Journalists knew from the start that we were watching an opaque conflict: The restrictions on foreign correspondents made it nearly impossible to cover the conflict from the ground. President Bashar al-Assad's regime regularly denies visas to reporters, and those who sneak into the country are at grave risk of being killed or captured. Almost two years later, these obstacles continue to confound our understanding of events -- leaving us to draw conclusions from threads of information, largely ones that opposition activists and a scattered few reporters can provide.
As a result the Syria story we know is like Plato's Allegory of the Cave -- just shadows on the wall, just a fraction of reality.
I built Syria Deeply because I myself struggled to keep track of what was happening in this war, and I knew my audience was having the same problem. A year ago, Syria was in and out of the headlines, many days buried on page 3 of the newspaper, if anywhere at all. Readers and viewers saw it as a chronic issue and struggled to comprehend the different aspects of this complex conflict. This fueled a building frustration and story fatigue, motivating me to think of how we could systemically change the way we see this story.
The final push came while watching the siege of the city of Homs on television, mortar fire captured in real time by a Bambuser live stream. It reminded me of watching the scenes from the first Gulf War -- Baghdad bombarded, live on CNN. But this time there were many mini-CNNs: Users were on the ground sending invaluable content, with precious little context or curation. People's lives were at stake, and weighty geopolitical consequences rested on what was happening on the ground.
My team takes a different approach. Syria Deeply makes use of social media and places a growing emphasis on visualization -- starting with data and video mapping, and visual backgrounders on key elements of the story. The Twitter feed on the site presents the up-to-the-second news and views of users we've found to be reliable over the 22-month conflict. But what has truly enhanced our view of the war is how, over the course of our efforts, we've become a magnet for those on the ground. Syrians send us their stories of daily life, activists invite us into their private Skype rooms, and contributors reach us after frequent trips in and around the country.
This has given us a more nuanced view of Syria's war. It's still not a full and complete picture -- we'll all have to keep striving for that. But the model has delivered insights that grant us a greater understanding of what's going on.
For starters, it's important to understand that this war looks very different from the power centers in Damascus. Wrapped up in its own narrative, the Assad regime still thinks and acts like it can win. Today's bloody equilibrium means it will keep killing and shelling, asserting just enough control over just enough territory to stay in power. In a boost to its narrative, Assad's allegation that the opposition is made up of foreign "terrorist gangs" has become a self-fulfilling prophecy -- bolstered, ironically, by the U.S. terror stamp on the fundamentalist group Jabhat al-Nusra. Syria has become a honey pot for jihadis who consider the country's religious minorities as little more than roadblocks on the path to creating an Islamic state.
The stories we have received from regular Syrians also show that many do not see this as a clear-cut conflict between good and evil. To many Syrians, rebels groups have earned themselves a reputation for bad behavior. Rogue brigades and assorted armed thugs have been looting, kidnapping, and extorting the local population. Syrians who fall prey can pay with their lives or their life savings. Those crimes may not reflect the Free Syrian Army as a whole, but they are enough to damage the rebels' reputation.
"Support for the government increased after people saw what [the rebels] are doing, how the other side is committing inhuman atrocities," said a man in Damascus who sent us his testimonial. "It has been a boost to the government position...people supporting the regime because they think it will defend them."