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Syrians Die in Western Media Darkness

Izzeddin Kasim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A civilian victim in a house destroyed by shelling from Assad regime forces and their Iran-backed allies in Idlib province, Syria, July 17, 2021

Last April, Akram Bathiesh, a middle-aged Syrian refugee, died of a heart attack in Denmark, shortly after being told by the authorities that his asylum status had been revoked and he had a month to leave. The Danish government has been reexamining the status of five hundred refugees from Syria, and Bathiesh was among the 189 whose asylum had been revoked since last summer, 94 of them this past March alone. Others included a Syrian-Palestinian grandmother named Rihab Kassem, originally from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, whose son Waled has been a Danish resident for twenty-five years; and Aya Abu Daher, a high school student, now nineteen, who captured headlines after making a televised appeal to the government. “All my life is here,” she said in fluent Danish. “How can I go back to Syria now?”

Over the course of the war, Denmark has granted asylum to some 32,000 Syrians. Now, however, without any changes in the threats that forced those refugees’ flight, the Danish government is adopting a stringent new approach, with the ruling Social Democrats promising a “zero asylum seekers” policy. The Danish immigration authorities’ rationale for repatriating refugees—or “refoulement,” the term of art—is that “the conditions in Damascus…are no longer so serious that there are grounds for granting or extending temporary residence permits.” Since coming to power last year, the government of Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has expanded the scope of this determination, designating the entire governorate around the city a safe zone. Denmark’s minister of integration, Mattias Tesfaye, a former Communist and the son of an Ethiopian immigrant, was adamant in rejecting the Syrian high schooler’s plea. “I won’t back down,” he said, “it won’t happen.”

The government’s self-righteous statements suggest that Denmark is not content with sending refugees back to possible persecution, torture, or death; it also wants to assert that it is doing the right thing. By way of justification, it is defining security as the absence of combat in the territory under regime control.

The insecurity in Syria, however, preceded the outbreak of civil war and has persisted through it. Indeed, it was the Assad regime’s rule by terror that triggered the uprising in the first place. The only thing the war did is to make the violence overt and lay bare the Damascus government’s grisly apparatus of control. The horrors of the regime’s prisons, which were all too familiar to Syrians, became known to the wider world. Yet the global attention brought no accountability. The prisons have remained fully operational, except that the regime now runs them with complete confidence of impunity.

It is inconceivable that the regime’s menace toward its own citizens has diminished in the Damascus governorate. Early in the conflict, in 2012, a Human Rights Watch report revealed that of the twenty-seven detention centers that comprise Syria’s “torture archipelago,” ten were in the capital itself. In 2014, when a Syrian defector codenamed “Caesar”—who had been an official forensic photographer for the military police—shared 53,275 photos documenting the deaths of 6,786 detainees under torture, the most shocking discovery was that many of these bodies had been dumped in the courtyard of Military Hospital 601, just half a mile from the presidential palace in Damascus.

The evidence about Syria’s charnel houses has continued to mount. According to a 2017 Amnesty International investigation, between September 2011 and December 2015, the regime executed as many as 13,000 political opponents at its military prison in Sednaya, including “demonstrators, long-time political dissidents, human rights defenders, journalists, doctors, humanitarian aid workers and students.” In a 2019 New York Times investigation into Bashar al-Assad’s torture gulag, Anne Barnard reported that nearly 128,000 detainees had disappeared into Syria’s dungeons over the course of the war. The detentions and disappearances have continued, with the Syrian Network for Human Rights reporting 972 arbitrary arrests in the first half of 2021 alone.

Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Placards outside the Danish Embassy protesting the country’s policy of Syrian refugee repatriation, Dublin, Ireland, June 4, 2021

The Danish government’s confidence in its declarations owes much to a vacuum of such information outside of the NGO world, enabled by Syria’s virtual absence from Western media in recent months. Much of Syria, including Syria’s five largest cities, have reverted to regime control. The northeast, which includes 70 percent of Syria’s oil reserves, is under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), while Turkey has carved out a buffer zone in the north, where it rules through Syrian proxies. Most of the displaced Syrians who remain in the country, numbering more than four million people, are squeezed into the parts of Idlib province that the regime has yet to recapture. That this enclave is controlled by the hardline Islamist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham puts its civilians doubly at risk: living constantly under the threat of renewed fighting, they endure arbitrary rule by these armed extremists.

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Although a 2018 ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey was meant to have brought peace to Idlib, regime forces have continued their war of attrition against the rebel-held areas, albeit that their attacks are calibrated to a level below the threshold of international news interest. Western fatigue with the story has itself altered that calculus: in December 2019, the foreign press largely overlooked the regime forces’ major offensive to recapture Idlib. The operation appeared on the verge of success until Russia overplayed its hand and killed thirty-six Turkish soldiers. Unable to confront Russia directly, Turkey instead unleashed a lightning offensive against Syrian regime forces, killing nearly two hundred soldiers and militiamen, destroying in the process a significant part of the regime’s military arsenal. The ferocity of the Turkish retaliation halted the regime offensive, and that had the effect of buying a limited reprieve for Idlib’s majority refugee population since then.

To the extent that this contest of wills between regional powers received any external attention, the civilians caught in the middle remained invisible. Syria received greater attention when it seemed a more hopeful story, and particularly when events happened to align with American concerns. In the West, Syria was first an Arab Spring story, then it became a chemical weapons story, then an ISIS story, then a refugee story, then a Great Power rivalry story. But once the Islamic State was defeated and Syria was quietly ceded to Russia and Turkey, it became a nonstory. And despite sporadic coverage of such atrocities as the deliberate bombing of hospitals in opposition-held areas, the regime’s quotidian violence toward its own citizens was never a major preoccupation for the international press.

A Google Trends analysis shows that in the ten years of Syria’s war on civilians, the volume of news about it has largely remained low, except for a handful of spikes. Of these, three related to chemical weapons attacks in Syria—a use of banned weapons that President Obama once declared would be a “red line” triggering US intervention. By 2019, according to the Global Public Policy Institute, there had been 336 chemical attacks in Syria, with 98 percent carried out by the regime, the rest by the so-called Islamic State. The incidents that got attention in the Western media, however, were only the those in which the US either did retaliate or considered military action.

Some of these developments—such as the August 2013 chemical attack or Russia’s entry into the war—were major events in Syria’s bloody war, but others of far more consequence for Syrians received barely any attention. The volume of news rose only slightly during the summer of 2012, when the regime carried out a series of sectarian massacres and started using airpower against cities (notably, helicopter-borne barrel bombs); it actually dipped after Obama retreated from his red line and the regime escalated its violence. In 2016, it rose again, though marginally, as the crisis in Aleppo escalated, but after the April 2017 chemical attack and US airstrikes, it dipped. Since then, international interest has waned.

That events in Syria only registered when they intersected with Western interests is also illustrated by the strikingly different coverage of the population flight in 2015 compared with the one in 2019. Syrians had been fleeing their country in large numbers since the fall of 2013, as the regime used its newfound impunity after the red line fiasco to escalate, but with the combination of the rise of the Islamic State and Russia’s entry into the war in 2015, this turned into a mass exodus. Whereas, until then, Syrians had been taking refuge mainly in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, some then started making their way into Europe. This was duly pronounced a “refugee crisis.” In September 2015, the photo of young Aylan Kurdi’s drowned body being picked up from a Turkish beach changed the scope and tone of Western media coverage enough to move German Chancellor Angela Merkel into granting asylum to a large refugee population, an example that several other European states, including Denmark, and joined by Canada, followed on a smaller scale.

