Western media must understand there's more to Syria than Assad vs jihadis

Western media must understand there's more to Syria than Assad vs jihadis
Comment: Western media tends to portray fighting in Syria as between Assadists and jihadists, but the revolutionaries resisting both sides must not be forgotten, writes Loubna Mrie.
7 min read
14 Jul, 2017
Pre-Baath Syrian flags were adopted by the Syrian revolution during the uprising [AFP]

For many who follow the Syrian conflict, now in its sixth year, the threat of radicalism and the future of Syria after the fighting ends tops their list of concerns.

After so many years of carnage, some foreign commentators and analysts have begun to revert to supporting the Syrian government, arguing that "the only alternative to the Assad police state is Islamist chaos".

For these observers, Syrians are either "al-Qaeda terrorists" or Assad supporters, negating the existence of those between these positions.

Often missing from these conversations is the perspective of the people who are currently fighting both the Syrian government and al-Qaeda. 

Many of the same people who faced live bullets when they protested against the brutality of the Syrian regime, now face the same repression from the radical groups that emerged under his crackdown. 

But just because these voices are censored or under threat, doesn't mean they don't exist. On the contrary; they do, but are often left unreported, even by those who claim to be supporters of the Syrian people.   

The role of media coverage

To call Bilal Abdulakareem controversial would be an understatement, but this euphemism is often used by media describing the former stand-up comedian from New York, who has become an unofficial propagandist for some of northern Syria's most extreme factions. 

By offering a platform almost exclusively to jihadists, Abdulkareem has become a particularly extreme example of those who are pouring gasoline on binary sectarian views of the Syrian uprising and civil war. 

But just because these voices are censored or under threat, doesn't mean they don't exist

He has interviewed al-Nusra preachers such as Abdullah al-Mohesni, and regularly gives a platform to al-Nusra leaders who have been personally responsible for the death and disappearance of countless Syrian activists.

Abdulkareem is erasing the courageous Syrians who are resisting al-Qaeda's rule in Idlib province, who to this day are still holding demonstrations condemning al-Nusra and calling them "Shabiha," a derogatory term for a regime thug. 

What Bilal either doesn't understand or doesn't want to tell his followers, is that groups like al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa have never claimed to be supportive of the Syrian uprising.

They've made it clear from the beginning that they're in Syria to pursue their own agendas and goals. Bilal's stand against the Assad government should not conceal what he is doing to help whitewash these groups. For many Syrians, his activism is actually very detrimental to their democratic cause.

Bilal's stand against the Assad government should not conceal what he is doing to help whitewash these groups

Although Abdulkareem has been in Syria for years, he doesn't seem aware that the Syrian independence flag - which has become the symbol of the uprising - is banned by extremist groups across large parts of northern Syria.

Activists have faced detention for wearing bracelets bearing the revolution colours of green, black and red. Generally, anyone who doesn't agree with the extremist ideology of these groups faces detention or even assassination.

  Read more: Aleppo's forgotten revolutionaries

The extremists do not care if the activists they oppress are active against the Syrian government, only whether they will follow their rule. 

After mid-2015, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups became the dominant force in the northern Syrian province of Idlib. Since asserting control, they have used the same techniques that the Syrian government used against the population of Idlib back in 2011.

Syrian regime forces retook the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo from rebels at the end of last year [AFP]

Hyatt Tahir al-Sham (HTS) and their associates have been shooting protestors with live bullets, detaining those who report on critical issues, and assassinating anyone who they see as a threat to their existence. HTS/JAI have consistently detained activists who had previously served time in Assad jails due to their participation in the 2011 protest movement. 

The extremist supporters defend such detentions by accusing the activists of being spies paid by the West; the same accusations the activists faced from the Syrian government.

Just last month, Jabhat al-Nusra attacked the city of Maaret al-Numan, Idlib province. The extremists killed civilians and tried to seize a Free Syrian Army base and detain its members. The population protested for days and fought back aggressively, often daring to taunt the Nusra fighters with their protests. 

