Fouad Ajami once said Syria was the “first YouTube war“. An academic study called Syria “the most socially mediated civil conflict in history“. From the start of the Syrian war, the media and propaganda dimension has been of immense importance, impacting the course of the war on the ground and affecting the policy of foreign States who could make a decisive difference in the conflict.
The Islamic State’s Media Strategy
The Islamic State (I.S.), which was then the Iraq-based Islamic State of Iraq, initially dispatched operatives into Syria in August 2011 to set up the local franchise, which was announced in January 2012 as Jabhat an-Nusra. Nusra, however, ultimately gained too much independence to want to surrender it, and after a power struggle erupted in April 2013, with I.S. trying to subsume Nusra back under its banner, I.S. was expelled from al-Qaeda in February 2014 for defying the orders of al-Qaeda’s Emir Ayman az-Zawahiri to restrict themselves to Iraq. After the Caliphate announcement in June 2014, I.S. switched its narrative entirely—it had been doing this for a while—from the need for foreign volunteers to help defend Muslims against a heretical dictatorship to one where they had the Promised Land, and all good Muslims should come to it. In other words, where I.S. had previously paid lip-service to the idea that it cared about Syrians, it now abandoned that entirely and stated that the land belonged to god (represented in this case by I.S.) and thus all dissent is by definition heresy, even if it is Syrians objecting to the takeover of their country by Tunisian and Chechen gangsters.
The internet has been very important to the Salafi jihad for a very long time, and it is quite impossible to imagine al-Qaeda having the structure it does without the internet. But what I.S. has done is take the next step: where al-Qaeda used the internet to recruit, raise funds, and deliver instructions to its operatives, I.S. has actually made it into a weapon. I.S. has used a sophisticated media apparatus that included “disseminators” like “Shami Witness,” the recently-unmasked Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who had been so important in I.S.’s reach into the English-speaking world, and spam-bots that falsely amplified their message on Twitter. I.S.’s Twitter infrastructure was finally dismantled in August 2014, but in its time it helped gather recruits for the cause, both Western ideologues who are often little better than tourists, plus hardened fighters such as the Chechens and disaffected Sunnis in search of protection from Iranian domination of the Fertile Crescent, which the U.S. is now acceding to. Nothing breeds support like success, and even for those Sunnis who ideologically differ from I.S. there was something to be said for a group that appeared to be sticking it to Iranian stooges like Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki who had been persecuting the Sunnis. I.S. has also used social media to demoralise its enemies, notably the nationalist rebels, convincing them that the only alternative to Assad is I.S.—something Assad was happy to play along with—and the Iraqi army, which fled before I.S. in Mosul in June 2014 for many reasons but one of them was terror after seeing I.S. media products of what happens when people stand in their way. This weaponisation of media, forming a central part of war-making, has garnered much attention. The regime’s media war is perhaps not so novel, but it’s no less effective.
Media Use By The Assad Regime, Russia, and Iran
From the very outset, the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian supporters have waged a very large and elaborate disinformation campaign to push its own narrative of the conflict, which has centred on the claim that the uprising—which was comprised of peaceful protesters for six entire months—was in fact a sectarian, Islamist conspiracy stirred up from outside. It didn’t matter how much evidence there was of non-sectarianism from the opposition, the regime went on with its propaganda, and inside Syria, the regime was doing everything it could to destroy the non-sectarian, peaceful protest movement and turn it into a violent, sectarian Islamist movement.
The regime sacked mosques and disseminated videos of its soldiers drinking alcohol in them. The regime used Alawi auxiliaries rather than uniformed soldiers to attack Sunnis to try to provoke a sectarian response, notably sending Alawi militiamen to literally trample over the bodies of Sunni civilians in Bayda, a Sunni enclave on the Alawi coast, in April 2011 and then conducted a series of massacres beginning at Houla in May 2012 that used Alawi villagers to shoot and butcher at close-quarters their Sunni neighbours. The regime turned loose not only violent Syrian Salafist oppositionists but al-Qaeda and other foreign Salafi-jihadists, from in its own prisons in May and June 2011, and from Lebanon in November 2011. “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades,” said an Alawi defector from the Military Intelligence Directorate. Meanwhile the regime continued to arrest and even kill peaceful, secular activists like Ghiath Matar. The aim, as explained by a senior defector from Assad’s foreign ministry, was to
chang[e] the narrative … to one of sectarianism, not reform. [Assad] … fostered an extremist presence in Syria … [and] facilitated the influx of foreign extremist fighters to threaten stability in the region. … The resulting international paralysis allowed Assad to present himself as an ally in the global war on terror, granting him license to crush civilians with impunity. … Today, the conflict has morphed into a sectarian regional proxy war. This is precisely how Assad envisioned it, and creates a dynamic that the internationals can dismiss as too complex or dissonant to Western interests.
