Since the 2011 social uprising in Syria we are once again hooked onto the spectacle of bombed ruins, this time through drone cameras, laptops, apps and smartphones in addition to TV screens. Similar to the way which the American media was utilised by the US to justify its invasion, destruction and occupation of Iraq through false narratives and disinformation campaigns, the war in Syria has become another recent example of media instrumentalisation, and arguably, weaponisation by the powerful state actors like Russia and the Syrian regime.
Drone videos of the heavily bombed Syrian cities of Homs, Aleppo and Jobar were first recorded and broadcasted online by Russian state media outlets like Russia Today news and Ruptly. ‘Invited’ by the Assad regime (and in violation of popular Syrian sovereignty), Russia’s infinite access to Syrian ground and air space has enabled the Russian state media to capture the least obstructed and most controlled visual documentation of the war space. The drone videos were the first high-quality aerial representation of the large-scale destruction in these Syrian cities. Millions of internet users together with news platforms from all corners of the political spectrum shared these videos, but very few people paused to evaluate the footage or point at its inherent banality and irony: Why would the very military power that has taken part in the mass bombardment, destruction, killing and displacement of Aleppo, Homs and Jobar fly drones over these cities and document its very own footprints of militarised violence? What purpose would such images serve for an imperial power like Russia?
Are these representations of the ruins sincere? Or are they symbolic, politicised and ironic? Could it be that by flying a drone above Aleppo’s ruins, Russia is exhibiting its violent presence and at the same time washing its hands clear of war crimes? A canvas for projecting and veiling imperial power at once? RT’s videos from Aleppo and Jobar were even edited to include a dark and horrifying soundtrack. Perhaps to increase the dramatic and almost mystic audio-visual effect of the aerial footage? Could it be that fetishised ruin production, representation and spectacle has also become a deliberate media propaganda tactic? A numbing visual monumentality that results in “shock and awe”, pacification and disengaged spectacle?
In the case of Aleppo, immediately after the widespread online circulation of these drone videos, the public discussions surrounding the war took another turn. This was not the first or last time that a sudden release of dramatic videos and images from Syria influenced its globalised narrative and discourse. But unfortunately each time, passive and sentimental reactions overshadow the urgent demand for truth and accountability as the narrative of the war became more prone to false rumours, conspiracies, dichotomies and simplifications.
Aerial image of Homs captured by Russian drones flying above the city after the carpet aerial bombardments by the Russian and Syrian air forces.
For over five years media analyst and journalist Muhammad Idrees Ahmad has been analysing Russia Today’s coverage of the Syrian war with the aim of unpacking the ideological patterns that drive its content production. He has defined the variety of dramatisation tactics used by RT as ‘sensory overload‘, a form of imagery and textual reportage frequently deployed by RT (and other media channels like Fox News) which results in over-stimulation, cognitive dissonance and perceptual disorientation in the audience as opposed to informed clarity and fact-based transparency.
Ruins From the Sky
In his book The Production of Space Henri Lefebvre refers to a specific moment during the early stages of World War I when ‘all reference points were evaporating and violence was being unleashed from everywhere’. In the same chapter he explains how the evaporation of these moral, aesthetic and perceptual reference points was integral to the very form of abstraction and modernity that war and imperialism were bringing to the world. In a similar manner, the former Syrian political prisoner and now exiled dissident, Yassin Al Haj Saleh, also discusses such reference points and defines them as the ‘standards by which credibility is assessed‘. Al Haj Saleh and Lefebvre both try to warn us that when our spatio-temporal, representational and moral reference points or standards are systematically eroded by those in power, any form and degree of violence, injustice and dehumanisation becomes possible.
We can argue that, in many ways, mainstreamed ruin production has also been functioning as a media weapon to this end. A top down spatial narration and production tactic imposes a new monumental image of war as an abstract field of non-relations devoid of human bodily presence and experience. In the realm of political aesthetics, mainstreamed aerial representations of war-torn urban ruins could be seen as an attempt to normalise godly interventions, viewpoints, perspectives, narratives and rationalities. Ruin production and mainstream-isation has been integral to the preservation of state control over the narrative of the war in Syria. The ruined urban landscapes beneath RT drones have been portrayed as abstract fields of concrete and debris, devoid of human suffering to an extent that no moral reference points of analysis and narration is possible from the perspective of those that are experiencing the ruins and horror of the war with their very own bodies.
In other words, the state’s godly perspective is reinforced while the civil society and actual human experiences are violently erased and censored from the image. This is one of the many ways which the representation of the space of war is also conquered and monopolised by the state military industrial complex and its media outlets, minimising the possibilities of civilian led investigation, documentation and accountability. Drone cameras and other contemporary technologies have only expedited and expanded the damaging monumentality in such theatrical and fantasy-like representation of imperial war ruins. Personal technologies like smart phones and tablets have made such drone imagery a common component of our everyday visual news consumption.
Another parallel and ‘paradoxical’ media tactic developed as a result of such ruin fetishisation has been the Assad regime’s excessive promotion of unbombed and non-ruined urban areasin regime held territories as some sort of bizarre manifestation of ‘a normal and peaceful country with busy touristy beaches and nightclubs‘. In relation to these promotional videos journalist Annia Ciezadlo writes: ‘In war, the sense of normality erodes quickly. For Assad and his allies to project that image [of control and stability], no matter how unbelievably, is essential. In the realm of ideas and images, the Syrian government’s heavy-handed propaganda is just as effective as its bombing campaigns. It works, and for the same reason: because it rearranges the facts on the ground so thoroughly that it creates its own parallel reality – one that becomes more concrete with repetition.’
