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Two Years of Meta-Narratives: How Not to Cover Syria

[An artistic rendering of Bashar al-Assad, one of the many subtle and thought-provoking images that social media has brought to the fore. ] [An artistic rendering of Bashar al-Assad, one of the many subtle and thought-provoking images that social media has brought to the fore. ]

Bassam Haddad mentioned in his article entitled “The Triumph and Irrelevance of Meta-Narratives Over Syria: “Rohna Dahiyyah” that people writing about Syria are often detached from the pain and realities of the people on the ground. We believe this argument is rather fallacious and unfair. Some of those producing media on Syria have gone the extra mile to get as close to the heart of the issue as they could, encapsulating the complexity of the struggle and giving a voice to the Syrian people who live in constant fear and uncertainty. The following piece profiles a few of those sensitive contributors to the media on the Syrian revolution.

The Amateur Journalist

If he is not kidnapped on his first day of reporting, after mistaking a mukhabarat informant for a taxi driver, the Amateur goes on to send starry-eyed reports from FSA-held Idlib province. His story most likely includes an adrenaline-soaked adventure of running through bullet fire as he crosses the Turkish border with the help of men wearing black scarves with white squiggly lines on them. The article usually follows with this freelancer’s encounter with a local FSA leader (or activist, since these are considered interchangeable) who coincidentally turns out to be in charge of most of the province. This leader's long, scruffy beard contributes to his stoic, battle-worn mystique. The Amateur aims to show the human side of the story. The leader chats with him while nursing to health a stray wounded cat while the leader’s wife, who is wearing a traditional abaya that flows in the wind, refills the would-be journalist’s glass of hot, sticky tea. For two weeks, the mujahid gives the amateur the exclusive inside scoop on the revolutionary democratic system that he and his fellow villagers have implemented. A system where everyone - except of course women, young people, and Alawites - has a voice in deciding the appropriate sentence for those sinful souls who stole bread from the bakery. Yes, the future looks bright for the amateur journalist who chose war-torn Syria for his first beat (we are not counting his summer internship at the North Dakota Times).

The Seasoned Journalist

Probably the most cynical advocate for a Free Syria, the Seasoned Journalist can fart and people will tweet and share it. On a bad day, he can write an article in the comfort of his Beirut mansion with a glass of whisky in one hand and the guilt of his British imperial legacy on the other. His analysis features illuminating claims that brown people - other than his insightful taxi driver, Ahmed - simply lacked the analytical skills to see. Ahh the power of investigative journalism! On a good day, the Seasoned Journo will miraculously find himself where no other member of the press has ever been. Reporting from a government prison, where he interviews incarcerated foreign fighters, he shares his wisdom on the Syrian Revolution: it was entirely hijacked by a foreign hand and the days of peaceful resistance are over. Sometimes he does not even bother to make the trip, throwing in his two cents from across the world instead. This veteran reporter does not have to know what is going on inside Syria to cover it on occasion – it is a sexy topic for the moment, and he does not want to miss out. Besides, a story in which he plays hero might just get the necessary mobilization for his personally prescribed path to Syrian democracy. Showing off his Arabic by a generous sprinkling of the words habibi and shabiha in his reporting, as well as his fetishizing and in depth knowledge of political Islam (he once visited a mosque in Pakistan and he follows Mona Eltahawy on Twitter), he is in an ideal position to make rational and enlightened comments on the future of Syria. After providing a more comprehensive overview of the situation of the ground using an embellished version of the amateur’s account, the seasoned journalist concludes his article grimly and definitively: the “Lion of Damascus” and his regime are bad but so is the opposition; Syria is bound to be a repeat of Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the Balkans.

The Syrian-American FSA Revolutionary

The Syrian-American FSA Revolutionary's maternal great-grandmother was born in Damascus and immigrated to the US in her childhood. Since the beginning of the uprising, the revolutionary reminisces on Twitter about those two summers spent at his teta's house in the Shaam, where he would chase his cousins under the olive trees as the call to prayer emanated from the Umayyad mosque. This Revolutionary makes you look twice -- you may think he is reporting to you live from Aleppo, with his tweets every three minutes describing the situation on the ground with exacting detail and certainty, but after a few weeks, you find out he is actually broadcasting from the messy and chaotic battleground of his college dorm room in Chicago. His preferred news sources include "my second cousin Abu Mohammed in Homs," the Syrian Revolution Facebook page, blurry and unverified YouTube videos, and "#Syria" on Twitter. His "confirmed" reportage of events is retweeted religiously by his 5,272 followers, and even if his assertions are later contradicted, he rarely follows up: he is too busy hoisting his revolution flag at fundraisers for Syria with unverified recipients. The Revolutionary mocks the piss-poor media coverage of Syria, as he believes deeply in the importance of disseminating leaked naked pictures of Asmaa al-Assad, ridiculously good looking Syrian rebels nuzzling kittens, Bashar wearing different wigs, and other essential topics.

