When 7-year-old Bana Alabed tweeted in December that she had safely left Aleppo, Syria, international media seized on the news. Her Twitter account, managed by her mother, Fatemah, came to symbolize the plight of civilians trapped in besieged eastern Aleppo. She became known as a contemporary Anne Frank, her vivid messages about life under bombardment drawing particular attention at a time when the dead bodies and shell-shocked faces of children, from Alan Kurdi to Omran Daqneesh, stood as symbols of the horror of the Syrian war.
While some celebrated Bana’s safety, others forcefully repeated their claim that Bana’s Twitter account was terrorist propaganda — or fiction altogether. Though outrageous (and debunked to the extent possible), this dynamic of disbelief has become commonplace.
Much of Western media coverage has devolved into mudslinging efforts to discredit the other side.
Much of Western media coverage has devolved into mudslinging efforts to discredit the other side, stoked in particular by a smear piece in 2016 on the White Helmets, the civil defense group that digs civilians from the rubble of bombed buildings. Those who supported the U.S.- and Gulf states-backed opposition or who advocate for a no-fly zone were labeled as interventionists or imperialists supporting regime change in Syria. Those who focused on the United States’ hand in the war, glossing over the regime’s crimes, are Assadists and are regularly labeled as Nazis or fascists.
With the relative scarcity of independent, verifiable information inside Syria, the conflict has devolved into an all-out propaganda war that has warped all sense of responsibility for the perpetration of crimes by all actors.
This polemic peaked with the siege and bombardment of eastern Aleppo in late 2016. Reports of the humanitarian crisis provoked readers’ outrage over yet another atrocity unfolding under the gaze of the international community, once again raising the specter of intervention. But Western leaders again declined to escalate their involvement, and eastern Aleppo has mostly been swept off the public radar since the U.S. election. The new administration’s global approach remains confusing at best. Aside from banning Syrian refugees, President Donald Trump has largely ignored the conflict. The U.S. has defaulted to fighting Islamic State and jihadist rebel groups, who have subsumed the remaining opposition in Syria’s northwest provinces.
This narrative war has mostly played out among international circles within the human rights and humanitarian sector, which can strongly influence policymakers. The media obviously play a key role in shaping perception, but measuring its impact is imprecise. At worst, media coverage has leveled the scale of crimes committed during the war, equating a brutal state machine with externally funded militants.
Well-documented war crimes
While all sides have committed crimes, with civilians caught in the fray, the opposition simply does not have the capability to inflict the same level of destruction, death and collective punishment as the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In addition to the human toll, Syria’s major cities lie in ruins (a deliberate echo of the 1982 Hama massacre), with infrastructure devastated and the economy wrecked for years to come. This does not condone any crimes or atrocities committed by armed opposition groups —whether the burning of evacuation buses or the use of civilians as human shields—but the violence and impact of these groups must be understood relative to the regime.
International institutions, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have documented verifiable atrocities and crimes since the start of the uprising. Their reports offer a baseline catalogue of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all sides.
• mass torture and death across the regime’s vast prison system, including 13,000 executed at Saydnaya prison alone;
• the use of child soldiers by armed opposition groups;
• the use of rape, overwhelmingly by the regime, as a weapon of war;
• unlawful demolitions by the regime of neighborhoods in Damascus and Hama meant as collective civilian punishment;
• indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations by the regime, including through the horrific and crude use of barrel bombs (as of March 2016, The Syrian Network for Human Rights, SNHR, has counted 35,956 barrel bombs);
• indiscriminate attacks on civilians by armed opposition groups;
• regime airstrikes on schools, with Russian support;
• arbitrary detention and abuse in detention in Kurdish-controlled areas;
• the deliberate siege and starvation of civilians by multiple parties to the war, as well as the plight of Palestinian refugees besieged and starved in Yarmouk;
• the bombing of U.N. aid convoys by Russian or Syrian bombs;
• 169 documented chemical weapons attacks, overwhelmingly by the regime;
• attacks on medical facilities and doctors, again overwhelmingly by the regime.
Most recently, the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria found that the Syrian air force bombed water sources outside Damascus. In short, the scale of civilian suffering and death under the world’s gaze beggars belief.
Off the page, however, these crimes have become fodder in a larger ideological struggle, aided by the absence of journalists on the ground. As the Assad government brutally repressed the popular uprising and the opposition adopted arms in response, Western media access became increasingly restricted. Independent Syrian media outlets that sprang up after the uprising have been wiped out. Syria emptied of international journalists after ISIS took the stage with its theater of executions. Syrian authorities control the access of international humanitarian agencies, which have lost convoys and lives to air strikes.