The December 2019 offensive that the Damascus regime and Russia had initiated to retake Idlib had by February 2020 driven nearly a million more people from their homes. This was the largest single displacement of the conflict, yet it went virtually unreported in the West because the displacement was happening within Syria. This changed once Turkey, which was already home to 3.7 million Syrian refugees, announced that it would no longer prevent refugees from crossing into Europe. The subsequent coverage, however, focused not on the refugees but on Turkish perfidy and cynicism.

When Western media, which has some commitment to accuracy and objectivity, moves on, or when it fails to amplify local voices with direct knowledge of the situation, it leaves an information vacuum. In the case of Syria, that is filled by Russian and Iranian media, whose coverage is of an entirely different nature. The aim of these outlets, which are less concerned with facts than with upholding state-sanctioned narratives, is obfuscation. If they can manufacture uncertainty about major events, such as chemical weapons attacks, they can cast everything about the conflict into doubt. The deluge of disinformation produced by official news operations such as Russia Today, echoed by state propaganda fronts like Sputnik, and amplified by armies of trolls, sends the denialist accounts to the top of Google, YouTube, and Twitter searches.

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This impression of a hopelessly disputed and thus unknowable reality is strategic. It is designed to disrupt an accurate apprehension of the fact that the Syrian civil war is probably the best-documented conflict in history. Many things about the conflict are complicated, but it is incontestable that the Syrian regime has been the main perpetrator of violence against civilians, and it has acted as such in a sustained, systematic, and deliberate manner. There is an overwhelming consensus among war crimes investigators, human rights groups, and tracking agencies on this score. Indeed, according to the American lawyer and former war crimes prosecutor Stephen Rapp, the evidence massed against the Syrian regime is more extensive than the Allies had in gaining convictions against Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg tribunal.

Yet the issue has little traction with the public in the US and in Europe—in part because of the dearth of coverage, a void that has been filled by disinformation, and in part because of a general indifference toward Syria among Western leaders, despite the catastrophic consequences of the war. While Western media has moved on, Russian and Iranian state media and their various auxiliaries have waged a relentless propaganda offensive, focusing in particular on the major chemical attacks to which the Western media did pay attention. In an attempt to obscure the regime’s responsibility, these outlets and operatives have directed their campaign of disinformation and vilification at witnesses and survivors, organizations that documented the attacks (such as the volunteer rescuers and medics of the White Helmets), and the scientists who investigated and validated the evidence (such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). The specter of Iraq is again and again raised to suggest that the allegations about the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons are no more credible than was the intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction that the US used to justify the 2003 invasion. The aim is not so much to present a plausible counter-narrative as to thicken the fog of war. The manufacturing of doubt, turning knowns into unknowns, has proved effective—leaving more and more people in the West confused, making them reluctant to take sides.   

In the 1990s, in the wake of the Gulf War, a debate raged among academics about the media’s capacity to rouse public sentiment and influence policy. The so-called CNN Effect was testament to the presumed power of then novel twenty-four-hour cable news channels to inspire humanitarian action. But the effect has proven to be a myth—and Syria has settled that debate. When leaders are committed to inaction—because of perceived risks, absence of strategic interest, or fear of domestic opposition—no amount of atrocity stories will stir them into action.

Where there is genuine interest among leaders, it makes a story newsworthy for the media, making executives willing to commit resources to covering it. But without the possibility of humanitarian redress, without a narrative of righting wrong, exposure to such conflict coverage merely creates a sense of helplessness over time. And as the scale of suffering increases, empathy paradoxically declines. The psychologists Daniel Västfjäll and Paul Slovic and colleagues have noted that compassion for a single identified individual may be natural, but it is difficult to “scale up” this emotion. “Such fading of compassion has the potential to significantly hamper individual-level and collective (e.g., political) responses to pressing large-scale crises, such as genocide or mass starvation or severe environmental degradation,” they write. Collective inaction breeds individual apathy, and apathy becomes not merely indifference, but aversion. People develop a psychic need to tune out.

