Bashar's War

For the Syrian regime's faithful mouthpieces, victory is always around the corner.

In the Damascus suburb of Jdeidet al-Fadl, according to the Syrian regime media, all is well.

Activists' accounts of the Syrian military's capture of the town over the weekend, which culminated in an alleged wave of summary executions and dismemberments, have placed the number of dead at anywhere from 80 to 500 people. But according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), Jdeidet al-Fadl saw "a series of successful operations" in which the Syrian military "destroyed the terrorists' nests and gatherings." Forebodingly, SANA says that operations in Jdeidet al-Fadl "have neared their end."

This is the sort of victory that defines the worldview of the Syrian regime media. Television, radio, and print outlets controlled by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad articulate a single vision of the war: that the Syrian Arab Army is waging an unrelenting campaign against terrorists led by Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al Qaeda, who are the vanguard of a "universal" conspiracy against the Syrian people. But Syria will prevail, state media contend, and its people will build a new, better country founded on dialogue and openness -- an oasis of religious and ethnic tolerance.

This is the war Assad chooses to show, and more importantly, it is the war as the regime's supporters understand it. This narrative has been broadcast to the Syrian public for over two years now by the core of Syrian regime media: SANA; the newspapers al-Baath, Tishreen, and al-Thawra; the official Radio Damascus; the state's satellite television network and its sister news network, al-Ikhbariya; and the technically privately owned but staunchly loyalist al-Watan daily and Addounia satellite TV network. And in this narrative, the Syrian regime is winning.

The regime advances its understanding of the war most effectively through its daily battlefield reporting. These reports are nearly identical across all media, and they employ a set, limited vocabulary. The regime's Syrian Arab Army is "our brave army" or "our brave armed forces." The enemy consists of "terrorists" and "mercenaries," and the Syrian military typically "destroys" their "nests," "eliminates" them, and "leaves [them] dead and wounded." Often, state media give names for the militants killed in combat, and in keeping with the media's emphasis on foreign fighters among the rebels, their nationality is provided if they are not Syrian.

The regime's narrative robs the anti-Assad forces of any agency. The Syrian military is always "pursuing" or "targeting" terrorists, but it is never ambushed or attacked. The armed forces sometimes "clash with" or "repel" terrorists, but there are never regime casualties. The regime's enemies only have initiative when they murder and rob civilians due to those civilians' "rejection of the terrorists' crimes and refusal to harbor them." Terrorists' actions are "desperate" or "attempts to raise [their] morale" after significant losses.

The pro-regime media acknowledge no divisions among the opposition, painting the many factions as an undifferentiated bloc of militant fanatics. When coverage is more specific than simply "terrorists," militants are most often identified as belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra, though "the terrorist gangs belonging to the so-called 'Free Army'" make occasional appearances. When Jabhat al-Nusra publicly pledged loyalty to al Qaeda on April 10, regime coverage was nonplussed: The announcement was "nothing new," reported regime television; it was only something "the external opposition and their supporters had insisted on denying for appearances' sake" while secretly arming the group.

The regime's media outlets also supply a rationale for why these foreign terrorists have come to Syria. The West and its tame Arab allies, they say, have targeted Syria because it has championed the resistance against colonialist and Zionist plots to dominate the Middle East. In Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi's words, the terrorists' goal is to "break apart the countries of the Arab world, loot their resources, and destroy their social fabric."

Who are the chief conspirators in this plot? State newspaper al-Thawra identifies them as "Zio-American circles and oil and gas sheikhdoms in the Gulf" -- including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the NATO countries. The United States and Israel ultimately steer events, the media report, and U.S. President Barack Obama is "the maestro of the war."

The United States may publicly disavow terrorists like Jabhat al-Nusra, but according to al-Ikhbariya, Washington quietly pushes its minions in the region to fund and arm them. After all, America and its allies "created these terrorist organizations so that, like a mount, they might ride them into the region, divide its land, and tear apart its people."

The rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are regularly described as "a'arab" -- uncultured Bedouins, it is implied -- of whom Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani comes in for the most vitriolic criticism. Syrian television regularly cuts to stock footage of the Qatari ruler when it refers to those who conspire against the Arab people. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the media report, "are blessed with peace and tranquility because they send death abroad and export terrorists."

