Monday, August 22, 2016

Omran, the unwilling hero of war marketing

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We’ve all seen the image of Omran, the Syrian boy saved from the rubbles after an airstrike on Aleppo, sitting quietly in an ambulance, covered in dust and blood, obviously in shock. Who wasn’t moved by this image, who hasn’t cried or at least choked? But did anyone wonder why this precise image, why now, why this one child and not the thousand others, equally victims of this war?

Wars are in many ways like household products and services. The people selling or providing them use marketing campaigns to convince us to buy what's on offer. In so many words, marketing's purpose is to induce behavioral change in a targeted audience. The sudden spread of Omran Daqneesh's image and the message linked to it, the same message repeated everywhere – "it’s time to do something!" – looks very much like such a campaign.

While researching for this article, I came across a staggering number of images featuring children victim of the Syrian war. More than I believed I could handle... I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep any time soon... Nevertheless, I studied many of these images, wondering why the one with Omran became so "popular" overnight, and not any other?

The "perfect" image?

The answer was more distressing than the pictures, if it was at all possible: the image of Omran is more appealing, more attractive, more marketable than the others. It’s not gruesome, so everyone can publish it and share it without being "indecent". It’s well "art directed" - the boy full of dust and blood, sitting alone in the middle of a clean and stylistic orange environment - so it's easy to memorize and use as a rallying symbol. The image is so perfect, it looks like a still from a Stanley Kubrick or a David Lynch film.

To figure out the actual purpose of this alleged marketing campaign, it’s important to fully understand why the battle of Aleppo is so crucial for all sides, and how the West is more concerned about its outcome than about the people living there, despite what media and politicians have been saying.

It's also important to see how such campaigns are common place when it comes to the Middle East. And how they actually succeed in changing people's perception about what is happening or should happen in the region. 

A history of communication spin

Do you remember when Saddam Hussein was still the US and Europe’s best friend? Do you recall people saying: "Saddam is a ruthless dictator, a hardened criminal who gassed his own civilian population" and being answered: "Maybe, but without him it would be much worse, it would be civil war and the rise of radical Islam"?

But as soon as the eight year long Iran-Iraq War was over - a war conducted by Iraq on behalf of the US and Europe against the enemy of the day: Khomeini's islamic revolution in Iran - things changed. Saddam Hussein was no longer a "great leader" and a "secular Arab visionary" but a "bloodthirsty dictator", a "terrorist", a "thug" with dangerous weapons of mass destruction that needed to be "removed" for the Iraqi people to be free and for the world to better sleep at night.

Saddam Hussein with future US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 1982
- screenshot from Youtube video -
Time Magazine and Newsweek in 2003

If they cared about the well-being of the Iraqi people, and knew what the consequences of Saddam’s fall would be - as they relentlessly repeated for years - why did they wage a war to remove him from power, killing hundreds of thousands in the process, plunging Iraq into civil strife and favoring the creation of terrorist organizations such as Daech? 

The same questions apply to Syria. The Lebanese know this more than anyone. How many times have they heard: "Without Assad the Middle East will descend into chaos" or "without Assad the likes of al-Qaeda will rule Syria and destabilize the region"? In 2002, Britain even considered knighthood for the Syrian president! So why did the West change its mind and start portraying him as a new Hitler?

Bashar and Asma el-Assad meeting the Queen of England in 2002
- Photo: Getty Images -
Time Magazine and The Economist in 2013

On the other hand, why did it encourage Syrians to protest against the regime, when it knew all too well they’d be crushed without mercy.

When Lebanese asked Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in order to have the best neighboring relations – which was a rather reasonable request – the Assad regime unleashed fire and fury on their heads. Massive shelling of civilian population, car bombings, assassinations, arrests, torture, it stopped at nothing.

Subsequently, everyone could have easily predicted how that same regime would react if it were asked to give away control of Syria and, ultimately, cease to exist. The fury unleashed in Lebanon would be nothing in compassion. Everyone knew it would mercilessly crush any uprising of any kind. As it did in Hama, in the early eighties, when it destroyed the whole city, burying its rebel population under the rubbles.

Everyone also knew that a civilian uprising would be "terminated" within weeks, if not days. So weapons, money and mercenaries were sent. Jihadists groups like Daech, Nosra and many others were supported, fueled, then helped take control of large parts of the country. All this under the slogan of "democracy and freedom".

Democracy, a false slogan?

