Kobane, Ramadi and the other cities we forgot

Just because we stop paying attention doesn’t mean things aren’t happening.

Syrian refugees mass at the Turkish border while they flee intense fighting in northern Syria [AP]
Syrian refugees mass at the Turkish border while fleeing intense fighting in northern Syria [AP]

The fog of war that is swirling across the Middle East has merged with apathy and disinterest from Western policymakers and public towards the region resulting in continual surprise by the course of events. The Arab Spring of 2010 was “unexpected”, the loss of Mosul a year ago was a “surprise”, Kobane went from being a town nobody had heard of to the decisive location in the battle against ISIL and then forgotten as an irrelevance, the narrative arc over whether Assad is resilient or in decline seems to move on a daily basis.

Just because we stop paying attention doesn’t mean things aren’t happening. Although ISIL is a “year old” at the start of this Ramadan, they were born out of the chaos that followed the US Invasion in 2003.

Former US-Intelligence operative Malcolm Nance reminded listeners of Democracy Now recently that “let’s not forget history here. If you were a member of the Saddam Fedayeen at age 20 when the United States invaded, you’d be 35 years old right now. And you would be a mid-level commander with 13 years of extraordinary combat experience under your belt”.

Mosul one year on

‘Let’s not forget history’

Yet, we continue to ask who are the fighters of ISIL, where did they come from, where did they get their money, and more as if they emerged from a hole in the ground.

It seems that the history of the Middle East, the complexity of its current conflicts and the real difficulties in objective reporting from the front lines is combining with a war-weary apathy and distrust from Western audiences as to what positive difference they can bring to bear in the face of such grinding violence.

Syria is the most dangerous place on the planet to be a journalist and the grand rhetoric from all sides over claims of victories and “inflicting losses” are hard to verify.

Replacing the vacuum of traditional media comes the citizen journalist and the slick, spectacular ISIL propaganda – delivered straight to your iPad. The complexity of actors is demonstrated by the rainbow maps that show who is nominally controlling what and who is against whom.

In Syria, it’s a 360-degree conflict with a regime backed primarily by Iran and Russia facing down a multitude of enemies both domestic and foreign with the UN estimating 25,000 foreign fighters from over 100 countries.

ISIL has tapped into this, and its political theatre of massacres and coordinated attacks has seized hold of the agenda complete with characters like ‘Jihadi John’ to sustain interest.


A US-led coalition of 63 countries is targeting ISIL, but not the regime, from the air while various actors drip-feed weapons and trainers on the ground to parts of an “opposition” divided into an ever changing multitude of coalitions and groups constantly morphing, renaming and rebranding themselves, no wonder people have switched off.

Narrative arc

To the Western viewer there appears to be no good guys. Traditional actors – like armies – no longer own a monopoly over the use of violence and militias are proliferating. There is a long list of indicators of success – who is holding or has won or lost airbases, barracks, streets, refineries, entire cities, important towns, strategic villages and supply lines.

Yet the narrative arc is not closely followed as attention is constantly drawn to the latest spectacular or fallen city. ISIL has tapped into this, and its political theatre of massacres and coordinated attacks has seized hold of the agenda complete with characters such as “Jihadi John” to sustain interest.

The Syrian National Coalition claim that the situation in Syria is now a “global crisis” yet it’s not an assessment shared by people on the street in Western capitals.

The roll call of destruction are figures so large to have lost meaning to a faraway audience. Some are now claiming 300,000 dead in Syria and refugees and internally displaced persons are now over 10  million. Yet the media cannot show the full reality of conflict deaths so instead we get rubble, charred cars and cities on fire as well as exodus upon exodus.

In the West, the feeling is that “it’s not our war” despite their leaders’ assessment of threat and the increasing trainers, aircraft and arms supplies involved. What really cuts home is when the news is about us, such as when fleeing refugees interrupt people’s holiday on the Mediterranean, or the 17-year-old from Yorkshire becoming Britain’s youngest suicide bomber or the 17-year-old from Virginia running ISIL recruitment.

The far doesn’t feel near and there is no urgency to engage. It appears that against the backdrop of what some are describing as a “crisis of a generation” the world is struggling to pay attention. 

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.