The international media aren't spared the regime's criticism. Foreign media engender a sort of free-floating hostility; the state media accuse them of "beat[ing] the drums of terrorism in Syria." But Al Jazeera, which is financed by Qatar, is singled out for having "long played a role in spilling the blood of Arab peoples."

Regime media also attack the Turkish government for openly supporting terrorists in Syria, implying that Ankara is motivated by imperial ambitions. The Turkish government is referred to as "neo-Ottomans," while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly "dreams of restoring the sultanate of the 'sick man [of Europe].'" The Turks are also accused on occasion of selling Syrian refugees' organs before burning their dismembered bodies.

The Syrian regime, which has long presented itself as "the beating heart of Arabism," reacted to the Arab League's recent decision to hand over its seat to the external opposition with contempt. The Baath daily called the Arab League's March summit "the Summit of Shame." The event, Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi explained, was "convened in Qatar under the control [of Qatar] and its money, which allowed it to hijack the league and do as it pleased."

The political opposition is covered as an afterthought in the regime media -- as a front for the terrorist core of the insurgency. The aforementioned Baath report calls opposition leaders the "kumbars of global terror." "Kumbars" means "film extras"; it doesn't quite map onto English idiom, but the point should be clear.

Of course, this array of enemies doesn't necessarily mean that the Syrian regime portrays itself as confronting "global terror" alone. State media are quick to emphasize anything that runs counter to a narrative of Syria's international isolation. This ranges from any official support -- including statements from Russian and Iranian officials -- to popular support, like a "mass" solidarity march in São Paulo or reports that "dozens of Yemeni youths" are ready to head to Syria to support the military. Foreign experts and media reports are also given prominent placement when they reinforce the regime narrative. Some foreign journalism is faithfully reported, but sometimes the source material is made more palatable for the regime narrative. An article on a King's College London report on Europeans joining the rebels, for example, referred to the Europeans as "mercenaries" -- a charge absent in the original study.

The Syrian state also leans on support from religious leaders as a key source of legitimacy. It promotes calls by Pope Francis for a political solution to the crisis, for example, and highlights a mixed assemblage of Aleppo priests and imams who participated in the lead-up to the country's national dialogue. While foreign media often emphasize the conflict's sectarian dimension, the Syrian official media consistently stress what they portray as Syria's relative religious harmony. Damascus is, in the words of Syria's satellite station, "the Damascus of Arabism, the city of love, tolerance, and coexistence." This ecumenical language reinforces the regular portrayal of the terrorist rebels as takfiri -- extremists willing to murder the insufficiently pious.

In contrast to the rebels' alleged nihilism, regime media consistently advance what they describe as "the only way out of this crisis" -- a political solution. Syrian media report daily on meetings held by the "ministerial committee tasked with the implementation of the political program to solve the Syrian crisis" -- meetings to which the external opposition is invited, it is emphasized. The process is meant to strengthen respect for a plurality of opinion and ultimately build a "strong, new, united Syria."

But this regime-run process of dialogue seems, in practice, to amount to little more than a monologue. While the government and its interlocutors do reportedly engage on concrete issues -- including security, housing, and municipal services -- participants interviewed stress their total commitment to both Assad's political program and the ongoing military campaign to purge the country of terrorists. This is a discussion in which participants may differ on the details, but the broad themes are fixed. As al-Ikhbariya puts it, its goal "is to bring everyone together for dialogue under the roof of the nation, with an emphasis on the need to combat alien takfiri thought and to root out the forces of terrorism."

The challenges of the moment aren't necessarily papered over. Regime media acknowledge the economic hardships facing average Syrians but frame such difficulties in terms of their determination to persevere. "The terror of militant groups in Syria hasn't been able to prevent the student, the employee, the laborer, and the simple shopkeeper from going about their lives and performing their duty for their nation," SANA reports.

Prime Minister Halqi, meanwhile, reassures the public: "The Syrian Arab Army is at its strongest and its best, and the Syrian people are behind the state. They believe in it, and their morale is high. If the feeling of concern is legitimate and natural, fear is not."

