Europe’s Perception Problem

Security forces gunning down peaceful protesters on the streets of Homs. Regime helicopters bombarding whole neighbourhoods of Aleppo with indiscriminate barrel bombs. The Islamic State storming through the desert, executing all those who don’t adhere to their radical ideology along the way. Massive car bombs ripping through the heart of Damascus. A toddler lying dead on a Mediterranean beach. These are the images that have become both iconic and all too commonplace during five years of war in Syria.

Perhaps more than any other civil conflict in recent history, the war in Syria has become the focus of intense media attention. Many journalists have shown commendable humanity during the past five years, and the treatment of the Mediterranean refugee crisis has given rise to a great deal of thoughtful, serious coverage about what Syrians and others face. These sentiments have not been universal, and some of the reaction in Europe’s media has been deplorable, but the European and American responses to the migrant crisis in general have been charitable.

Before all of that, however, though Syria was discussed in newspapers and on television, much of the fundaments of its civil war received either scant or inadequate attention. When the Syrian revolution first broke out five years ago, media in the outside world knew the form. Protests had taken place in other nations with profound consequences, even going so far as to overthrow governments; the Arab Spring idea was something that had already gained currency in press circles. As such, there was a certain expectation that these protests would follow the course established in Tunisia and Egypt. But this generalization did not hold true.

Instead of crumbling, the Assad regime began a violent crackdown on protesters which soon turned a mostly peaceful movement into one which took up arms out of necessity.

Here the narrative of a people opposing the cruelties and iniquities of the regime began to fray. With the regime’s deliberate amnesties for Islamist inmates from the notorious Sednaya Prison, it was clear early on that Assad would try to Islamise the revolution by attempting to link, or even suborn, its largely nationalist aims to those who favoured global jihad. The regime wished to place a binary choice before the world: either Assad or the terrorists he claimed to be fighting.

Many European and American commentators fell into lockstep with this line. Some particularly egregious examples include Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph and Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday, who described Bashar al-Assad as if he was a humble man doing his honest best, or the innocent victim of American connivance and subterfuge. These viewpoints – likely because of their wild claims – found few sympathizers in power, but among the peoples of Europe the effect was far greater.

When the international community failed to enforce President Obama’s ‘red line’ on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, opposition to military action, conveyed through the press and by voters to their elected representatives, was stoked by the regime’s narrative. (The British Daily Mirror devoted an affecting front page to the dead of East Ghouta, but this was not enough to elicit a national change of heart.) After all, Europeans did not want their representatives voting to assist those that some sections of the press had depicted as ardent Islamists with ideological ties to international jihad.

Since then the conflict has seen the apparent advent of ISIS, a group which has understandably commanded a great deal of media attention. But much of that interest rests on certain assumptions, which have slowly encroached upon conventional wisdom.

Take, for example, the idea of the Kurds being the only suitable ally for the West in the region. This is based on some facts: the Kurds have fought ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, and their fight has been made more remarkable because of perceived technological gaps between the Peshmerga and the weaponry of the Islamic State. But this impression has bred the notion that the ‘plucky Kurd’ should be supported instead of the Sunni Arabs who make up the majority of Syria’s rebels, many of whom have been fighting ISIS for just as long. Such a flawed understanding has led to odd policies, too: the United States places a great deal of trust in Kurdish forces – throwing tremendous air power into helping them defend Kobane, for example – but does not support the Sunni Arab rebels who are going to be essential in retaking ISIS territory. After all, if Kurdish forces attempted to recapture Raqqa city, they would be seen as conquerors and rejected by the local population.

A rather more unpleasant version of this impulse can be seen in the meme concerning Syrian men (especially placed in comparison with the much-vaunted female fighters of the Peshmerga) apparently acting in a cowardly fashion by becoming refugees. It is also seen in the way Sunni–Shia sectarianism is dismissed by many as ‘a thousand-year-old war of which we understand nothing’. Collectively this trend denigrates Arabs and their capacity to reject tyranny and theocracy, which bolsters an Orientalist justification for staying out of things and essentially leaving the country to Assad and ISIS. Indeed, it is periodically popular in Britain and elsewhere for public figures to float the idea of collaborating with Assad, something that would be unconscionable if the revolution and the Syrian people met with greater respect.

Similar impulses have surfaced in some mass-market depictions of the refugee crisis: refugees have been compared to cockroaches and depicted as rats in Britain’s largest-selling newspapers. On the cover of a Polish magazine, an unsubtle image represented the ‘Islamic rape of Europe’. By and large these have been minority voices, but the same consideration which arises in the case of refugees does not translate into support for the Syrian opposition, and nor has it dampened the steady pace at which European and American politicians have moved towards a détente of sorts with Assad.

Popular perceptions and media portrayals do not decide government policy, but they can influence it to a great degree. Some of the worst aspects of European and American attitudes towards Syrians have helped to create a climate in which their political wishes are not respected, but sympathy – incomplete though it may be – is afforded only when they are forced to flee. Sadly, this highly unsatisfactory state of affairs seems likely to continue for years to come.

This piece was originally published at NOW News.