In 2015, Mohammed al-Goulani, leader of Syrian Al-Qaeda franchise Al-Nusra, claimed that negotiations taking place in Syria to end the five-year-long civil war had all been a farce. In a critique that drew outrage from rebels, al-Goulani made the assertion that no semblance of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) existed to negotiate with. Although these comments were met with animosity from the currently rebelling forces in Syria, it begs the question of whether the FSA truly still exists, or if even parts of the 2011 mutinying troops are somehow involved at all.
Encased in the absurd assertion of a man still on the run from the US State Department in the allegedly rebel-held territory of Syria is the more worrying question of what actually is going on within the state’s borders. To the American public, the widely covered and highly publicized Arab Spring led to revolutions in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and numerous other nations within the Islamic World. However, after the fanfare died down, news reports turned to other phenomena, and a meme spread through mainstream US media, while most coverage of not only Syria, but also the greater Arab world and its revolutions vanished. Only sporadically have American news outlets remarked on the now almost six-year conflict, with politicians resorting to extremely vague hot topics like the Fall of Fallujah, the Siege of Aleppo, and defeating the Islamic State. The conflict, from start to finish, is reported by western media outlets in such a disjointed fashion that most individuals wouldn’t be able to fit the war into a single context, or explain the meaning behind the revolution in the first place. Considering the Syrian Civil War is one of the most well-documented wars in human history, with almost all participants having access to public social media outlets, their own telecommunications equipment, as well as the large number of refugees arriving in Western countries to give personal accounts, this should be an easy conflict to analyze and explain.
The issue that the average American would encounter in grappling to understand the Syrian Civil War isn’t one that’s referenced in most modern issues: that of an information gullet. There isn’t too much news flying around about the civil war, while other issues become overreported “fake news.” The issue instead is the absurdity of the information – a Syrian boy in a hospital, statements about Aleppo, and a misstep that sank an election bid about a situation that most people weren’t aware of at the time. Instead of the news being misleading, feeding the wrong facts, and creating enough misinformation to be an issue to the public as a whole, it’s instead the complete lack of information dispersed to Americans at all. This information, when turned on like a faucet, creates firestorms of international upheaval before being quietly turned off again, randomly taking snapshots of a story that is presented with no clear beginning, middle, or end.
One of the largest issues is with the public’s overall misunderstanding of the Middle East, and how the civil war fits within its geopolitical context. Most people are ignorant of issues within the Middle East as is, but without legitimate media coverage of issues, nobody can have the full picture to understand. And without the proper background to understand where issues could arise, or at least the lack of any humanizing force to explain the conflict, most are left with no ideas about the conflict and attempt to fill in the blanks with prior lessons learned from both the Gulf Wars and the War in Afghanistan. The deadly concoction of an already-confusing story and a disjointed perception of the war presented by news media sources endangers the entirety of the American people at the core. Although the higher-ups and “need-to-knows” may understand the contexts and fine details of the war, the average voter, the heart of the representatives that take action and guide the nation, are ill-equipped to understand what could be the most complex conflict of the decade. Whereas the discussion of organizations like Al-Nusra and ISIS would be crucial for someone to understand the war’s phases, we can only view these developments through past lenses, boiling down modern, ever-changing Islamic terror fronts into lists of al-Qaeda “affiliates.” Even the mysterious leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appears as such a marketable name to Americans, with easy parallels to Baghdad, drawing the same emotions from an earlier war in the same area, acting as a sock puppet that provides cliff notes to what we should be feeling, instead of what we should be understanding.
To understand how we use these shorthand references for emotion, we should look back to what could be considered the original superstars of state-sponsored international Islamic Terrorism, the Mujahedeen. With simple beginnings, these rural tribesmen of Afghanistan were loosely organized bands of fighters meandering outside of Afghan infrastructure, most importantly within Pashtunistan, where the Durand Line snakes its way towards China. Because of their actions at a crucial moment of heightened international tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, these tribes and warlords were chosen to be supported by the vast and wide-ranging international arms of the CIA. Afterwards, with blessings from the US Federal Government, the militants ended up removing Soviet influence from Afghanistan, inflicting on the Soviets a crippling defeat bearing resemblance to Vietnam, pulling the carpet from under the nation when it needed stability the most, and hastening the state’s eventual dissipation. Shown to the United States akin to a trade show, these rebels, blanketly called the Mujahedeen, were called such because visually-based information relies on the buzzword. The shaky videos of the sweeping deserts and mountains, with robe-clad men firing missiles at Soviet helicopters that gunned down entire villages of civilians provided a branding that allowed them to receive all of the benefits being allied with the United States had to offer.
Underneath this marketing scheme was a much darker truth, however. The Mujahedeen, mainly the Pashtuns who were a massive part of total Afghani population, were only a loosely allied banner of warlords representing their own interests and gains, fighting on behalf of either cultural or territorial goals. In addition, the overwhelming support the Pashtun warlords had was partly due to Pakistan, who, being also filled with Pashtuns, freely allowed their special forces to cross the Durand line and train the Mujahedeen based on shared cultural values that transcended the colonial boundaries created to keep the separate groups divided and controlled in the 1800s.