Such sentiments are intended to communicate confidence, but the Syrian regime's messaging is, at best, primitive. In a conflict where new media -- both pro- and anti-regime -- have helped shape events on the ground, the traditional Syrian state media feel robotic and derivative. The print media coverage consists largely of rewritten SANA news releases, while Radio Damascus's call-in shows -- and their suspiciously articulate participants -- sound like playacting. The one bright spot is Syria's official television: If you can detach from the content of the coverage, the reports are frequently so acid and sarcastic that they're hilarious. (For subtitled translations of Syrian television reports, see here and here.)

Average Syrians' views, however, seem to get lost in the mix. State media produces man-on-the-street quotes and interviews, but only with proud citizens who express unflinching support for the regime. In a report about a school for martyrs' children, for example, a war widow says, "I still have a girl and a boy, and I, all of us, would love to give our blood and our lives in the defense of our mother, Syria." Now, this sentiment is real. A broad segment of Syrian opinion is committed to the regime's vision for the country -- or terrified enough by the opposition to side with the familiar. But when you see this in the Syrian media, are they showing that genuine commitment to Assad's Syria -- or a sort of facsimile thereof?

Still, you can be forgiven for occasionally thinking that the regime media's accounts offer a glimpse of something real -- something that taps into the suffering of Syrians, for and against the regime, who are seeing their lives fall away from them. Reporting from Damascus's Sabaa Bahrat Square after an April 9 car bomb, Addounia narrates that the area "once more polishes its veneer and restores a luster that says, 'Syria is for us.'"

As it shows people sweeping dust and debris from their storefronts, the television network assures its viewers: "Not one speck of Syria will ever fall under the control of monstrous takfiri terror or be at the command of bastards coming from the depths of ignorance and its garbage dumps, supported by the sellers of gas and slaves, traders in white flesh, and owners of red rooms."

And then the report cuts to locals estimating the cost of rebuilding their livelihoods -- figures in the hundreds of thousands or millions of Syrian lira, a lifetime's savings. And the Syrians just look tired.



The Roots of Chechen Rage

A brief history of a defiant people.

You cannot understand the Chechens without understanding the mountains. The mountains created them as surely as the cold Atlantic created the Britons, or the frontier created the Americans.

The mountains were, for millennia, effectively impassable. Armies could go ‘round the eastern end, through Azerbaijan and Dagestan on the shores of the Black Sea. Or they could pick their way along the Black Sea Coast, providing their horses and infantry did not mind getting their feet wet.

Between the two seas, however, was the rampart of the Caucasus, the highest range in Europe, which could only be crossed on foot and even then often only in summer. South of the mountains was the majesty of the ancient world: Byzantium, Persia, Alexander the Great, Assyrians, Medes, and the rest of them.

There were empires south of the mountains, but north of the mountains the peoples had no need to unite to resist invaders. Villages ruled themselves, acknowledged no overlord, robbed each other and traded, safely protected from conquest by the peaks at their backs.

Or, they were -- until the Russians came. Expanding southwards, first in a few exploratory missions under Peter the Great and then in force under Catherine the Great, the Russians fought all before them: the Nogais of the steppes, the last free descendants of Genghis Khan; the Tatars of Crimea; and finally the Chechens, and the other peoples of the Caucasus.

The clash between the armies of the autocratic, centralized, militaristic Russian state with the horsemen of the anarchic, freebooting Caucasus, who were too disorganized to trouble anyone more than a day or two's ride away, was the biggest culture clash in European history. The Russians won the first engagements, but the Chechens' response was not long in coming.

"In the village of Aldy a prophet has appeared and started to preach. He has submitted superstitious and ignorant people to his will by claiming to have had a revelation," wrote a Russian major general in 1785.

The Russians marched on Aldy, and destroyed it, but the prophet -- a man called Ushurma but now known as Sheikh Mansur -- was lying in wait. Half the Russian force of 3,000 died in an ambush on their way home, and Mansur became a hero for the Muslims of Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan.

Mansur did not last. After a few victories, he fled, was captured and died of tuberculosis in a fortress near Saint Petersburg. But he was the first manifestation of the Russians' great enemy in the Caucasus -- the welding of Islam with nationalism into a single potent combination.

Over most of the next century, religious leaders led the highlanders of Chechnya and Dagestan in opposition to the Russians. Their resistance was heroic but it was, ultimately doomed. They were, after all, fighting against Russia, the power that defeated Napoleon. As Imam Shamil, the highlanders' last leader, is said to have remarked when he was being taken to see the tsar after his surrender in 1859: "If I had known Russia was so big, I would never have fought against it."

