ISIS and the Nexus between Media and Powers

Joe Hammoura

The past two years have seen a gradual erasure of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) from the territories it once controlled. The defeat of the most dangerous terrorist group – as described often by the media and government reports – amounts to an extraordinary feat for the contending powers, such as the United States, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. In the previous years, these powers had justified their prolonged presence in Syria by claiming to fight the group. However, international and regional powers are not seen loud enough in claiming victory against the terrorist group, while the high or low degree of noise on victory or defeats appears not to be coincidental but strategic.

In late 2015, Meltwater, a United States-based media intelligence group published a report entitled “Representation of Syria in International Digital Media and Social Media” in an attempt to examine the digital and social media coverage of the Syrian war. The report covers both micro and macro pictures, comparing Syrian war with its contemporary Ukrainian war and then evaluates different aspects of the Syrian war’s coverage in top international media outlets between 10 March and 10 September 2015.[1] Among many of its findings, the report concludes that “terrorism category” holds the major share of media coverage – 30 percent – in the given time period against the rest of the categories, which include women, peace, children, refugees, politics and conflict in general.[2]

The Syrian war is about to enter its eighth year. Apart from being a theatre for the greater powers and a military showdown, the war has been a major subject for international media competition – both social and digital media. It has already been argued that media’s role during the Syrian conflict has been of agenda-setting.[3] No matter which side they belonged to, media organizations operated as per the strategic interests of the respective state. “Agenda-setting, priming, and framing serve as bridges between elite discourse about a problem or an issue and popular comprehension of that issue. From the spin-doctoring that follows every televised debate to the timing and stage-crafting of press conferences, political elites devote considerable efforts toward influencing not only what information goes on air but how it is presented. The Syrian war is one laboratory subject for media where media decides not only what to think about it but also how to think about it”. [4]

The states’ shift of focus from ISIS can be attributed to the emergence of more reasonable, real, urgent and easily justifiable objectives than the inflated threat of the isolated terrorist group. After causing the mess in Syria for all these years and strengthening their positions at their respective spheres of the Syrian territories, it is now the time to undo this mess and achieve more legitimacy for presence and/or influence in Syria. Meanwhile, international media continues its strategic role as “agenda-setters” on behalf of the states’ interests.

The trajectory in Syria at this moment runs quite opposite when compared to the wave that swept through Afghanistan for example. At the beginning of the US-led war in Afghanistan in 2001, the focus was on the dismantling of the Taliban-led government in the country which had given shelter to Al-Qaeda when accused of 9/11 attacks. For one and a half decades, the Taliban remained the main “enemy” of America, while the creation of a new secular, liberal state-structure remained its primary focus. However, interestingly enough, given the recent spectacular gains by Taliban fighters who were washing out Americas’ dreams in the war-torn territory of Afghanistan,[5] one would assume that the media hype would be directed against Taliban, which were hitherto the main enemy in the country because of their highly deadly attacks and anti-western rhetoric. A quick look at American and other international media outlets would reflect that ISIS is the new “terrorist” organization that is emerging in Afghanistan, while Taliban’s image is either diluted or is assuming an image of a “legitimate” force in the country.

ISIS is a global non-state ideological movement that has unleashed terror at dispersed cross-continental locations. It is merely this fact of non-convergence – that is not having any clear designated territorial base – of the group that obfuscates its objectives when encountered by local problems. Afghanistan is a multiethnic boiling pot with political problems more rooted in local ethnic and cultural issues than ISIS’s global imagination of a pan-Islamic world. Taliban are very well aware of this fact so they have repeatedly reiterated the localized nature of their struggle. The difference between ISIS and another pan-Islamic non-state organization such as Al-Qaeda can, thus, be located here. During Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan in the past decade, they respected the localized roots of different Muslims which helped the organization to sustain in the territory. [6] Therefore, for the international community Taliban, who is exhibiting its battlefield capabilities and is gaining more territories in Afghanistan, is becoming an increasingly legitimate force on the diplomatic table as well as in media discourse. Their increase in power is becoming directly proportional to their recognition as a potential political force. Hence, a search for a new “Other” is to be launched to justify Al-Qaeda renewed presence, and ISIS, in the current context, is more fluid and pervasive for this purpose, albeit in media’s and states’ imagination than in reality.

The collaboration between media and states opens windows for speculation: how much a group like ISIS, whose image of barbarism once sent shudders through the bravest souls, are operating on their own agenda. Since war zones are spaces akin to jungles in darkness, what are the peoples’ sources of knowledge? Most of the information that flows from the war-torn zones is from local authorities’ sources, leaving “independent” media at their mercy. As a result, media presentation of news, opinions, and interpretations only play into the hands of the contending states, creating an illusion of reality.

In the Syrian war, almost all the contending powers operated or are operating directly and through proxies. It can be argued that ISIS itself, which has been declared as a universal threat, was eventually turned into an ‘uncontrolled’ proxy operating, though not purposefully, on behalf of these powers who were controlling the game from the top. Behind the facade of ISIS they might have advanced their own interests for all these years aiming to strengthen their positions.

Therefore, the approach to media analysis of the Syrian war has to be carried out keeping in view these nuances of the war. To understand the politics of news media, sources of news have to be well analyzed. The capability of states cannot be overestimated, for they can turn even the most hostile forces to their advantage by deploying the “enemy” and “friend” discourse; and media has historically remained partner in that.

Joe Hammoura, “ISIS and the Nexus between Media and Powers, MEIRSS (Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies), December 5, 2018.  Available on:

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