By Ashwath Komath
Edited by Michelle Cherian, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
Syria has had a very tumultuous three years since 2011. Right now, what we are seeing is perhaps the end of the struggle that seems to be forgotten. In a way, this may be the fault of our news cycle and short memories which don’t accord enough importance to a globally significant issue, once it loses its sheen. Syria no longer is in the news, whatever happens. It is still a war-ravaged nation which may not go into rebuilding any time soon, but it doesn’t matter anymore because nobody cares.
A very fitting example of Syria’s departure from the debate is Al Jazeera. In its heyday, Al Jazeera took up the cause of furthering the Arab Spring and the coverage of Syria was instrumental to the Al Jazeera media campaign. It ran stories and all sorts of documentaries on Syria. It even started a little off-shoot of its daily debate called “Inside Syria”. Throughout the three years, they maintained a live blog on their website, especially on Syria, reporting every new development in Syria. Syria became critical especially when most of the Arab Spring just died down after either its completion or failure.
It is still hard to ascertain whether it was Al Jazeera that managed to drive international attention to the issue or whether it was international attention that drove Al Jazeera to cover the Syrian crisis. But despite the confusion, it would be Al Jazeera driving up the attention Syria was getting. Syria benefited from the internationalization of the crisis and generally, the prolonging of the crisis itself. When the conflict became more international with the spill-over of the conflict to Lebanon and Turkey, or the coming in of several international Jihadi organizations such as the Jabhat al Nusra, Al Jazeera stepped up its reporting.
Now however, there is no mention of Syria. Even the fact that Bashar Al Assad has just sworn in to take on his third term, was buried somewhere in the middle of the website in obscurity. Syria as a topic of discussion, has ceased to exist. The ISIL crisis in Iraq and the Gaza Crisis have taken over all the headlines and Syria is obscure.
So what are the lessons learnt from the end of the Syrian conflict?
To begin with, prolonging any crisis doesn’t garner more attention. When casualties mount up and it becomes a frequent phenomenon, it becomes routine and people get complacent which makes them accept the casualties as a fact of life. Violence and losses cease to be of any importance because it is repeated day in and day out. Prolonging the issue desensitizes people towards it, except the victims who live the horror all over again, every day. So simply put, people get bored of the issue.
Secondly, any crisis can be forgotten if there is another crisis elsewhere of a similar or a higher magnitude. Case in point being both Iraq and Ukraine. The Crimean peninsula crisis made the world focus on Ukraine and Russia while the Syrian conflict was still going on. The crisis in Syria never stopped. If anything, the regime was at the height of brutality resorting to a new tool called barrel bombs in order to kill rebels. Human rights violations were plenty. But it didn’t matter, because new crises erupted elsewhere which took a toll on the Syrian reportage.
Thirdly, managing the narrative is important. The Assad regime ran a rather aggressive PR campaign to keep itself afloat. It had used its allies as well in order to protect its own narrative. So channels like Russia Today and Press TV of Iran were continuously streaming pro-Assad footage and we must understand that channels such as Russia Today and Press TV have huge viewership even outside the countries of their origin. Unlike other countries, Syria managed to keep the narrative from destroying Syria.
Fourth, use rotten eggs to your advantage. The Assad regime benefited immensely with the ISIL crisis in Iraq. While it shot to prominence after their occupation of Iraqi cities like Mosul and Tikrit, Iraq has a history in the Syrian Civil War. With the ISIL’s image already being so toxic in the international narrative in Iraq, the country garnered more opposition, once people understood their history even in Syria. Suddenly, the Assad regime became the reasonable one. People finally understood Assad’s classification of the ISIL as terrorist and also recognized his need to keep “Syria safe from the ISIL”. So suddenly, Assad is no longer the bad guy. Again, this is because the Assad regime very skilfully controlled the narrative and kept the enemies out of its way.
Fifth, regroup and rearm when the boredom sets in. After Syria stopped garnering attention, the Assad regime went on the offensive to stamp out the rebellion. His army re-launched new operations to evict the rebels and restore government control to many areas. Again, he started using innovative new techniques such as the barrel bombs, but it didn’t matter much because nobody was willing to take up the Syrian issue again. Barrel bombs barely made it to the debate. Syria used a free reign to destroy its enemies and consolidate on its territory. By reducing the narrative on Syria, the Assad regime managed to cut off support to the rebels, because funding is hard to come by when there is no attention to the issue. Syria gathered strength while it weakened the rebels and it did so by just managing the narrative.
We don’t know about the future of Syria and what it will turn out to be. But what we do know is that the Syrian conflict is perhaps a very unique case study on how to manage the media in times of internal strife. The fact that remains, while a lot of people consider his rule and regime as illegitimate, Assad still is in power. He may not enjoy the trust of his people, but the fact is that he has lived through the Arab Spring, civil war, assassinations and international isolation and is still ruling over Syria. A rebellion of this magnitude in countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia toppled their governments and installed new ones.
Assad outlived the Arab Spring and ensured that the old order prevailed. He orchestrated a near-end to the Syrian Civil War and his rule is a grim reminder of the conversion of the Arab Spring into a Syrian Winter.
Ashwath is a graduate in Political Science from Fergusson College, Pune. He is an aspiring diplomat and hopes to join the Indian Foreign Service someday. He enjoys writing about foreign policy, international security and international affairs. When he is not writing or reading, he enjoys playing pool with his friends, watching foreign cinema and listening to instrumental music.