Given the widespread use of social media in the contemporary age, and the lack of basic humanity shown by both the regime and the opposition forces, the Syria conflict should on the face of it engender a feeling of repulsion at the actions of both sides.
And to a degree it does. But one of the casualties of the instantaneous commentary culture has been a sense of perspective, or any incentive to engage intellectually with the problem. An emotive image is uploaded to the virtual world and what has has hitherto been an extremely complex issue is automatically simplified. In Vietnam, the iconic image of the 'Napalm girl' encapsulated, for many, the futility of the war. The image of an innocent girl caught in the crosshairs of unthinking and unfeeling American pilots who bombed the Vietnamese from 30,000 feet personalised the narrative of high-tech American forces arrayed against the low-tech Vietnamese. The iconic photo summed up what words could not: US bombing made an enemy of the innocent people it purported to be saving.
The desire to use an image to encapsulate an argument remains. But the certainty of the anti-Vietnam movement has been replaced in the contemporary Middle East with conflicts in which neither side reflect Western values, and both sides seek Western support.
The social media battleground is a key element of both sides' information operations. The often equally odious combatants conduct these operations by appealing to the heart and not the mind. The horrible image, released by Syrian opposition forces ast week, showing a young boy named Omran in an ambulance after allegedly being pulled from the rubble created by a regime bombing run in Aleppo, received blanket media coverage. It was an image which moved a CNN presenter to tears (see above), and you would have to be made of stone not to be shaken by it.
But should it be used as a justification to take sides in the civil war? No, it shouldn't.
There are equally horrendous images put out by regime sources which show the depravity of elements of the largely Islamist opposition. The photo of Omran in the back of an ambulance is disturbing, yet last month's footage of a boy being beheaded by individuals allegedly belonging to a US-vetted rebel group, described by the rebels as an 'individual mistake' (nb. there are no violent images in the linked article), are so disturbing that they won't be broadcast and hence won't gather the same degree of public opprobrium. And if it doesn't make the public space, it never happened.
Equally objectionable is the use of children as witnesses of record. A Syrian opposition group referring to the alleged 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta near Damascus eschews the use of adults as spokespeople in favour of children. There is no reason why an adult could not have given an account of the incident in question, and of course researchers have difficulty relying on children as witnesses. But from an information operations perspective it is obvious that using children to 'sell' one side of the argument is preferable.
This co-option of children is extended to anybody that claims to be associated with them. Jihadis from Australia often claim they were either working or intending to work in orphanages in Syria and couldn't possibly have been going to support jihadist causes. Doctors killed in air strikes or shelling are invariably paediatricians or were carrying incubators to basements when shelling began.
My aim is not to belittle the work of doctors who work with children in conflict zones or to try to sidestep the reality that children are killed in war. Obviously this occurs. But it occurs on all sides of this conflict. Jihadis deliberately position themselves within civilian populations and store weapons and ammunition in built up areas, while government forces and their allies pay scant attention to targeting processes or ammunition selection that would minimise civilian casualties. The government forces inflict more casualties because they have more resources, but the difference is really a question of quantity of weapons and munitions, not intent. The death of any child is inexcusable, but in Syria it appears that children are being used for more than just to remind us about the futility of war.
Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency