A protest in Sermin in northern Syria on Tuesday night
Mainstream coverage of the Syrian crisis since last Friday usually takes the same path. There is a headline about car bombs, be it Damascus on Friday, an unknown explosion in Hama last week, and Monday'ss suspected exposives outside intelligence facilities in Idlib. The second or third paragraph will read something like this: "According to Syrian state news, the government blames terrorists for these incidents. Opposition groups have not claimed responsibility for the attacks, and instead allege that the government is responsible."
Then the mantra, now a go-to one-liner for the standard Syria article, is that United Nation special envoy Kofi Annan has brokered a ceasefire, but neither the Syrian government nor the insurgent fighters are abiding by the agreement.
These headlines are not false, but I struggle to call them true. They offer the comfort of the most neutral, and therefore least accurate, picture of what is actually occurring. Instead of an investigation of the facts, the "claims" or "statements" made by various sides of the conflict are posted, often without insight or an attempt to navigate a complicated and dynamic story.
The unanalysed death tolls, the heavily-qualified publishing of conflicting claims, and the overall murky picture leaves the average reader with an inaccurate impression: the situation in Syria is chaotic, truth is unattainable, and there are no real options for resolution.
Call it disaster fatigue, war fatigue, Middle East fatigue, or confusion fatigue. The likely outcome, after the repetition of days and weeks, is that readers will be left disinterested, tired of hearing about tragedy, and sick of feeling clueless and possibly manipulated.
So, in an effort to avoid this, what do we know about car bombs, death tolls, and ceasefires?
The deal brokered by United Nations envoy Kofi Annan had two deadlines, one for the start of withdrawal of soldiers and tanks from Syria's cities, and one for ceasefire. In the run-up to thosedeadlines, we witnessed sharp escalations of violence in many regions of Syria, killing perhaps 1000 civilians in 8 days. On the "withdrawal" date, the Syrian military began to reshuffle its forces, giving the illusion of a pullback. But as forces left one city, they arrived in another, and more people died. The date for "ceasefire" saw more of the same.
On most days, fewer people are being killed than in the week before the ceasefire, but the level of violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime since the ceasefire is about the same as that before the UN deal was announced.
So the regime is in violation, but is the armed wing of the opposition keeping their end of the bargain?
Days after the deadline, reports started of Free Syrian Army attacks against Assad troops. Since then, these reports have ranged from road-side bombs against military convoys, to sniper attacks against regime forces, to gun battles.
But there were those several days where the Free Syrian Army, in whole or in part, appeared to be abiding by the ceasefire. Though the FSA is decentralised, many local commanders released statements that they were refraining from attacks. About a week later, there were new statements that any FSA activity would be "defensive" in nature, as the regime was continuing to attack. Now those pledges appear to have been abandoned. As regime forces across the country have already broken the ceasefire, most in the Free Syrian Army see no reason to hold fire.
If Kofi Annan's goal was to reduce the amount of violence and to improve the humanitarian situation on the ground, then it appears he has accomplished the opposite. If the media's goal is to paint an accurate picture, equating violence perpetrated by the opposition --- even though it clearly exists --- with the violence perpetrated by the regime distorts the reality with a false equation of responsibility
Since last summer, there have been an increasing number of "terrorist" attacks, including car bombs and suicide bombings, in major Syrian cities. These attacks often --- though not always --- appear to target the Syrian security apparatus of police stations, military facilities, and intelligence headquarters, while causing collateral damage.
Each incident should be judged individually. Some of these incidents have the smell of theatre. On several occasions, EA has received reports that a neighbourhood or area had been closed off, before an explosion occurred. On other occassions, activists reported the same pattern, but as the reports came to us after the explosion, it is possible those making the claims were trying to save face. And on yet other occasions, the amount of damage done to security forces or infrastructure suggests that this was an attack by inusrgents.
