A Social Media War - The Syrian conflict's war of words


Syria’s information war is nearly as fierce as the actual fighting on the ground. In any conflict, the use of propaganda is an inevitability and social media is a new form of spreading critical news, journalism and even documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity. It has also become a cockpit for online hatred. Facebook has been at the centre of controversy in Myanmar for its failure to curb real-time messages and comments applauding the atrocities of the government’s military and demonising the Rohingya Muslims, a minority group driven from the country into Bangladesh. 

In Syria, social media is extremely polarised and tribal where poisoned perceptions of the conflict and conspiracies everywhere while  oversimplifications are rife. Social media has become a tool of conflict, and Daesh (so-called Islamic State) were one of the first to truly harness the Internet to spread terror, propaganda and recruit followers. However, many online users are interpreting the conflict through specific events, often occurring in real-time, without considering the history of Syria and the Middle East or relying on social media ‘warriors’ who are neither impartial nor objective enough to be a credible source. Even in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is relatively easy to differentiate the black and white narratives. These black and white narratives, while damaging in themselves, and woefully detached from realities occurring on the ground are easier to navigate. In Syria, the fog of war has become nearly impossible to navigate (including for this author). 

Even experts, specialists and analysts will often struggle and have become hostage at times to certain narratives whether they be a pro-Russian, pro-Iran, pro-Asad perspective which denies any wrong doing in the war, promotes an anti-Western narrative and stirs conspiracies. Flip the coin and one finds an also vast audience of harshly neoliberal narratives which promote regime change, a incredibly naive good vs. evil storyline, and conveniently fails to question the role of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, indeed the Western powers is also fuelling the Middle Eastern conflicts, not just the Al-Asads and Putins of this world. Journalists, for example Patrick Cockburn, and Robert Fisk who have decided not to subscribe to oversimplified, frequently insidious narratives, are vilified and smeared as Al-Asad apologists, anti-Western, anti-American or pro-Russian. At the other end of the spectrum those who do not subscribe to Al-Asad and Vladimir Putin's version of the Syrian War are smeared as traitors, corporate lackies, fascists, terrorists, Zionists and Islamophobes. For social media, these are fairly polite terms given how polarising and deconstructive rhetoric has become.

An example, in the wake of the chemical attacks in Douma, a user named @Oz Katerji tweeted “Anyone denying the Assad regime uses chemical weapons against civilians is either an idiot or a fascist. Take your pick. There is no third option.” This was then retweeted by Shiraz Maher, who writes regularly for The NewStatesman who concurred saying “Third Option: They’re Both.” This not an attempt on the part of this author to smear Mr. Maher or his work whose articles on Syria, Salafi-jihadism’s ideology and in particular his book Salafi-jihadism: The History of an Idea, are exceptional. However the tweet is a microcosm of all that is wrong with social media and the Syrian War. Does this make someone calling for a thorough investigation or evidence (however clear it may appear that Al-Asad committed war crimes on social media) an “idiot” or a “fascist”? 

However likely it is the Syrian regime - responsible for torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity, barrel bombs, indiscriminate bombing of urban areas, and massacring civilians - used chemical weapons, proper investigations must be conducted, lest the mistakes of Libya, Iraq and Yemen get repeated where military interventions have been undertaken on suspect evidence and unstable grounds (even if the humanitarian grounds were abundant). Iraq was destroyed by sanctions, bombings and invasion and the United States utilised both torture and phosphorus during the Iraq War. This was not fake news, this had been documented by multiple journalists and published by The Guardian and BBC, published by numerous global human rights organisations and investigated by think tanks (i.e. The Chilcot Report). 

The United States and United Kingdom’s governments did not fight for the Iraqi and Libyan people. If they had they wouldn’t have bombed, starved them with sanctions, tortured, targeted them with phosphorous and wrecked the country’s economy. Why should the public believe a military campaign in Syria would be fought for the people of Syria when Libya also lies in ruins alongside Iraq? Again, this isn’t fake news or “idiots” and “fascists” talking, this is the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK government examining the intervention and subsequent collapse of Libya. Libya and Yemen, not just Iraq, are demonstrative examples of how Western interventions have worsened a situation, not alleviated suffering and brought stability to a region. 

