As the ongoing atrocities in Syria fail to garner much public attention, Phillippa White examines the apparent media blackout and the international reaction to the crisis
Syria is in a state of turmoil and uncertainty. Internally, there is a divided population who, aroused by the revolts of their Arabneighbours last year, are increasingly yearning for the democratic seeds of change. The grip that its President, Bashar al-Assad has on the country is tenuous, although seemingly not sufficiently so to bring about a hasty collapse of his regime. Outside of Syria, affairs are equally complicated. The vast majority of the West are staunchly anti-Assad but intervention is proving difficult. A UN Security Council resolution on the subject of an intervention was vetoed at the beginning of this month by both China and Russia, thus leaving the West temporarily impotent in the midst of the crisis.
The media coverage of the civil war in Syria is markedly different from that surrounding the events that unfolded in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in the last two years. Rather than being an indicator of a disinterested world however, it is a reflection of a more embroiled and disordered battle that is occurring. For a start, Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Gaddafi had a strong and focused opposition. In Syria however, the discordant cries of revolt are coming from the scattered collection of voices of gangs, militias, and soldiers who have defected from the regime. They are not united, no leader has prevailed among the rebels, and even if a strong opposition existed they would certainly be unable to match the Syrian army in terms of numbers or armaments. Thanks to a combination of conscripts and superior arms, Assad will likely remain in control for the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, unlike in Egypt and the other countries of the Arab Spring, Assad has some key alliances that make intervention from outside the country extremely challenging. Russia’s veto of the Security Council resolution in early February was not motivated by some noble ambition to respect Syria’s sovereignty, but out of personal interest. Syria houses Russia’s only naval base outside of the country, and if the UN were to intervene and topple Assad, Russia’s possession of this base would be jeopardised.
Although trade restrictions have been put in place – American exports are no longer reaching Syria and Europe is no longer importing Syrian oil – the Russian-Chinese veto has indisputably created a hurdle for people in the West, who are demanding dramatic and immediate interference.
To add another twist to this already complex plot, Assad also has a convenient alliance with the Iranian government. Speculation abounds that Iran has piped money into Assad’s failing regime and it would be a gross understatement to say that Iran desires a free, democratic Syrian state next door to it. Without going into further detail, it is sufficient to say that the Iranian involvement creates another treacherous dimension for anyone contemplating getting involved in this mire.
It may seem like there is less political and indeed media attention being paid to the civil war in Syria, particularly when you compare it to the hype that surrounded the Arab Spring revolutions last year. However, to be under the impression that the world has grown fatigued and bored of the seemingly relentless instability in the Middle East would be misguided. While everyone knew and indeed was interested in what was going on in Egypt during the fall of Mubarak, this was thanks to a few unforgettable moments during the protests in Tahrir Square that were captured on camera phones and uploaded and shared across the internet almost instantaneously. Unfortunately for the Syrian revolutionaries, few cinematic snippets of their efforts are available to us because of the danger involved for the foreign press entering the country at the time. In other words, it is not because the press are not interested in the Syrian war, it would appear that it is just too dangerous and too difficult for them to cover it.
The lack of media coverage is forgivable to a degree, but it would appear that the absence of more forceful interference by the outside world is beyond excusable. On average fifty citizens are being killed daily by their own government in Syria. These are citizens who are fighting for some of their most fundamental democratic rights and paying for it with their lives.
Russia and China may have created a stumbling block for the UN resolution, but we need not look back far in the history books to be reminded of how little heed some of the global powers actually pay to these agreements. Some think that to ignore the Russian-Chinese veto would be dangerously absurd, but with the kind of manpower and resources at Assad’s disposal and the vulnerability of the people trapped in his regime, it seems that to leave Syria to its own devices for much longer would be equally senseless.