Information overloaded, Syria conflict not decoded

Public discourse fails to delineate the gradient issues inherent in the ongoing Syrian conflict


The world has seen red. But redness can be blinding. According to experts, the public struggles to recognize Syria’s crisis as anything but black and white.

Christian Leuprecht, a professor of political science at Royal Military College and the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s, said that public confusion surrounding the Syrian civil war hinges on the failure to contextualize its cumulative conflicts.

“It’s difficult for people to get a reasonably balanced picture of the situation … without defending any one side, especially appreciating the complexity of the circumstances,” Leuprecht said.

“I think we see a conflict like Syria and we become deeply disturbed by the fact that there’s people dying,” Leuprecht said, referring to the widespread reaction to the recent chemical weapons attack in Damascus, the capital of Syria.

Allegedly executed by the Syrian government’s Assad regime, the attack killed hundreds of Syrian civilians and invited the US to threaten military intervention in the Middle-Eastern country, now in its third year of heated internal dispute.

“We decontextualize these conflicts, and so when we see the violence, we really want to put an end to it. By virtue of decontextualizing it, we dramatically over-simplify the dynamics on the ground, especially when we’re so far away and we’re so unfamiliar with the region,” Leuprecht said.

It’s difficult, according to Leuprecht, for a population so far removed from the conflict in question to fully understand the dimensions of a situation that has gradually intensified.

“If we simplify it, then we take a good side and a bad side and we decide … we think we can put an easy and quick end to these conflicts, but really, this is just a hot conflict that had just been a cold conflict for decades,” Leuprecht said.

He said it’s human nature for individuals to become immersed in the issues that directly concern them, rather than strategic world politics.

“We’re so far away that we just don’t think about it as much, because it doesn’t affect us as much,” Leuprecht said.

While vast expanses of ocean may excuse Canadians from political engagement, Europeans, according to Leuprecht, are more likely to be concerned about the Syrian conflict, in light of their immediate experience of the crisis’ escalation – including an influx of refugees entering various European countries.

Nevertheless, what one sees is often a dilution of what’s distilled by the mass media.

“The media is sensationalist to begin with. By and large, it’s not about stories; it’s really about selling ads, and how you sell ads is about sensationalizing,” Leuprecht said.

“[W]e can use the info that we have to arrive at a decision of what should or shouldn’t happen. I would just submit that that’s tricky, but then in democracy, that is what we do all the time,” Leuprecht said.

According to Leuprecht, however, the average individual doesn’t fail to be sufficiently informed by virtue of the quantity of information available to them.

Amidst today’s technological saturation, it’s needless to assume a lack of information is the cause of unawareness, he noted.

Rather, the challenge in becoming fully informed stems from two simple constraints, according to Leuprecht. Individuals face limited time to devote to learning extensively about conflicts such as Syria’s.

Moreover, individuals are confined by their capability to critically analyze the tangible ramifications of what they see unfolding on the world stage.

Furthermore, individuals are hindered by their own confirmatory biases and, according to Leuprecht, the online media only caters to this innate psychological tendency.

“The challenge is that the proliferation of online and social media actually risk making people less informed, because what you do is follow a path of pursuing the sort of stories that are aligned with your way of thinking,” Leuprecht said.

While incomplete information is often found at the individual level, Leuprecht noted the value in what he refers to as “wisdom of the masses”.

“As individuals, I think we’re not necessarily particularly informed, but I think that as a collective, we do a lot better than we give ourselves credit for,” he added.

While reaching a sensible consensus is an undisputed goal, the means of achieving this is elusive at best.

“There’s the actual crisis itself and then there’s, ‘how do we talk about the crisis?’” said Digvijay Mehra, president of the Queen's International Affairs Association (QIAA).

“Public opinion is a diplomatic strategy being used by parties in the conflict, and that’s something that’s more effective with the newer media these days,” Mehra, ArtSci ’14, said.

Framing is an age-old concept, and one that penetrates every method of communication.

“It’s very difficult for Canadians to grasp the situation when they’re just being shown snippets of people dying and world leaders walking around Geneva,” Mehra said.

He said Canadians should strive to be as informed as possible on any issue that implicates Canada’s population, as this one does.

There are things for Canadians to consider, according to Mehra, such as Canada’s relationship with the US, its membership in NATO and its stake in world energy politics – namely, how the disruption of supply routes has catastrophic potential for the export-driven Canadian economy.

