Day 1,142: Why it's hard to know how to write about the Syrian conflict



Zein al-Rifai

Today is Day 1,142 of the Syria conflict.

Why it's tough to know how to write, and how to read, about Syria

Earlier this morning Syria's state television reported that two car bombs in the central province of Hama had killed 18 people, including 11 children. This was presumably the work of rebels, and that's certainly what the government has said (the government calls rebels "terrorists," but that's what it means).

How do you report an event like this? If you're reporting news, then you report roughly what's stated above. That's the "news," and that's what you'll see on most of the wires.

But now let's switch over from the writer's side to the reader's side. As a reader, does your perception of that news change when you learn that by far the bigger body count in the past 24 hours came through a government attack, not a rebel attack? Yesterday afternoon, the Syrian government bombed a market in a rebel-held district of Aleppo, killing at least 33, though the Aleppo Media Center's count is higher, at 40. The images from the scene (above and below) show clearly the civilian nature of the target, and show destruction on a shocking scale — all the more shocking when one considers that the Syrian regime has defter weapons at its disposal than the crude barrel bombs that were likely used. Speaking of barrel bombs and Aleppo, don't forget the one the regime dropped the day before, as previously mentioned on this blog. It hit an elementary school.

(Zein al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images)


(Khaled Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)


(Khaled Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

(Khaled Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

(Zein al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images)

The sad truth at this point is that, in past months, both the Syrian government and the opposition have been displaying increasingly little concern for civilian casualties — in a conflict that has already racked up an appalling number of civilian deaths. Patrick J. McDonnell for the LA Times added that context in his writeup of the Hama car bombs, adding: "The recent attacks fit a pattern that has become familiar [...] Rebels fighting to oust the government of President Bashar Assad use car bombs and mortars to target areas under government control. Government forces, meantime, use aerial bombardment and artillery to strike rebel-held zones in the northern city of Aleppo and elsewhere."

While we're on this subject, The Washington Post has a helpful explainer on why it's so hard even to count the dead in Syria. (A topic we pointed out yesterday with the different counts for the elementary school bombing.)

Now on to the rest of the day's news ...

The good (sort of): Apparently the ongoing will-they-or-won't-they truce in Homs is back on, in the sense that activists say the regime will allow opposition fighters to fall back to opposition-held northern areas of the city. The government is still more or less starving them out, though, and government forces will take control of the territory the rebels have vacated. So really it's more of a negotiated surrender of territory than anything else. 

The bad: Video has emerged that appears to show that at least one British citizen in Syria has participated in a war crime. The video, Sky News reports, shows masked men executing a man said to be an Assad loyalist, and whom the men accuse of having killed four rebels and raped a woman. How do we know it's a British citizen involved in the killing? Researchers at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization say one of the men's build, clothing, and accessories match that of a "man seen speaking English with a London accent' in other videos posted by the same group, Rayat al Tawheed. The group is thought to be mainly composed of British fighters, and is affiliated with the jihadist group ISIS, one of the most extreme of the groups opposing Assad in Syria.

The ugly: Speaking of ISIS, you may recall the crucifixion trend mentioned earlier this week, the latest in ISIS's consistently disgusting methods of displaying the body or body parts of executed enemies. CNN now has a longer story on that, for those who are interested.

And the dispiriting: Head over to The Guardian for a piece on the expected resignation of UN special envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and the search to replace him. Key sentence: "Diplomats working on Syria admit privately that they feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis, the despair about making any progress, and the new complications caused by rising tensions between Russia and the west over Ukraine."

The conflict continues.