Information warfare about ‘Syria’ and its global effects

Too much has often been said about how global politics affects Syria, most of it casually misinformed and careless, but far too little about how ‘Syria’ variously represented in the media has changed and is changing the world. So far the effects are mostly for the worse, because of the one-way dynamic mentioned above and the racially arrogant cultural habit of careless speech about people outside European societies’ imagined community boundaries.

If we pay attention and look honestly, then the way ‘Syria’ is represented in media has a lot to teach us and can help solve ‘our’ problems as well as ‘theirs’, because, at their roots, our problems are not actually separate.

(This article was originally part of a much longer article which I’ve now sub-divided into three. Part 1 ‘Confused about Syria? A recommended reading list, mostly from Syrians’; and Part 2 ‘Contradictory propaganda storylines for different audiences of Assad’s supporters’.)

Lisa Wedeen, now at University of Chicago, lived and researched in Syria before the war:

“Power manifests itself in the regime’s ability to impose its fictions upon the world.” The complicity of the people within this imposition enforces the regime’s power of domination. In other words, the regime’s power is mainly constructed by the people’s enacted participation in that very construction.
According to Wedeen: “The politics of acting ‘as if’ carries important political consequences: it enforces obedience, induces complicity, identifies and ferrets out some disobedient citizens …”

Amal Hanano, quoting Professor Lisa Wedeen in his review of her book ‘Ambiguities of Domination’. He continues:

“Indeed, one of the fundamental ways the Syrian people functioned in the police state was by “acting as if”. Acting as if nothing was going on as Hama was pummelled in 1982. Acting as if they loved the leader even though they were terrified of him.

The tragedy of Bashar Al Assad’s rule is that his father’s construct of complicity has, over the past 32 months [November 2013], bled far beyond Syria’s borders to encompass the entire region and international community.” 
Amal Hanano, November 2013.

The World of Syria, Syria of the World, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, 21 January 2017,

“How can this be explained? I think it is closely related to, first, Syria being a microcosm, in a region that is the most internationalized in the world, the Middle East, and the world being a macro-Syria. In Syria, the world recognizes itself, the self that it does not want to change or re-consider, neither does it have the will to face and repair. The world, through its international institutions and major players, is in a constant state of denial of its responsibility for the extremist constitution of the contemporary Middle East, which was based on minoritarian rule, extremism and exception[alism] (Israel and Saudi Arabia being the most prominent examples). The Assadi regime in Syria is also based on this very trinity of extremism, exception[alism] and minoritarian rule, and does not allow the people to have a say in the political structures that govern them. This has paved the way for the ongoing massacre against them for the past years. …

In our view as Syrians, the world is a Syrian issue. Since the chemical deal at least, the main issue is no longer Syria, it is the world. What we need is to change the world, which prevented change in Syria. This is simple logic. Since it does not appear that there are opportunities for liberatory change in the world today, it is likely that we are going to face globally the spread of fear, despair and hatred, more violence and humiliation, more hardened souls and insensitivity. …

As Syrians we have found ourselves thinking globally, not only because we are very bitter and angry at the world that left us to be killed for more than 2000 days, not because we know the world more than others, not because almost the whole world is literally in Syria, but first of all because we have become in the world. We have been thrown outside our country; our trajectories are those of dispersion all over the world, exposed without legal and institutional protections, without having recognized status, and without many of us being in any one country. One can be here now, but he does not know where he will be shortly after. We are here and there, and we are neither here nor there (according to the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish). We, with the Syrian Palestinians, have become more global than anyone else in the globe today. …”

“Some States [a State] like ours is a crime agency, but there is an essential problem in the State as such: Monopolizing violence by States, solely, legitimates any State violence and makes it invisible. By contrast, any non-State violence becomes illegitimate and glaringly visible. In Syria we have a genocidal regime and terrorist organizations and the international (read: Inter-State) system orders them in a hierarchy that tolerates genocide and sees its perpetrators as “the lesser evil” and relegates non-State violence to terror and labels it as “the greater evil”. The system is evil and it is heading in my opinion to dysfunctionality.”

Yassin al-Haj Saleh, personal communication, 7 March 2018. (Slightly edited)

Abounaddara Anonymous Artists Collective, in ‘Regarding the Spectacle’:

“They are indefensible because they are represented without dignity, and the spectacle of their indignity imposes itself as evidence of that.”

“ The Syrians who are fighting their state are indefensible. Too bearded to be trusted, fratricidal on top of that, they are defying the laws of geopolitics in the Middle East, and could very well provoke World War III. Syrians, then, must not be defended.

But what can be done faced with the spectacle of indignity streamed almost live from Syria since 2011? This spectacle is unprecedented. Never before in history has a crime against humanity been filmed day by day, turned into a spectacle with the cooperation of both victims and executioners, broadcast by the big television networks and streamed on social media, intercut with ad breaks, consumed by the general public, and commodified by the art market.

