For most of the nine or so months since the Syrian Civil War – that’s what it is, even if Western leaders resist calling it that – broke out, I have had a fairly clear view of the situation. I moved from cheering on the demonstrators to a mounting sense of horror at the prospect of the destruction of a country I lived in for a year – by either the Syrians or “foreign forces” (a term which, despite the Syrian National Council’s insistence, does include other Arab nations), but the progression happened slowly.
A few days ago, however, I was talking to a friend who also spent some time in Syria, and I realised very suddenly that I genuinely don’t know what I think any more. The constant news of bombings and counter-bombings, attacks, defections, killings, each one questioned and each questioning questioned, every video’s authenticity scrutinised by people who then blindly accept any footage that shows the reverse, all this has defeated me. We no longer know the basic facts of what is going on inside Syria.
The business of news has become a exchange of gossip and counter-gossip, arguing back and forth about the most basic questions, questions which you would think you’d need answered before you could actually have a story. How many are dead? The Syrian government says a couple of thousand, most of them soldiers. The U.N. says about 5,000, but that is based on figures given out by demonstrators, who have about as much interest in making the figures low as the government does in making them high. The Guardian speculated last week (but based on no sources) that it might be twice that. Certainly the U.N.’s figure seems reasonable, but it might well be out by several hundred. This is a less poignant example, though, because there is a knowable fact out there somewhere, and it’s more a case of pinning down the specifics of a killing that most people are aware is happening. Even if the U.N. figure is out by a thousand, 4,000 dead is a sod of a lot of people.
Until about October, it was fairly simple to work out who had killed whom, and where, and under what circumstances. The emergence of the Free Syrian Army has had a tremendous obfuscating effect on the course of events. There is now an opposition group which, by its own admission, engages in bombings and attacks on the Syrian government and its agents. Apart from the destabilisation this has created, it gives the regime a little more credibility. Before, if there had been a bomb which the government chalked up to the opposition, very few would have believed it. There was no evidence and no precedent. Now, when even those on the side of the opposition admit and believe that the FSA carries out such attacks, whenever the government accuses them of something you can never quite be sure that it’s not true. The group’s very existence reduces the defense from a general negation (“They don’t do that”) to a specific one (“They didn’t do it this time”). Nir Rosen’s assertions on Al Jazeera recently that many FSA branches are localised and do not report to a national structure, let alone to the infelicitously-named General Asaad make it hard to categorically deny the involvement of an opposition group in almost anything.
Both the pro- and anti-government angles have a narrative, along with fairly good explanations for events which don’t quite fit into it: the footage is fake, it’s an international conspiracy, the government set the bomb, he was paid or threatened to say that… the list goes on. But during times of conflict, it’s natural for a variety of opinion to take hold. Usually facts become clear relatively quickly, and those opinions which disagree with the facts are discredited. Even Unity Mitford doubted Hitler once war was declared (although in her case she shot herself). This was the case in Libya, as the existence of rebel-controlled areas made it safe for reputable journalists and news agencies to report. It’s easier to accuse someone called GaddafiSux of falsifying a video than it is the BBC, and far less damaging if it turns out to be true. The problem in Syria is that the documentation from both sides comes from amateur videos which have, in many instances, been proven wrong. Everybody has their own facts – reality is no longer objective. Every side can find sources, activists, ordinary citizens, and footage to support their claims, and who can blame them? The Syrian government is fighting for its life. The Syrian opposition (mostly based outside the country) has taken shape in the shadow of NATO’s Libyan operations. Most of their efforts have been focussed on getting enough international support together for a similar move in Syria. In this context, who would trust either side? But, inexplicably, we do, all to convince ourselves that The Syrian People (not to be confused with the Syrian people, who are completely irrelevant to this exercise) are on our side after all. So the Guardian plugs three videos from people whose relatives are dead, Russia Today finds three witnesses from the latest ‘opposition’ bombing, and everybody is happy! (Except, of course, the Syrian people, but they’re kind of a side issue unless they agree with your editorial slant.)