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The Media's Coverage of the War in Syria Distorts the True Nature of the Conflict for Ratings

12/05/2016 11:14 | Updated 12 May 2016

The Russian propaganda concert of classical music by world renowned Russian musicians at the amphitheatre in Palmyra, previously the site of mass executions of the enemies of ISIS, from whom Russian backed troops captured it from in March 2015 was held up in the West as a success. "Russia Fearless of ISIS" stated Morning News USA, whereas Spiked Online said that "Russia's Palmyra concert reveals what the West lacks". The ironic thing about the Western media's relationship with Russian propaganda is as much as it decries it when aimed against the West, it's a sucker for it, when it comes in relation to Syria.

The Arab media focused on another news story a few days after the concert, which the Western media seemed strangely disinterested in. Despite heavy Russian air support, ISIS had cut the main supply route for the pro-Assad forces based in Palmyra possibly with Russian troops inside, and had nearly encircled the city from all sides but the south west and were 10 kilometres from the venue of the classical concert itself.

The reason the Western Media aren't interested in the near encirclement of Palmyra is that it contradicts the prevailing narrative of a decisive Russian intervention deciding the war. This is also why other stories such as the capture by ISIS of the Shaer gas field near Palmyra from regime forces, the ongoing food crisis in regime held Damascus, and the heavy losses of both men and territory by Iranian forces south of the city of Aleppo weren't even mentioned in passing compared with performances of Bach and Prokofiev for Russian troops.

Assad and Russia doing well is more of a story than the opposite. It wasn't always so as in early 2014, with the capture of the regional capital of Idlib by the rebels, the media narrative was of Assad's certain demise and the rebels soon to be had victory. Thus in early 2014, news of rebel setbacks and regime advances were of less interest whereas the reverse is true now. Russian intervention changed the narrative then, and a defeat in Palmyra if it were to occur, would change how the war was reported in the West again with a change in emphasis from Russian strength to Russian weakness.

The truth is, wars are complicated and the Syrian war is more complicated than most. Most audiences prefer easily digestible simple narratives to more accurate but complex reporting. The most common reaction by someone who isn't invested in the conflict is to switch off as all the complexity and misery is too boring and troubling to watch. Indeed, we are possibly seeing a lack of interest from audiences in Syria in the same way interest in Iraq dipped among the public towards the end of that war in the 2000s. There's only so much repetitive suffering and distress, the average person can take before they develop an all-encompassing fatigue to stories that don't directly affect them.

There is no way you can condense the war in Syria into a simplistic good guys versus bad guys narrative for the evening news or a tabloid opinion piece. No side has not suffered at the hands of others and no side has not caused any suffering for others. That doesn't mean we should avoid covering it or become blasé to the greatest crisis in the world at the moment. It does however mean, we should be more circumspect about advancing any one combatants propaganda without critical thinking. This applies both to the concert in Palmyra but also to tabloids that thoughtlessly advance ISIS's atrocity propaganda aims in order to gain custom. The truth is complicated, but that doesn't mean we should distort what's happening in order to package it in a more accessible manner, flipping the perspective every few months when one side gains momentum over the other. It is better to report accurately what is happening even if it isn't as exciting for the audience than warping it to make it more accessible if doing so reduces understanding of the true nature of the conflict.

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