The regime is not exactly trying to dig for evidence, content to blame any unexplained explosion as well as general violence on "armed gangs" and "terrorists". So there are a lot of known unknowns when it comes to who is responsible for some of these attacks. But there is also a key piece of evidence that the media often ignores.
No group has claimed responsibility for many of these events. That in itself is unusual: the insurgents have not been shy about their successes, or even their failures. The FSA is usually quick to claim that they used an IED against Assad soldiers, destroyed a tank, or captured a position. In an article published yesterday, the fighters explained to Western reporters that they are increasingly turning to explosives and bomb-making as cheaper and more effective weapons against the Assad regime. They appear eager to explain that they are under near-constant attack and outgunned, but that they have still managed to score key victories.
So why wouldn't the FSA claim responsibility for effective strikes at security targets in Idlib, a key battleground? Why would the FSA be interested in bombs in Damascus and its suburbs on Fridays --- when large protests are expected --- given that these bombings, and the security response to them, significantly deter protests? Why would the FSA conduct a major terrorist attack against a residential building in Hama on the same day as the regime was in the middle of a massive 3-day escalation of artillery and tank assaults in the area?
Beyond the immediate events, there is a bigger "reality" that is lost. The car bombings and acts of "terrorism", even with the vivid damages and death, are relatively small events in the grand scheme of a violent country. More civilians died in last week's shelling of Hama than in the total of suspected suicide or car bombings since last March. Every headline in every news story that elevates these incidents is a distortion. There may become a time when this is not true, but for now the focus on the "terrorism" is turning detail --- a bloody, tragic detail but still a detail --- into the story
So far, one relatively unknown organization has claimed responsibility for some of these incidents, but the validity of the claims is unknown. If attacks by fringe groups did become a regular reality, it would be a sign that the Syrian opposition is no longer a unified force, that extremists or opposition members on the fringe have escalated the violence, and they are no longer controlled by opposition's leadership. This would serve as evidence that the longer this crisis continues the more likely it is to get even messier. If Syria decays into an Iraq-style free-for-all, where extremists, suicide bombings, and sectarian murder become the rule rather than the exception, then the security of the entire region, as well as the lives of many Syrians, would be sacrificed as the Assad regime and the international community failed to provide stability to a country on the brink.
However, in this 14-month conflict, we have yet to see widespread sectarian killings, or mass terrorism. That is a sign that there is still a lot to salvage in Syria. The situation on the ground is still primarily distinguished by widespread protest and widespread crackdown against that protest. The UN, and the Arab League before that, have been unable to end the violence, a violence that is catalyzed by the Assad regime's bloody resistance to a pro-democracy movement. The opposition has a military wing, but the main threat to Assad is the political opposition to a President who refuses to accept the need for genuine reform.
The Assad regime is not yet faltering to the point where the opposition can topple the regime. The Government may be running out of money, but it can hold on for quite some time, resulting in the deaths of many more civilians and possibly further degradation of the security situation. At the same time, the idea that the regime is capable of ending the conflict --- by negotiation or by force --- has been tested multiple times and has failed.
Reporting of the reality in Syria should not be transfixed on car bombs. It should not be stuck in the refrain about who is responsible for breaking the ceasefire or whether the international monitors are helping. It should look farther to more than a year of experience: the Assad regime is not trustworthy, its militry will not stop killing, and the Free Syria will not stop fighting back. There will be no peace in Syria while the regime is in place, and it will be in place for many months, or maybe longer, without international intervention.
Will intervention help the situation on the ground? Will it bring peace to the region? Will it have negative consequences that are worse than the consequences of inaction? Does the international community have a responsibility to intervene? These are all fair questions. But any conversation about Syria that does not start by accepting basic premises is a conversation based on delusion and false impartiality.The media is clinging to these sentiments because it is trying to report on Syria without taking a position.
This practice is perpetrating the myth that there is a solution to the crisis beyond either intervening or letting Syria decay into civil war. There isn't. Syria is ugly, and it won't get any prettier any time soon. "Car bombs" and "ceasefires" are only the superficial make-up for that ugliness.