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'Syrians are increasingly likely to opt for a strongman like Assad, capable of bringing stability'

Assad’s popularity is a narrative that has been marginalised in the West, but that doesn’t make it any less vital to bringing an end to the terrible war in my country, writes Antoine Bakhash with the help of Eimhin O’Reilly.

Antoine Bakhash

TODAY MARKS SIX years since Syria first broke out in civil war.

Six long years since this protracted conflict of indiscriminate killings and unspeakable atrocities first began to ravage my country.

For far too long, my home city of Aleppo dominated the headlines with its crumbling buildings, its mass exodus, and the sheer overwhelming weight of human suffering that festered there. But this was not the Aleppo I had known.

I was only 14 when Syria changed forever

At times, I feel that the war is part of me. At times, it almost feels like we grew up together. Still, my Aleppo was not a place of war.

My Aleppo was a friendly city of busy streets. A city where Muslims and Christians would mostly live apart, but in peace. An ancient and prosperous city, where people would come from miles around to ply their trade.

By the time I left nearly two years ago, this Syria was already long gone. Yet now that I am safe and sound over 3,000 kilometres away, I find myself confronted with a whole new Syria.

It is an image of my country that seems both familiar and alien, one that is brought up again and again in newspapers, on television, even in political debates. It is an image that seldom corresponds with reality.

How our media tells its stories

shutterstock_551842618 (1) Source: Shutterstock/Slawomir Kowalewski

In an age where words like “alternative facts” and “fake news” have become a veritable phenomenon, it is time to re-evaluate how our media tells its stories.

All too often, the Syria that was, the Syria that I choose to remember, is left behind by today’s discourse, obscuring the dignity to which Syrians everywhere are entitled.

The war has become fodder for armchair analysts, many of whom know next to nothing of the reality on the ground. While US presidential hopeful Gary Johnson’s total cluelessness on the topic was widely derided in the press (“What is Aleppo?” he asked, perplexed, during an interview), his ignorance is by no means unique.

In fact, it is almost typical. Even while chastising Johnson, the New York Times misidentified Aleppo as the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State, only to misidentify it again as the capital of Syria in a later correction.

The correct answers are, of course, Raqqa and Damascus, respectively.

Black-and-white interpretations of an intricate and complex war

Setting aside these major inconsistencies and shortcomings, the sad truth is that most coverage of this conflict boils down to black-and-white interpretations of an extremely intricate and complex situation.

Heroic rebels fighting for democracy against an oppressive regime, a besieged government standing firm against violent fanatics, a sectarian conflict that was centuries in the making, the democratic opening of a progressive civil society, all these narratives hide more than they reveal.

At best, they lead to the propagation of misleading half-truths. At worst, they lead to the dissemination of misinformation among citizens and decision-makers in countries that hold a huge amount of say over the Syria that will eventually emerge from this bloody crucible.

Portrayal of siege of Aleppo

Take, for example, the depiction of the protracted siege of Aleppo. Although the city had been the site of unrest since 2012, coverage of the battles in and around Aleppo intensified alongside the siege itself, only taking headlines as government troops poised to retake the city.

Countless articles, editorials, and opinion pieces lamented the supposed “failure” of the international community to stop the slaughter. Yet if there was any humanitarian failure, it lies more on what was done, than on what wasn’t.

Former US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power garnered widespread praise for lambasting Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria last December. “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you?” she implored.

While she was certainly right to hold a mirror up to the atrocities committed by Assad and his enablers, it was underscored by a conspicuous self-serving myopia. There was no acknowledgment of the countless civilians killed in US air strikes, of the abuses perpetrated by their own proxy forces, of the Western weapons that have ended up in the hands of extremists.

There was no admonition of the shameless meddling of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, of their own egregious atrocities.

Western involvement just as destabilising as that of Russia

shutterstock_325363238 (1) Source: Shutterstock/Orlok

In fact, Western involvement in Syria has been every bit as destabilising as that of Russia or Iran. The groups that have received aid and tactical support under their calamitous intervention run the ideological gamut from democratic socialists to radical Islamists.

The result is a fractured opposition, beset by infighting, and incapable of mounting a coherent, wide-reaching resistance to both the repression of the Assad regime and the unbridled barbarity of the IS.

This is a narrative that has seldom found its voice in mainstream interpretations across the West.

Yet, it is also a view that resonates strongly across Syria. Since colonising French troops left in 1946, Syria never had any strong political affiliation with America or Europe. Instead, for much of its history Syria looked to the Arab world, seeking to build stronger regional ties under the banner of pan-Arabism.

In the streets of Aleppo there were no McDonalds, no Apple stores, no Domino’s. For many Syrians, to suddenly become the target of intense political wrangling from the West is jarring, disconcerting, and suspicious.

Belying all this is an uncomfortable truth that is rarely acknowledged

Though Western forces claim to be championing democracy in the region, the prospect that either Assad or a member of his entourage could win democratic recognition seems to be off the table.

The photos and videos that emerged from Aleppo during the closing days of the siege depicted the thousands of people fleeing what they saw as the fall of their city.

This was often the only story that was told. What was not shown however, were the thousands who welcomed government forces with open arms, overjoyed at what they considered to be their liberation.

Enduring popularity of Assad

To underestimate the enduring popularity of the Assad regime is to seriously misjudge the dynamics of Syria’s current political situation. Successive opinion polls have consistently shown that Assad still holds a cosy lead of popular support over all other alternatives.

In my own neighbourhood in central Aleppo, Bashar al-Assad’s face could often be seen, proudly emblazoned across car and shop windows. In fact, the funding of such ostensibly pro-democracy rebels may be backfiring.

With the war continuing to drag on, and with no coherent and visible leader for the opposition to rally around, many Syrians are increasingly likely to opt for a strongman like Assad, for someone who seems capable of finally bringing stability to this beleaguered country, no matter the cost.

Narratives that have been marginalised and overlooked

These are all narratives that have been marginalised and overlooked, but that does not make them any less valid or any less vital to bringing a fair and dignified end to this terrible war.

It has been years since Syrians have been in control of their own destiny, and they may not be again for many years to come, but this does not mean that they cannot, and should not be in control of their own stories.

This six-year-long war is complex and multifaceted. It is tortuous and often inscrutable. It is an awful, messy conflict that defies tidy explanations and neat summaries.

Although it may be difficult, our interpretations of it need to reflect this uncomfortable reality. To do any less is to tell only half the stories.

Antoine Bakhash is a Syrian student, currently living in Leuven, Belgium. He has volunteered with Caritas Athens Refugee Programme in Greece. Eimhin O’Reilly is a writer and activist from Dublin, specialising in issues relating to the Global South. He helped Antoine tell his story.

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Antoine Bakhash

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