The journalists and activists still inside Syria have been unable to fill the information vacuum. Though the uprising fostered the growth of independent media outlets, citizen journalists faced repression and violence first by the regime and then by Islamic opposition groups that now control liberated areas. With journalists boxed in, any media coming from inside Syria has become suspect to some in the West, including the recent “goodbye” messages and videos from eastern Aleppo, and Bana’s Twitter account.
Even the number of dead cannot be confirmed. Since the U.N. stopped counting in 2014 and as access to data and on-the-ground sources dwindled, Syrian rights groups have endeavored to document deaths through their networks. Given their strained resources and capacity, estimates vary.
At the low end, the Syrian human rights group Violations Documentation Center (VDC) counted 174,184 “battle-related deaths,” as of February, of which nearly two-thirds were civilians. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in March that 321,358 had died, and fewer than half were civilians. According to these estimates, over 100,000 regime forces and loyalists have been killed. And in February 2016, the Syrian Center for Policy Research in London made headlines with a report claiming a staggering 470,000 deaths, including 70,000 succumbing from indirect causes, like lack of access to health care. Not surprisingly, in the Syrian war, even the body count is politicized.
Intervention by invitation
The war’s toll on civilians has come to define the narrative — understandably so. The VDC’s report estimates the Syrian government is responsible for 89.4 percent of civilian deaths and 79.6 percent of total casualties. This far exceeds the number of civilians killed by opposition groups, ISIS and American airstrikes by any measure. The regime’s relentless bombardment of civilians in eastern Aleppo, and the refugee crisis it precipitated, became the core media focus. The Syria Campaign’s efforts to highlight the work of the White Helmets and medical workers, to portray life under siege, and to call for a no-fly zone helped drive this attention. But in a post-truth world, all media are treated as propaganda.
This humanitarian focus revived debate over a controversial military intervention and split the antiwar left between the so-called interventionists and Assadists, which threatens to skew the conversation away from Syria toward an obsessive meditation on Western and U.S. power. Both camps share an opposition to decades of U.S. interference in regimes around the world, to its particular legacy of client states in the Middle East and to its support for Israel. More than ever, civil society has uncloaked U.S. actions abroad and the self-interest that lies behind its democratic and human-rights rhetoric. Once the lynchpin of the global system, U.S. political support and funding has instead become a target of suspicion.
And yet Barack Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria did not gain him any credit. His administration’s feckless diplomatic initiatives effectively hobbled U.S. power to influence the situation. Washington has instead chosen more precise means to assert itself, training limited numbers of rebels and executing surgical strikes in ISIS territory.
While American power should always be checked, the relentless focus on U.S. action misrepresents the dynamics of the war. All parties receive external support. More crucially, Russia’s entry into the war in 2015 provided Assad the military might necessary to win Aleppo. Just because Syria invited Russia into its territory to massacre civilians doesn’t make it legitimate.
Getting away with murder
Without any clear path forward, some responses to the Syrian crisis pine for the definitive hand of Western intervention, from the British conservative George Osborne’s comment that Aleppo was the result of “a vacuum of Western and British leadership” to the Russian activist Garry Kasparov’s op-ed in The Wall Street Journal lamenting the West’s lost opportunity to redefine the global order after the fall of the Soviet Union. But resurrecting Western leadership won’t solve any problems—and in a Brexit and Trump world, such a geopolitical order seems anachronistic.
At a time of geopolitical upheaval, Assad remains poised to consolidate his gains under the guise of fighting “terrorism” and protecting secularism. The peace process will continue to limp on, and should ceasefires hold and a transitional agreement be struck, justice will remain elusive.
Efforts to hold Assad to account continue. A group of German lawyers recently submitted a criminal complaint against Assad under the rarely invoked principle of universal jurisdiction, and the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution with the support of 105 countries establishing an independent mechanism to investigate war crimes and lay the groundwork for accountability. Whether this means a referral to the International Criminal Court or the creation of a special tribunal remains to be seen, and both routes are problematic in their own ways. One hopes these efforts expand to include crimes committed by the opposition.
The charge remains to find a just outcome in the face of strongmen and self-interest. With Western institutions facing justified criticism, solutions in Syria — and accountability when the dust settles — must be a reflection of the global community. And there may be other, more creative, solutions to global inertia on the horizon. A billionaire in Sweden, for example, is offering $5 million for the best idea to rethink international governance, whether through U.N. reform or the creation of new institutions altogether. Though seemingly quixotic, movements continue to challenge oppression and inequality, whether at a national or global level. The spirit that sparked the Syrian uprising must be nurtured no matter how many setbacks arise.