Syria: No country for old men?

Syria: No country for old men?
Comment: We must look to the lives of ordinary Syrians to avoid numbing ourselves to the horror of their war, writes James Denselow
4 min read
09 Oct, 2015
The Syrian people are reduced by the media to either militants or helpless civilians [AFP]
The Coen Brothers 2007 film No Country for Old Men told Cormac McCarthy's bleak story of a good-hearted sheriff struggling to come to terms with how violent the world had become.

When it comes to the conflict in Syria, writers have struggled with finding the appropriate language to describe a similar phenomenon.

Statistics have numbed us perhaps to the individual horror of loss and suffering experienced by so many Syrians in such a relatively short period of time. The descent into chaos is worthy of a Dante-esque vision of transition into hell in which civilisation is lost to barbarism and no act is seemingly off limits.

Potential solutions to the conflict have often foundered on the search for moderation in such an immoderate environment.

Veteran reporter Robert Fisk dismissed the notion that there were any "moderates" left in the country in an article last week - arguing that they "had collapsed long ago".

The apparent lack of "moderates" is among the factors that explains the frustrated apathy towards the Syrian conflict - there are no good guys or positive narratives that can be supported among what appears to be a large number of actors upon a blood-drenched stage. 
     The moderate-radical spectrum is not appropriate or realistic for a proper understanding of the situation

I would argue that the moderate-radical spectrum is not appropriate or realistic for a proper understanding of the situation in this almost half-decade of civil war.

The first point to make is that violence, or, in the case of IS, "hyper violence", has the ability to both make and set the media agenda in a manner that distorts reality. A powerful Guardian piece last week pointed out that "IS proclaim their atrocities on social networks; the Syrian state hides its misdeeds in the silence of its dungeons".

This has led to a vastly inflated sense of how many people IS has killed compared with the regime - compared with the stark reality pointed out by the Syria Campaign.

In the US, following the latest mass shooting, a new No Notoriety campaign has launched, aimed at discouraging coverage of the names of the killers. It would interesting to see if the IS media strategy could be blunted by a similar tactic.

Allowing the media coverage to be dominated by either violent actors or helpless refugees ignores the incredible bravery and resilience shown by Syrian civil society. Indeed when the history of this conflict is one day told, there should be special reference and focus to the actions of local agencies working on the humanitarian response - and in particular the White Helmets urban rescue teams.

In the absence of UN Blue Helmets the Syrian White Helmets are the outstanding "good guys" operating in Syria - but as they are not armed and can't make a difference to the military balance, they are generally acknowledged as positive actors but otherwise seen as largely irrelevant.

This is a mistake.

If Syria is to survive as a functioning state it is not just the condition of its borders and infrastructure that will make the difference - its civil society is the lifeblood of any national project, and, ultimately the sustainability of any post-IS or even post-Assad Syria will be defined by the mass acceptance of the legitimacy of whatever form of governance emerges.

In addition, whereas many world leaders shun meetings with Assad - and all refuse to countenance even thinking about IS - civil society is a bridge between normal people around the world.
     The idea of there being such a thing as a 'normal Syrian' has almost been completely lost

The idea of there being such a thing as a "normal Syrian" has almost been completely lost.

Short, small campaigns - such as that which crowdsourced more than $180,000 to support the White Helmets or the "pen man" campaign which raised over $130,000 to support one refugee family - have highlighted the power of individual connections to positive actions.

Syria has such vast potential for its future that we must not lose sight of what it could be in the middle of the violence that currently defines it.

UK-based Syrian billionaire Ayman Asfari spoke passionately about his belief in releasing the potential of a Syria of tomorrow on the BBC recently.

The interview should remind people that Syria's diaspora is not just those currently struggling in camps in the region - but movers and shakers around the world - and are the building blocks of a new Syria that could yet emerge from the ashes of the civil war.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.