Media and politics’ very short memory on Assad

For an attentive observer it is extremely interesting to see how media organizations and leading politicians worldwide reshape their perception of the Assad regime almost on a weekly basis, depending on the selectively perceived actions of the dictator’s army and their allies.

In the beginning of 2016, before the "Cessation of Hostilities" came into effect, Assad and his forces were widely criticized for their offensives around Aleppo and in Hama and Latakia, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. Harsh words like "forced displacement", "deliberate depopulation" and even "ethnic cleansing" were used for the regime’s actions. For several weeks, Assad’s future was called into question (even a "Plan B" was publicly discussed) by politicians as well as the media.

Then after February 27, the international media/policy narrative - once again - changed dramatically. Suddenly, the regime was portrayed not just as a necessary but also a reasonable partner for the future of Syria, having agreed to stop fighting moderate rebels and the population and just conducting operations vs. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Strongman Assad turned "president Assad" again, his scattered army, Russia’s jets and allied Shiite militias "Syrian government forces".

Obviously, this had nothing to do with the reality and the regime’s crimes on the ground. As daily casualty statistics since February show, there was - if any - only a slight reduction in civilian deaths and injuries, caused by the regime - and Russia (which must always be considered when talking about the regime’s crimes).

Then in the end of April, the regime’s - and Russia’s! - daily war crimes could for a while not be ignored any longer by the international media and political environment. The "#AleppoIsBurning" online campaign gained global attention and - at least for a couple of days - reminded everyone that Assad and his thugs didn’t suddenly turn into a "government" again after slaughtering more than 200.000 civilians since 2011.

For a few days, "government forces" turned into the "regime helicopters" bombing markets and "the Russian air force" bombing hospitals and vital infrastructure. Governments in the EU and the US reacted by negotiating "regime of silence" with Russia, Assad and Putin should stick to. Another "success" on Syria with the "political parties" Russia and Assad, as it was sold. Despite as good as no progress and the regime still killing between 30 and 70 civilians every day, politicians like German FM Frank-Walter Steinmeier on May 9 spoke of a "clear easing of the situation", just to not comment on/fully ignore the sharp escalation shortly after which lasts until today.

The appreciation of the murderous regime even increased during the last week when Assad’s forces used the US-backed SDF’s momentum vs. ISIS in Raqqa and eastern Aleppo provinces. Only because it deployed some forces towards ISIS-held Tabqa while continuing to drop bombs on women and children across the rest of the country, Assad and Russia were - once again and more than ever - seen as a "positive factor" in Syria, pushing back ISIS terrorists. Most media and politicians are lauding the "Syrian government offensive" vs. ISIS while not even mentioning the heinous attacks on Idlib city some days before with more than 50 dead and civilian infrastructure such as Idlib’s national hospital being deliberated targeted by Assad and/or Putin.

I will bring up an easy comparison, politicians and media representatives should consider when whitewashing the dictator’s image, applauding Assad’s gains vs. ISIS: If a serial killer kills another serial killer while continuing to kill innocents - every day - does this make him a righteous man? The answer is too obvious.

Last but not least the core problem in Syria must not be hidden behind a hypocritical "realpolitik" approach. As Walter Russell Mead put it in late May: "Ultimately, as hideous as ISIS is, it’s a symptom of the Assad regime, rather than the root of Syria’s troubles. And ISIS will never truly be defeated until Assad is dealt with." 
Julian Röpcke is a newspaper editor and political commentator, based in the German capital, Berlin. With a degree in Political Geography and Sociology, Mr. Röpcke started analyzing geopolitical conflicts after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He covered the “Arab Spring” as well as the evolving conflicts in Syria and Ukraine from their very beginning. Julian Röpcke currently works for BILD, the largest newspaper and leading online news portal in Germany (@JulianRoepcke).

Friday, June 10th 2016
Julian Röpcke

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