2 min read

Why cannibalism is not the story

Protests in Al-Raqqa condemning the execution of three regime soldiers by Jabhet Al-Nusra. Source: @omarsyria

Syrian rebel fighter Khaled Al-Hamad recently gained worldwide infamy for ripping out and chewing the lung of a regime soldier in a (graphic) video posted to YouTube. The gruesome horror and indecency of the act needs no commentary. The main lesson that most journalists have drawn is that depravity and radicalisation in Syria are spreading. What isn’t recognized are the ways Syrians are taking a stand against unjustifiable crimes, even in the face of so much horror. Those reactions, in contrast, are inspiring.

You needn’t go all the way to the ICC or UN to find evidence of real hope for justice and accountability in Syria. Syrians have long taken up that banner. Last week the Jihadist opposition group who effectively controls the town of Raqqa publicly executed three government soldiers in retaliation against recent massacres by the regime. The videos received over 25,000 views on Youtube. Less publicized is the protest (pictured above) by the Raqqa townspeople against the executions. As Mariam Karouny of Reuters reported, “After the shootings there were only muted chants of support for the fighters and activists said that small protests broke out at night condemning the execution and calling on the fighters to fight Assad instead of executing people.” Even as conditions grow more difficult, the protest in Raqqa proves how adamant Syrians’ calls for justice and accountability really are.

The video of Al-Hamad has done undue damage to Syrians calling for justice and dignity. Opposition supporters are more likely than ever to be perceived as “barbarous by association.” One UK paper sees the Al-Hamad incident as an extreme example of how the conflict is “radicalizing an entire population.” But it’s a fine line between noting radicalization among some armed groups and painting all Syrian opposition as depraved and hungry for blood. One pro-regime blog shows a cartoon of the “Free Syrian Cannibal,” mapping Al-Hamad onto the FSA as whole.

Opposition groups, both political and military, decried Al-Hamad’s actions and FSA-head Major General Salam Idriss was far from triumphant about what happened, saying any of his men who violate human rights would be “brought before the court.” But even while the regime targets civilians without respect for human life, opposition groups need to do more to enforce procedures for accountability. Nadim Houry, Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch, saysit’s important to “strip all sides from their sense of impunity.”  Peter Bouckaert, also of HRW, used the incident to emphasize “the larger accountability effort needed in the wake of this conflict — national trials, documentation, truth telling, reparations, and vetting”.

Syrians working for accountability will probably never be the stuff of YouTube viral fame, but one video of a bloodthirsty man threatens to stain the image of a whole movement. Likewise, a public execution will gain notoriety while the protest against it remains unsung. Such are the politics of representation and violence. Yes, the desire for vengeance among Syrians is real, but so is a yearning for peace. The blood-spattered headlines don’t do justice to those working to secure accountability.

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