Madaya: Who is telling the truth? Who is lying?

Madaya: Who is telling the truth? Who is lying?
Comment: Syrian regime outlets accused opposition supporters of fabricating the images of starvation in the regime-besieged town of Madaya, but the dishonesty comes mainly from Damascus, argues Karim Traboulsi.
6 min read
12 Jan, 2016
The plight of civilians besieged in the town of Madaya has caused worldwide condemnation [AFP]
From the outset, the Syrian regime and its supporters have accused their opponents in the rebellion of fabrication, exaggeration and propaganda.

All Syrian opposition activists and rebels are painted as terrorist jihadists who deserve to be killed, the towns and villages that host them to be carpet bombed and even gassed.

True, the Syrian rebellion has had support from formidable outlets.

The narrative of mainstream Arab and Western media has been largely supportive of the Syrian people's quest to free themselves of the Assad-led regime, which came to power through a military coup and then created a North Korean-like hereditary dynastic republic.

Some in the mainstream Arab and Western media have made glaring mistakes in their Syria coverage, but one could argue that the bias on the side of the Syrian people is in continuation of the Arab Spring spirit that has permeated the region and much of the world.
Most of the information on the conflict - the accurate and the otherwise - comes from activists

In other words, just as it would be in the coverage of Israeli atrocities against the Palestinian people, it would be a betrayal of ethical journalism to treat the Syrian regime and the Syrian people protesting, then fighting against it, as equivalent sides.

This does not mean sacrificing standards. It does not mean ignoring the alleged war crimes by rebel factions, as limited as they are compared with those of the Assad regime, or ignoring the jihadist and foreign infiltration of the rebellion ranks.

Rather, it means the claims of Assad's Baathist regime, which has historically used propaganda and deception at every turn, are to be treated with extreme scepticism - while ordinary Syrians in the conflict zones are to be given a voice, as long as due diligence is made to verify the facts.

Furthermore, the near impossibility of deploying reporters on the ground in Syria has meant that most of the information on the conflict - the accurate and the otherwise - comes from activists. In the vast majority of cases, reports are difficult to validate in accordance with established standards.


It is illogical to claim that the thousands of ordinary Syrians who have been speaking to Arab and Western media from inside the conflict zones have all colluded to lie and fabricate claims about the brutality of the Syrian regime, from chemical weapons attacks to systematic sieges, as well as mass bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods.

Likewise, the stories told by Syrian refugees who have fled ethnic cleansing and demographic engineering, while difficult to independently verify, should be assumed to carry a lot of truth.

But, true, there has been some exaggeration. 

Some anti-regime entities, for a variety of motives, have allegedly manipulated images to highlight the plight of the Syrian people and attract public sympathy.
Starving Syria
- Surrender or starve in besieged Syria
- Displaced Syrians begin hunger strike in solidarity with Madaya
- Diary from Moadamiyeh, a besieged Damascus suburb
- Social media reacts to the starvation of Madaya
- Starved into accepting 'a political solution' in Syria
- For many in Madaya, emergency aid is too late
- Hizballah supporters taunt starving Madaya residents with pictures of food
- British public petition government for Syria food drops
- Convoys to deliver aid 'simultaneously' to besieged towns
- Hundreds of Syrians need urgent evacuation from Madaya, says UN

The Assad regime and its supporters, like Israel whenever Palestinians unwisely do the same, quickly exploit these to generalise and claim the entire rebel cause is a sham.

There is no scarcity of damning evidence against Israel and against the Syrian regime, and no end could ever justify the means of lying.

However, it has also been claimed that pro-regime groups have planted false images online while posing as opposition entities -in order to discredit the opposition. This would not be far-fetched, given the extent of deception and propaganda from pro-regime outlets, recently joined by Russia's own propaganda machinery.

But in truth, it is hard for anyone, including the pro-regime camp, to deny the plight of Syrians under siege in places such as Madaya now and Yarmouk before - just like it is hard to deny the rebels are besieging villages such as Fuaa and Kefraya.

The obfuscation by the pro-regime camp in the face of facts is rather meant to maintain plausible deniability, a tactic that has worked very effectively among supporters in the past five years.

So much so, that supporters of the regime and Hizballah, which is taking part in the siege of Madaya, have been mocking what they say is the "non-existent" suffering and starvation of the civilians caught inside, despite the uproar it has caused.

Hizballah's Al-Manar TV and later Hizballah itself have issued rebuttals against media reports indicating the Hizballah-led siege of Madaya was causing people to die from starvation and forcing civilians to eat grass, insects and even stray cats.
Things are not always strictly black and white

Hizballah initially did not deny the siege was taking place but merely blamed the few hundred rebels trapped in the town for what was happening.

Since then, Hizballah MPs have denied outright that there was starvation in Madaya, despite concerns voiced by independent international organisations that are aware of the situation on the ground.

Competing narratives

It is true that there are competing narratives in Syria, and things are not always strictly black and white.

However, applying Occam's Razor to the information coming from Syria leads to the following conjectures, if not facts:

- The Syrian regime, despite claims by Bashar al-Assad in an infamous BBC interview, does use crude and indiscriminate weapons against civilians, if not intentionally indiscriminate then with absolute recklessness, killing tens of thousands of civilians so far.

- The Syrian regime most likely deployed chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta in 2013, a much more likely scenario than a false flag attack by the opposition.

- The Syrian regime and its allies have consistently used sieges, starvation, torture and even sexual violence throughout decades in power, from the Syrian theatre to Lebanon during its own civil war. A deliberate siege of Madaya, Yarmouk and elsewhere is therefore a very plausible scenario.

Admittedly, it is hard to establish beyond a shadow of doubt what is happening exactly in Syria and who is responsible for what at any given time. This is despite the fact that the overarching truth undoubtedly places the responsibility for most atrocities in the country squarely at the feet of the Syrian regime and its allies.

However, in light of everything we have seen in Syria, it is obvious who the majority of the Arab and international public opinion have chosen to believe - and who they deem to be the liar, defending the indefensible.

Follow Karim Traboulsi on Twitter: @kareemios

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.