At the time of Auschwitz, only God was supposed to see what happened in the showers. It was only after the liberation of the camps that accredited filmmakers could capture evidence of the crimes, which were recognized as such by the legal authorities. Those images, however, were considered unbearable, even in the eyes of the Nazi war criminals who were offered a special screening at the Nuremberg Trials: One began to sob uncontrollably; another covered his eyes with a trembling hand.

The same goes for the villagers neighboring the camps, who always defended themselves by saying they had not seen what was happening despite the stench of corpses permeating the bodies of the living. By doing so they followed the decree that one must not watch another die and do nothing to help. Even God will face questioning for watching on as the spectacle of the death of his creatures depicted as subhumans unfolded. Humanity would assume its responsibilities by recognizing a new legal axiom: the inherent dignity of all members of the human family.

Consecrated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principle presumes that a human must not be treated as a means, but rather as an end in herself or himself. So a head of state who gasses his fellow citizens, treating them like germs and terrorists, is therefore a criminal against humanity.

But Syria’s head of state has done all of this without being treated as such. Rather, he is presented as a gentleman, defending his views to the world’s major media organizations, while his victims are presented as individuals deprived of dignity, confused with religious communities or hordes of refugees. Not only are we representing the criminal through the figure of that banal man revealed in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, but we are also representing his victims as fundamentalists raging through an exotic Warsaw Ghetto.”

Abounnadara, Regarding the Spectacle, 2 December 2016.

Consequences for everyone of continuing to do nothing to protect Syrians and uphold International Humanitarian Law in practice

The article above is good, except the claim in the article “most moderates in Syria have gone..” — I have not seen any data for that, only repetition, and the terms of the question may also be faulty when you consider the Syrian diaspora and the global hybrid character of this war. Syrian moderates in the diaspora are still effectively resisting, the whole thing and not only the part in Syria, and are even more able to be effective than if they were still under bombs in Syria. Revolution is not primarily about armed force — civil society organizing is the most important and foundational part of a democratic revolution, and that is flourishing, although more (mostly?) in exile now.

“Narrative war has become far more important than physical war due to new technologies that shape public perceptions of conflicts in real time, regardless of what is actually happening on the battlefield. The spread of social media, he argues, has brought about a situation of “virtual mass enlistment” that gives civilians as much power as state propaganda machines — and sometimes more. Although some techno-utopians have celebrated the breakdown of centralized state control of information and the empowerment of the individual to challenge authoritarian regimes, he is not starry-eyed about the leveling of the playing field. “[B]ecause these new social media forums are structurally more egalitarian,” he writes, “many delight in holding up the Internet as the ultimate tool against tyrants.” It is not. As Patrikarakos notes, “the state will always fight back” — and it has.’”

Sasha Polakow-Suransky, ‘For Whom the Cell Tolls’, review of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, by David Patrikarakos, November 2017, in Foreign Policy, 28 February 2018.

‘The Meaning of Eastern Ghouta and Assad’s “Victory”: The Assad regime has won the war; it cannot, however, win the peace’, by Nabeel Khoury, in the Cairo Review, 6 March 2018

“This situation is arguably the strongest driver of extremist recruitment both in the region and beyond. The idea that there is no such thing, as human rights or the basic right to life if you are a Syrian, a Muslim — a sunni Muslim in fact — presents the perception of the genocide of sunni Muslims by the “Shia crescent” and their allies.

The sectarianization of this conflict and its impact on radicalisation globally, is tangible. On the reactionary Far-right side, the incoming of a million plus refugees into Europe has been a unifying and vocal cry, seen most recently with the rise of the Far-right in Italy.

If our humanitarian inclinations; our duty to protect; saying ‘never again’ after World War II, are not going to move us to stop this genocide by the Assad regime, maybe our self-interest and selfish security concerns should. The results of Syria pose a very real threat to our freedom — the rise of the Far-right, disregard of international norms, murdering people in our countries, as well as terrorism and radicalisation — and should motivate us to do more to stop this ‘hell on Earth’, now.

Upholding the demands of the UN for a ceasefire, stopping the regime’s war on its own citizens, is not just a moral, legal and political necessity, it is a vital security interest.” by Rashad Ali in ISD Global.

“Kassem told me that living under the Assad dictatorship for 40 years, the national ideology taught him and his friends that America was the devil. “We were taught that America was the enemy,” he said. “Then we figured out it was all propaganda. But after seven years of atrocities, do you know what my friends and people around the Middle East are saying? That America is the enemy again. Because they see the Russians bombing us and the United States doing nothing. Now they pull out — when they could have been our friend or ally.”