Shamil, a Dagestani, was brutally frank about the Chechens, who would fight for him but refused to obey him in any other way, as they have refused to obey rulers, either foreign or their own, to the present day.

"There is nothing worse than this trash in the whole world. The Russians should say thank you to me that I corrected them a little. Without this, you would have only one way to deal with them: shoot them to the last man, as is done with harmful animals," Shamil told his Russian guard, according to the guard's diaries.

The Russians took him at his word. Although, the Chechens lived on in their homeland, they lived as a defeated nation, their best land given to Cossacks and their culture never given a chance to develop. When the tsarist government fell, it had done almost nothing to transform the anarchic highlanders into model Russian peasants and, after 1917, the new communists promised to help them find enlightenment in the modern state they would create.

"These people were doomed to incredible suffering and extinction," one official, the commissar for nationalities, told the Party Congress in 1921. He knew of what he spoke, because he was from the Caucasus himself. His name was Josef Djugashvili, though he is better known today as Stalin.

Hidden within his promise was a mistaken assumption, however, which was that the Chechens actually wanted to live as full Soviet citizens, which they didn't. "Bandits" continued to haunt the mountains. Some 35,000 Chechens were purged in 1931, and another 14,000 six years later. Still, the Chechens would not submit and, by 1944, Stalin had come to the same conclusion as Imam Shamil: The Chechens should be wiped out.

On Feb. 23 -- a holiday in the Soviet Union, on which citizens honored the soldiers of the Red Army -- troops moved in, rounded the nation up, packed it onto trains and shipped it to Central Asia. Thirty-five percent of the deportees died, either in the packed cattle cars or on the freezing steppes when they arrived in the depths of the cold Kazakhstan winter.

This is the defining moment in Chechens' modern history, when they were wrenched away from their mountains and dumped like rubbish in an unfriendly land with a flat horizon. Even the Russian government has recognized this was a genocide, and yet few Russians today appreciate the trauma it caused. Everyone lost someone and, when they were allowed home beginning in 1959, many of those bodies came home to Chechnya with them, to be buried in the mountains, not in the foreign steppes.

They were kept together by their faith, by their Sufi Islam with its closed brotherhoods and secret rituals. The generation that grew up in Kazakhstan nursed a seed of grievance. That seed grew in the fertile soil of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, and flowered into a declaration of independence in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Of Boris Yeltsin's many disastrous decisions, few were as terrible as the idea that a quick war against the rebellious Chechens would help boost the new Russian president's flagging poll numbers toward the end of 1994. He sent in the tanks, thus uniting a nation that was sinking into in-fighting. He ordered the tanks out against two years later. Moscow's mighty army was defeated in the streets of Grozny by Chechen irregulars, and the superpower's impotence was laid bare for all to see.

But these were the Chechens, ungovernable even by their own, even by Aslan Maskhadov, the man who had led them to their unlikely victory over a country with more people in uniform than there are Chechens. Without an external enemy to unite them and, no doubt, aided by trained provocateurs sent by Moscow, they fell into squabbling between Islamists, mafia gangs, secular nationalists, and ordinary Chechens who just wanted to get on with things.

In 1999, the Chechens invaded Dagestan, supposedly to aid allies there, and a new Russian leader decided Moscow had had enough. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was making none of Yeltsin's mistakes, however. He had no intention of fighting among the tower blocks of Grozny. His artillery flattened the Chechens' capital block by block, driving his opponents into the open, where they died on mines or explosions or in extrajudicial executions.

International sympathy drained away over the succeeding years as Chechen insurgents resorted to the most terrible of atrocities in attempts to force Russia to the negotiating table: seizing a theatre in Moscow, a school in Beslan, and blowing up trains, buses, and planes. None of it worked. Moscow's grip tightened and thousands of Chechens fled forever, forming diaspora communities in Western Europe, the Gulf, and the Middle East.

And that is how the Tsarnaev brothers ended up -- via Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan -- in Boston, ungovernable men of the mountains, warlike, disorientated, come to fight a pointless and unjustified fight thousands of miles from the mountains they once called home.