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Spin and death in Raqqa

In Syria’s war, perception is everything. There is no objective reality—except the bodies

On 3rd January of this year, Islamic State (IS) released a video that belongs to what has become a familiar gory genre. A balaclava-clad Briton, flanked by four other masked jihadis, stood behind five kneeling men from Raqqa, the IS-held city in northern Syria. The prisoners were softly mouthing prayers. In a slick montage cut with chanting, some of the five, clearly under duress and likely having been tortured, confessed to being spies and journalists for Britain. They admitted to taking photos of IS positions in exchange for money, setting up an internet café to gather information, and working for outlets such as the BBC. After their captors’ customary tirade against the west, the prisoners were each shot in the back of the head.

The video captured the sharp end of Syria’s information war. Deadly things happen every day purely because of how they will look; people are killed because of how they have made things look. There can be no disentangling of the substance and the spin: one feeds back into the other. This is a conflict where attempts to shape the flow of information determine where blood gets shed, and the flow of blood in turn restricts the movement of information.

Every major incident brings with it rival media footage and the roar of claim and counter-claim. The attack on a UN aid convoy near Aleppo in September, which killed 20 civilians, is a case in point. One set of videos emerged to suggest that the Syrian regime or its Russian allies were responsible. Just a few hours later, the Russians produced their own grainy film, which purported to show it was not their doing. That footage warped perceptions until what now looks like irrefutable evidence finally emerged that this was indeed a Russian or Syrian airstrike.

In this war, even supposedly “non-lethal aid,” to assist in the so-called battle of hearts and minds, can easily have lethal consequences, and the consequences of lethal force are often impossible to gauge. This is never more so than in Raqqa, the conflict’s heart of darkness. It is a year since Parliament voted to approve airstrikes on the city after the IS attacks on Paris. David Cameron, then Prime Minister, promised that bombing Raqqa would cut the head off the terrorist “snake.” Despite sustained bombardment, this has not happened. Donald Trump, US President-elect, has only promised to intensify the campaign. (In his words, “I would bomb the shit out of ‘em.”) Judging the success of airstrikes requires on-the-ground information. But there is no free journalism in Raqqa, and nobody can actually see what is going on.

I know a photojournalist from Raqqa who is the brother of one prisoner in the video. I spoke to him shortly after it appeared, and he was still in shock. Along with other exiled activists, he had been mentioned by name in the video as a handler for the “spies.” He had been writing in hostile terms about IS from the start. But since he had fled the city—he now lives in Istanbul—murdering his brother was the only way the group could get to him.

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In Prospect’s December issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues that Donald Trump was born to be a campaigning demagogue, but will he be too bored to rule? Ed Miliband and Michael Gove debate whether parliament should have a binding vote on the terms of Brexit and Christian Wolmar examines the driverless car delusion. Also in this issue: James Harkin examines the situation in Syria, focussing on Raqqa Ruth Dudley Edwards explores the battle in Ireland since the UK’s decision to leave the EU—will the border become a division? And Michael White looks at the life of Alan Johnson, the Labour MP and former postie.