News Column

Syrian Crisis Worries Many, Puzzles More

August 30, 2013

Melissa Dribben

syrian uprising
Syrian uprising (file photo)

Asked to explain the roots of the Syrian conflict or identify the warring factions or venture an opinion on how to respond to chemical attacks on civilians there, Douglas Jordan had the same reaction that many Philadelphians do.

"I understand that Syria is declaring war on their own people, but I don't know why," Jordan said. The 51-year-old unemployed security guard has watched CNN, read news reports, and tried to keep informed, but he cannot quite grasp the geopolitics in the distant nation. "Isn't Syria an ally? . . . The American people don't want to start another situation like Iraq. But personally, I don't know how I feel."

There is no shame in admitting that it is difficult to understand what is going on in Syria and what, if anything, the United States should do about it.

"When people see corpses laid out on the ground, it is usually sandwiched between a story about a local shooting at night in Philadelphia, the weather forecast, and a sports report," said Marwan M. Kraidy, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

"How much context do they get?" A few soundbites, with perhaps a voice-over from a local news anchor with some footage?" Kraidy said. "Even experts debate what is going on."

A scholar of global communication and an expert on Arab media and politics, Kraidy said the situation in the Middle Eastern nation was so fluid and complex, that it was no wonder people were flummoxed.

Few news outlets can afford to send experienced journalists who speak Arabic to the region to issue first-person reports, he said, so much of the information comes from unidentified sources.

Furthermore, Kraidy said, the various factions cannot be neatly divided into good and bad.

"The opposition is a very opaque" and has splintered into myriad pieces, he said. "By some counts, there are more than 100 militia groups, a few secular, some extremist, all violent."

However confounding the situation may be, the public is being asked to form an opinion.

Because now, horrific photos and videos are circulating, showing dead women and children said to have been poisoned by sarin gas, in attacks allegedly authorized by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

And President Obama, along with other world leaders, is seeking support for some kind of military intervention.

"I wasn't paying much attention until I heard a BBC report about chemical-weapon use," said Colin Fish, a former Air Force staff sergeant. Fish, 26, now a student at Drexel University, served in Afghanistan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Yet he, too, has had trouble following the news.

"Who is doing what to whom and why? I don't have an answer," he said. "I don't think the U.S. should push its agenda on anyone else. But should we get involved? If it's for political purposes, then no. If it's for human-rights violations, then yes."

Then again, he said, maybe not.

"Bombing may cause more problems than we are prepared for," he said. "But it could also disable the regime enough."

Fish says his problem is trusting the American government's assurances that chemical weapons have really been used.

"In Afghanistan," Fish said, "civilians didn't trust anyone."

Americans, he said, are similarly wary, after believing the Bush administration's claims that it had proof of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Fish says he sees no reason to believe that Obama's administration is any more trustworthy.

"The well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode," British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday during a stormy debate in Parliament.

"Once bitten, twice shy," said Kraidy, listing questions he had heard Americans raise.

"People are jaded that suddenly, now we care about Syrian lives. Why should we care if hundreds are killed with chemical weapons as opposed to thousands killed by missiles falling from airplanes? Why care about the dead in Syria and not elsewhere? Why do we call some Middle Eastern leaders allies, even when they are as repressive as others, who we don't?"

Lacking solid understanding of the conflict, Kraidy said, people tend to base their views on political allegiances and ideologies.

"I've seen the photos and videos of all the bodies of children. It's gut-wrenching," said Linda Pillion, who works in business development for an insurance company in Center City. Assad, she said, "can't get away with this. We can't let chemical weapons be used."

If Obama decides intervention is necessary, Pillion said, "we have to support him. I trust him to make the right decision."

Hector Colon and Jill Reifinger are not so sure.

Colon, 32, and Reifinger, 26, hairstylists at a small salon, were discussing Syria during a coffee break.

"What is the reason we are attacking?" Reifinger asked.

"I really don't know," Colon said.

"Did the rebels come to us asking for help? Or did we just step in? You want to help when you see someone in danger," Reifinger said. "But are we ready to deal with the repercussions?"

Colon, whose boyfriend served in the Marines, said he had been struggling to form an opinion. The only thing he is sure of, he said, is that the public is not being fully informed.

The government, he said, "they're always keeping secrets."

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590,r, or @dribbenonphilly.


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