No amount of good PR could have covered the sharp decline of the rule of the Mujahedeen. After doing exactly what warlords do, infighting for the sake of personal power, organizational ties began to dissolve. Quickly, a group also funded and trained by Pakistan began to rise from the enigma of the conflict, and once in power began to dip into the international narcotics trade, commit numerous human rights abuses, and destroy precious artifacts of human worth. This organization, the Taliban, was quickly disavowed.
Over a period of just a couple years, this shadow group supported by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had displaced the positive rebels that we had been so adamant in supporting. Eventually the information disseminated to the American public that tacit, even direct, support from allies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan had allowed the problem to arise. Seemingly overnight, the good-doing Mujahedeen were defeated and absorbed by the Taliban, who were rebranded to the American public as a motley crew, supported by the troublesome and backstabbing Pakistani and Saudi governments.
For the 80s, with no internet and most information controlled by centralized institutions, it’s not hard to understand how warlords could be so easily branded as nice guys who live in the mountains, and how foul-ups could be so carefully hidden for as long as possible. With most of the information connecting the Taliban and Mujahedeen becoming scrutinized after the war had ended, Reagan’s shortcomings in regards to the policy of equipping the rebels are at least somewhat understandable. Hidden from the media scrutiny, the international arms of the government were free to act however as they pleased, even if it would come back to haunt the nation not ten years later.
Beginning in December of 2010, the Arab Spring kicked off a powder keg within the Islamic World. Prodded by economic collapse, authoritarianism, and technological advancements, the event ripped apart almost every government within the Middle East.
The parallels between the Mujahedeen and the modern-day Free Syrian Army are extremely apparent. Initially typified as the brave leaders of a revolt against an evil leader, international funding and weapons poured in through the same conduit as before, Saudi Arabia. Like the Mujahedeen, the Free Syrian Army originally consisted of rebel groups who were loosely allied with one another, but carrying out a specific operation as distinctly different entities. Named a single entity by the West to centralize support, the thin layer of the Free Syrian Army kept the other questionable aspects of the group intact. Additionally, like the Mujahedeen, the international coverage of the organization dropped off once the Arab Spring’s great successes, like the toppling of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the toppling of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, had been completed and delivered a satisfying ending to Western audiences.
While the Western world wasn’t watching, the Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter, which showcased the rise of radical Islamic groups, as well as crushing authoritarianism. Masked in importance to the West by the deepening migrant crisis, which, ironically, was a result of the Arab Winter, the trend in the Middle East began to grow roots in areas that were conflict-heavy during the Arab Spring. In Libya, radical groups started to take stabs at the fragile new government; in Egypt, the military ousted the government and placed themselves in power; and, of course, in Syria and Iraq, a radical Islamic terror group we now know as ISIS formed.
The Arab Winter wasn’t as widely reported on in Western media as the triumphant Arab Spring. There were some reports of government ineptitude in Libya, a notice or two about the Egyptian changes, and disjointed information about rebel groups in Syria and Iraq, but nothing heightening the importance of the resurgence of radical groups. Soon the world saw the terror attacks across Europe, largely committed by the group known as ISIS or its supporters, and there was an outrage followed by what was reported to be swift retaliations by the United States. However, shortly thereafter, was nothing in terms of media coverage. Only after an image went viral of a wounded boy in Aleppo did the world once again look towards Syria, but the reporting was still incomplete, with no clear descriptions putting the photo in context, or describing how the situation in Syria actually was. There’s irony in how the coverage of a foul-up by presidential candidate Gary Johnson for not knowing the situation in Aleppo received more explanation and coverage than the Siege of Aleppo itself.
It must become clear that, while under the blanket phrases of “moderate rebels” and “the Free Syrian Army,” things had obviously changed. If anything, there should be an information glut related to the issue, with “fake news” misleading individuals into believing that a certain group is here or there when it comes to the game of allies and enemies. On the contrary, there hasn’t been any changes in the way we designate these groups, or discussions of how the landscape of the war is changing month-by-month or even year-by-year.
One should ask then, whatever happened to the Free Syrian Army? One day they were reported on, another day they weren’t. There isn’t even enough “fake news” in the entirety of western media to substantiate that the group exists. In the world of digitized information and major media outlets, we should remind ourselves that sometimes information gluts are just as negative as media blackouts, and we as the American viewing public shouldn’t be satiated with the tried-and-true rhetoric when it comes to complex international situations.
Our man al-Goulani, head of the terror group al-Nusra, went to lead the group to change its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, in order to shed the connections and connotations to Islamic groups such as al-Qaeda. Strangely enough, al-Nusra had been operating in conjunction with fringe anti-government forces as early as 2012, and was seen in joint operations by 2015. Currently, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is operating alongside other rebel groups in Syria, conducting joint operations. Just a few days ago, the group began to formally dissolve into a larger rebel front combining many isolated rebel factions, now calling themselves the Organization for the Liberation of the Levant. This group continues to act as rebel forces within Syria.