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Knowledge and Power: How the Friends of the Syrian People Group is Orientalising Syria

March 14, 2012

Political analyst Sharmine Narwine published a series of articles on the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar which shook the foundations of the prevailing narrative about the events unfolding in Syria. In one of these pieces she questions the uncritical assumption that the list of casualties presented as the victims of the repression of Assad regime are entirely civilians. When she looked into the identity of those included in the list of casualties, it turned out that some of the people are members of the Syrian army whereas some other belong to the constellation of militias which compose the Syrian armed opposition. Apart from warning us from identifying the casualties identified with civilian victims, she also questions the accuracy of such lists whose collection is extremely difficult when violent fighting are taking place. In another article she shows the inaccurate  use satellite images used by CNN as evidence of the violence of the regime. When she compared the images with Google maps it turned out that the snapshot actually refer to a neighborhood which is known to be pro-regime: hardly therefore an evidence of one-sided violence. When she tried to have these articles published in an American newspaper her offer was indirectly declined: they did not fit into the narrative proposed by the Friend of Syria coalition. A narrative which according to Narwine postulates a clear cut difference between victims – any member of the opposition – and perpetuators – any person affiliated to the regime.

The concept of orientalist discourse as elaborated by Edward Said in his ground-breaking book “Orientalism” can shed light on the theoretical underpinnings of the mainstream narrative about Syria and the selective choice of information. In particular some concepts can explain how and why the narrative of Good Opposition vs. Evil Regime takes place.

How. The discourse articulated by classic orientalism hinges upon a binary opposition between the West and the rest, in this case the Orient. Such clear-cut contraposition is reproduced by the Friends of the Syrian People on a local level: the division between the Opposition and the Regime. The tendency here is to create two monolithic structures which impose to everybody involved to take a stand: either with or against the opposition. As this discourse essentializes and homogenizes what are in reality fluid and heterogeneous realities the concept of the Syrian opposition become totalitarian: no space for civilians which could be against and in favor of the opposition at the same time.

Another orientalist technique which is adopted in the discourse about Syria today is the tendency to use preexisting categories to present the main actors involved and to derive the actions that each actor will take from the category itself. In the case of Syria this works roughly like this: the Syrian opposition is the collection of individuals who fight for freedom and dignity against an oppressive regime; it follows that they cannot be involved in killing civilians; it is only the regime, which by definition is against its own population, which is expected to kill civilians. Expectations are quick to turn into facts: in other words the categories of Opposition and Regime are not formulated according to the actions observed on the ground but it is the facts which are shaped to fit in the preexisting categories. What facilitates such attitude is the fact that very few journalists are on the ground to ascertain the facts whereas most of the information are collected by second-hand informers. However, given the prevailing discourse, only those witness who confirm the prevailing narratives are given airtime by Western media.

Why. Knowledge and power explains why this discourse takes place. As Said illustrated, the politics of British Empire in the Middle East as articulated by Lord Balfour was premised on the fact that England knows Egypt better than anything else. The knowledge is tantamount to have authority over the country; and to have authority implies the denial of its autonomy. When applied to Syria and before it to Libya this line of thoughts goes like this: the West knows the country; the country is what the West knows of it; the West knows that the regime is repressive and violent and will not let go anytime soon; furthermore the regime is a residual of the authoritarian past which strides against modern democratic forces; given the democratic nature of the West its intervention is necessary to allow the country to escape its past – authoritarian – and reach its present – democratic. The knowledge of the country is therefore functional to make the intervention of the West necessary.

The tendency of the Friends of Syrian People coalition to orientalize Syria does not by itself deny the reality that civilians are killed by the regime. However,  presenting the reality as Opposition vs. Regime and polarizing the actors involved can have two serious risks:

i)                    it can disenfranchise those part of the civil populations which do not support the Assad regime but dread the toppling of the regime if this happens through foreign intervention, be that backed by the Turkish or by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

ii)                  it establishes a priori that the only possible solutions are the fall or the persistence of the Assad regime. More nuanced and practical solutions such a negotiated transition proposed by the International Crisis Group (which comprises the establishment of a process of transitional justice and national reconciliation that reassures Syrian constituencies alarmed by the dual prospect of tumultuous change and violent score-settling) which could save the lives of civilians are excluded.

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