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“Wars are complex. They come out of nowhere and all of a sudden, people you’ve never heard of are killing each other on the evening news.”
So begins this rather patronising piece on Upworthy that attempts to explain in a digestible format what is happening in Syria. Entitled ‘Trying to follow what is going on in Syria and why? This comic will get you there in 5 minutes’, the article presents a neat, but ultimately misleading and reductive narrative, which argues that drought caused by climate change is primarily responsible for the war in Syria. Somewhat regrettably, it has been shared widely over the internet since it was published last week. Presumably it is being read (and shared) by people who are confused by events in Syria and want to find an easy framework with which to understand them.
Even for a piece that is explicitly intended for the layman, it is highly simplistic, misleadingly so. There is no doubt that the major drought witnessed in Syria between 2006 and 2011 had a catastrophic environmental and societal impact on the country, but it is not the over-arching cause of the war. The article is also littered with inaccuracies and has many glaring omissions, including the central role of foreign powers in the war, notably the US. For instance, there is no mention of the US’ long-standing effort (in co-ordination with Saudi Arabia) to encourage Islamic fundamentalism and sectarianism in Syria in order to weaken the Syrian Government at any cost (as revealed by WikiLeaks) and no mention of the CIA’s enormous Syria operation that has cost at least $1bn and trained and armed nearly 10,000 fighters sent to fight in Syria since the war began. But it is something else in the piece that – due to personal experience – I found especially problematic. The piece claims that in response to the drought crisis, “Bashar Al Assad’s Government offered little help” (the word Government is omitted in the article itself, this appears to be an editorial oversight).
In 2009, when the enormous scale of the drought in Syria was becoming clear, I was a research intern at the British Embassy in Damascus. In this role, one of my responsibilities was to attend briefings and events arranged by international organisations and other embassies and report my findings back to the UK Embassy. Therefore, when I read the phrase “offered little help”, I was immediately reminded of a UN briefing that I attended in Damascus in July 2009. As soon as I consulted my original notes from the briefing, the flagrant inaccuracy – if not outright dishonesty – of this wording struck me. At this briefing, the UN Drought Joint Needs Assessment Mission (or the JNA), chaired by Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (now the Head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response), reported to international (primarily western) donors the findings of a field mission that the JNA had conducted in Eastern Syria in June 2009. In his presentation, Ahmed praised the response of the Syrian Government more than once but argued that given the enormous scale of the problem, further action from it was needed. He also summarised the measures that the government had already taken, these included the following:
*A food assistance programme that was supplementing the World Food Program’s efforts. 27,000-30,000 families were guaranteed support until December 2009.
* Livestock feed had been subsidised.
* Outstanding loans of farmers had been re-scheduled and micro-credit loans offered to them.
* New teachers had been hired for affected regions.
* Establishment of a government fund specifically for agricultural subsidies and support.
Representatives of the Syrian Government appeared alongside the UN at the meeting; The Director of Planning from the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture and the Deputy Head of the State Planning Commission. Both these Syrian officials stressed the severity and unprecedented scale of the drought and stated explicitly that the government was struggling to cope with its impact. They openly asked for financial assistance (both short- and long-term) from international donors and stated that the Syrian Government’s efforts alone would not be sufficient to cope. During the briefing a number of funding options were offered to international donors by the UN. These included food distribution for 300,000 people (priced at $29.9m) and water projects including reverse osmosis units and rehabilitation of wells (priced at $2.1m). An overall aid target of $50m was set; a figure that I remember many in the room thought was wholly unrealistic since only $4m had been donated by the same countries/groups the previous year.
In light of this context, the article’s premise that the government “offered little help” is, at best, an unfair and inaccurate simplification of how the Syrian Government actually responded to the drought. At worst, it is an intentional and dishonest attempt to obscure the government’s evident attempts to solve the crisis and mitigate its impact. The reality is that the Syrian Government was simply overwhelmed by the scale of the drought (and its subsequent effects); it did not possess the ability – financial, logistical and otherwise – to respond adequately to it and did not receive sufficient funding from international donors to help account for this deficiency. After that meeting, I remember my impression of the Syrian officials was of two overwhelmed and worried government employees who were acutely aware of the scale of the emergency and the dire need for international assistance but, given the numerous enemies Syria faced, were wary of appearing overly weak in front of an international audience.
Although to some this might seem a relatively unimportant clarification, it is reflective of a much broader trend in reporting on Syria; the constant reduction of the entire Syrian Government/State to simply ‘Assad’ (also the ‘Assad regime’ or ‘Assad’s Government’) and a small group of Alawite ‘thugs’, as if Syria lacked national institutions and infrastructures that although often dysfunctional, have existed and developed over decades, and are staffed by many thousands of government employees. Leader-focused framing such as this plays a central role in legitimising the West’s aggression against entire nation-states (think Gaddafi, Saddam, Milosevic et al) and inevitably, to observe such a fact often means being labelled “pro-Assad” or “pro-Qaddafi” etc. Such is the simplistic portrayal of the ‘Assad regime’ in much of the Western media, that I am sure many in the West would be surprised to learn that Syria even had a Deputy Head of the State Planning Commission or a Director of Planning at the Ministry of Agriculture.
The media’s constant use of ‘Assad’ and ‘regime’ obscures the reality that the government is not a homogenous entity, and that many ‘regime’ officials are simply bureaucrats, technical experts and civil servants, not murderous, sectarian thugs as is so often the impression. After all, Khaled al-Asaad, the former Head of Antiquities at Palmyra who was murdered by ISIS in August was a ‘regime’ official and had been so for forty years. While his murder was unanimously condemned and al-Asaad was – rightfully so – widely mourned by the Western press, the awkward fact that he was a government employee was conveniently downplayed. In the same way, the image of Syrian Government officials in the midst of a drought crisis, outlining the bureaucratic steps taken by the government to date, expressing real concern for the future and pleading for help from international donors does not fit the narrative of ‘Assad and his regime thugs’ and so was ignored.
Ultimately, any article that purports to explain an extremely complex topic in “five minutes” should be treated with extreme scepticism and the utmost caution, and this piece is no exception to that rule.