Was the West naïve enough to believe that jihadist groups could bring democracy to the Syrian people if the regime were to fall?

If the US and Europe truly wanted democracy for Syria, wouldn’t they have done things differently? Wouldn’t they have helped the Syrian opposition organize properly and build a feasible alternative to the regime? Wouldn’t they have pressured the latter – sanctions, etc. – to slowly, bit by bit, give away control and hold free elections?

It would have taken a long time, years maybe, but not longer than the war have already lasted and is probably bound to last. Perhaps there would have been some bloodshed, but not to the extend we’ve seen until today. Let alone the complete destruction of the country, the death of close to half a million people and the displacement of nine million others.

But it seems the US and Europe couldn’t care less about democracy. They wanted Syria destroyed as they wanted Iraq destroyed. Why? Because even if the Syrian and Iraqi regimes were enemies, they were both thorns in Israel’s side.

Iraq was useful when it was at war with Iran. When it outlived its usefulness and started having regional ambitions while keeping a strong anti-Israeli rhetoric, it was destroyed.

The same logic applies to Syria. Its main role – during and after the Cold War – was to maintain peace in the Levant and keep a strong reign on the PLO and other Palestinian organizations. When it took a more aggressive role in the Iranian-led "resistance" against Israel, helping Hezbollah and Hamas, it was also destroyed.

Photos of Bashar el Assad alongside Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus in 2006
- Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images -

If Assad had agreed to break ties with Iran, to help eliminate Hezbollah and Hamas, then to sign a peace treaty with Israel, nothing would have happened and Syria would be flourishing today. While the Syrian opposition would have been told what Lebanese were told for thirty years: "Assad is an important factor in the region’s stability".

This is what we need to remember when we look at images of Alyan Kurdi’s body on a deserted beach and of Omran Daqneesh in a an ambulance in Aleppo.

We need to remember that the Syrian regime is a murderous beast, but so are the so-called rebels (let's not forget that only last month, these rebels beheaded a young boy and proudly recorded their crime on camera). These beasts, fighting each other and destroying what’s left of Syria, were all, at one point or another, groomed and fed by Israel’s best allies – The US and Europe.

What Israel has to do with this?

To better understand why Syria is burning, we need to look at the Middle East map and see how the countries surrounding Israel have changed since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

- To the west and south: Egypt has since signed a peace treaty with Israel. 
- To the east: an irrelevant Palestinian Authority and a peace treaty-bounded Jordan. 
- Further east: Iraq has been de facto neutralized by the Gulf War and the fall of Saddam Hussein, while Saudi Arabia is engaged in a “good relations” process with the Jewish state.
- To the north: Syria is tearing itself apart.
- And finally, further north, Turkey is a NATO member and an Israeli ally.

Only remain the Gaza strip to the west and Lebanon to the north. There, Israel led two major wars it failed to win. Hezbollah in Lebanon, and by extension Hamas in Gaza, were able to resist because Hezbollah had a supply route to its main backer: Iran.

Both Lebanese and Palestinian "resistance" would be considerably weakened if this supply route, that runs through Iraq and Syria, were cut. And today, the key to Syria’s future - and to the "resistance" supply route - is in Aleppo. Hence the heavy involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in the battle for the northern Syrian city.

The utter immorality of war marketing

The battle for Aleppo carries considerable stakes for everyone’s involved. The regime and its allies (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah) need to take the city before the American presidential elections in November; before a new hawkish administration led by Hillary Clinton could take office. The "rebels" and everyone behind them (NATO, Saudi Arabia, Qatar) need to hold it long enough for the new US administration to come to the rescue on behalf of Israel.

Protest against US military action in Syria, in front of the White House in Washington DC
- Photo: Andrew Freeman -

And it will do just that, despite an American and European public opinion largely opposed to military intervention. In her speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) earlier this year, Hillary Clinton couldn't say it more clearly: "As AIPAC members, you understand that while the turmoil of the Middle East presents enormous challenge and complexity, walking away is not an option", before concluding: "Well, my friends, Israel’s security is non-negotiable." 

This is where marketing comes in: to sell to the unwilling public opinion the necessity of a Western military intervention "to save the children of Aleppo". And as terrible as it may sound, that’s the sole purpose of little Omran’s widespread image.

Here lies the unbearable immorality of war marketing and all those behind it: using the image of a child, an innocent victim of war, to justify more war, regardless of how many children like Aylan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh would suffer or die.

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