Of course, Mr. Trump is not concerned about these things; his sole metric for success is defeating the Islamic State — though the vast majority of Syrian civilians were killed by Mr. Assad’s forces. But any claim of victory over the Islamic State is premature and naïve. As Kassem and others note, the seeds of “ISIS 2.0” are already planted in the thousands of angry people who have lost their families, their homes, their country. “When there are a million people dead,” Kassem said, “when most have lost everything, ISIS will say, ‘We told you so.’”

Janine di Giovanni, 6 April 2018, in

“a lot of RT’s success lies beyond fact or reason — it lies in feelings, in a will to disbelieve. RT delivers affirmation, not information. Its conspiratorial worldview confirms prejudices rather than encouraging curiosity. It doesn’t question falsehoods to reveal truth; it does it to oppugn the very notion of truth. The Guardian has called this “weaponized relativism.” Syria offers an object lesson in its lethal effect where RT has successfully blurred the difference between victim and perpetrator. Should such inversions of truth become commonplace, the very possibility of justice will be erased. We ignore this at our own peril.”

Idrees Ahmad, ‘For Russian TV, Syria isn’t just a foreign country — it’s a parallel universe’, Washington Post, 13 March 2017.

The next quote seems a bit incongruous, it is not particularly about Syria, but I put it here deliberately because I think it highlights a relevant pattern of the social psychology of belief in “alternative” theories of what actually happened, and how ‘elites’ calling them out can be counter-productive:

“The reason why populists and political newcomers are so willing to challenge basic democratic norms is in part tactical: whenever populists break such norms, they attract the univocal condemnation of the political establishment. And this of course proves that, as advertised, the populists really do represent a clean break from the status quo. There is thus something performative about populists’ tendency to break democratic norms: while their most provocative statements are often considered gaffes by political observers, their very willingness to commit such gaffes is a big part of their appeal. …

But their recklessness is no less dangerous for all of that. Once some members of the political system are willing to break the rules, others have a big incentive to follow suit. And that, increasingly, is what they do. While some of the most spectacular attacks on basic democratic norms have come from political newcomers, the representatives of old, established parties have also become increasingly willing to undermine the basic rules of the game.”

Prof. Yasha Mounk, in the Guardian 4 March 2018, summary of part of his book, The People Against Democracy.

Frederic Hof was US Ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the Arab Spring and for the first 18 months of the war in Syria. He resigned because he conscientiously objected to Obama’s policy, and has continued criticising it in detail and proposing practical better alternatives from within the Rafik Hariri Centre in the Atlantic Council (NATO research institute). This is his final statement as Director of the Hariri Centre, reviewing what’s happened since 2011 and US policy’s role in the catastrophe in Syria and the world —

My conclusions

When people are exposed daily to images of horrific suffering, mostly presented either without political context or in a deliberately false political context designed to enable the crimes to continue with impunity, there is still implicitly a context, albeit one without any recognizably human values in it.

There are two generally problematic contexts which are common in representing ‘Syria’:

  1. The ‘humanitarian’, ‘neutral’ register — artificially de-politicised and de-contextualised suffering, which normally prefaces reports with ‘alleged’ or ‘suspected’ when there is really no grounds for any reasonable doubt anymore, presents ‘government’ official alternative versions of reality as if they were actually plausibly factually true, thereby attributing them and he so-called ‘government’ with legitimacy which they manifestly do not deserve, and ‘balances’ them with victims’ accounts of what they suffered;
  2. The right- and left-wing versions of old racist Orientalist projections about ‘Syria’ and using ‘Syria’, and the display of Syrians’ suffering for their own political aims which have nothing to do with actual Syrians voices or needs —this is in general the habit of instrumentalised and miscontextualised display of others’ suffering for aims which are not theirs and not relevant.

Both the artificially decontextualized and the instrumentalising miscontextualised representations share a common trait — lack of respect for the inherent dignity of other human beings, also known as indecency.

What people see then in these two contexts seems to mean to them that such massive violence daily against innocent people by so-called ‘legitimate States’ — whose legitimacy is based only on monopolisation of violence within ‘their’ territory, is normal now.

Popular consent and human rights do not appear in this notion of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘legitimacy’. As that implicit political norm spreads systematically and globally, it will endanger us all, for a very long time.

For most people, most of the time, ‘normal’ is whatever everyone else seems to do and accept; they do not think independently as individual human persons, because they do not have the time and energy for it — they have to work longer hours just to pay the rent, and to have a healthy family life one has to mostly ignore the world outside one’s everyday microcosm. This tendency is especially heightened in a populist tending towards fascist phase of society.

These effects of seeing ‘Syria’ and ‘Syrians’ systematically misrepresented necessarily has systemic consequences globally, not just directly for Syrians.

We’ve seen how long Bush’s terminology and framing narrative of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has lasted so far and how much harm it’s caused. We are in danger of perpetuating the same kind of mistakes again, and the consequences will hurt everyone for probably decades or longer.