Syrian regime’s stereotyping of Idlib shadows its bright side

Syrian graffiti artist Aziz al-Asmar painting a mural of a house with the help of children on a wall in Binnish city in Idlib - 2019 (Enab Baladi)

Syrian graffiti artist Aziz al-Asmar painting a mural of a house with the help of children on a wall in Binnish city in Idlib - 2019 (Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud

The Syrian regime’s inability to recapture Idlib governorate in northwestern Syria despite its repeated military offensives against the region has caused it to falsify facts, spread rumors, and depict its war on Idlib’s civilians as a war against extremist terrorist groups, aiming to distort the image of the governorate, Syrian artist Samir Aktaa told Enab Baladi.    

Aktaa, a singer and a composer based in Idlib, said that he resorted to singing to depict the true reality of the Syrian revolution and expose the lies surrounding it. 

By delivering sublime art acclaimed by audiences and of positive reflections, Aktaa succeeded in portraying a bright image of Idlib and its residents. He showed that the revolution in Syria has uplifted Syrians and called for respecting their dignity, unlike the regime that insulted its opponents with all sorts of negative labels.       

Before the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Idlib was known as the “Green Idlib” for its richness with olive trees. However, residents of Idlib have always considered their region as a “forgotten governorate” since Hafez al-Assad came to power in Syria. Residents claim that the Syrian government has ignored their governorate and failed to undertake urban development projects there.          

During the revolution, Idlib governorate became the center of attention after becoming home to thousands of displaced Syrians from different regions and opponents evicted from their areas under settlement agreements imposed by the regime with Russian auspices.   

In May 2014, a settlement agreement stipulated the eviction of civilians and former fighters from the old city of Homs to Idlib. As more settlements were reached throughout Syria, Idlib became a large concentration point for displaced residents and fighters from Damascus and its countryside, Daraa, Homs, Hama, and other regions. It is estimated that over four million Syrians live in northern Syria, according to a study published by the Jusoor Center for Studies last March.     

Meanwhile, the regime was launching an information war, in which it presented itself as civilized to the West through holding artistic activities, including concerts and festivals. At the same time, the regime labeled those in northern Syria as extremists and terrorists, attempting to demonize them. 

The regime also mobilized its forces by talking about an imminent battle in Idlib, despite efforts made by the three guarantors of the Astana talks (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) to reinforce calm in the de-escalation zone of Idlib reached in the course of the Astana talks.          

From Idlib… A song to the world

Singer-composer Samir Aktaa chanted songs for the Syrian revolution and subsequent aftermath, some pressing issues, and cross-border humanitarian hardship. He told Enab Baladi that art has the power to break the regime’s stereotyping of Idlib.  

Art is a tool that allows people to freely express themselves and their society, Aktaa said. He added, artists’ genuine sentiments can reveal the most sublime human feelings away from insincerity and pretense and by having a deep belief in the righteousness of the cause and the revolution.    

According to Aktaa, an artist’s mission is to reflect reality with his/her work and be more attentive to pressing issues than other groups in society, adding that through words and songs, artists can mirror the suffering and injustice directed against people for daring to demand freedom. 

During the revolution, many artistic and cultural manifestations emerged in Idlib, seeking to send a message to the world and those far about life in Idlib and the true nature of its people.   

Aktaa has presented songs about vital issues, including the case of detainees (the living and the killed ones), internally displaced camps, the revolution’s tenth anniversary, and the killing of Abdul Baset al-Sarout, an icon of the Syrian revolution. 

He also sang for the Lebanese city of Beirut after the 4th of August port blast, sending messages by his voice from Idlib to the Arab world and all oppressed people worldwide.   

Aktaa told Enab Baladi that Syrians’ battle against the regime’s tyranny and dictatorship is one and indivisible.  

“The world will not stand by a revolution that does not have a voice. Freedom and dignity are vital issues to all people of the free world.”

Artist Samir Aktaa

A complex but harmonious society

For Syrian opponents, Idlib is the heart and soul of the revolution, and a symbol of resistance since the regime lost complete control over the region in 2015 to be ruled by the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and then the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in late 2017.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has imposed its military control over Idlib and its countryside since 2017 with the presence of the SSG that is accused of affiliation to HTS. 

There are other forces besides the dominant HTS exercising control over Idlib, including the National Liberation Front (NLF), an affiliate to the Syrian National Army (SNA), and Jaysh al-Izza (the Army of Glory). 

In 2017, the United States designated HTS as a terrorist group after HTS abandoned its former name of Jabhat Fath al-Sham (The Front for the Conquest of the Levant), which included several opposition armed factions, the most prominent of which was the al-Nusra Front after it ended its affiliation with al-Qaeda in 2016.  

Idlib is a rich land incubating various segments of Syrian people living in coherence despite their diverse visions, Aktaa said, adding that residents of Idlib share the same goal, ambition, and hope that one day their country will be among countries helping people fulfilling their aspirations and ambitions.       

