Both sides in Syria’s war are using suffering kids to push their agendas — and it's inexcusable

Omran Daqneesh, the Syrian "ambulance boy," has now been exploited by both sides in a cruel, shameless PR war

Published June 11, 2017 6:00AM (EDT)

Omran Daqneesh   (AP/Aleppo Media Center)
Omran Daqneesh (AP/Aleppo Media Center)

Remember Omran Daqneesh? He’s the little boy who became the face of Syria’s suffering when a heartbreaking photo of him, bloody and injured, sitting in the back of an ambulance, made headlines around the world.

The media was quick to seize on the photograph, not only to give face to the human suffering in Aleppo, where the boy was living, but to promote Western foreign policy in the country and continue calls for regime change and the ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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Five-year-old Omran was dragged from the rubble of his apartment building in a rebel-held neighborhood of Aleppo, which was hit by an alleged Russian air strike on Aug. 17 of last year. Omran’s 10-year-old brother died in the raid.

Russian forces, which support Assad’s army with air power, had been aggressively bombarding the region with heavy air strikes for weeks, in an attempt to cut the last rebel supply lines into the city.

The family did not speak much to the media at the time, but they were back in the news this week when video emerged of Omran’s father, Mohammed Daqneesh, speaking to pro-Assad Syrian media. Yes -- it appears, at least on the evidence we've seen so far, that the family supports the Assad regime.

“I didn't ask for anything with regards to Omran. No media, no fame, nothing. They photographed him without my will,” the boy's father said, accusing rebel groups and the international media of exploiting his son for propaganda. He also revealed the family had received threats after the photos of Omran were published.

“I brought him back here, so that no one would exploit him. I shaved his head, I even changed his name, I prevented him to go to the street. Thank God, now the situation is improving, the [Syrian] army is advancing and liberated the areas, and we came back to our homes, the situation is now getting better,” Mohammad Daqneesh added.

That interview has led some Western outlets to speculate in turn that the boy’s father actually spoke to pro-Assad media under duress, accusing those journalists of using Omran’s story for propaganda. There's no way to evaluate those charges, but the Western media wasn’t shy about using Omran’s picture when his story seemed to suit their own narrative.

The hypothesis that the boy’s father is now speaking under duress is not implausible. Indeed, it very well could be the case. Assad’s Syria is hardly a bastion of free press — and the journalist who conducted the interview, Kinana Alloush, is not objective by any stretch of the imagination. She once posted a sickening selfie of herself with dead rebel fighters in the background, and has posed wearing a T-shirt with Assad’s face on it.

It's also possible that what Omran’s father is saying is the truth — there's nothing so unlikely about that either. There are huge numbers of Syrians who support Assad in this war, and it's not outside reasonable bounds that this family could be one of them.

Indeed, many Syrian families were jubilant at what they saw as the liberation of Aleppo from rebel forces by the Syrian army. This was particularly true of families in Syria's Christian minority, who for the first time in five years were able to openly celebrate Christmas.

It's a little too easy to jump to the conclusion that Omran’s father is being pressured into speaking in favor of Assad, by pointing out the bias of the reporters involved and making assumptions that suit a Western perspective. But where was this critical thinking when the first photos of Omran emerged last year? He was propped up in an ambulance by members of the volunteer search and rescue group the White Helmets, and according to his father was photographed before his injuries were treated.

The White Helmets have achieved international fame and heroic status as a "neutral" search and rescue group in Syria. They have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and became the subjects of an Oscar-winning film. But in reality, the group is anything but non-political. Heavily funded by the U.S. and U.K. governments, they operate almost exclusively in areas controlled by al-Qaida affiliates and other extremist rebel groups.

While an Assad-friendly journalist like Alloush is posing with dead rebels in the background, the White Helmets have assisted in public executions and have posed standing on top of the corpses of Syrian soldiers. They have been filmed joining in chants with jihadist fighters in Idlib, waving a black flag as rebels fire bullets into the air. Max Blumenthal of Alternet has published an extensive two-part investigation detailing how this group was essentially created by Western governments and popularized by a shady PR firm.

If we’re going to question the credibility of one side, we should extend the same critical eye to the other side, even if it’s uncomfortable.

There are many children of war whose bloodied faces never make it onto the front pages of Western newspapers. Their stories don’t fit the narrative and won’t help advance the Western foreign policy agenda, so they are forgotten. They’re just unavoidable collateral damage.

While Omran instantly became known around the world, there was considerably less interest in 5-year-old Hawraa, who suffered severe injuries in a U.S.-led coalition airstrike in Mosul, Iraq, that also claimed the lives of her mother and two other family members. Omran surely would not have become a symbol of war if he had been hit by an American airstrike or rebel shelling.

If Western journalists really are objective, they would be equally appalled by any suffering child. They wouldn’t be brought to tears on air only when it fits a convenient narrative.

Perhaps the worst example of this exploitation is Bana Alabed, the 7-year-old Syrian girl with the famous Twitter account. Bana, who now has a book deal with Simon & Schuster, tweets out perfectly timed regime-change talking points in English. The account is managed by her mother, but the whole thing screams PR stunt and should strike anyone, on any side, as cruel exploitation of a child for war propaganda.

Whatever the truth may be about Omran Daqneesh’s family, it’s clear that both sides in this war are eager to use his face as a symbol of the other side’s crimes. Both are willing to use him as a pawn to push their agendas — while hypocritically calling out the other for doing the same thing. There can be no possible justification for that.

By Danielle Ryan

Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance journalist, writing mostly on geopolitics and media. She is based in Budapest, but has also lived in the U.S., Germany and Russia. Follow her on Twitter.

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