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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

The story of Idlib is being rewritten by the Syrian regime, but facts matter

There are challenges to making sure that the history of the war is not rewritten by those with military might, writes Mina Al-Oraibi

A file photo of Idlib province. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
A file photo of Idlib province. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

"History is written by the victors". Winston Churchill is credited with this line, although it is an adage that transcends various languages and cultures. Today, as Syrian government forces, supported by Iranian militias and Russian air strikes, launch an offensive on Idlib, they are also ramping up their attempts to impose their narrative on the Syrian war. From the start of Syria’s uprising, close to seven years ago, Bashar Al Assad claimed that this was not a popular protest and branded all opposition elements as terrorists. While there can be no doubting the fact that in March 2011, it was unarmed civilians rising up in Syria, the regime did all it could to push a binary narrative – Bashar Al Assad versus terror groups. Even with today’s proliferation of armed groups in Syria, both with and against the regime, there remain those who are against the regime and not affiliated with terrorism or extremism. Their strength and presence was diminished by the regime and ISIL, as they posed a threat to both. Of course, in 2011, ISIL did not exist and Al Qaeda had no presence in Syria – except for the occasional Al Qaeda fighters who would cross from Syria into Iraq to cause carnage and mayhem from 2005.

Now, as Syrian government forces and their Iranian allies launch an offensive on Idlib, one of the last urban centres controlled by the Syrian opposition, the regime and its supporters are again claiming to be targeting "terrorists". There can be no denying that some extremists, including those affiliated with Al Qaeda, are now in Idlib, having been transferred there by deals struck with the government itself over the last couple of years. The forced displacement that happened over the last two years – pushing more and more of Mr Al Assad’s opponents into one province – was part of a campaign setting up for this moment. Population swaps happened in most areas after long months of sieges and starvation. Al Waer’s siege lasted for one year, after which close to 17,000 Syrians, left to Idlib. Today, Idlib province is home to approximately 1.5 million Syrians, and it would be impossible to consider all of them terrorists. Even those with terrorist or extremist affiliations should be tried, rather than summarily executed.

How one perceives the regime of Mr Al Assad and the prioritisation of what a threat looks like, will determine how this assault on Idlib will be seen. The regime wants to brand an entire province as "terrorist" held, while the reality is that armed groups have been squeezed there and opposition forces have also been pushed there, while over a million civilians are trapped there. Facts do exist. Ten hospitals have been hit by air strikes in opposition controlled areas since the start of the year. The air strikes on Eastern Ghouta killed 17 people in one day. Outrage about the atrocities committed in Aleppo, Homs and other areas of Syria is not enough. But even that outrage seems to be muted when it comes to Idlib. Part of the reason is the "dehumanising" of an entire people.

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When the White Helmets were lauded around the world for their civilian rescue efforts, the propaganda machine that supports Mr Al Assad came into play to discredit them. The uncovering of a Russian-supported campaign to smear the humanitarian group is just one example of the murkiness of news and deceit that has accompanied this war. And last February, Mr Al Assad said there were "definitely terrorists" among the Syrian refugees who had fled their country. The idea that those seeking safety from ISIL and the regime are the "terrorists" is both abhorrent and untrue.

While social media – and various forms of oral history – have helped get Syrian stories out, there are serious challenges to making sure that the history of the Syrian war is not rewritten by those with military might on the ground. In reality, as some stories from opposition held territory have been discredited as either being exaggerated or false, it has become too easy to discard uncomfortable images of those who are suffering in real time social media feeds. We must convince Syrians and journalists to keep telling their stories, even though many believe that the world stopped listening and turned its back on Syria. In a time when facts are being challenged, and "fake news" is a term thrown by powerful politicians at news items that challenge their narrative, we must bear witness. It is the least we can do, in a war that will soon enter its seventh senseless year.