The awkward politics of Banksy’s satirical Syria video

October 7, 2013

The British street artist known as Banksy has released a satirical video about Syria. His first piece on the two-plus-year civil war, "Rebel Rocket Attack" is a spoof on the YouTube videos that Syrian rebels have uploaded throughout the conflict. It shows a group of rebels firing a man-portable air-defense system (MANPAD) at something in the sky. The rocket hits, we assume taking down a Syrian regime aircraft of some kind. The rebels, some dressed in the style of Islamists, shout the Takbir ("Allahu Akbar") over and over. The target crashes to the ground, revealed to be the beloved Disney character Dumbo, and promptly dies.

The video has been received poorly by Syria-watchers, some of whom have described its "crude politics" as an over-simplification of the conflict. The artist has never been afraid of making politically charged art, nor from commenting on the Middle East. In 2007, he traveled to the West Bank, where he left now-famous graffiti art along security barriers in a controversial but generally well-received commentary on the Israel-Palestine conflict. If nothing else, it was provocative for hitting on some of the core issues in the conflict and for eloquently portraying one view of it. But there's something different about his Syria video, which feels less eloquent or insightful.

If the video feels a bit awkward, it may be in part because the globally minded leftist movement that Banksy so often speaks for has grappled with how to think about Syria. The idea of any Western intervention in the Middle East can carry, for them, echoes of imperialism. Skepticism of religion also makes the Syrian rebels, a number of whom are Islamist, less than attractive. And the Bashar al-Assad regime has long claimed to represent a kind of anti-imperialist bulwark against the West and against Israel.

So there's been a real hesitancy among leftists like Banksy to embrace the Syrian opposition, which is reflected a bit in his choice to skewer the rebels, portraying them as murdering beloved children's cartoon characters. But no one – or virtually no one – can bring themselves to back the Assad regime, which has done and continues to do terrible things to its citizens. That's led a lot of people in international leftist movements to talk around the conflict, to decry specific aspects of the West's approach to the war without fully engaging the thing itself. There's no good guy for them; Islamist rebels – especially ones who might receive support from the West – are the closest they can get to a pure bad guy.

That may help explain why the movement remained relatively quiet on the conflict until September, when the Obama administration announced that it might punish Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons with cruise missiles, thus introducing the specter of Western military force in the Middle East. That gave many people an ideological entry-point to the conflict, two-plus years into the killing; something it felt safe to condemn. But opposing American cruise missile strikes and opposing Islamist militants doesn't actually much help people think about the Syrian civil war, which was killing huge numbers of civilians long before Islamists or the West arrived, and which is  larger than those two forces. That may be why international leftism's stance on the war has been kind of awkward.

That awkwardness shows through a bit in the Banksy video. Unlike his West Bank work, it's not really dealing with the conflict or its larger issues, even from a one-sided ideological perspective. It's not getting to the core issues, but rather sticks on one of the few aspects that European and Arab leftist movements feel comfortable addressing, and ignores all the rest. That doesn't mean the video is bad or wrong as a piece of political art, of course. But it's an interesting lens into a larger ideological movement's struggle to figure out how it feels about a conflict that has killed over 100,000 people and displaced millions.

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Max Fisher · October 7, 2013