A few days after the infamous chemical attacks took place in Syria, I decided it was my duty to inform myself further on the issue. I knew the basic gist of what happened – the few lines CNN had sent out to my phone as a push notification – but I wanted to know more. My first instinct was to conduct a simple Google search that I hoped would help give me an overview of the issue. Typing the words “Syria news” into my browser, I expected to find an array of articles discussing the Syrian attack on its civilians. Yet, to my surprise, the first headlines that popped up did not mention the people that were killed but rather featured the names of politicians. While prominent names such as presidents Trump, Assad and Putin were in the spotlight, I couldn’t find any mention of the Syrian victims who were inhumanely murdered.
With thousands of lives lost in the Syrian civil war every year, it is alarming that most of the American media attention is on President Trump’s volatile political agenda rather than on the mass number of casualties that are threatening Syria’s population. While Trump’s decision to strike the country is certainly important and should be featured by news sources, an account of all the lives lost in the country deserves an equal place in the headlines. After all, people’s lives are in play and these should not be forgotten simply because news outlets have decided to move on to another matter, either because it is not in the company’s best interest or a more popular issue has come up. Readers across the country, Northwestern students included, are constantly led to believe an issue is no longer topical simply because it is no longer publicized as much. The media moves on, but that doesn’t mean we should, too.
On Saturday, April 7, the rebel-held town of Douma was attacked with chemical weapons, presumably by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 40 people were killed and another 500 people exhibited symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals, including white foam coming from their mouths, as well as breathing and vision problems. Yet, news coverage often portrays the casualties as a mere number, leading readers to forget the magnitude and gravity of the atrocities. As a New York Times writer put it, “Syria’s death toll is lost in the fog of war.”
So how is it that more than 400,000 real lives have been lost as collateral of an arguably government-inflicted war, but most of them are forgotten? Instead of shining a light on the systemic issues that lie behind the political front of the country, the media is perpetuating a dangerous cycle of documenting an international event and then quickly moving on to another one, which exacerbates the problem even further. In some cases, the media inserts its bias by framing the news, making it even harder for readers to distinguish reality from a political set-up.
Since the chemical attacks, the U.S., the U.K. and France joined forces to strike three targets in Syria as a measure of retaliation against Assad’s administration. According to the Syrian Armed Forces, 110 missiles were fired on the targets. Although firing missiles does not seem like the preferred solution, several Republican members of Congress that once criticized Obama’s plans to attack Syria are now praising Trump’s active measures to stop Assad. What is more troubling, though, is that they only decided to intervene when it was announced that the attack had involved chemical weapons. This seems to be an ongoing trend. Nearly a year ago, the U.S. also launched missiles as a response to another chemical attack. In 2012, Obama claimed that the use of chemical weapons crossed a “red-line,” and would lead to military intervention. Over the span of the war, the Syrian government has killed thousands of civilians using conventional weapons, but somehow the Western allies are always more concerned by the use of toxic gases and other so-called weapons of mass destruction. Now that Trump feels threatened by the chemical attacks, he condemned the Assad regime by claiming that “these heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.” But how come countless previous “heinous actions” conducted by the Syrian state that did not involve chemical weapons were in fact tolerated and overlooked?
A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 14, 2018
After the strike took place, Trump celebrated it by tweeting “mission accomplished.” Since then, the president has received significant criticism for his assertive comment. There are many serious issues, including the Syrian refugee crisis and the growing death toll, yet to be resolved. No Band-aid solution will solve the country’s enduring conflict, and the “mission” is far from “accomplished.” The president may claim the problem has been managed and the media may move on to a different story, but it is our job as members of the public to look at the news with a critical eye.
While it is difficult for students of a university halfway across the world from Syria to connect with the struggles of its people, it is still our responsibility as global citizens to remember the lives of those who have fought and lost. It is our responsibility to speak up and demand action from both the government and the media itself. It is challenging to not get caught up in the myriad of news headlines that sometimes overshadow the articles written on the war’s victims. The Syrian civil war is an urgent matter that has not been properly discussed and dealt with. It may not be our family members that are directly affected by the conflict, but it still matters.