This is called provocation, or provokatsiya in Russia, where the tactic was perfected. It means taking control of your enemies and having them defeat themselves. It is tactic that has been employed elsewhere, notably Algeria, as defectors there explained.
To spread the message that the only oppositionists were takfiris, Assad had help from Iran and Russia. RT, formerly Russia Today, Moscow’s ceaselessly anti-Western English-language propaganda channel, and Press TV, Iran’s equivalent, have presented themselves as “alternative” news sources, and they attract significant audiences in the West, especially among the young angry about the invasion of Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis, helping Assad’s lies seem like legitimate view-points in an ongoing debate. To make doubly sure, Moscow employs armies of trolls to spam anybody who does not toe the Assadist line, overwhelming the space for debate.
In Syria, provocation has done its work, and the accompanying propaganda that Syria is a binary choice—Assad or the Salafi-jihadists—is no small part of the story in the U.S. effectively rescinding its stated regime-change policy. The regime has done everything in its power, as has Iran, to build up the Salafi-jihadists and degrade the nationalists, with the hope of drawing in an international intervention to defeat the insurgency. Now the United States is the de facto air force for the Assad regime, having reassured Iran before the airstrikes in Syria began that it would not attack Assad. Ceding Syria to Iran as a sphere of influence has included the U.S. standing by as al-Qaeda destroys its designated proxies, and even striking at a group, Ahrar a-Sham, that has no expressed transnationalist ambitions. This isn’t bad going for a regime that has slaughtered a quarter-of-a-million people, torturing to death 11,000 of them, including ten Europeans, in a manner reminiscent of the Holocaust.
One example of how the regime’s propaganda works comes from May 2013, when a rebel named Khalid al-Hamad (Abu Sakkar), the commander of the Omar al-Farouk Brigade, was filmed biting into the lung of a dead Hizballah fighter in Homs Province. The video, and screen shots, were disseminated by the Assad regime in multiple languages. Press TV set the tone, going with the headline, “Syria rebel cuts out soldier’s heart and eats it“. This was then picked up by the mainstream Western press, including the BBC, where Abu Sakkar was identified as a “heart-eating cannibal“. Russia’s ruler, Vladimir Putin, spoke of the rebels as people who “kill their enemies and eat their organs,” arguing against any Western effort to assist the rebellion at a crucial moment when Russian and Iranian assistance was turning the war in Assad’s favour. Apart from this being anatomically incorrect, the story was so devoid of context as to make it essentially wrong. A few days before, the regime had conducted a terrible massacre of up to 450 Sunni civilians in Bayda and Baniyas. During the course of the slaughter, regime paramilitaries, the National Defence Forces—consolidated in late 2012 under Iranian direction to rescue the regime—cut an unborn child from a woman and murdered the baby. Sakkar abused the carcass of a foreign jihadist engaged in atrocities against civilians; the regime first tortured and then murdered a mother and her baby who were civilians—plus murdering hundreds of other wholly innocent people. But the report from Bayda and Baniyas only came out later and it did not have video or picture, so it got nothing like the attention of Sakkar’s lurid act. Moreover, while the regime and its foreign allies operate under a united chain of command (Iran’s), the rebellion does not. Sakkar’s unit could have been composed of dedicated viscera-munchers, and it would not have reflected at all on the insurgency as a whole of which his brigade was much less than one percent. While crimes are committed by individual rebels or brigades, the rebels are primarily local militias defending their homes with no central command, while the sectarian killer squads and foreign Shi’ite jihadists of the regime implement atrocity as strategy. This was all rather lost in the impression that formed from this episode, which was that the rebellion was composed of savage, sectarian forces, which might even explain why the regime had resorted to the methods it had.
The aftermath of the massive sarin attack on Ghouta in August 2013 also demonstrates the Assad regime’s media strategy. Through RT, Press TV, and other “alternate” sources—mostly online—many Westerners had been fed a context-free, anti-Western, conspiratorial version of events in Syria, sprinkled with dezinformatsiya. Thus, there was a large Western audience quite prepared to believe the rebels had gassed themselves because regime-tainted sources told them so, and they lobbied their governments accordingly not to authorise airstrikes against Assad, something that changed the whole course of the war. Standing back from the strikes was “devastating” for the rebels aligned with the West, leading to the considerable strengthening of more Islamist-inclined forces, which further decreased U.S. willingness to help the rebellion. Another example: the Moscow-orchestrated chemical weapons “deal” that called off the strikes was a fairly textbook case of Active Measures. In the old days we called this subversion, when a State tried to divide the West against itself and defeat it without having to fight, and it is likely we shall be hearing more of this in the coming year.
