As 25 January 2016 approaches, it is not just the fighting on the ground that is intensifying, it is also the war of words. This is the date set by the UN to start international peace talks in Geneva between all parties involved in Syria’s war, including the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, together with their respective key backers Russia and Iran, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The much publicised ‘starve or surrender siege’ in Madaya is the latest example of the media battle.
No western journalists were allowed in to cover the story of the international aid convoys reaching the besieged town, but a Russian journalist was on hand to give his version of events, duly reported on Russian TV:
He accused the rebels of keeping earlier deliveries of aid for themselves and selling it at inflated prices to the starving civilians.
This version of events was backed up by the Syrian government’s own spokesman at the UN:
http://sana.sy/en/?p=66404 He denied there were people starving in Madaya.
The BBC’s Lyse Doucet was not allowed in, so did the next best thing of interviewing Syrians who were protesting against the Madaya siege at the Lebanese border crossing, some of whom had relations inside the blockaded town. They tell a different story:
Western media generally focussed on the pictures of the starving children and interviews with local people trapped inside, as did the anti-Assad Gulf news channels like Al-Arabiya, though they also mentioned the rebel siege of the two Shi’a villages of Kafraya and Al- Foua’a in Idlib province which received simultaneous convoys of food aid yesterday, 11 January 2016.
The true picture becomes ever cloudier and more confused and unless we have first-hand knowledge of our own, all our perceptions of a faraway situation are inevitably shaped by whatever media we choose to read, hear or watch.
A UN Security Council resolution adopted in December set out an ambitious two-year roadmap for the upcoming peace talks, in which a new Syrian constitution will be drafted, followed by Syrian elections. The issue of the fate of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad remains unaddressed, as everyone knows this is the thorniest problem. The immediate aim of the Geneva talks is for all concerned parties to agree a ceasefire.
In the run-up to the talks, every side will be doing its utmost to slander and attack the other, militarily and verbally. We should expect ugly battles of words and violent atrocities. The Syrian government is demanding to see in advance the list of opposition figures who will be attending, a list arrived at with Jordanian help and coordinated by Riad Hijab, chosen to head the opposition negotiating body. A 50 year old Sunni from Deir Ez-Zour, he was briefly prime minister under Assad, before becoming the most senior figure to defect to the opposition in 2012. The hope is that he can straddle both camps, except there are not just two camps, there are many, including the Kurds, who also want a seat at the table in Geneva. ISIS and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra are not invited.
If all relevant parties actually make it to the table, it will be a miracle, a major achievement by Syria peace envoy Staffan De Mistura who is shuttling between Riyadh, Damascus and Tehran, in a fevered rush to make sure the date is met.
My advice to anyone following the build-up is to choose your media carefully. Maybe do the same as a Franciscan nun I met recently, who has spent a total of 23 years in Syria, including 6 years in Raqqa. When I asked her what media she followed, she replied:
“I watch the pro-Assad Al-Mayadeen and the anti-Assad Al-Jazeera. Then I know that the truth is somewhere in the middle.”