News organizations, in turn, avoid committing resources to a story for which there is no audience. Interest in Syria also waned because the story lost its novelty, its capacity to shock. The first massacre in Syria horrified people, the second one less so, and the shock value declined with each subsequent atrocity until it collapsed altogether. After the regime had tortured a child to death and returned his body to his parents with his genitals severed, as it did to Hamza al Kahtib in 2011, after it had sent goons to slit the throats of 49 children, as it did in Houla in 2012, after it gassed 426 children to death with sarin, as it did in Eastern Ghouta in 2013, after it napalmed schools, as it did in Aleppo in 2013, after it starved children, as it did in Yarmouk and Madaya in 2014-2016, after it bombed hospitals, as it did on 541 separate occasions throughout the war, no crime seemed too unimaginable for the regime. Western viewers wanted to look away: when outrage has no outcome, horror fatigue sets in.

Relatives and members of the Syrian Civil Defence service (White Helmets) mourning over the body of a volunteer photographer

Omar Haj KadourAFP via Getty Images

Relatives and members of the Syrian Civil Defence service (White Helmets) mourning over the body of a volunteer photographer, killed in reported regime shelling in rebel-held Idlib province, Syria, July 17, 2021

To be clear, Syria is a moral failure in which Western leaders are more complicit than the press. Journalists have, in fact, often done an admirable job, and some of the best reporting during the war has come from Syrian journalists themselves, though few of these voices have been amplified by Western media. But such accounts have failed to inspire the West into any collective action to protect Syria’s vulnerable. The institutional imperative among policy-makers may be to move on, but this silence has consequences for the people of Syria. With the receding spotlight of Western media attention, a darkness has descended on Syria. Under its cloak, atrocities and abuses have become mundane.

Yet, even now, none of this is inevitable. Political leaders still have an opportunity to rekindle public horror at gross injustices. Russia had been threatening for months to veto the United Nations mandate for cross-border humanitarian aid to the embattled Syrians trapped in Idlib when, following determined lobbying by nongovernmental groups, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke up about the situation at a UN Security Council meeting in March. With the kind of firmness and moral clarity rare in that forum, he denounced the restrictions on the delivery of aid placed by Russia and China as “unjustified, ineffective, indefensible,” and called for “using whatever pathway is the safest, quickest way to reach people who are going hungry and dying for need of medicine.” He also condemned the forced repatriation of refugees—the very action that Denmark, for one, is undertaking. “Let’s not pressure Syrian refugees to return until they feel they can do so in safety and in dignity,” he said, and went on to urge his colleagues to “stop making humanitarian assistance, on which millions of Syrians’ lives depend, a political issue, waiting in hope for the Security Council.… Let’s end the wait. Let’s take action. Let’s help people in Syria.” 

Eloquent and impassioned, these words recalled the speech that his predecessor John Kerry had made after the August 2013 chemical attack, arguing the case for collective action against Assad:

My friends, it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.… Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about. And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency, these things we do know.

Kerry was playing with a stronger hand. Deterrence was not yet lost, and Russia had not yet intervened—not directly, at least. Yet Assad went unpunished, and his sponsors were emboldened. Secretary Blinken’s options by contrast are limited, but he at least managed to get the cross-border aid mandate renewed for another six months. Uncertainty remains, but there is much the Biden administration can do to ameliorate the consequences of past inaction. It can guarantee aid, resettle more refugees, and discourage European allies from forcing asylees into a potentially lethal repatriation.

None of that is likely to happen, though, unless the world renews its attention. On this, for many Syrians, the difference between life and death may depend.

That is not an abstract proposition. On July 15, after a global campaign led by activists and backed by human rights organizations, the Danish government retreated and reinstated Aya Abu Daher’s residency status. On the same day, far from the watchful eyes of Western media, regime forces backed by Russia’s air force struck Idlib. Fourteen civilians were killed, four of them children.

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