Syria: when the tweets fall silent… will we remember?

cross the globe, civil society groups are rallying to mark the three year anniversary of the start of the Syrian uprising

Chris Doyle
Chris Doyle
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Across the globe, civil society groups are rallying to mark the three year anniversary of the start of the Syrian uprising. Millions have joined in the Twitter driven #withSyria campaign, to show solidarity with those suffering in Syria and to push for a solution to the 21st Century’s most traumatic crisis. Celebrities such as actors Idris Elba, Charlize Theron and Dustin Hoffman have added their names to the campaign. Banksy, the street artist, has recreated his famous image of a girl with a balloon for the occasion. There will be a 72-hour long recitation of 100,000 victims of the crisis on the White House lawn. With nine million Syrians having been forced out of their homes, such a major mobilisation is greatly needed and I credit the organisers. However, it also raises some major dilemmas.

Firstly, outside of showing vital solidarity, what can be achieved? The #withSyria demands are simple and clear– end the bloodshed, allow for humanitarian access and push for peace talks that include more of those affected, especially civil society and women. Western governments claim to sign up to this but those that have the power to bring these aims to fruition are not going to be listening, especially the regime. The killing will continue unabated, thousands will remain besieged and the peace talks will stagnate.

Secondly, how can this movement engender confidence that success is possible? Nothing deflates interest more than the apparent impossibility of resolving a crisis. The increased coverage of radical extremists and jihadists act as an additional turn-off. There is little shared sense of what the West should do, if anything. Public opinion polls in August and September 2013 showed huge opposition to direct intervention in Syria in the U.S., France and Britain. Clearly this is not going to happen. The international and regional powers are still too far apart to agree to a single peace plan for Syria to impose on all parties. The regional powers are not going to abandon their proxies.

Thirdly, although millions have tweeted and participated, how deep is the engagement? There have been two videos that have gone viral recently in the West about Syria. One was by Save the Children with 10 million views in just two days. The film imagined what it would be like if London had to suffer what Syrians had suffered, all through the eyes of a young girl. The other was Norwegian, a video of people’s reactions to a boy freezing at a bus stop. Yet the worrying thing in common was that they depended on using white westerners to engender empathy.

At the root of this is crisis fatigue. Too many people have become desensitized to the streams of horrific images of suffering from war zones

Chris Doyle

Fourthly, how do we maintain the momentum? The never-ending struggle for all involved in helping Syrians is how do you keep the story going. The media is about audiences, readers and viewers. It is commercial. Syria stories have made many headlines over the last 36 months, but interest is fading. The core story is getting repetitive – regime brutality, endless bombing, divided opposition, and failing peace talks. How many more stories of refugee camps can the market handle? Ukraine is frankly sexier to editors. The media feeds off fresh news not stale news.

To change this you require on-the-ground reporting, but Syria is the most dangerous country to cover in the world. In 2013 alone, 29 journalists were killed in Syria and around 60 were kidnapped. Access has become limited the stories have dried up. The regime has a greater influence over international media access, as the north and east are mostly off limits; so regime-controlled Damascus is the main entry point. Thus the regime narrative is getting more airtime.


At the root of this is crisis fatigue. Too many people have become desensitised to the streams of horrific images of suffering from war zones. Do dead bodies and starving refugees move people as once they did? How much coverage is there now of Somalia or Iraq? Hundreds of thousands of brave peaceful protesters had a more powerful grip on the public’s imagination than endless fighting, mayhem and misery.

All of this is to the advantage of the most powerful actor, in this case the Syrian regime. Dictatorial regimes have more patience than democratic counterparts and the Assad regime believes that time is on its side.

Public interest is essential. It drives political involvement in the West. Aid appeals need coverage to raise funds. This is a reality. The number of Syrian refugees may hit four million by the end of the year just as this decline in interest may kick in. They and other Syrians must not be let down.

The challenge is to ensure that people are not just #withSyria for the day but for however long this conflict lasts. Enduring support is the true solidarity Syrians need from us, not just an anniversary tweet.


Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in in April, November, December and January 2013 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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