The Fumigating Anti-Imperialist

Quoting those early revolution polls that showed that Syrians were favorable to the Syrian government, the Fumigating Anti-Imperialist is hopeful that Bashar will manage to protect his people against terrorism, sectarianism, and the inter-galactic Western-Zionist-GCC conspiracy. After all, the Syrian government is the champion of Arab resistance and its policies have been historically consistent with the anti-normalization of Israel. It seems surreal (and so suspicious!), that out of the blue, Syrians would start rising against the valiant leadership of Bashar al-Assad. The anti-imperialist thus mocks the self-proclaimed experts engaged in ex-post facto rationalization with neoliberal undertones. Unemployment, growing inequality, and corruption are all consequences of the uprising, not preceding it. Such misunderstandings are the result of the propaganda war launched against the stalwart resistance. The Anti-Imperialist pays attention to the hidden meanings and semantics behind Bashar’s conciliatory speeches, which are constantly distorted and cherry picked by the malicious foreign media. Take for instance the coverage of Homs: the army merely had to go in to cleanse Baba Amro from its terrorists, but it was falsely portrayed as some sort of bloody besieging. Despite some unfortunate collateral damage, Bashar is still quite popular with the “silent majority,” including the Damascene urbanites, the wealthy, and those who-shall-not-be-named living in Mezze 86. The anti-imperialist tut tuts at those few poor, foolish Syrians who have joined the opposition, disappointingly seduced by the allure of sectarian rhetoric and funding from al-Qaeda. They ruined decades of carefully designed nation-state building under the Baath party that for so long had provided freedom, stability, and progress for the Syrian people and their Arab neighbors.

The Beltway Analyst

The Beltway Analyst on Syria need not be fluent in Arabic; it suffices to be intimately familiar with US foreign policy and speak the language of international expertise. Whether Syrian or not, his Western education is what grants him the proper credentials to speak with more insight about the events on the ground than those inside the country. His authority is so all-encompassing that both Washington insiders and the shabiha take great notes from his prophetic blog. He is a moral compass and is quoted declaring the revolution's consummate “turning,” “tipping,” and "breaking" point every month or so. However, the Beltway Analyst is not as conclusive as the seasoned journalist. He is too aware of international strategies to be moved by the plight of problematic lefties and a few casualties. He is not emotional and irrational like the rest: when he changes his mind about the conflict, it involves an objective, informed, and calculated evaluation of the situation. When he is not out cashing in on people’s suffering and "centuries-old religious struggles," the Beltway Analyst attends those modest dinners held between Paris, Istanbul, and Marrakesh to carve out -- I mean, sort out divisions in Syria. To hell with pesky insiders, what Syria needs is detached political leadership and cold, technocratic expertise. Women, Kurds, and political organizers inside Syria who risked their lives, rest assured--once the regime is overthrown, we will figure out a space to discuss your demands.

The Activist

"Activist” has become quite the buzzword since March 2011, as media outlets who were barred entry into Syria found it more appealing and succinct than “anonymous-Syrian-whose-Skype-name-we-got-from-some-guy-in-London.” The activist will speak with you live from a besieged city and to enhance the spectacle, add a few burning tires to the decor to cover up the impasse in the shelling. Beyond his qualities as a media entrepreneur - he has six twitter accounts, four nicknames and fourteen Facebook groups- the activist is the most lucid of all the types enumerated above. If he has not already left to fight along the FSA because he is disillusioned with protests, six-point plans, and multilateral negotiations, he is with them at least in thought. Tweeting from his home in exile in Europe or the US, he fantasizes about the marvelous work of cold-headed American freedom fighters and expresses his guilt over not staying back with those who could not afford getting smuggled outside the country and that are stuck in Zaatari refugee camp. While they bemoan the SNC, in practice they have a similar, pragmatic rhetoric: let’s get rid of Assad first, by whatever means, and talk about other problems later (critiquing abuses from the opposition will only be counter-productive).

Although the aforementioned characters of the Syrian revolution are engaged in a heated debate and often disagree with one another, there is no doubt that their ideas are meant to move forward a peaceful resolution of the conflict. With such cheerleading for the Syrian cause, one can only conclude that it is Syrians who have not done enough to help themselves.

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