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For Journalists, A Confounding War in Syria

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 10 2013 (IPS) - The fractured nature of Syria’s civil war leaves the media searching for narratives that may not clearly exist, said journalists and members of civil society at a panel discussion, “Syria from the Ground Up,” held at Columbia University on Wednesday.

“An information deficit is the primary obstacle that we have,” said Liam Stack of the New York Times, who works on the newspaper’s multimedia project, “Watching Syria’s War.”

Lara Setrakian, former Bloomberg reporter and founder of Syriadeeply.org, agreed.  “I’ve never seen the case that the consequence was so high and the understanding so low,” she said.

The conflict, said Setrakian, requires a postmodern journalism that matches the “scatterplot” of information emanating from thousands of sources and the constant power shifts among rebels and government forces and within the various rebel factions themselves.

The only source of developments in many parts of the country are often messages on social media and videos posted to sites like Youtube, said Stack. Syrians, aware of the role social media plays, hold placards in videos they record indicating the date and location in an attempt to authenticate their accounts.

The Times’ “Watching Syria’s War” project compiles videos from within the country in an effort to piece together the collage of information that is often missed by a narrow focus on chemical weapons or Al Qaeda affiliated groups.

Stack estimated over 100,000 videos had been uploaded to the web since the conflict began in 2011. The countless accounts on the ground contrast with established international diplomatic organs that rely on straightforward, two sided conflict with representatives from each faction.

The internationally sanctioned opposition based in Turkey is often ignored by belligerents within Syria. The recent flourish of diplomacy that staved off U.S. strikes on the Syrian Government distracted from the war’s reality, said Setrakian. “We’ve lost the plot,” she lamented.

U.S. President Obama’s threat to launch military attacks on Syria “was our chance to have a conversation.” Instead, the détente between Russia and the Assad regime and the United States illustrated how much the “reductive narratives” of past wars still serves as a crutch for diplomats.

Chemical weapons have accounted for only two percent of the war’s over 100,000 deaths.  Seeing an agreement over chemical weapons as progress legitimates the bloodshed and humanitarian crisis that persists in the country, said Setrakian.

The Al Qaeda narrative, like that of chemical weapons, is compelling but overly sensationalized, she said. “In the southern part of the country and around Damascus there isn’t really an Al Qaeda presence,” noted Setrakian.

The panel agreed that an oft-whispered solution of splitting the country along ethnic lines relies on over-generalizations and a false assumption that Syrians want to live separately or even that they identify with one or another side.

Asked who they support, “most people will say ‘I don’t have a side in this conflict,” said Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children, which works with Syrian NGO’s to provide food and care to hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees.

Balkanizing the country would encourage further ethnic cleansing, said the panel, and ignores refugees like the thousands of Sunni Muslims who have fled to relative safety in historically Alawite land along the Mediterranean.

Many underlying fault lines are overlooked by an exasperated press corps, said Stack. The sectarian lens “overlooks rural and urban dynamics at play,” he noted.  A  four year drought leading up to the conflict left rural areas impoverished, and it was in these places where rebels first gained control of territory.

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