Syria's War of Narratives

Journalists who reported from the killing fields of Daraya find themselves caught in the crossfire of accusations as the regime and the rebels blame each other for last week's massacre.

The appalling tragedy that occurred last week in the town of Daraya just outside of Damascus, where more than 300 people were slaughtered, set off a journalistic war of a kind not seen in a long time. The "heroine" was Michelene Azar, a reporter for Al Dounia, a TV station owned by Bashar Assad's cousin, Rami Makhlouf. Azar, married to one of the heads of Syria's political intelligence network, was the first reporter to come to Daraya after the massacre in order to present the Syrian "truth."

Maneuvering around the corpses, Azar found a survivor and in cold, harsh tones, asked her, "What did the terrorists do to you?" "Terrorists" is the term the regime uses for the members of the Free Syrian Army. She then turned to a four-year-old girl lying next to her dead mother, and asked: "Who is that lying next to you?" "It's my mommy," the devastated child answered. "Do you know who did this to you?" "No," wailed the little girl.

Not one word of sorrow or sympathy came from the interviewer who concluded her reportage by comparing a dead girl to Mohammed al-Dura, who was killed in Gaza at the start of the second intifada. "Now the Syrians, too, have their Mohammed al-Dura, but the Syrian al-Dura was killed by terrorists," she declared.

The day after this perverse coverage, the social media were inundated with curses and taunts aimed at the reporter and the Al Dounia network, which last week "won" an exclusive interview with Bashar Assad. The renowned Syrian director Haitham Haki wrote on his Facebook page: "This reporter comes to the horror of the massacre to dig into the bleeding wound with her ugly knife of a microphone and an unbelievable level of insanity. Did we really live among these beasts of prey? Did we breathe the same air?"

In an unprecedented move, the Free Syrian Journalists Association contacted UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund ) to complain of child abuse on the part of Azar. On many journalists' Facebook pages and YouTube, Azar's piece was shared under the title of "The interview by Satan's reporter in the town of Daraya." A special Facebook page calling for her to be put on trial explains that "The Shabiha [bully of the regime] Michelene Azar, with polish as red as the blood of the martyrs decorating her nails, the one who presented the victims as terrorists, must be included on the list of war criminals and be tried in a just court of law after the revolution's victory."

It's hard to know what exactly caused the anger: the fact of the reportage and the filming of the dead bodies, or Azar's effort to determine that the killers were members of the Free Syrian Army. Photographs of dead bodies and horrendous atrocities have accompanied the revolution from its start. Amateur Syrian photographers documenting the Syrian army's attacks and distributing them via a media nerve center working out of Lebanon have already shown pictures at least as disturbing as those shot in Daraya. But in the war over image and the construction of blame, any damage to the narrative of the Free Syrian Army and the stalwarts of the revolution is a strategic blow in the military confrontation itself. Therefore, whoever gets to the scene first to document and disseminate gains a tremendous advantage in Arab and international public opinion.

Fisk surprises

The struggle for the narrative is not directed only against the regime's own media. Last week, the famed British journalists Robert Fisk, who writes for The Independent, reported on his own experience in Daraya. Fisk, who doesn't shy from life-threatening assignments, was the first foreign journalist to arrive in Daraya with the help of the Syrian army, which accompanied him. He said that based on interviews he managed to do with civilians away from the supervision of Syrian soldiers, a different narrative emerged.

According to Fisk, the Daraya massacre began with the abductions of civilians and Syrian soldiers on leave carried out by members of the Free Syrian Army in response to the arrest of their comrades-in-arms by the regime's forces. There were negotiations between the sides about a hostage swap, but these failed and the Syrian army decided to apply massive force. Residents who spoke with Fisk said that even before the army entered the town, there were dozens of dead bodies in city streets, mostly Syrian army soldiers on leave but "even one mailman [who] was murdered because he's considered a civil servant."

One woman said that armed men wearing hooded jackets broke into her house. She hurried to greet and embrace them so they wouldn't murder everyone at home. Another witness said his house had been confiscated to serve as a base for the Free Syrian Army.

Fisk admits that given the circumstances under which he visited the town, it's hard to undertake a serious investigative report. But this description was enough to turn the rebels against him. The head of the Local Coordination Committee in Daraya hurried to post a talkback to Fisk's piece in The Independent saying: "Mr. Fisk is a world-famous journalist known for his balanced opinion pieces and ground-breaking reports especially from the Middle East. The people of Syria especially remember Fisk for being the first foreign reporter to enter the city of Hama after the 1982 massacre and relate to the world the horrors he saw there. Thus, we were absolutely astonished by the above-mentioned report and would like to make sure that certain points in it are not left uncorrected."

The committee member went on to explain that the people who carried out the killings of the relatives of the people interviewed were regular Syrian army soldiers and not members of the Free Syrian Army. Fisk, he said, should have known that "the fear and intimidation of witnesses is reflected sometimes in their refusal to name a guilty side," and finally that "the revolution committee would finally like to stress also that Mr. Fisk did not meet any member of the opposition in Daraya."

The "war over the truth" must be taken into account when one tries to analyze events in Syria. Neither side is made up of saints. The war of the narratives is important not only because it helps us understand the events themselves, but primarily because it helps us understand the kind of settling of scores we can expect in Syria after one of the sides emerges victorious.