It is hard to underestimate the paucity of objective information coming from Syria.
Wars always have their propaganda machine feeding media sources, from the Israeli Army’s largely false assertions that Hamas used human shields during the 2014 Gaza War to Robert McNamara’s claim that American campaigns were leading to success in Vietnam. But rarely has the public been fed and believed information from a rebel opposition dominated by terrorist groups, as is the case in the Syrian Civil War. The lack of the civil war’s neutral information may be the case in the recent images we saw from apparent chemical attacks in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, Syria, where Al-Nusra is the most powerful opposition group.
The Syrian opposition has been trying to get the US to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the beginning of the conflict. After the US’s "leading from behind" in the NATO-led overthrow of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi, the Syrian opposition assumed that Assad’s head would be next on the US’s chopping block. But this would not come to pass.
It should be remembered that these initial anti-Assad protests were certainly legitimate acts of dissent and the Assad regime overreacted with disproportionate violence. In response, protesters grew in number and the regime increased its violence, leading to the development of an armed opposition, shortly after which the US, Europe and Gulf States called for Assad to step down. Though receiving arms and funding from its international supporters, the rebel opposition had trouble coalescing and remained highly disorganized, during which time terrorist groups, such as al-Nusra, ISIS and Ahrar al Sham, established themselves in Syria. These terrorist groups were far more organized and effective at fighting than the discombobulated opposition and soon became the principal anti-regime actors in Syria. Thousands of disaffected fighters from the "moderate" opposition joined these terrorist groups, as they proved to be the most effective fighting forces against Assad.
This brings us back to the informational vacuum that is the Syrian Civil War. On the one hand, Russian, Syrian and Iranian state news continuously depicting Assad’s war on "terrorists," which is not entirely true – the opposition is not fully composed of jihadists. Interestingly, Assad and his supporters used the same "terrorist" designation early in the conflict, when there were few terrorist groups involved, as there are now. On the other side, there is rebel media, consisting of White Helmets (pro-Assad media shows members of the White Helmets holding weapons next to ISIS members and the White Helmets cinematographer had been previously barred from entering the United States under Obama) and other partisans supporting the ouster of Assad.
While some non-mainstream Western journalists are occasionally based with the Assad regime, it suffices to say that they usually only present one side of the story – the pro-regime one – and tend to already be partial towards the regime. In opposition-held territory, journalists rarely, if ever, dare to venture. This is due to safety concerns of reporting from regions where "moderate" opposition groups often ally and commingle with more powerful terrorist groups. The result is an absence of verifiable, unbiased information emerging from the Syrian conflict.
Rather than acknowledging this complexity and the difficulty of discerning the veracity of information emerging from Syria, the Western media often plays footage it receives from the opposition; an opposition that even US government officials have long acknowledged is terrorist-dominated.
This level of gullibility that the Western media has towards rebel footage is quite astounding. For instance, it would be like relying on propaganda footage taken by Bin Laden and spreading it as though it were factual.
With the recent chemical weapons attack footage, there is a significant chance that we’re being played by al-Nusra, or even by the "moderate" opposition. Then again, reality could be closer to what we are told/shown: a brutal chemical attack by the Syrian regime was orchestrated on the people of Khan Sheikhoun.
Even if the latter were true, brutal as this maybe, it is far less harrowing than the totality of the Syrian Civil War that has killed approximately a half million people. The goal should be stopping the war, rather reacting to what amounts to less than a pinprick that took less than 100 lives.
It should also make us question how we respond to digital information that we receive today, amidst a cacophony of news images. How does it affect us?
If one recalls, the events which seemed to push the West into beginning the campaign against ISIS in September 2014, were the horrible images fed to the media by terrorists (again?) showing the decapitation of journalist James Foley and other Americans. Should video recordings that are designed to incite us, the viewer, have their intended effect? Obama’s airstrikes seemed to serve ISIS’s purpose, increasing their popularity and allure for young disaffected Muslim men, who were often marginalized in Western societies.
This has happened against in April 2017, after President Donald Trump viewed images from the Khan Sheikhoun attack and immediately reversed his more realistic policy of not supporting regime change, through launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian government airbase of Shayrat. Should we reflexively react to images that emotionally move us? Or would a clear, concise strategy towards terrorism and peacebuilding in the region serve us better?
Trump’s strike on Syria government forces also makes us consider how American politicians and the public react to military strikes – worryingly, it is with utmost reverence. While Democrats and even some Republicans have compulsively criticized Trump for alleged Russia ties and seeking US-Russia rapprochement; orchestrating a military strike receives support from an overwhelming majority.
Whether this is a "one-off" strike against the Syrian government or may escalate into further conflict with Syria, and potentially Russia, remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, it has temporarily increased the popularity of a failing administration, helped coalesce a fractured Republican Party and neutered the hostile Democratic opposition.
The question of whether this Tomahawk strike will prove to be a kind of Gulf of Tonkin event, leading the US to a path of embroiled long-term conflict in Syria – that question remains open.
Whatever the future may hold, we should try to remember this simple fact: when there are no independent observers on the ground in a conflict, one should be wary of the information presented.
Peter Crowley is a recent graduate from the Northeastern University Global Studies’ Conflict Resolution MS program. He works as a Workflow Coordinator for a prominent library science company. His writings can be found in Boston Literary Magazine, Mint Press News, (several publications in) Wilderness House Literary Review, Mondoweiss, Green Fuse Press, Inquiries Journal, and a periodical publication of the Brookline, MA Historical Society.