After five years of war, the Syrian conflict is still at the core of the international debate. The unanimously adoption of the UNSC Resolution 2254 (December 2015) seemed to mark a first fundamental step toward peace by establishing some basic conditions aimed to support a political settlement of the crisis . Notwithstanding, the peace-building process is proceeding slowly, the ceasefire is regularly violated and the political future of Syria is still object of debate.
This article aims to develop some critical considerations over the US and Russian discursive representations of the Syrian conflict. What comes forth into view is the shared use of dichotomous ideological categories, here identified within the notion of “chess fallacy”, to classify the parties involved in the Syrian crisis. On one side, since the rise of the first riots in 2011, the US government has depicted the conflict as a clash between freedom and oppression. On the other side, the Russian Federation has described the war as a confrontation between the order ensured by a legitimate government against the chaos produced by the terrorist groups operating in Syria. This ideological schematization risks, however, to hinder any significant step toward a political resolution of the conflict. Unsurprisingly, the adoption of the UNSC Resolution 2254 was achieved only when both sides started to embrace a more moderate narrative to which, unfortunately, have not always followed coherent deeds in their field operations.
2. The “chess fallacy”: framing a conflict through dichotomous categories
Everybody knows that chess is a game in which two players challenge each other by moving in turn 32 pieces (16 white pieces for one player and 16 black pieces for the second player) on a chessboard. The pieces belong to six different categories, which are defined by how they can move on the chessboard. As a result, the relevance and ‘power’ of the various pieces is different. The goal of the game is to trap the opponent’s king in a way that it cannot move without being captured. The “chess fallacy” makes reference to the misleading representation of a conflict as a chess game. The chessboard represents the framework of the conflict that, in our case, is the Syrian war. The pieces are the different actors involved in the conflict: Assad and the Syrian military forces, the Free Syrian Army, al-Nusra Front, ISIL, the United States and its coalition, the Russian Federation, Hezbollah, and all the others. Notice that they do not move in the same way and some of them are more relevant than others. Still, one rule is clear: all the white pieces jointly moves in order to defeat the black pieces. The same condition applies to the reverse parts.
The main problem associated with a similar framing of a conflict is that the pieces are inevitably characterized according to a dichotomous feature: they are clearly white or black. As a result, the conflict is polarized in two absolutely incompatible positions and the actors have just to decide which side they want to join. A similar approach was used, for example, by former US President George W. Bush when, on 20 September 2001, he said: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with terrorists” . But such logical construction is based on a false dilemma because it limits the choice to two extremes without considering alternative options. Moreover, in a black-and-white thinking there is a common tendency to associate the actors with opposite ideological values. Therefore, the “white side” or the “self” is depicted as the emblem of justice and fairness, while the “black side” or the “other” is represented as an absolute evil that needs to be eradicated. In such a framework any contact with the adversary risks to be dominated by prejudice and misunderstanding. The fallacy here is double: on one side this approach denies beforehand any chance to identify a middle ground among the clashing parties; on the other, it reformulates a concrete problem in extreme ethical terms assuming that one side is “unequivocally good and right”, while the other is “absolutely bad and wrong”.
A rejection of the “chess fallacy” should not, conversely, entail an uncritical acceptance of the argument to moderation, which is another logic fallacy. In other terms, the best solution among two contraposed views does not necessarily lie in between. This is the reason why most of the people in the world (understandably) believe that there is no space of negotiation with ISIL, taking into account the unhuman actions (such as, for example, indiscriminate massacre, torture, and slavery) performed by this terrorist group. Therefore, the key point here is that the adoption of any logic bias produces consequences that must be carefully examined and weighed in order to avoid undesired outcomes.
