A recent commentary by Erica Chenoweth paints a particularly dark picture for the people of Syria. In her post, she argues that the Syrian government is favouring the use of its air force to target rebel-held villages, in an attempt to weaken the opposition in these areas. The result of this counter-insurgency tactic is the indiscriminate killing of civilian populations whose geographical locations are shared with opposition groups. Chenoweth concludes that “the longer the armed struggle continues in Syria… the more frequent these mass killing tactics will become”.
What struck me the most from this commentary was the rightful and uncommon use of the phrase “mass killing” to describe what is happening in Syria. For as long as the Syrian conflict has been rattling the grounds of the Middle East, there has been a very cautious approach by the media and international organizations as to what words to use to describe the undeniable tragedy, which unfolds daily in Syria. The Guardian is a good example of such publication. While announcing that Kofi Annan had resigned as UN Special Envoy to Syria, The Guardian reported that what was happening in Syria “was morphing into a civil war”, while nonetheless acknowledging that an “estimated 20,000 lives” had been lost. Similarly, while reporting on the same news, the CBC was fast to recognize Syria’s “escalating violence”, but unlike The Guardian’s article, made no reference to the war’s death toll.
What is worth noting from these statements is that, by saying the situation in Syria was “morphing” into a civil war and violence was “escalating”, the publications willingly or not, downplay the gravity of the armed struggle, and lessen the rationale for governments to intervene. Under no condition should a publication of this nature dilute the fact that, whether there is civil war or not in Syria, there are individuals who are being systematically murdered by one of the sides of the conflict.
This thought may seem farfetched, but one must remember that decision-makers, researchers, practitioners, and above all, the public, inform their decisions in the face of humanitarian crises based, at least in part, on what the media reports. What kind of response can one expect from governments whose citizens believe that intervention is not needed in the first place? With ill-informed individuals, there is less pressure coming from constituents to start debates on foreign crises at the legislative level, hence decreasing the likelihood for intervention. Let us hope local media outlets do not become another obstacle to stop the ongoing mass killing in Syria, to use Chenoweth’s words.