On the use of images in the diplomatic struggle over Syria

Two weeks ago I published an analysis of the images of Syria used by the British FCO on Twitter. My analysis found that the FCO employs images that resonate with iconic moments from British history. In addition, I found that these images are an integral part of the British narrative of events in Syria.

This week I sought to explore the images from Syria used by other organizations and MFAs. Presently, there is a diplomatic struggle over the future of Syria. On the one hand, Russia and its allies have acted militarily in Syria in order to save the rule of Bashar Assad. On the other hand, the US and its European allies are advocating a political transition in Syria and have accused Russia and Assad of committing War Crimes over the past few weeks. While the battle in the UN Security Council rages on, UN agencies have been struggling to meet the needs of millions of Syrian refugees.

Within this struggle, Aleppo has become a symbol of the suffering and violence now seen across Syria. But Aleppo has also become part of the diplomatic struggle surrounding Syria with one side arguing it has liberated the city while the other asserts it was the scene of savage violence.

In this post I analyze the images of Syria used by three diplomatic actors: NGOs and multi-lateral organizations, the Russian MFA and the US State Department

NGOs and Multi-lateral organizations: Between Suffering and Caring

The international Red Cross (ICRC) has dedicated much of its online content to the Syrian crisis. Interestingly, there seems to be a disparity between the ICRC’s official Twitter account and the ICRCSyria account. On its official account, the ICRC emphasizes the aid it is delivering to Syrian refugees as well as its rescue operations in Syria. Many ICRC Tweets focus on the inhabitant of Aleppo demonstrating its status as a symbol of the Syrian Civil War. Additionally, the images used by the ICRC tend to include children. Such is the case with the Tweet below depicting the physical rehabilitation of a child injured in Aleppo.

The use of children in ICRC Tweets is also evident in the Tweet below depicting a child being evacuated from Aleppo.

The use of children in itself is not surprising. Indeed children are often the object of conflict and war images given their innocence and frailty. It is images of children that are also used to demonstrate the brutality and futility of war. Such is the case with images of child soldiers in Africa or the image below from the Vietnam War.

struggle-two

Notably, the ICRC does not use images of children to demonstrate the brutality of war but rather the opposite, the goodness that can be found in the darkest of places. The images are also used to demonstrate that there are those who care for the children of Aleppo while others target them. The use of children is thus a tool to craft the image of the ICRC- it does not just deliver aid. It delivers hope.

Conversely, the dedicated ICRCSyria channel focuses more on the devastation in Aleppo and the desperate need for humanitarian aid. This is evident in the two Tweets below. The first depicts Aleppo now reduced to rubble while the second depicts civilians receiving emergency aid. Note that in these images children are absent.

And so one finds that the same organization depicts a different reality on Twitter. While the ICRC’s official channel focuses on the caring aspect, the ICRCSyria channel focuses on the suffering. The difference between the two suggests that each digital diplomacy channel may be used towards a different end. The ICRC official channel depicts the work being done in Syria as a means of demonstrating the organization’s standing as a leading NGO. The ICRCSyria channel focuses on the work that lies ahead in attempt to raise support for the organization’s efforts and maintain public awareness of the devastation in Aleppo.

An analysis of the UN’s twitter channel exhibits similar findings. When attempting to raise aid and awareness of the Syrian crisis the UN uses images of children as is shown below.

But when attempting to discuss the diplomatic battle over Syria, the UN uses images of devastation as can be seen below.

Notably, unlike the ICRC, the UN does not seem to depict hope but only devastation and the brutality of war. Thus, while the ICRC promotes the narrative of caring and suffering in relation to Syria, the UN promotes only the narrative of suffering. It is possible that the UN employs this narrative in an attempt to pressure its member states to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.

The Russian MFA: A Global Powerbroker

The Russian MFA seems to employ different images when referring to Syria on Twitter. Children are rarely seen on the Russian MFA’s Twitter channel. Rather, the MFA mostly depicts Russia’s diplomatic attempts to resolve the Syrian crisis.  Such is the case with the three images below all depicting phone calls between the Russian foreign minister and his counterparts.

struggle-one

Secondly, Russia depicts its humanitarian assistance to those trapped in besieged areas. This is achieved through few images of the devastation in Syria and a plethora of images of Russian aid convoys.  These can be seen in the Tweets below.

When the Russian MFA does depict the devastation in Syria, it does so while referring to terrorist acts. Such is the case with the Tweet below in which ancient ruins have allegedly been destroyed by extremist terrorists.

Most importantly, the Russian MFA also depicts a different reality in Aleppo by using images supposedly depicting life returning to normal in various parts of the city. Such is the case with the Tweet below.

The images used by the Russian MFA demonstrate its narrative of events in Syria. Russia is depicted as spearheading the diplomatic attempt to resolve the crisis in Syria. Moreover, it is supposedly Russia that is delivering aid to besieged areas while cities under its control have seen a return to normal life- even Aleppo. The devastation found in Syria is not the result of the Russian army’s aerial bombardment but rather of terrorists. Thus, it is through the Syrian issue that Russia depicts itself as a global powerbroker dedicated to diplomacy, preserving human life and fighting extremist terrorism.

The US State Department: Unspeakable War Crimes

In recent weeks, the US State Department has refrained from using images of children or the devastation in Syria. This may be a result of the fact that such images would demonstrate the urgency of solving the Syrian crisis alongside the stalemate in the diplomatic battle being waged in the UN. Thus, most images used by the State Department are those of US officials commenting on Syria, as is the case in the Tweets below of Secretary of State John Kerry.

While the wording in both Tweets above is exceptionally strong (e.g., “savage brutality” and “slaughter”), the images are not.

Additional images used in reference to Syria all focus on US diplomatic efforts. One such image, shown in the Tweet below, depicts a meeting of foreign ministers from various nations that assembled to discuss the Syrian issue.

An important image used by the State Department, and shown below, is that of the UN general assembly hall and above it a recent resolution passed alleging that War Crimes have been committed in Syria.

Additional images, used by the US Ambassador to the UN, include official statement emphasizing the need to safeguard the lives of Syrian civilians.

The narrative of events in Syria that arises from the State Department’s use of images is that of “diplomacy first”. The US alleges that War Crimes have been committed in Syria. The best way to end these crimes, and investigate them, is through diplomatic efforts at the UN. Leading this effort is America’s number one diplomat, John Kerry.

However, one has to wonder if the State Department’s decision not to employ images of the devastation in Syria does not limit the effectiveness of its narrative. Images are, after all, a potent tool in the crafting and disseminating of online narratives.

Conclusions:

The results of this blog post suggest that different diplomatic actors depict different realities. At times, the same actor can depict different realities as is the case with ICRC. Moreover, images seem to be an important component of digital diplomacy narratives, at times used to depict hope, at other times used to depict misery. Notably, this post also finds that social media has become a battleground in which different actors depict different realities while attempting to gain the support of social media users. Yet these users may be left baffled by the conflicting depictions of reality they are presented with. Is Syria finally liberated and free, or is it the scene of unspeakable crimes? Who can tell?

3 thoughts on “On the use of images in the diplomatic struggle over Syria

  1. Pingback: #Cyberculture -Wikileaks more into dubious waters as it considers exposing verified Twitter users’ data… « Erkan's Field Diary

  2. I appreciated very much this post and I do agree with the conclusion.
    I also would like to add that the oversaturation of such images may lead to a wide callousness of the SM users. This can be a problem in the near future from a humanitarian point of view.

  3. Pingback: Top List Gennaio ’17 | NAZIONI NELLA RETE

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