On no topic has the Assad-Iranian-Russian propaganda been so intense as the matter of Syria’s Christians. An investigative report in Der Spiegel noted:
[Assad’s] PR teams and state media are churning out a steady stream of partially or completely fabricated new stories about acts of terror against Christians, al-Qaeda’s rise to power and the imminent destabilization of the entire region. These stories are circulated by Russian and Iranian broadcasters, as well as Christian networks, and are eventually picked up by Western media.
The Christians have been particularly important to Assad in this minority-protecting-dictator spiel because of their links with the West. … The fact that the Christians … have been deliberately endangered by Assad’s decision to make Salafi-jihadists the face of the insurgency, has not stopped Western Christians from John Eibner, CEO of Christian Solidarity International, to Terry Waite, a former envoy of the Archbishop of Cantebury who was kidnapped by the Hizballah, to journalists like Peter Hitchens, constantly saying that Assad is the best the Christians can do.
Europe might be losing its religion but it is still culturally Christian, it still in some sense sees an “us” when it is Middle East Christians being persecuted, and Middle East Christians have all kinds of institutional links to Europe. This is even more true in America, where in addition Christians are an important voting block—one of the reasons, for example, South Sudan has been so high on the U.S. agenda at various times. Assad, Iran, and Russia have played on this masterfully, deliberately endangering the Christians, using them as human shields, and then using their peril to try to gain support from the West in order to protect the Christians. It’s a deceptive hostage racket, but it has not been without success.
It is against this background that, in March 2014, news reached the outside world that the mostly-Christian town of Kessab in the north of the Latakia Province, on the Syrian coast, the heartland of the Alawi minority from which the rulers of Syria come, had fallen to the insurgency. Even for those not watching Syria, this insurgent offensive, Operation ANFAL, which had begun on March 21, became quite widely known after Kim Kardashian tweeted about it on March 31, 2014, imploring the world not to let “history repeat itself”—that is to say, allow the massacre of Armenian Christians by Islamic extremists. (In the 1915-17 massacres of the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire some 5,000 Christian residents of Kessab were murdered.)
Writing a few days before this hysteria and its attendant hashtag (#SaveKessab) got going, I noted, “For once regime propaganda about ‘Wahhabists’ is not wholly inaccurate”: the insurgents who pushed into Jibal Ansariya were led by Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, and Ahrar a-Sham, which is Syrian-led but inflected with Qaeda-type globalist jihadism and was always more hardline than the mainstream rebellion. (To be fair, Ahrar was moderating before its leadership was killed in September.) When a similar offensive had taken place in August 2013, the leading insurgents had been then-ISIS, Nusra, Ahrar a-Sham, the Chechen group Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa-Ansar, and the Saudi group Suqour al-Izz. (ISIS is a “a group external to Syrian society” and Nusra is led by foreigners, leaving only Ahrar that can really claim to be a “rebel” group.) The result had been a terrible massacre of Alawite civilians. Given that the insurgents on the coast had always been the most radicalised, it was natural that the Christians in Kessab would fear their arrival.
But those fears were soon revealed to be overstated. It was true, as I pointed out at the time, that Nusra had smashed all the alcohol in Kessab, which seemed frankly counter-productive given the circumstances, and that the regime’s armed personnel had been roughly handled. However, civilians appeared not to have been harmed by the insurgency. The reports from Christian groups of anti-Christian massacres in Kessab, and that the town’s 3,000 Christian inhabitants had been put to flight, were soon falsified. Indeed, the pictures disseminated by pro-Assad sources claiming a massacre were soon found to be fake, drawn from horror films and from older killings. Moreover, pictures soon emerged (see below) of Ahrar a-Sham getting elderly Christians out of harm’s way and videos were distributed showing rebels protecting churches. Ahmad Jarba, leader of the political opposition, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) or ETILAF, made a rare trip inside Syria, visiting the frontlines in Latakia in April 2014.
Ultimately, the insurgent offensive sputtered out in mid-April and the regime retook Kessab on June 15, as everyone had known it would. The regime will have to be dead before it loses control over the Alawi homeland. The implicit bargain between the regime and the Alawis it has trapped into co-dependency is that while the Alawis will do the regime’s fighting in the interior, the regime must defend them in their mountain. The regime knew the dangers of letting the insurgents in at all, namely morale and the worry that Alawis would leave the frontlines to go and defend their homes on the coast, and the regime would never let the insurgents stay. The best that the rebels could hope for was that the Salafists in Latakia pulled enough regime forces away from Hama and Idlib that they could make some advances, and for a time that seemed to be working. Little has been heard of Kessab since.
