the victims’ experiences, and the “intractability” of the conflict, have gradually been adopted to redeem our compassion, which we seldom dare to transform into active empathy.

Thus, the violence by which the Syrian conflict has been represented hitherto has been perpetrated by removing the primarily social dimension of the Syrian mobilization. Essentialism, radicalism and opportunist de-politicization together constitute the umpteenth violence Syrians are being subjected to. The so-called international community would be better served by beginning to recognise the quite a high degree of connivance they have in the ongoing violence. 


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