Colum Kenny: What’s going on in Raqqa and Mosul?
Arab lives matter. So why are we not seeing more of the impact of fighting on civilians in these cities?
A Kurdish fighter from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) fires a 120mm mortar round in Raqqa, Syria. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Spare a thought for the innocent civilians of Raqqa, a city under siege. In recent weeks, hundreds of civilians have been killed by western-backed coalition forces trying to defeat Islamic State in Syria.
It’s a “staggering loss of life” according to the United Nations this week. So why have we seen so little of it on western TV channels or in the papers?
Where has the war in Raqqa and Mosul gone, just as it reaches a crucial phase? We need more information.
Do we not care? When Syrian government helicopters backed by Russian jets last year bombarded the innocents of Aleppo, dropping barrel bombs and chlorine gas, our screens were full of pitiful images day after day.
Diplomats were loud in their calls to the government of Syrian to desist from indiscriminate attacks on its own civilians, in what was then a rebel-held area. But those rebels were western-backed. Bashar al-Assad, once the West’s ally, had become today’s bogeyman.
Popular media likes a black and white story, good guys and bad guys. The position in Raqqa and Mosul is messy, not so simple.
Islamic State, also known as Isis, has put whole civilian populations in the firing line. An oppressive and murderous force, it can only be driven out of its last foothold by close engagement. This means house to house fighting, and a “staggering loss of life” among civilians.
The US has denied dropping deadly white phosphorous in a way that recklessly endangers civilians. But the collateral damage caused by the aerial bombardment of cities and by street fighting is enormous in its nature, not least when populations are trapped where they live.
Arab lives matter. So why are we not seeing more of the impact of fighting on Raqqa and Mosul? One reason is that close-up coverage in such conditions is extremely dangerous for the media, even when not held back by censorship of one kind or another.
Then too, viewer fatigue sets in faster when the story being told is uncomfortable. When our side is killing kids, even if this may save more lives in the long run, it’s just not nice to think about it. Ireland may be neutral, but the countries from where we receive most TV channels are not.
There is a cultural chasm. Stories close to home engage us more. One Irishman killed in a foreign earthquake will always make headlines here ahead of other casualties. A bombing in Manchester or London, with a couple of dozen casualties, is of more interest than hundreds dead far away.
More disturbing is the entertainment angle of 24-hour news. A terrorist attack can be milked for its emotional value. There are big audiences for channels that screen people like us who tell moving stories of loss and survival in familiar surroundings, especially when backed up by ever more graphic images.
Such stories do not work as well in a foreign language or at a distance. An exception is US stories, with relatively minor incidents there being amplified quickly around the world. This is partly because US media pump out colourful and cheap items that are quickly available abroad, and partly because we relate to the US through films and TV series and other ties.
It has long been so. What has changed is the accelerated global nature of our everyday reality, with distant events impinging rapidly on us in economic and political ways.
There are no massive benefit concerts being organised by white popstars for the people of Raqqa in Syria or Mosul in Iraq. But that does not mean that westerners are hypocritical or do not care.
To want more information on what us happening in Raqqa and Mosul is not to undermine the assault on Islamic State. Nor is it to embarrass the US and its allies in the Middle East, a lesser evil than Islamic State in the view of most.
We need to understand what drives the hatred that tears the Middle East apart and that lands millions of migrants inside the EU, even if the scale of migration appears to have moderated since Aleppo.
The need for more information on what is happening right now in Raqqa and Mosul is based firstly on respect for the innocent people being killed by the hundred in a conflict that directly concerns the West.
And another reason we need reliable information is so that the western public may better understand the need for a nuanced and sophisticated response to crisis in the Middle East, in order that the cancer of war there does not continue to spread and destabilise our own societies.