  Read more: Chomsky and the Syria revisionists: Regime whitewashing

Only a few news outlets covered this very important news. 

Biilal Abdulakreem who was only miles away, instead of covering the movement, choose to devote his considerable platform to one of those who carried out the attack on Maaret al-Numan. During Abdulkareem's interviews, the Nusra invasion of the rebellious city was not mentioned at all.

This is not siding with the Syrian people, this is siding with al-Qaeda ideology that Syrians overwhelmingly oppose

For me, this is not siding with the Syrian people, this is siding with al-Qaeda ideology that Syrians overwhelmingly oppose. 

For the Syrians who protested Assad, these radical groups are counter-revolutionary. They are not a part of the uprising. It's not fair or accurate to put everyone who doesn't support Assad in the same box. This binary lacks nuance, and disrespects the activists who died at the hands of the government and extremist factions.

Bilal Abdulakreem isn't the only one fuelling this binary.  Many western journalists are doing the same but from the relative safety of the government side, or from the comfort of far away western nations.

It's not fair or accurate to put everyone who doesn't support Assad in the same box

These people are painting Assad as the only alternative to extremist rule. They argue that if you don't side with the dictator, you are by default al-Qaeda supporters, and supportive of the country being ruled by radicals.

And just like with Bilal, the voice of the Syrians who oppose both is completely absent from their reporting.

The life and death struggle between revolutionaries and extremists has too often been ignored, or simply denied by western commentators - too far removed to understand the subtleties of the situation. The uprising in Maraat Numan is a symbol of resistance among Syrian revolutionaries. But after a regime bomb killed dozens, the city was characterised by some regime apologists as a hotbed of sympathizers of al-Nusra. 

Western journalists who were busy making excuses for the regime's atrocity never bothered to express sympathy or concern for the prisoners being held hostage by Nusra. The powerful, brutal and Jaysh al-Islam, which rules the besieged Damascus suburb of Ghouta, is despised for its authoritarianism and is currently suppressing protests against its rule.

In recent months shocking video emerged of JAI soldiers firing at protesters. The Army of Islam - which currently holds an unjust and outsized role in the opposition delegation to the stop-start negotiations in Astana - is the evil force behind the kidnapping of one of the Syrian revolution's most beloved icons; the lawyer turned activist Razan Zeitouna.

We don't want Nusra or Jaysh al-Islam to march on Damascus

Zeitouna helped found the Local Coordination Councils, the democratically elected city legislatures that were the vanguard of the Syrian revolution. She was a symbol of resistance and liberation for the people of Douma, which is why Jaysh al-Islam felt the need to remove her.

Foreign commentators condemning the Syrian uprising as a whole are simply using the extremists as a smokescreen. They make no mention of Razan Zeitouna or the Local Coordination Councils. Indeed, most have never heard of the role they played in the uprising.

To those reducing Syria to a jihadi vs police state binary, Razan and the victims of the extremists they claim to oppose, do not exist.

At the crux of the matter, is that revolution is not a binary choice between extremist anarchy or a police state.

The revolutionaries who peacefully demonstrated in 2011 are still out there. Thousands died, but millions are still alive, scattered across Syria and the world in refugee camps.

Some are right where they started the revolution, many are leading protests in Idlib against HTS, and some are living under government siege, or quietly resisting in IS held territory.

A lucky few have gained residency in western nations, but for most of us who rose up, our demands remain the same as they did on day one. We do not want a binary world, we don't want Nusra or Jaysh al-Islam to march on Damascus.

We want Bashar Assad to get on a plane and leave the country so we can make peace and begin the painstaking process of holding elections and rebuilding the country.

Loubna Mrie is a Syrian activist who participated in the initial stages of the revolution. She later became a photojournalist with Reuters where she covered the ongoing conflict.

She is currently based in New York City where she is a researcher and commentator on Syrian and Middle Eastern affairs and is completing an MA at NYU. Her work has been published in major outlets including the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and New Republic.

Follow her on Twitter: @loubnamrie

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.