War is the realm of uncertainty; three-quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.
— General Carl von Clausewitz
Understanding what is happening on the ground in a warzone has always been tricky for battlefield commanders, let alone journalists and the general public. Conflict creates confusion, which creates chaos, all of which makes finding out the truth of any one event very difficult. This has been made all the more difficult in recent years by the rise of social media and citizen journalists whom, while often allowing for direct footage to broadcast globally, often suffer from a lack of context and an inability to connect tactical events with strategic moves by actors in a conflict.
But having a clear understanding of conflict zones is incredibly important. In a globalised world where regional conflicts can draw in global actors, being able to attribute actions and clearly explain events is of paramount importance. A great example of this is the ongoing civil war in Syria. Here, there are multiple regional and global actors taking part in a civil conflict which has the potential to have great geopolitical significance. To complicate matters, there are strong religious and ethnic elements to the conflict and chemical weapons have been used multiple times. This last point is key because the use of chemical weapons has been a main driver for increased participation by western militaries, and an area that has created increased tension between the US and Russia in particular.
Douma and the Question of Why?
The recent chemical attack in Douma perfectly highlights both the challenges in gaining a clear understanding of what has happened, as well as the various factors that muddy the waters. Though there has been a number of instances of usage of chemical weapons, by both sides in the conflict, it seems clear that in this case the attack was carried out by government forces.
This should not be a controversial conclusion, the evidence is fairly clear. The scale of the attack and the form of delivery, by helicopter dropping barrel bombs, all point towards this being carried out by the Syrian government. There is also clear motive on their part. Douma is one of the last rebel-held areas near the capital city of Damascus and represented a clear and present danger to the Assad government, both due to the tactical considerations of its proximity as well as the propaganda value this proximity gave the rebel forces in the country.
Nevertheless, the key questions that were repeated among western media outlets were concerned with why Assad risked using chemical weapons when it seems like he is winning the civil war and it risks bringing more western intervention into the conflict.
The answer to this is very simple in reality but requires people to understand the risk and reward scenarios through Assad’s own perspective, and this is where western media struggles. It seems from Assad’s point of the view that the use of chemical weapons has a number of tactical and strategic benefits while having little real risk.
It allows Assad to spread fear amongst his opponents, demoralise enemy combatants and the populations they operate within and limit the direct threat to his ground forces through urban fighting, all the while operating under the calculation that he will face large-scale reaction from western militaries due to the explicit backing he has from Russia. This calculation seems to have been correct. Now, the reason that this perspective is hard to understand is always fairly simple: it is not the perspectives that any “reasonable person” would hold and so often is very hard to comprehend by people not in the same circumstances or with the same world-view.
The problem is that an inability to understand this situation and comprehend Assad’s strategic view allowed for unfounded questions to be raised about the validity of the reports coming from Douma. This allowed both Russia and Assad to muddy the waters and attempt to shift the blame for the attack to others and claim that it may have been a false flag attack by rebels to get the US more involved in the conflict to halt the advance of government forces.
Context Is Key
This whole episode has shown the importance of trying to understand and contextualise events within a conflict zone. As social media and distributed reporting continues to grow, it becomes even more important for media and news agencies to be able to bring key context to conflict zones and report in a way that allows people have a holistic view of increasingly internationalised conflicts.
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