Syria Conflict: Developments on the ground and on the international stage

By Dan Tookey

The month of Ramadan is usually a time for festivities and celebration but in Syria there is little to rejoice about.  The United Nations has estimated around 93,000 Syrians have died since the civil war began in 2011 and the number of refugees fleeing the country recently exceeded 1.5 million.

On Wednesday 17 July, the Frontline Club hosted a discussion with four leading journalists to dissect recent developments on the ground in Syria, in the international community and to analyse the role the media has played in reporting the conflict. The event was chaired by the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent Lyse Doucet.

A consensus was made early on that the Syrian conflict has reached an impasse. James Harkin, director of think-tank Flockwatching and a journalist who has covered the Syrian conflict for numerous publications, argued that despite recent media analysis that President Assad is winning the war, the reality is a stalemate:

“On the ground the regime forces are regaining Homs. They may even be able to recapture the whole of Homs, but if they do their combined forces . . . won’t be able to hold the city for very long. There simply aren’t enough government forces to recapture the whole city. As for government forces marching on Aleppo, that is propaganda puff… ”

Patrick Cockburn, a Middle East correspondent for over forty years who has written for the Financial Times and The Independent, agreed with Harkin but focused on how poor reporting has led both governments and the public to have a skewed idea of what is happening on the ground:

“At the beginning of this conflict, the idea of the citizen journalist . . . was taken somehow as being neutral, but it’s not citizen journalists or citizen activists, it’s citizen propaganda. It gave an impression early on that the government was on the verge of defeat. . . . Giving the impression that Assad was going to go down at any time.”

He further argued that no side would gain any “conclusive victory” over the other which will mean no solution for Syria.

“Cutting to the chase, I don’t think there will be successful negotiations. There may be a ceasefire and maybe you can do it in two hops. Until you have a ceasefire you have what we called in Northern Ireland ‘the politics of the last atrocity’ where everyone is so het up about things that no one can really talk until the level of violence is reduced.”

Anthony Loyd, an award-winning writer and current roving foreign correspondent for The Times, concurred with the previous two speakers in that the north of the country has now reached a bloody stalemate, but recent successes by government forces will “make them even more intransigent to negotiations.”

For Dr Halla Diyab, an award-winning screenwriter, producer and broadcaster from Syria, the question of who will win is a relatively unimportant one. What is happening in Syria now is simply war:

“These people have killed what ordinary Syrians want… What we need to work on now is how to end this conflict… We need to strengthen the political opposition in Syria – where are the future Syrian leaders, ministers, MPs? Where are the people who will stand in future elections? The West has to order a ceasefire and bring Assad and the opposition to the negotiating table and find strategies to contain violence and extremism in the country.”

Diyab further opened up the debate by arguing that Syria has now become a proxy war for other countries – Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Russia and America – all weighing in and supporting their own national and ideological interests.

There was disagreement on various issues including on whether and how the rebels should be armed, with reference to the arming of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan as an example of how one can never be sure who one is arming and where the weapons may end up.

Diyab and Harkin also disagreed strongly on the role Salafism is playing in the country, especially with younger Syrians.

The debate finished with all parties predicting a gloomy near future for Syria.