Apart from expediting the hyper-engineered and profitable reconstruction process, excessive ruin production and spectacle has become a viable tool for the heads of states to justify total and violent recreation of the built environment while distracting us from the very politics of power, hegemony and inequality that lay at the heart of the conflict. As a form of tabula rasa, carpet bombings function as an end in memory, continuity, specificity and accountability. They force us to enter an abstract, dehistoricised and decontextualised terrain of rationalities that bare zero connection to the actual materiality of war and its bodily lived experience by the targeted populations.
Aerial image of Aleppo captured by Russia Tv drones flying above the city after the bombardments.
Resisting Ruin Monumentality, Restoring Media Narratives
To deconstruct and disrupt such aesthetic regimes, photographers, architects, visual artists and urban researchers are equipped with powerful methodologies of resistance. They can de-abstractify and contextualise the ruins in time and space. By tracing, narrating and exposing power relations by means of spatial analysis, contextualisation and counter representation, they have the tools to look closer at the ruins in order to establish the much needed critical, specific and less abstract gaze. Such aesthetic interventions in the space of war can not only help to redefine the ruins as material manifestations of militarised state violence, but also to reveal the state’s political strategies. This challenges the widespread perception of the ruins as ‘natural’ consequences of ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘mystic’ political conflicts in ‘far away lands’.
Eyal Weizman, for example, has been redefining and representing bombed residential buildings and their physical context as evidence of war crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal. In reference to Israel’s periodical bombardment of the Gaza Strip, he writes: ‘The visible ruin is an important symbol in the public display of occupation and domination: it demonstrates the presence of the colonial power even when the colonist is nowhere to be seen.’ This is the case for all war-torn urban ruins, especially the ruined landscapes across Syria created by the few state actors which have a monopoly on the Syrian airspace, namely Bashar al Assad’s army as well as the Russian and American air forces.
Weizman’s Forensic Architecture has recently conducted three remarkable investigations in Syria in order to preserve the ever-crumbling public truth and to counter state hegemony over media narratives. They have closely looked at the bombing of Al-Jinah Mosque by the US air force on March 16th 2017, the aerial bombing of MSF supported hospital in Idlib’s al-Hamidiah by the Russian air forces together with the Syrian regime on February 15th 2016, and lastly, the Syrian regime’s aerial strikes on the M2 hospital in Aleppo from June to December 2016. In his presentations, Eyal Weizman always places extra emphasis on the fact that their investigations are almost impossible without contributions by local witnesses and citizen journalists, and that aerial or satellite imagery can no longer be the sole material used for investigating war crimes. In other words, the actual physical experience of the event must be a key component of any accurate, reliable and just analysis.
Ironically, Weizman accepted an interview with Russia Today recently, but only under one important condition as he announced on his Facebook page: ‘I responded that I’d be happy to take part on condition that the examples we’d discuss would be Russian air strikes on hospitals in Syria.’ During the interview he challenged RT’s state propaganda and misinformation campaigns by providing informed commentary based on the forensic analysis of the ruins:
‘We can identify patterns, and we see that hospitals are increasingly the target of Russian and Syrian airstrikes…I believe that Russian air force and Syrian air force are deliberately targeting civilian hospitals in Syria…Military strategy is often about putting pressure both on the civilian population and on the military resistance…putting pressure on civilian population and infrastructure is something that reduces the resilience of a particular area to keep on resisting a regime or a government. We must understand that, unfortunately, this is part of contemporary warfare.’
Abolishing The Aerial Vision
Early August 2016, it became clear to the besieged residents of eastern Aleppo that an end to the intensified aerial bombardments by Russia and the Assad regime will not come through good faith in diplomacy or hope in international interventions. Thus the civilian population in the area was once again forced to take the difficult task of humanitarian intervention upon themselves and utilise anything and everything around them towards collective survival. The total obstruction of the aerial vision from military jets and helicopters high above seemed to be the fastest and most realistic way to protect lives on the ground. For four days many residents (mostly the youth and the children) burnt rubber car tires across the city and created an immaterial civil defence architecture out of smoke clouds. The resulting smoke screen hovering above the city was an attempt in creating a civilian-imposed no-fly zone, but the symbolic aspects of this intervention were perhaps more evident than its practical functionality.
The creative yet desperate obstruction of the visual axis from the sky momentarily reversed the top-down power relations normalised by technologies of war, militarism and imperialism. However, the symbolic significance of this action goes beyond the current war and reflects the historical struggle of Syrians against different authoritarian forces and their aerial technologies of surveillance, control and spatial production. From the French colonial rule to the Baath party and now the intensifying Russian-American-Iranian interventions in the name of ‘war on terror‘, the struggle for democratic self-determination, representation and administration has been a persistent historic demand for the Syrian people. As exiled Syrian architect Khaled Malas reminds us, top down, violent relations and images from the sky have always been part of Syria’s relationship with modernity:
‘The sky is a place that we have, almost universally throughout history, viewed with upturned faces, often in wonder and awe. Yet within its brilliance lies the darkness of control, domination, and destruction. The sky is the domain from which powerful beings, whether gods or airmen, often violently impose their power upon the landscapes below… the omnipresent yet rarely addressed role of aerial observation and bombardment in the production of modern space. The sky represents the powerful attempts to produce territory from above…’
Perhaps one of the many ways which the international community can assist Syrians in achieving lasting peace and justice is to be more careful with the kind of images, videos and narratives of the war that we systematically consume through mainstream media. We can use the powerful tools that horizontal social media and citizen journalism have provided us to bypass state-formulated narratives and representations of the war.
To conclude, war and suffering in Syria will not end until the emancipatory story of the 2011 Syrian revolution prevails other counter-revolutionary narratives and images, and this will not happen until we actually see and hear the Syrian people through their own narratives and images.