Our media-shaped understanding of the situation in Syria is grossly misguided.
Imagine the Syrian war from the point of view of ordinary Syrians from a variety of backgrounds. They are most likely to offer a different perspective and to hold entirely different expectations than most other parties involved.
A resident of Idlib, a villager from Deraa, a housewife, a teacher, a nurse, or an unemployed ex-prisoner from anywhere else in Syria would distinguish their relationship to the war in terminology and overall understanding that is partially, or entirely, opposed to the narrative communicated by CNN, Al-Jazeera, Russia Today, the BBC, Press TV, and every available media platform that is concerned with the outcomes of the war.
These media tailor their coverage and, when necessary—as is often the case—slant their focus in ways that would communicate their designated editorial agendas, which, unsurprisingly, is often linked to the larger political agenda of their respective governments. They may purport to speak in accordance with some imaginary moral line, but, frankly, none of them do.
Surely, the stories of ordinary Syrians are not prepared in advance or communicated via press conferences in so articulate, guarded, and predictable a manner. That is a job that has been reserved for, and perfected by, politicians who represent countries with palpable vested interests in the war.
But how could a story that is so thoroughly covered and discussed round the clock in so exhaustive a fashion be so far removed from the reality at hand?
Of course, there is no single truth in explaining the war in Syria, and not even an unmitigated people’s narrative can change that.
The Russians, for example, justify their latest intervention as needed action to stave off the progress of Daesh (a.k.a. “ISIS”), although the Russians themselves are accused by everyone else, save Iran, that they are targeting other opposition groups. The Russians, in turn, accuse everyone else but Iran of either initiating the problem in the first place, empowering or funding Daesh, or failing to do anything meaningful to bring the war to an end.
If seen from others’ perspective—the Arab (especially Gulf countries), Turkey, Iran, Hezbollah, Jordan, the United States, European countries, and so on—every country seems to communicate their understanding of the war, thus explaining the nature of their involvement by using all sorts of upright and righteous rationales. It seems as if they are all united by their love of the Syrian people and the sanctity of their lives.
However, considering that over 300,000 Syrians have been killed in the war so far, with many more wounded, and six million becoming desolate refugees, one can be certain of the fact that none of these governments actually care for Syrian lives, including, sadly, their government and the opposition. To be less crude, we can be certain that the survival of the Syrian nation is not a top priority to those who are using Syria as a ground for their proxy war.
Those who perished in Syria have been victimized by all warring parties, and the bullets that killed, the shells that devastated neighborhoods, and the rockets that randomly toppled homes originated from too many directions to count.
In other words, there should be no room for polarizing narrative in Syria any more, as in good guys vs. bad guys; evil regime vs. opposition or terrorists vs. a sovereign government; or regional forces that are attempting to invite stability and peace vs. others espousing chaos.
These thoughts, and more, crossed my mind as I began recording the experiences of Syrian and Palestinian refugees who managed to cross to Europe via Turkey and Greece. After reading countless articles about the war, listening to a thousand news broadcasts, consulting with dozens of ‘experts’, Arab and non-Arab alike, I found the hours I spent with the refugees far more enriching and informative.
When it was explained to me, for example, how the Yarmouk siege came about, and after I crossed referenced the information with other refugees—who may hold a different political perspective on the war—I found out that our understanding of what took place in the refugee camp was almost completely misguided, or rather, politicized—thus slanted, self-serving and generally untrue.
Khaled’s journey from Damascus to Idlib, Homs, Hama, all the way to Qamishli, then to the Turkish border deprives the narrative from its polarization; he was a target for everyone; indeed, his suffering continued even when he crossed the Turkish border, took a boat to Lesbos, attempted to enter Macedonia, then Serbia, and so on. It took him four months to reach Sweden, with about ten different stops in different jails.
His narrative contained no references to good guys vs. bad guys, in any collective sense. Any act of kindness he encountered on his journey was surely a random one, and depended entirely on the goodness of ordinary people, like himself.
The same sentiment was conveyed through Maysam’s story, whose peers at the Syrian Red Crescent Society were arrested and tortured because they treated fighters from the Free Syrian Army at the Palestine Hospital. She fled before the mukhabrat came looking for her at her house in the Zahra neighborhood in Damascus.
Many more are no longer able to convey their own story of the war because they were killed, either by Syrian Government forces, the opposition, other parties or US-led airstrikes.
A particularity moving account was of the execution of a 16-year-old girl in a public square near al-Hajar al-Aswad, after she confessed to be a ‘spy’ for the regime. The ‘confession’ was exacted after she was shot, point-blank, in the palm of her right hand. They claimed that she placed GPS devices in opposition areas so that the Army may guide its missiles based on signals it received. The Syrian Army’s barrel bombs, of course, are not smart bombs and, in fact, none exist. The child was shot in the face six times.
Ordinary Syrians’ narratives are often used in media coverage of the war, but in a selective fashion, never in an honest and true sampling. Al Mayadeen’s version of ‘average Syrians’ is almost entirely different to that of Al-Jazeera. Syrians are used to supplement existing media agendas, as their country is used to advance political agendas.
When the war is over, the warring parties will reach the conclusion that they have either achieved their objectives or can no longer do so; only Syrians will be left to put their lives back together. When the remaining dead are buried, the missing found or declared dead, the prisoners released or kept indefinitely, only then winning and losing will cease to hold any meaning at all.
The tragedy in Syria is that the war fought in the name of the Syrian people has little to do with the rights of the Syrian people; and the voices of Syrians are either entirely neglected or used and manipulated to achieve specific political ends. And when it is all said and done, the media jackals are likely to fan the flame of some other conflict in some other place.
Certainly, it is already late for too many Syrians whose stories were buried with them, but it is not too late for many who are still alive. We need to listen to the Syrian people, who have been at the receiving end of death, but are yet to articulate their own aspirations for life, and their ongoing tragedies.