Posted by on July 07, 2014 in Blog

By Elizabeth Adams
Summer Intern, 2014

When a situation such as Syria or Iraq arises that seems too chaotic to easily understand, the tendency in media and policy discussions is to start pulling it apart and placing the pieces in large labeled boxes so that we can compartmentalize and process all of the information.

During an AAI lunch discussion with Omar Hossino of the Center for American Progress, he described how shocked his Syrian friends were when watching Western news reports saying that “The Sunnis are doing thus and such, while the Christian and Shiite populations support this, and the Druze or Kurds are over here wanting A,B, and C.” There was a complete and unexpected lack of nuance which was rightfully disconcerting. This sort of labeling may help in the beginning to understand an issue on its glassy surface, but on the ground situations are less clear. An effective comprehensive analysis or policy toward the region has to take into consideration the reality of its inherent subtleties.

The issue was also touched on by Emile Hokayem, author of Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant, who spoke at the International Institute of Strategic Studies panel titled, “Syria after Geneva, the Elections, and ISIS: Partition, Fragmentation, and Escalation” in which he pointed out the way that events in Syria are seen in too broad and simplistic of terms.

Terminology is important- it has the power to bend facts and influence public opinion, whether on issues like Syria and Iraq or on Israel Palestine, as AAI President Jim Zogby notes. In regard to Syria, phrases such as “proxy war” are lazily tossed into the ring and passed around without critical thought. On this point, Hokayem reminded the audience that Syria is, by definition, not a proxy war: Iranian soldiers are confirmed to be in Syria. 

Another frustration is how people often write about either the regime or the rebels “winning” at any given time while ignoring events that do not fit into their narrative. This type of discussion fails to recognize the divisions within regime forces, in particular. Meanwhile, the rifts in rebel forces receive plenty of attention. On this, Hokayem spoke about how Assad could not counter the rebels using a conventional army and therefore fostered the creation of local militias who are now differentiating from each other. Examples include some militias in the south who see themselves as a local protection force and have refused Assad’s orders to fight elsewhere, and the militias in Homs who were firing on UN monitors against Assad’s orders. 

Hokayem also lamented the phenomena in which journalists and researchers make sweeping statements linking groups to state funders without delving deeply into the relationships to understand the degree of influence between the two. This type of intellectual laziness is not limited to the Syrian conflict of course; it is a widespread epidemic when it comes to discussing groups in the Middle East.

A prime example is the discourse surrounding the Shiites of the region. Some commentators as high up as Hillary Clinton act as though behind every Shiite is Iran- a misconception born out of their shared religious views- but the reality remains much more nuanced. Factors such as the marja’ that they follow (most follow either Sistani or Khamenei), the policies that their state adopts towards Shiites (e.g. the way Bahrain treats its Shiite population differs greatly than Azerbaijan), and ethnicity (Ajam, Arab, Pakistani, etc.), all affect the policies and needs of each Shiite community. To assume that all of a specific group is focused on the same end goal or have connections to a backer that fits their religious sect is a mistake.

This general trend of negligence toward nuance is intellectual laziness. It makes our lives easier for the short term to make overarching generalizations in order to focus on the “bigger picture”, but in the end, the bigger picture looks sloppy and unclear if the details are not right. Analysis, particularly on the Middle East, should be made with attention to the small, significant events, minorities, and movements that together make up societies, and then placed in context that is formed from other detailed research. Situations such as Syria and Iraq are multifaceted in nature and require input from across the board; academics, journalists, policy makers, men and women in the region, NGO’s, and businesses all have unique insight into the issues at hand. It seems like an overwhelming task, but when policy is written out of the research, it needs to be accurate and tailored well for the people it is ultimately going to affect.

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