The Western governments - like Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime - are predominantly motivated by their own agenda and geo-politics and Vladimir Putin and the Russian military, as they did in Chechnya during the horrendous war in the North Caucasus, have demonstrated, perhaps more ruthlessly than President Trump, that they are more willing to assert their agenda. Human rights is a secondary concern to all governments involved.

If Boris Johnson, for example, were motivated by human rights and alleviating human suffering across the board, the Foreign Secretary would be condemning the Israeli government for allowing the Israeli military to kill dozens of unarmed protestors (including a journalist) and maim hundreds more with sniper fire, not to mention condemn the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. If Nikki Haley, the United States representative at the United Nations, really possessed true moral courage she would rile at Saudi Arabia’s coalition starving tens of thousands of people to death in Yemen which has been armed and funded by the U.S government and multiple European powers, not just the atrocities of Al-Asad. Instead, President Trump paid homage to the Saudis because geo-politics mattered more. Theresa May rightfully faced criticism last week for congratulating President Sisi on his reelection in Egypt, a man who has installed a military dictatorship and is torturing his people, incarcerating activists, murdering PHD students and arresting journalists and critics of the military regime with impunity. Only Mohamed Saleh, the magical Egyptian footballer scoring at will in the Premier League for Liverpool, was the real challenge to President Sisi in the Egyptian elections.

President Al-Asad and President Saddam Hussein are men who have done irrevocable damage to their countries and murdered with impunity but given the record of the Western powers, it is very hard to deny the double-standards at play in the Middle East. If our governments really claimed to represent human rights, the U.S military and NATO would be knocking at the doors of Cairo, Riyadh, Ankara, Tel-Aviv, or Kigali in 1994 when the Hutu-dominated government were massacring hundreds of thousands of Tutsis or August, 2017 when the Myanmar government committed genocide against the Rohingya Muslims.  

The alternative to Al-Asad would not be a jihadist statelet where minorities would be slaughtered. Such a narrative strengthens the Syrian governments’ narrative that Syria is only a sectarian war and the only option is Al-Asad, and alienates many Alawis who are entwined with the Syrian regime, fearful of reprisals from the Sunni community. The Iranians and Russians would simply replace Al-Asad with a pro-Kremlin and pro-Tehran client who would still operate the levers of the old regime much like Nouri Al-Malaki did in Baghdad with Iraq’s post-Saddam government. The result for Iraq was further conflict and violence and Syria would likely follow a similar path. The Syrian regime is more than the man Bashar Al-Asad, the Iraqi regime was more than man Saddam Hussein and the state of Libya indicates that Muammar Gaddafi was one part of a brutal regime. Equally, as the rise and fall of Daesh demonstrates, Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi were not what held Al-Qaeda and Daesh together even though they created the groups. Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong ruled Russia and China with horrifying brutality but they were surrounded by men and women as appalling as they were and who had interests in bringing these men to power or keeping these men there so they could pursue and safeguard their interests. Ridding Syria of President Bashar Al-Asad will not end the Syrian War or rid the country of his father's legacy in the short-term. The war for Syria will continue with or without Bashar Al-Asad. 

The Iraq War should not stop anyone from considering an intervention in Syria. However, it is a stark reminder, much like the Vietnam War, that the international powers must undertake an intervention and war for the correct reasons: saving lives, safeguarding the Syrian people, rebuilding the country and building a better future for the men, women and children living there, nurturing civil society and finding an alternative to President Al-Asad. To put it very bluntly, if you are going to punch a bad person in the face (which this author never recommends), you need to know why you're doing it, prepare how you are going to do it, and be prepared to deal with very unpredictable consequences of the encounter. If you are going to remove President Al-Asad from power, you need an evidence-based intervention with short-term and long-term solutions to end the war as a whole (bearing in mind there are many, many international, regional and local powers fighting in Syria), assess whether the ground is fertile to remove and replace the regime and be prepared to deal with very unpredictable consequences and the implications it may have on domestic and foreign policy in the future. 

Nevertheless, from what journalists who are on the ground have painted in the wretched seven year conflict, the conditions are not ripe for an intervention which would offer such an outcome, nor does NATO have the capacity to conduct a long ground-war and commitment to Syria, economically and militarily. It is unlikely a short-term solution can be found by outsiders and even when they are searched for, regional powers and allies alike are pursuing their interests which have frequently sank peace-talks and ceasefires or simply been at odds with the agendas of Russia and the United States. 

Matthew C.K Williams