A Whole Lot of Lost Legitimacy in Syria

Can all the stories coming from the refugee camps be believed?

The big picture is Syria is clear, it is the details that has prompted unanswered questions, speculation and blind belief by many in the west. The protests in Syria have become deadly on a mass scale with over 1,400 killed and 10,000 imprisoned by the Assad regime and it seems as though the deadly situation is only starting. Beyond the basic foundation of the conflict, there has been very little verifiable information coming from the country, thanks to the government’s policy of monopolizing the official flow of information from Syria by prohibiting the entrance of foreign journalists. Yet it seems both sides have used the media blackout to push their own exaggerated stories and narratives onto the international community.

Few doubt the viciousness of the Assad regime. The few veritable stories coming out of the country, in addition to the various videos and audio recordings that have made their way to the internet, have proven that the Assad regime and its security apparatus are willing to do whatever it takes to put down the uprising that has only grown with each murdered protester. International observers have every reason to opine about Assad’s lost legitimacy and to push for the beleaguered leader to step down, stop the government sanctioned violence against civilians and to start a true democratic reform. Thus far, the international community has generally accepted the stories of the opposition at face value while condemning the government’s version as fabrication and propaganda. It seems now, though, that the protest movement is pushing its own fabricated line as well.

Indeed, the inability for international reporters to confirm the claims of both the opposition and the government has made it absolutely impossible to weed out the truth from the lies and exaggerations of messy conflict:

A striking feature of the crisis has been the absence of reliable information about the situation. No one outside Syria really knows in detail what is happening. This has allowed all sorts of rumours to circulate, some of them plainly false. This is because the regime has forbidden foreign journalists from entering the country. This prohibition has backfired against the government in many ways, as it has allowed the protesters to influence opinion outside the country by means of Facebook and videos taken by mobile phones, and so forth.

The prohibition of international reporters has also backfired in a second way, by allowing members of the opposition spin stories to the world. Despite the claims of the opposition, it seems, particularly in the Jisr regions, that there is an armed opposition movement – the armed gangs referred to by the government – fighting against the government.

While the big controversy this past week has been the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus‘ hoax (the blog author turned out to be an American man, angering and possibly endangering others in the LBGT community in the region), the real hoax may be the ‘news’ coming from Syrian refugees concerning what occurred in Jisr al-Shughur last week. The government announced that 120 soldiers were ambushed and killed by armed gangs; the opposition has claimed that soldiers within the Syrian army refused to carry out orders and were massacred by the army. In any event, the deaths prompted the military to send in a massive force of thousands of troops backed by armed helicopters and tanks to crush the uprising in the north-west of Syria, causing around 18,000 Syrians to flee the area towards Turkey.

The evidence that is available shows no evidence of an internal mutiny within Syrian ranks and the government has released phone recordings (taken with a grain of salt) of opposition members discussing the best way to spin the ambush of soldiers in the media. To confuse the situation even further, it is unlikely that 120 soldiers were actually killed; graves containing the bodies of only 10 men have been found, leading some to conclude that the fighting in Jisr al-Shughur was in fact between government forces and an armed opposition. Moreover, both the opposition and the government are claiming that the other side is killing farm animals and burning farmland of civilians who refused to condemn the other side. The government has released several interviews (again, grain of salt) with people from the Jisr region while the opposition has released their version through fleeing refugees.

The claim that soldiers have been deserting the army en masse also seems to be a gross exaggeration by the opposition. I have already covered the stories of a lieutenant and the Syrian ambassador to France, but it the fake defections continue:

Despite all talk of army defections, we really have to remember that, until recently at least, they remained minor and would not pose a serious threat to the regime. In the few instances when the number of defectors amounted to few dozens, defectors simply tried to play a protective role of the local population rather than going on the offensive.

The opposition is clearly trying to spin a story of a brutal government viciously cracking down on a peaceful opposition despite the crumbling of the military through defections. The government, on the other hand, tells a story of armed gangs terrorizing the civilians of Syria who only want to live in peace. As far as details go, it seems as though the only thing that is sure is that nothing can be taken at face value. Given that the Syrian uprising has been born out of the successes of the largely moral and non-violent protests in Tunisia and Egypt and that the Syrian regime is hardly a bastion of truth and goodness, it seems logical to assume that those fighting for equal rights and democracy are telling the truth. The truth, however, is simply hidden amongst the exaggerations and propagandistic narratives of both the regime and the opposition.

Personally, I have no problems believing many of the stories told by the opposition. There is no element in the government which, for me, throws doubt onto the stories of murder, torture, unwarranted arrest and illegal detainment. While the brutality of the Syrian government is one of the most believable stories in Syria, the issue of mass defections – an attempt to portray a weakening government – are little more than propaganda by the opposition. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the Syrian government is going to allow foreign press into the country anytime soon – a sign itself that perhaps many, but not all, of the opposition story lines are true. Consequently, the international community will need to weed through the stories of the government and the opposition to find the truth. Unfortunately, while the Assad regime is certainly breaking the country apart, not all of what it says is bound to be untrue.

Photo from the Guardian

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