Of course, many conflicts based in the Middle East translate the same threats to the Canadian economy, which relies heavily on its export of raw materials. But Mehra argues for the value in recognizing the more intricate elements of the conflict in Syria.

“Things in the Middle East are often generalized; it’s all a big mess out there, it’s all the same,” said Mehra. “If you homogenize the conflict and think it’s all part of one big problem in the Middle East … that oversimplifies it.”

To say that one is informed at all, however, may be a far cry from reality.

According to Queen’s professor of sociology, Richard Day, there are significant consequences of living so distantly from the Syrian crisis and others like it, not only in terms of geographical location, but in being so far removed from the standard of living and culture of Syria.

Day said that political elites expect the majority of people to turn a blind eye to the real ramifications of significant events as they unfold throughout history.

“We want the average person of that world to do nothing, to think nothing, and to be nothing. That’s basically the goal for the elites,” Day said. “So folks are doing their duty. They’re doing their duty as proper citizens by failing to engage. This is what’s expected from them.”

According to Day, one shouldn’t assume it’s a good thing to become expressly educated on all issues.

“I’m never sure of whether one is doing more damage by participating or ignoring these kinds of spectacular events, because for us here, Syria is a spectacle,” he said. “Not for the people on the ground there. For them, it’s life or death. For us, it’s spectacle. And that’s a sad thing.”

Syria: Step by Step

Syria is a country in the Middle East, bordering Turkey to the North, Iraq to the East, Egypt and Israel to the South, and Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West.

Pre-1918: the country is a central entity within the Ottoman Empire, remaining predominantly under French rule until 1946. In the decades following, Syria is defined by military coups and a struggle for power among political leaders.

1958: Syria and Egypt join the United Arab Republic, headed by the Egyptian government. Three years later, Syrian militants seize control of the Syrian capital of Damascus and Amin al-Hafez becomes President shortly after.

In 1968: Salah Jadid succeeds in overthrowing Amin al-Hafez as President and appoints Hafez al-Assad as Syria’s Minister of Defense. Assad is later named President in 1971.

2000: President Hafez al-Asaad dies and is replaced by his son, Bashar al-Assad.

March 2011: Uprisings consume Damascus as protesters demand the release of political prisoners, criticizing President Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive regime.

April 2011: The Syrian government’s first use of military force against its own people, in response to the dispute sparked a month previously. In the months following, violence permeates Syria as a civil war emerges between Assad’s government and various rebel groups.

October 2011: The Syrian National Council forms – a consolidation of both internal and external opposition activists. China and Russia, Syrian allies, veto a UN resolution to denounce the Syrian government’s military action.

December 2011: Two suicide bombings occur in Damascus, starting months of consecutive bombings in the capital city, many of which the government is alleged to have carried out.

February 2012: After acknowledging casualties in the thousands, the result of the Syrian civil war, the UN Security Council fails to achieve a resolution condemning Syria after China and Russia veto the decision.

May 2012: The Syrian government garners disapproval from the international community after more than 100 Syrian civilians are killed in Houla, and the UN’s investigation names Syrian troops to have administered these killings.

Spring 2012: Several western countries expel their senior diplomats from Syria in protest of the Syrian government’s actions.

July 2012: The Free Syrian Army succeeds in seizing Aleppo, in Northern Syria.

August 2012: A resolution from the UN General Assembly requested that Syrian President Assad resign, while US President Obama declared that any use of chemical weapons signified a ‘red line’, and overstepping of this line would elicit US military interference.

November 2012: The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces forms in Qatar. Several groups opposed to Assad’s regime comprise the Forces. Soon after, the national coalition is recognized as the legitimate representative of Syria’s population by many western countries.

2013: Allegations of the use of chemical weapons compiled against the Syrian government, with the US and Britain launching investigations into such instances.

Spring 2013: Leaders of the European Union decide not to renew their arms embargo on Syria. This enables European countries to arm the Syrian opposition.

Aug. 21, 2013: Outrage infiltrates the international community when over 1,000 people are killed near Damascus in a large-scale chemical weapons attack. Syria’s rebels and western governments accused the Syrian government of launching the attack.

August 2013: US President Obama says a “limited” military strike is needed to punish the use of chemical weaponry in this highly fatal instance.

August 2013: Russia and China, in opposition to the remainder of the UN Security Council, warn against a military strike on Syria.

Sept. 13, 2013: The US and Russia agree on a plan of action for disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. After an inventory of the country’s chemical weaponry is collected, Syria’s chemical weapons are set to be removed and destroyed through the remainder of 2013 and into 2014.;

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