It can be hard as an outsider to see what keeps people killing. Our news channels are filled with images of death and destruction from Homs and Idlib, with estimates that as many as 7,500-8,000 civilians have died in the whole of 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.
A lot of these images come to us through Arab media outlets like Al Jazeera. With 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 seems to be the best way to access ‘reality’ amidst the drama of the Arab Spring. That trust is not always shared by people in the Middle East, however, 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 got talking to a friend who told me why he supports Assad. It is his firm belief that the Syrian rebels are being armed by Gulf States who sought influence in Syria. He switched on the TV in the shop, and showed me Syrian state news, at that moment showing an apparently peaceful Homs and interviews with locals who said such things 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. Quite different from the panicked scenes we are used to from the media we access back home.
He also told me of another report that had been showing on Syrian news the last few days, purportedly showing Al Jazeera reporters adding drama to their reports by timing them to coincide with the sound of bombs, and even bandaging children in hospitals and telling them what to say in interviews. It’s hardly surprising that the mouthpiece media of a violently oppressive regime would to seek to manipulate opinion and discredit rivals, but it did serve as a reminder that, for people here, Al Jazeera is seen as a pro-Gulf propaganda voice in a sea 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 all the more chilling as a reminder of the official Western line in Iraq and Afghanistan. His final point though was something I couldn’t escape easily. 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 pursue to 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 fanaticist we may expect from a vehement Assad supporter. By contrast one fierce opponent of the Syrian regime I spoke to was much more violent in his language when asked his opinion: “[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.”
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 instinctively lie in Syria – empathy for people’s suffering and belief in self-determination and democracy mean I hope for change in what is undoubtedly a brutal regime, though I don’t necessarily trust the intentions of all the rebels – but it is increasingly unclear how best to get to a solution that would bring long-term peace. The case for intervention seems strong, but the nature of power, identity and influence in the region means we run the risk of replacing one type of oppression for another. Alternatively, the slow transition to reform the Assad 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 fear that defection would be suicide. For those seeking revolution, it 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.
PS: For anyone interested in what I consider to be the best hope for Syria, and there’s no reason you should be, I would recommend ICG’s briefing paper on the topic. The field is too divided for a military solution but the status quo is hardly acceptable and will probably lead the state to fail in the long-term. I think ICG over-state the centrality of Russia in this, as the regime is probably too strong for the rebels to effectively overcome even without Russian support, but getting them onside with a genuine all-party negotiated solution would definitely be a huge step. Russia have today started to change the tone of their usual embuggerance stance on Syria and said they would support Annan’s peace plan, but how much difference this makes remains to be seen.