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August 4, 2016

A post-factual conflict


August 4, 2016

After five years of brutal conflict in which half the population has been forced from their homes, there is still no end in sight to the war in Syria.

One of the reasons behind this longevity is that Syria has become a post-factual conflict and it is that dynamic that fundamentally undermines any political solution.

So what does it mean to be a post-factual conflict?

Before he became Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson once explained that if you are losing an argument with the facts against you, instead of maintaining focus on the reality your best bet is to “throw a dead cat on the table” explaining that “everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’”

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad must be aware of the facts of what’s happening in Syria. Hundreds of thousands have died, life expectancy has been set back by two decades, 80 percent of the country lives in poverty and at least $200bn of damage has been done to the country’s infrastructure.

He cannot rationally say that his presidency has overseen a positive influence on the country’s direction of travel.

However, in a post-factual conflict ignorance and irrationality hold sway over facts and reason.

The rapid emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) has been the “dead cat” on the table of the Syrian conflict.

It has focused wider global concern on transnational terrorism and placed the future of the Assad regime into the box labelled secondary priority.

This is a victory of feelings, such as “terrorism is terrifying” over facts, such as “who is responsible for most of the violence in Syria”?

Civilians are dying but nobody will take responsibility for killing them. The Russians claim that it’s “fake information” that they’ve hurt anyone, while Assad told the BBCthat “we need to talk about facts … there’s [sic] no barrel bombs. We don’t have barrels”.

The World Economic Forum has warned of the dangers of massive digital misinformation. In Syria’s post-factual conflict misinformation is rife, you can destroy hospitals without any censure, you can use chemical weapons while simultaneously stating you haven’t, and you can describe all of your enemies as “foreigners”, “terrorists” or the puppets of foreign governments.

American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said that “you are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” In a post-factual conflict there is a fatal blurring of lines between opinion and fact.

This is partly due to the rise and rise of global communications and an abundance of “news” to pick and choose from.

Author Rachel Cooper described it well when she wrote that “we rush to back up our ideals and beliefs with similar information from similar sources”.

Professor of marketing Jonah Berger explained that “stories feeding on awe, anger, or fear often enjoy more social transmission than stories with sad or depressing content”.

In a post-factual conflict all sides utilise media and social media to reinforce fearful conspiracy theories to render facts irrelevant.

Therefore, many who are anti-Assad will continue to believe he is a despotic tyrant, while those who are pro-Assad will continue to believe the opposition is made up of brutal extremists.

The two groups will consume media that reinforces their point of view and share that with their like-minded social networks, thus the divisions solidify.

Assad has had the more consistent narrative against an array of diverse and fragmented opponents.

In his semi-regular long interviews with the Western press over the past five years, he has painted the picture of himself as a reluctant wartime leader of a country besieged by the nefarious efforts of international terrorism and the agendas of regional enemy states.

He has repeated ad nauseam the argument that he is part of the solution, not the part of the problem.

He has harnessed the anger and fear over terrorism and sectarian civil war both inside the country and internationally, and channelled these emotions into his narrative of continuity and stability.

So one of the most striking consequences of the conflict - beyond the death and destruction - is the complete breakdown of trust within Syrian society.

So entrenched are the feelings of being “pro” or “anti” Assad that efforts at peace talks have been near-impossible to date - with it being very hard even to get people into the same room.

When or if peace does return to Syria, it is trust – rather than the bricks and mortar of cities – that may be the hardest thing to rebuild.

This article was originally published as: ‘Syria’s civil war is a post-factual conflict’.