The Syrian conflict is classified as one of the biggest and most deadly conflicts of our time. It has caused a major displacement crisis on the region, obliging neighboring States to take measures to comply with the needs of millions affected by the situation. The tipping point of this conflict was on August 21st when chemical weapons were used, leaving more than 1,400 people dead. Before this date, the international community paid attention to Syria; however, no one decided to do anything about it, in spite of the humanitarian crisis that thousands were living.

August 21st was the date that changed the perception of this conflict. Moreover, this date obliged United States and Russia, among others to act in order to find a solution. The United Nations (UN) along with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) faced the great challenge of stopping the use of chemical weapons, but first was the duty of formally confirming the use of this kind of weapons in an extremely dangerous place.  

In September, the Syrian regimen agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, granting the OPCW the possibility of confirming the places and the weapons the Bashar al-Assad regime declared to have and putting them under seal until their destruction could be carried out. Surprisingly, since August the Syrian conflict transformed itself into a chemical-weapons-only conflict, leaving both, the internal civil war and the displacement and refugee crisis, as less important issues with close-to-none attention from the media.

OPCW and the Nobel Peace Price

In October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced the winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to be the OPCW. It is of utmost importance to understand the process by which this price was given. The nomination process began in September of 2012 and ended in February 2013. Then, from March to August, a short list had to be prepared and reviewed. Finally, in October the Nobel Laureates are chosen and announced. This means that the OPCW had to be nominated long before its actions in Syria.

Nevertheless, given the global importance of the Syrian situation the OPCW changed the way everybody saw this conflict. Even if thousands of deaths were occurring thanks to common weapons, it was the 1,400 deaths that claimed most attention because of the nature of the weapons that caused them. Professor Nicholas Onuftalking about Social Constructivism, states that “[The] Worlds that we speak of can only be partial and highly selective representations of what we see”. In this sense, the world began only to see the chemical weapons issue; therefore, the world began only to speak about these weapons, thus only looking for a solution to this issue; ignoring the rest of problems not only in Syria but in the whole region that have emerged as a consequence of this conflict. A perception was elaborated, Syria became an example of the elimination of chemical weapons, the OPCW was doing the best to handle their destruction and the international community turned their attention to the process of elimination of the weapons. 

Conflict perception

Perceptions of states, wars, and international organizations, in general are created through a process of social construction and historic events. If we take the Syrian conflict, for example, we will see that the whole world was aware of the situation in this country – this is the social construction-, yet no body did anything to change it. It became everyday news to see clashes between the government and civil society. 

The reason why States decided not to act was because there was a conflict of interests; this is quite common in international politics and especially in conflict situations, as Robert Jervis puts it: “One of the main flaws in the construction of perceptions in international politics is that strong policy bias pervades”. Amazingly, when chemical weapons were used –a historical event- the whole world decided that it was time to do something about Syria. Meetings between world powers were held; the Security Council met repeatedly to pass a resolution on the matter, despite finding itself in a stalemate situation due to the contradictory interests of the United States and Russia.

Constructivism is based on social relations, and the mutual constitution of agents; in this case, the United States and Russia defended different sides of the conflict and therefore, gave value to the constitution of these ideas basing each other on opposing facts. Rhetorics was used by both sides as a major tool for the constructing reality and the different rhetorics utilized, not only by governments but also by media and society, played an important role in the construction of the perception of the Syrian Conflict.

The Nobel Peace Price to the OPCW, for example, flooded media with the new rhetoric of the situation, leading to a change in the foreseeable future. As a result, priorities changed; consequently, international attention and aid was diverted to the new established priorities. The construction of perceptions is not a matter of whether they are right or wrong, since there is no way to determine accurately their value. The important questions are therefore why those perceptions were constructed in the first place and why would they continue to be validated by the agents and defended as acceptable views.