The simplicity and strong persuasive power of a binary representation of the world makes it, in spite of its logical weaknesses, an appealing and versatile tool of propaganda for the great powers. This ideological discourse can be exploited for multiple-purposes such as, for instance, to raise emotions against an enemy, gain legitimacy, better define the “self”, and provide a predetermined hierarchy of values. According to Hidalgo Tenorio “through speeches, political leaders attempt to express their opinions, to defend their own views, to criticise their adversaries’, and, above all, to fire the enthusiasm of the crowd. To that end, they generally fall back on moving images, and other effectual dramatic linguistic devices, the audiences for whom the address has been written are eager to hear and must be prepared to understand.” . However, as sustained by Brunner, “both of the major characteristics of dichotomous thinking, the homogenising with the one category – the ‘us’ – and the insistence upon the qualitative difference between the categories – the assigning of inferiority to the ‘them’ – give rise to conflict and are reinforced by conflict” .
3. The United States’ view of the Syrian conflict: freedom v. oppression
Assessing the main speeches of US President Barack Obama from 2011 to date what comes out is that the United States have primarily framed the Syrian conflict as a clash between freedom and oppression. In the “side of freedom” the United States have initially included all those who protested, and then took the army, against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In the “oppression side” they have included the Syrian President and various terrorist groups included, since its formation, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This argumentation has been preserved all years long, although a clear shift in the priorities has progressively taken place: the fight against ISIL has unequivocally became the major issue in the last years. Differently, the ouster of Bashar al-Assad from the Syrian political context has assumed a secondary role, although the inappropriateness of the Syrian leader to lead, or even be part of, a transitional government is regularly reiterated in each public conference.
On 19 May 2011, providing remarks on the riots in the Middle East and North Africa, US President Obama stated: “There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years. […] The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not. In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of few. […] The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region. The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Teheran. […] The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: He can lead the transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests. It must release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests. It must allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’s; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition.” .
Likewise, in August 2012, Obama declared: “I have indicated repeatedly that President al-Assad has lost legitimacy, that he needs to step down. So far, he hasn’t gotten the message, and instead has doubled downed in violence on his own people. […] we would provide, in consultation with the international community, some assistance to the opposition in thinking about how would a political transition take place, and what are the principles that should be upheld in terms of looking out for minority rights and human rights.” .
On 10 September 2013, while offering specific remarks on Syria, US President Barack Obama again focused the attention on the atrocities committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad: “Over the past two years, what began as a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a civil war. Over 100,000 people have been killed. Millions have fled the country. In that time, America has worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help moderate opposition, and to shape a political settlement. […] The situation profoundly changed, though, on August 21st, when Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand of people, including hundreds of children. […] When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America, and the international community, is prepared to do about it.” .
From 2014 the US administration started to dedicate more and more attention to the global threat represented by ISIL. On 23 September 2014, Obama announced the beginning of the US strikes in Syria against ISIL: “Meanwhile, we will move forward with our plans, supported by bipartisan majorities in Congress, to ramp up our effort to train and equip the Syrian opposition, who are the best counterweight to ISIL and the Assad regime. […] There will be challenges ahead. But we’re going to do what’s necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group, for the security of the country and the region and for the entire world.” .
Nevertheless, around one year later, the model oppression v. freedom was once again reaffirmed, although framed in a new future peace perspective. On 28 September 2015, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama affirmed: “The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow. You can jail your opponents, but you can’t imprison ideas. […] When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs – it breeds human suffering on an order of magnitude that affects us all. Likewise, when a terrorist group beheads captives, slaughters the innocent and enslaves women, that’s not a single nation’s national security problem – that is an assault on all humanity. […] But while the military power is necessary, it is not sufficient to resolve the situation in Syria. Lasting stability can only take hold when the people of Syria forge an agreement to live together peacefully. […] But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo. Let’s remember how this started. Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that, in turn, created the environment for the current strife. And so Assad and his allies cannot simply pacify the broad majority of a population who have been brutalized by chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing. Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.” .
