The presence of the Syrian conflict in the international, especially the British, news has fluctuated wildly. For weeks after the fall of eastern Aleppo – or its liberation (you hear the dual language already) - Syria almost vanished from the airwaves, after months in which air strikes and barrel bombs and civilian casualties had been a staple of the nightly news.
For the past month, the war has been back on our screens with a vengeance, as Syrian government forces – backed, we are told by Russian air support – try to defeat (or liberate) east Ghouta, the last rebel enclave near Damascus. “Our” reports, from doctors and others on the inside, speak of government forces trying to bomb a largely civilian population of nearly half a million into submission.
Every now and again come claims that Syrian government forces are using chemical weapons – chlorine gas is most frequently mentioned. These reports may be supported by footage, usually amateur video footage, of children coughing uncontrollably, or lying apparently lifeless, but outwardly undamaged. Ministers get up in Parliament trying in vain to generate enthusiasm for some unspecified military action, but – as they know - such reports are nigh impossible to verify. At a distance it is impossible to know the truth of what is going on.
But the difficulty is not only this. It is that, as the conflict has worn on and become even more complicated than it initially was, two distinct and quite different versions have developed. There is “ours”, and there is “theirs”. According to “ours”, the Syrian government, backed by Russia, is determined to bomb its way to a military victory with a view to destroying all opposition and restoring the undemocratic regime of before.
According to “theirs”, the very concept of a legitimate and moderate opposition to Assad is little more than fantasy. For “them”, “opposition to Bashar al-Assad was always tied up with, and beholden, to “terrorists” with diverse allegiances – from Islamic State to al-Qua’ida – whose war-mongering, if not stopped, would either bring a fundamentalist Islamic regime to power, or leave Syria dismembered and on the brink of Iraq- or Libya-style anarchy.
There is next to no meeting of minds. The West largely subscribes to the first view, Russia and the Syrian government to the other. Each side believes that in intervening – whatever form that intervention takes – it is doing “God’s” work. I would add, though, that there is a strong undercurrent, you could call it almost a dissident strain of thinking, in the UK, at least, which is at odds with the official consensus.
Proponents of this view include people such as the journalist, John Pilger and the film-maker, Vanessa Beeley, who might almost be described as professional dissidents, but also a politics professor at Edinburgh University, Tim Hayward, the specialist Middle East journalists Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn - and, in a small way also myself.
To varying degrees we reject, or at very least distrust, the dominant official narrative, which appears designed at once to get the UK and other Western countries more directly involved and to thwart or discredit Russia, including its efforts to initiate a peace process. The social media allows these “alternative” views to gain more currency than they might otherwise have.
I would single out three particular topics that are symptomatic of the divide; areas where the two versions clash most fiercely. One is the activity of the “White Helmets”; another is the story of Aleppo; and the third is the question of peace talks.
The White Helmets are widely lauded as an immensely brave group of civilian volunteers who rush to the scene of the latest air strike to rescue the victims, especially children, at great personal risk. All this may be true, but what is not declared in the hagiographic film about their work in eastern Aleppo, or in most Western journalistic reports, or their own publicity, is that they are rather generously funded by the US and the UK, which also helped with their training. Questions have also been asked about the veracity of some of their film. At very least, there is a propagandistic aspect to the way their work is presented that sits uneasily with altruistic motivation. Some of us felt similar misgivings about the Tweets supposedly put out by seven year-old Bana from besieged eastern Aleppo.
The after-story of Aleppo is a second point of contention. As the siege was about to be broken, there dark forecasts circulated in the Western media of imminent massacres, lynchings and retribution. There were reports of many bodies already in the streets. These were false, but they have never been corrected. Instead, reports from eastern Aleppo simply ceased. As little was said about post-siege life in the east as had previously been said about how the rest of the city had been functioning with a degree of normality throughout.
What is now emerging – though it has been the subject of few Western reports – is that when Syrian government forces entered eastern Aleppo, fighters and their families were given safe passage out of the city; mostly to Idlib, which was in the hands of anti-Assad rebels. Any clashes or interruption to the evacuation mostly reflected disagreements among the rebel fighters.
The absence of subsequent reports about eastern Aleppo in the Western media would seem to reflect a state of relative order and calm – i.e. almost the opposite of what happened in Baghdad after US forces arrived. Had there been mayhem in Aleppo, we would surely have heard about it. It remains to be seen how Syrian forces will handle the end of the siege of east Ghouta, but Aleppo suggests the need not to prejudge things.
The third area of contention has been peace talks, or more accurately talks about peace talks. Russian efforts to convene all sides in the war, including representatives of neighbouring countries, such as Turkey and Iran, have struggled, largely because the US and the UK have discouraged (to put it mildly) their proxy rebel groups from attending.
“Our” version is that Russia’s “peace efforts” are merely an attempt to keep Assad in power at all costs, and that his departure must still be a precondition for peace. “Their” version is that there can be no solution without Assad, and that his fate should be decided in elections. Meanwhile a parallel, but potentially complementary, UN peace effort is making little progress, and the blood continues to flow in Ghouta.
The persistence of these two self-contained, and diametrically opposed, narratives about what is going on in Syria, and why, is one reason why the conflict refuses to end. There may be a consensus that Assad has “won”, in the sense that he is still in power, albeit with less territory under his control. But so long as the two versions of events continue in parallel, with no overlap whatsoever, the prospects for an early end to the conflict look remote, and the risks of a direct US-Russia confrontation in the region only grow.