Spectacles of war and the battle for public opinion

Spectacles of war and the battle for public opinion
5 min read
07 Sep, 2015
Comment: Images of violence have shaped international policy on Syria, though they have yet to inspire the public to demand an end to the war.
Vigils were held around the world after Aylan's story became global news [Getty]

In March 2011, stories of the torture and death of boys in Daraa at the hands of the Syrian regime sparked what began as a peaceful uprising.

Among those, the photos of Hamza Ali al-Khatib - whose mutilated corpse was found covered in cigarette burns, his neck broken, his penis cut off - fuelled protests demanding the regime be held accountable for such brutal acts against 13-year-old boys in custody.

Having recently been jolted by the toppling of several neighbouring regimes, the images were sufficient to shift public opinion in Syria.

The 2011 images were mostly effective locally within Syria.

Today, these powerful spectacles can add one more image to their pantheon, that of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose body was found on a Turkish shore.

The spectacle of the drowned Syrian child has caused outrage across the world - especially in Europe, where the issue of immigrants and refugees has long been a bone of contention.

The image appears to have caused immediate action in respect to Europe's obligation to deal with non-citizens, though refugees arriving in European countries are not restricted to those fleeing the Syrian war.

As a result, David Cameron announced that the UK would accept a few thousand more refugees, whereas France and Germany demanded a quota system for refugees to be enforced among EU members. As for Iceland, thousands of ordinary citizens volunteered to share their homes.

     The spectacle of the drowned Syrian child has caused outrage across the world

Over the past four years of civil war in Syria, spectacles of violence and human suffering have played a significant role in motivating political decisions. The abundance of violent images propagated by the Islamic State group has certainly been crucial for the international military mobilisation in both Syria and Iraq.

IS, however, has not been solely responsible for creating such spectacles of war.

Triggering change

In May 2013, a video posted online which appeared to show a Syrian rebel eating a dead soldier's heart and liver brought a strong reaction against the arming of Syrian opposition forces.

The issue gained prominence once it was clear that the rebel was in fact a member of the allegedly moderate Free Syrian Army, with no ties to groups such as IS or the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

This led to a new strategy to arm and train groups that had no ties with any extremist groups, though such a strategy has so far failed to achieve many results.

A few months later, photos leaked in January 2014 - of detainees tortured and killed by the regime - further justified the quest of political change. The news left an impact on Western public opinion, with the rising demand of charging Syrian officials with war crimes.

Yet these spectacles have also been unsuccessful in bringing a halt to the Syrian war, due to the lack of a serious effort to sufficiently call attention to the atrocities of the war - despite the fact that images of destruction have been more than abundant.

Failure of the international community

News of the destruction of archeological ruins, thousands of years old, did not have the impact one would expect. Palmyra was merely added to the list of destroyed heritage sites in Mosul, Nimrud and Khorsabad, among others.

And there have been yet more striking images that remained ineffective. A photo of the Yarmouk camp showing thousands of refugees queuing to receive small portions of food has not led to any attempt to relieve the condition of Palestinians.

Up until today, the camp remains a contested area between IS and armed groups allied with the Syrian army. Yet the spectacle has not brought about the adoption of emergency plans to relieve the suffering of Palestinian refugees.

Other images and untold stories remain far from influencing international public opinion and bringing about change. The continuation of the Syrian civil war has become hostage to political players that are indifferent to the value of human lives.

The aim is to ensure that the suffering to which the public is exposed remains below a certain threshold, guaranteeing that the public remains oblivious.

     It could be important to invest in the inhumane side of the war through circulating the spectacles of suffering

But if the picture of Aylan Kurdi appears successfully to be leading to change, perhaps one could aim to work on propagating other stories of destruction and human loss in the hope of achieving a similar effect.

As tragic as it is, Aylan Kurdi's story is one of many that have been buried under the polemics of politics. It could be important, then, to invest in the inhumane side of the war through circulating the spectacles of suffering.

This could be an opportunity to lead a different battle at another level for the sake of limiting the devastating effects of the war; a battle of bringing to the foreground of international public opinion the atrocities that are committed on a daily basis in Syria - a war that ought to be controlled if it cannot yet be extinguished.

But with the failure of erstwhile attempts, it seems worth asking whether the outrage triggered by the photo of Aylan Kurdi was due to the fact that it was taken on European soil.

Under these circumstances, it is legitimate to wonder whether these efforts will remain inert and incapable of causing change.

Karim Barakat is an instructor of philosophy at the American University of Beirut.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.