On November 2015, perhaps as consequence of the Paris attacks, Obama’s focus definitively shifted from Bashar al-Assad to the war against ISIL and the need to reach a common understanding between the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition forces: “ISIL is the face of evil. Our goal, as I’ve said many times, is to degrade and ultimately destroy this barbaric terrorist organization. […] We’ve stepped up our support of opposition forces who are working to cut off supply lines to ISIL’s strongholds in and around Raqqa. So, in short, both in Iraq and Syria, ISIL controls less territory than it did before. […] Finally, we’ve begun to see some modest progress on the diplomatic front, which is critical because a political solution is the only way to end the war in Syria and unite the Syrian people and the world against ISIL. […] With this weekend’s talks, there’s a path forward – negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime under the auspices of the United Nations; a transition toward a more inclusive, representative government; a new constitution, followed by free elections; and, alongside this political process, a ceasefire in the civil war, even as we continue to fight against ISIL. These are obviously ambitious goals. Hopes for diplomacy in Syria has been dashed before. There are any number of ways that this latest diplomatic push could falter. And there are still disagreements between the parties, including, most critically, over the fate of Bashar Assad, who we do not believe has a role in Syria’s future because of his brutal rule. His war against the Syrian people is the primary root cause of this crisis. What is different this time, and what gives us some degree of hope, is that, as I said, for the first time, all the major countries on all sides of the Syrian conflict agree on a process that is needed to end this war.” .
Some weeks later, precisely on 6 December 2015, in response to the San Bernardino attack President Obama commented: “We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. […] …the international community has begun to establish a process – and timeline – to pursue ceasefires and a political resolution to the Syrian war. Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies, but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL – a group that threatens us all.” .
Overall, Obama’s discourse on the Syrian conflict is organized around one core idea: the United States are ready to give sustain to all those groups of rebels that are fighting for the rights (freedom, security and democracy) of the Syrian population against the oppression of the Assad regime and the cruelty of ISIL. According to this view, a return to the status quo ante (a Syrian sovereign country governed by Assad) is an unfeasible as well as undesirable outcome. In the last speeches, however, Obama has primarily focused the attention on the fight against ISIL and the need to reach a common understanding between the “moderate” parties (Syrian government and opposition). This adaptation is not really a turning point (there are still serious concerns about the role of Bashar al-Assad in the next Syrian political framework), but a political wish to undertake, as soon as possible, a path that could lead to a resolution of the on-going conflict .
4. The Russian Federation’s view on the Syrian conflict: legitimate government v. terrorism
The Russian President Vladimir Putin has primarily framed the discourse about the Syrian conflict as a clash between the order that might be ensured sustaining the Syrian legitimate government against the chaos that would reign in Syria whereas terrorists should win this war. In the category of “terrorists”, the Russian President has initially included all the un-official armed groups (with, perhaps, the sole exception of the Kurdish community) fighting on the Syrian territory against the legitimate forces of Assad.
At the plenary meeting of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly Putin stated: “What is the meaning of state sovereignty, the term which has been mentioned by our colleagues here? It basically means freedom, every person and every state being free to choose their future. By the way, this brings us to the issue of the so-called legitimacy of state authorities. […] We are all different, and we should respect that. Nations shouldn’t be forced to all conform to the same development model that somebody has declared the only appropriate one. […] It seems, however, that instead of learning from other people’s mistakes, some prefer to repeat them and continue to export revolutions, only now these are “democratic” revolutions. Just look at the situation in the Middle East and Northern Africa already mentioned by the previous speaker. […] Instead of bringing about reforms, aggressive intervention rashly destroyed government institutions and the local way of life. Instead of democracy and progress, there is now violence, poverty, social disaster and total disregard for human rights, including even the right to life. I’m urged to ask those who created this situation: do you at least realize now what you’ve done? […] Power vacuum in some countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa obviously resulted in the emergence of areas of anarchy, which were quickly filled with extremists and terrorists. […] And now radical groups are joined by members of the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition backed by the West. They get weapons and training, and then they defect and join the so-called Islamic State. […] Russia has consistently opposed terrorism in all its forms. Today, we provide military-technical assistance to Iraq, Syria and other regional countries fighting terrorist groups. We think it’s a big mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities and government forces who valiantly fight terrorists on the ground. We should finally admit that President Assad’s government forces and the Kurdish militia are the only forces really fighting terrorists in Syria. […] I would like to stress that refugees undoubtedly need our compassion and support. However, the only way to solve this problem for good is to restore statehood where it has been destroyed, to strengthen government institutions where they still exist, or are being re-established, to provide comprehensive military, economic and material assistance to countries in a difficult situation, and certainly to people who, despite all their ordeals, did not abandon their homes. […] I believe is of utmost importance to… provide comprehensive assistance to the legitimate government of Syria.” .