Art from Idlib to the world

American researcher George Gerbner introduced cultivation theory in the 1960s as part of the Cultural Indicators Project to examine the influence of television on viewers. The theory says that long-term exposure to media shapes how consumers of media perceive the world and conduct themselves, meaning that the impact of media on audiences is necessarily an impact on popular culture.  

The Syrian regime utilized state television, media outlets, and social media networks to polish its image against the international community, depending on repeating the same official version of being targeted by terrorists and foreign elements carrying out a conspiracy to undermine Syria.       

Aziz al-Asmar, a Syrian graffiti artist, living in Idlib, rose to fame after he started painting murals on walls of destroyed houses and buildings by the Syrian regime’s bombing and Russia in Idlib. 

Al-Asmar’s murals tackle humanitarian themes beyond the Syrian case. For example, he painted a mural in honor of George Floyd, an African American US citizen who lost his life to racism and police brutality. Al-Asmar also painted murals of football icon Maradona after his death, the Israeli forces’ assault on Palestinians in Jerusalem, the Syrian revolution, and the death of Abdul Baset al-Sarout.       

Al-Asmar told Enab Baladi that he chose to paint on destroyed buildings because “they mirror the level of tragedy and brutality  that have been practiced against Syrians by the regime and its allies.” 

The graffiti artist painted murals on the regime’s bombardment, displacement, arrests, civilians’ daily lives, and the hardships they face, including poverty, unemployment, and rising prices throughout Syria. 

He added that a few colors explained a lot without words and sent a message to the world that the Syrian revolution is not merely weapons, killers, and victims, but it is a revolution of culture, art, and humanity.   

According to al-Asmar, the cities of Saraqeb and Kafr Nubul in Idlib countryside and Darayya in Damascus countryside were the first to use graffiti and colors in the service of the revolution.

Today, al-Asmar is engaging children in murals painting to help them express their dreams and wishes, considering that their participation enriches and attributes more sincerity and human value to his cultural and artistic project. 

“We are still dreaming of a near victory to paint the victory mural on the walls of the presidential palace in Damascus.”

Graffiti artist Aziz al-Asmar

Idlib does not need an alternative society 

Zafer Saleh Sadaqah, a Syrian poet who lives in Idlib, has written poems and composed lyrics of many songs chanted by Samir Aktaa. Sadaqah and Aktaa have formed a harmonious, artistic duo, where words and sounds combine to produce music.    

When asked about the role of intellectuals in bringing to light the bright side of Idlib, which the regime keeps trying to dilute and marginalize, Sadaqah said that a writer, a literary scholar, or artist who does not connect with the pains of his/her people and society is a servant intellectual.     

Sadaqah added, the fact that the regime has an organized media and information system compared to the situation in Idlib does not give primacy to it because it falsifies facts, and only words of truth prevail. 

During the Syrian revolution, many Syrian artists in various fields supported the regime, which used them as a vehicle to promote its media propaganda in television interviews, musical concerts, and other events. These artists positively talked of the regime and helped it look civilized away from its real image as responsible for bombing, displacing, arresting, and intimidating Syrians.   

Sadaqah said that Syrians of the northern region do not need to create an alternative or new society, for they already have an established rich, authentic, and diverse society, particularly after successive displacement waves from various Syrian cities to the north. He added that those who have the right tools must use them to highlight Idlib’s true face.  

“The loudness of guns does not guarantee the continuity of their sounds or give them power over words or songs whose impact goes beyond time and space.”

Poet Zafer Saleh Sadaqah 

Syrian regime’s information war against Idlib

The regime knew it could not regain control of all Syrian territories. It was also aware that groups fighting it in Idlib, mainly religiously oriented groups, can indirectly serve its position and offer a ready-made stereotypical image that would distort the Syrian revolution, political researcher Majed Alloush told Enab Baladi.      

Alloush added that the regime sought to turn Idlib into a center for Islamist factions, which at some point in time made mistakes contrary to revolutionary values advocated by Syrians, in reference to HTS, which was listed as a terrorist group after deviating from the revolution’s principles.  

He pointed out that the regime benefited from the armed factions’ mistakes in northern Syria as the West started comparing the regime and the factions’ methods of dealing with civilians in their areas of control. 

The regime was keen to send a message to the international community that it remains the least worst option for the West and its interests with all of its brutality.

On the regime’s use of media to provide a misleading version of what is going on in Idlib, Alloush said that the problem is not the weakness of media in Idlib or the absence of information materials to be promoted, but the availability of many materials that the regime can benefit from and invest in for its interests.

Alloush added that any talk of a cultural conflict between the regime and the models fighting it during the revolution’s armed phase would be illogical. The conflict with the regime is a moral one, between people lured by dreams of freedom and dignity and a regime that does not understand anything but killing as a weapon during conflicts.  

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