Palmyra and Propaganda

In Syria at the moment, nothing is as simple as it initially seems. There are always complicating factors, overlooked actors and unforeseen consequences with which to contend. Especially when considering the propaganda output of the Assad regime, it is best to treat everything said with a great degree of caution. This is especially true when considering the sort of stories the regime may promote in order to capture the world’s attention or otherwise appeal to western perspectives.

The recent case of Palmyra provides a particularly pertinent lesson in this particular modus operandi.

After the recapture of the city from the Islamic State by forces claiming allegiance to Assad, it was very quickly suggested that this represented a turning point of sorts, in two ways. First, it was argued, this meant that the regime, long viewed as sclerotic and suspected of haemorrhaging manpower, retained the capacity to retake territory; and second, as some in the west were suspiciously eager to point out in rather more idealistic terms, the regime could be seen as not only the potential scourge of ISIS but also the defender of civilisation to boot.

The tendency to portray dictators like Assad as ‘defenders of civilisation’ in contrast with terrorist groups like ISIS is a longstanding practice, and one which is in no small way encouraged by the regimes themselves. After all, in the face of decades of oppression – and five years of civil war precipitated by a brutal crackdown – anything which might be used to categorise the regime in good, decent terms is seized upon.

Though in many ways the nature of this public relations exercise is more complex than the media situation, it pays to focus on an analysis of those most loudly defending Assad and promoting his version of events in Palmyra.

It is important to assess the reaction of people like Robert Fisk and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, and some on the right in the United States, as well as an increasing number of left-wingers who, though they do not doubt the regime’s brutality, are increasingly of the opinion that co-operating with its remnants is not only necessary but desirable.

Both Fisk and Johnson wrote enthusiastic pieces in the wake of Palmyra’s recapture; and though the two of them are different in many ways politically, their defence of the regime, though it may be partial and qualified in appearance, is an area of agreement.

Johnson appeals to archaeology, to history, to civilisation in all its ancient glory. He states rather plainly that Assad is a monster, a villain, and a despot, but he goes on to deliver his positive verdict regardless: his considered opinion includes the words ‘Bravo – and keep going’.

Fisk, for his part, declares the recapture of Palmyra to have been ‘The biggest military defeat that Isis has suffered in more than two years’, which seems somewhat factually suspect, and continues in mocking, sarcastic fashion to attack David Cameron and Barack Obama for not being adequately grateful to Assad, and Hezbollah, and Vladimir Putin’s bombers (he name-checks them all) for Palmyra no longer being in ISIS’ hands.

A prominent theme in both Fisk’s and Johnson’s contributions – though it is tacit rather than explicit – is the idea of a great chasm, a tremendous gulf in culture, in civilisation, between ISIS and everyone else. Though this may at first seem obvious and even necessary to establish, it soon becomes important to note the unfortunate nature of allowing ‘everyone else’ to include everyone.

In a way, modern, liberal ideas of ‘secularism’ have been turned against their very meaning and conscripted into a media war of sorts; and now they are often manipulated by dictators who pose as the necessary evil when dealing with what they term terrorist elements and jihadists. Assad, who (as Fisk recognises) is not so much the leader of a state machine as the nominal figurehead of a multinational and often sectarian coalition of convenience and necessity, is hardly in a strong position. If he is to stay in power – or to retain a measure of anything worth the name – it is his task to convince a multitude of international actors that his is the only way to defeat ISIS; and this is what remains, after all, the stated ambition of the global coalition and a visceral desire for many millions.

Stories like that of Palmyra can be used to act as counterpoints to the suggestions – in my view justified – that Assad and the fundaments of his regime are incapable of, and should be prevented from, governing Syria in the future. The apparent rescue of the ancient world heritage site feeds into ideas concerning what can be called the defence of our shared culture, and easily summed up in propaganda terms.

Of course what was done to Palmyra under ISIS was abhorrent – an act of both cultural vandalism and senseless slaughter, something staggeringly common in the course of this civil war. But many – especially in the west – run the risk of looking as though they care more for Roman ruins than Syrian lives. (The lack of depth to this position is exposed when one considers that, according to local activists, the Syrian regime and its Russian allies have been almost as iconoclastic as ISIS, launching over 900 bombing raids on the ancient city and hitting Palmyra ‘without differentiation between humans and stones’.)

To defend the regime in such circumstances seems decidedly myopic, and to advance or apologise for its cause, especially when trumpeting its apparent manning of the frontier of civilisation against the ISIS barbarians, seems nothing short of duplicitous or entirely uninformed.

Such things must be identified for what they are and resisted, lest many in the west exchange concern for the Syrian people for support of their oppressor on the strength of his apparent defence of some ancient stone.

This piece was originally published at openDemocracy.