On 21 October 2015, in a meeting with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Putin affirmed: “We took the decision upon your request to provide effective aid to the Syrian people in fighting the international terrorists who have unleashed a genuine war against Syria. […] On the question of a settlement in Syria, our position is that positive results in military operations will lay the base for then working out a long-term settlement based on a political process that involves all political forces, ethnic and religious groups. Ultimately, it is the Syrian people alone who must have the deciding voice here.” .
The next day, at the final plenary session of the 12th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Putin started his speech saying: “We do not need wordplay here; we should not break down the terrorists into moderate and immoderate ones. […] In actual fact, we now see a real mix of terrorist groups. True, at times militants from the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Al-Qaeda heirs and splinters fight each other, but they fight for money, for feeding grounds, this is what they are fighting for. They are not fighting for ideological reasons, while their essence and methods remain the same: terror, murder, turning people into a timid, frightened, obedient mass. In the past years the situation has been deteriorating, the terrorists’ infrastructure has been growing, along with their numbers, while the weapons provided to the so-called moderate opposition eventually ended up in the hands of terrorist organizations. Moreover, sometimes entire bands would go over their side, marching in with flying colours, as they say.” .
But then he prospected the chance to cooperate with some groups of the Syrian opposition in the fight against ISIL as well as in the creation of a path toward a political settlement in Syria: “Here is what we believe we must do to support long-term settlement in the region, as well as its social, economic and political revival. First of all, free Syria and Iraq’s territories from terrorists and not let them move their activities to other regions. And to do that, we must join all forces – the Iraqi and Syrian regular armies, Kurdish militia, various opposition groups that have actually made a real contribution to fighting terrorists – and coordinate the actions of countries within and outside of the region against terrorism. At the same time, joint anti-terrorist action must certainly be based on international law. Second, it is obvious that a military victory over the militants alone will not resolve all problems, but it will create conditions for the main thing: a beginning of a political process with participation by all healthy, patriotic forces of the Syrian society. It is the Syrians who must decide their fate with exclusively civil, respectful assistance from the international community, and not under external pressure through ultimatums, blackmail or threats. The collapse of Syria’s official authorities, for example, will only mobilise terrorists. Right now, instead of undermining them, we must revive them, strengthening state institutions in the conflict zone.” .
Since then, the leitmotif of Putin’s speeches on the Syrian conflict has been based on following pillars: 1) international joint efforts in the fight against terrorism; 2) full support to the Syrian army, but formally openness toward those opposition groups that are also contrasting ISIL; 3) intransigency over the need to let the Syrians (official government and the opposition forces) to autonomously decide about the future of their country.
Therefore, on 26 November 2015, answering a question in the post-meeting with French President Francois Hollande, Putin stated: “I believe that the fate of the President of Syria should be entirely in the hands of the Syrian people. Moreover, we all agree that is impossible to successfully fight terrorism in Syria without ground operations, and no other forces exist today that can conduct ground operations in the fight against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations aside the Syrian government army. In this respect, I feel that President Assad’s army and he himself are our natural allies in the fight against terrorism. There may be other forces there that talk about their readiness to fight terror. We are currently attempting to establish ties with them, have already done so with some of them, and as I have said many times, we will be prepared to support their efforts in the fight against ISIS and other terrorist organizations, as we support Assad’s army.” . Likewise, at the annual news conference President Putin announced: “This part of the Syrian opposition, these irreconcilable and armed people want to fight against ISIL and are actually doing so. We are supporting their fight against ISIS by delivering air strikes, just as we are doing to support the Syrian army” .
Legitimacy, security and order are, therefore, the main cornerstones of the Russian discourse on the Syrian crisis. The model of intervention proposed by Putin is clear: on one side, support for the official government in the fight against ISIL, al-Nusra and other similar organizations because terrorism represents a serious threat to Russia and to the whole world; on the other side, claimed respect of the principle of self-determination with regard to the future political order in Syria. What remains unclear is the concrete outreach toward those groups that are opposed to Assad but, at the same time, they are also fighting against ISIL: is this claimed openness just an exercise of political propaganda or a concrete attempt to promote Russia as a bridge between the various standpoints that are emerging throughout the Islamic world? .
As many postmodern thinkers sustain, “a discourse is not simply an account or a story about something or somebody. Discourses are practices that systematically form or create the objects that they speak of” . Therefore, there are some important consequences associated with the “chess fallacy” that must be considered. First, the use of labels and generalizations produce a radicalization of the conflict that negatively affects the possibility to limit the violence (respect of the jus in bello) and hinders the chances to undertake a peace-building process, being the “others” viewed as illegitimate and unreliable actors. Second, an ideological discourse risks to make more abstract and immaterial the nature of a conflict, thus, undermining the actual suffering of the civilian population. Third, the “chess fallacy” commonly leads to an over-simplification of reality, so that diverse actors (sometimes in war with each other) are grouped together and called under the pseudonym of “rebels” or the root causes of the conflict are simply put aside to make room for a more “alluring” interpretation of the events. But radicalization abstraction and over-simplification are factors that hinder the process of conflict resolution.
The discursive analysis of the speeches of Obama and Putin on the Syrian conflict shows that both presidents have resorted to the “chess fallacy” for getting national consensus and international support. Since the end of October – beginning of November 2015 they have, nevertheless, embraced a more open, moderate and constructive discursive approach that finally allowed the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution aimed to sustain a path toward peace. Now the core challenge is to fully enforce the achieved agreements. A condition that, listening to the official declarations, seems pretty close (on September 10, for example, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affair Sergei Lavrov publicly announced a new truce aimed to stop the war and favour a political transition in Syria), while observing the events (like the last airstrike campaign against the city of Aleppo) it seems still far away.
 United Nations Security Council (UNSC), S/RES/2254, 18 December 2015;
 United States President George W Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People”, 20 September 2001;
 Hidalgo Tenorio E., “The Discourse of Good and Evil in 20th Century Speeches”, in Keen D.E., and Keen P.R. (eds.), Considering Evil and Human Wickedness, Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2004, p. 18;
 Brunner E.M., Foreign Security Policy, Gender, and US Military Identity, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, P. 161;
 United States President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa”, 19 May 2011;
 United States President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President to the White House Press Corps”, 20 August 2012;
 United States President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Syria”, 10 September 2013;
 United States President Barack Obama, “Statement by the President on Airstrikes in Syria”, 23 September 2014;
 United States President Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama to the United States General Assembly”, 28 September 2015;
 United Nations President Barack Obama, “Press Conference by President Obama – Antalya, Turkey”, 16 November 2015;
 United States President Barack Obama, “Address to the Nation by the President”, 6 December 2015;
 Suggested readings about the US intervention in Syria are: Gani J.K., The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations: Conflict and Cooperation, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014; and Blanchard C.M., Humud C.E., and Nikitin M.B.D., Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, United States Congressional Research Service, 9 October 2015;
 Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, “70th session of the UN General Assembly”, 28 September 2015;
 Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, “Meeting with President of Syria Bashar Assad”, 21 October 2015;
 Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, “Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club”, 22 October 2015;
 Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, last op. cit., 22 October 2015;
 Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Press statements and answers to journalists’ questions following meeting with President of France Francois Hollande”, 26 November 2015;
 Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference”, 17 December 2015;
 Suggested readings about the Russian intervention in Syria are: Dannreuther R., “Russia and the Arab Spring: Supporting the Counter-Revolution”, Journal of European Integration, vol. 37, issue 1, 2015; and Mohseni P. (ed.), Disrupting the Chessboard. Perspectives on the Russian Intervention in Syria, The Iran Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2015;
 Steans J. et al., An Introduction to International Relations Theory. Perspectives and Themes, Pearson Education Limited, Third Edition, 2010, p. 138