An Update From Kessab
It is therefore most welcome that The Telegraph‘s Ruth Sherlock has followed up on this, and filed a dispatch on Saturday from Kessab. Sherlock writes that with “purpose and glee,” the insurgents burned down the Holy Trinity Armenian Evangelical Church and “forced the town’s 2,500 Armenian Christians to flee.” “[The insurgents] took photographs to show they were looking after the churches, and then set them alight,” said Father Miron Avedissian. There was “little evidence” that the Western-backed moderate rebels had tried to restrain the Islamic extremists, Sherlock reported, though “[t]here is no evidence of the ‘massacre’ of civilians claimed by regime loyalists.” Sherlock also points a finger at Turkey, a NATO member, for abetting a rampage by forces that included al-Qaeda. The offensive, which coincided with a General Election in Turkey, had been planned weeks in advance and “rebel fighters were given strict orders [by the Turkish government] to use the offensive to show themselves as ‘moderate Muslims’ and natural allies of the West,” Sherlock reports, which they did initially. Because of Kessab’s topography it is basically a natural fortress: “It was only when Turkish troops allowed free movement across the frontier that the rebels were able to storm and capture Kessab.”
There are, however, one or two concerns about this. First, a lexicographical one. Sherlock writes: “The rebels included men from Chechnya, Tunisia and Libya”. But if they’re foreigners they are by definition not “rebels”—they aren’t rebelling against anything, and indeed have spent their time imposing their will on the Syrians, including the actual rebels with whom they are now openly at war. Second, Sherlock writes that she “travelled to the area on a facility trip with the Syrian regime,” and “cannot independently confirm that all of the damage was inflicted by the rebels.”
Given that, as Sherlock herself notes, the “media spotlight fell away” from Kessab after March/April 2014, it does not take a conspiracy theorist to wonder exactly who it was that burned down that church. According to witnesses, the church was burned down on “the first day”. But Kessab fell on March 23 and by the time of the international outcry at the end of March not even the Basharists were claiming that the Holy Trinity Armenian Evangelical Church had been destroyed. Indeed, it would have been quite a propaganda coup to get that story out and juxtapose it with Jarba’s visit on April 1. That the regime didn’t suggests the church was still standing at that time.
The question of Turkey in this picture is interesting. Ankara is now paying a heavy price for its open-borders policy with regard to the Salafi-jihadists trying to get to Syria, something U.S. officials had asked Ankara to stop, without success. Turkey’s Islamist government had believed Nusra was amenable to persuasion to be something other than al-Qaeda. But the claims that Turkey “supports” I.S. in a direct sense are false—I.S. has not needed external support since 2005. As to whether the Justice and Development Party (AKP) orchestrated this offensive as part of its electoral strategy, we might never know for sure, but stranger things have happened.
If there is any one thing in the story that leaves me uneasy it is the use of an official Christian spokesman. In the true spirit of the KGB that trained the Assadist military-intelligence apparatus, the churches in the Levant are largely “under control,” with the leadership bought-off, blackmailed, or infiltrated into loyalty to the Assad dictatorship. The most infamous example of this is Mother Agnes Mariam, whom only the ignorant or mendacious can say is not a regime agent, but there are others of whom this is less certain like Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III and Syriac Orthodox Church Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, both reliable allies of the Assad tyranny.
Conclusions On The Media In Syria
The excellent thing is to have these questions back front-and-centre. Too often these stories go down the memory hole: they flare up and then the conclusion is never reported. It will be most interesting to see how the “Old Media,” for want of a better term, the print media like The Telegraph, and the “New Media,” the whole apparatus of modern communications from mobile telephones with their camera and video capabilities to YouTube and Twitter, with the “alternate” television channels and websites thrown in, interact over this.
As mentioned, citizen journalism and the individual with a camera phone has never been more important than in Syria. Videos and pictures have flooded out of Syria, telling the outside world things it could never have known any other way. This became especially important after the regime’s decision—inspired if not directed by Russia—to turn out the lights, something symbolised by the murder of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in February 2012. Citizen journalism was also important after the rise of I.S., which made insurgent-held areas as dangerous as regime-held areas for journalists. By the end of 2013, Syria had become “the most deadly place for journalists“. While the rebellion, which still consists mostly of essentially neighbourhood watch militias who took up arms to defend themselves from the regime, had little time or space to put together a media operation, squeezed as it was between the regime and I.S., these two parties found the blackout most useful in trying to not only control the narrative but to actually try to help them win the war, as described above.
The New Media has been very useful in providing access to primary sources from inside Syria without the filter of the Old Media. But this New Media has proven to be more easily manipulated than the Old Media, which had some standards of fact-checking and ethics that—while not always successful—provided some barrier to the spread of outright propaganda. I.S. was able to push its narrative on Twitter far more effectively than the rebels because it had more money and because it had more money it gained more recruits who brought with them more resources—and on it went, the new, open media, without gate-keepers, serving and strengthening the powerful and the tyrannical. Indeed, some parts of this New Media, like RT and Press TV, have been designed expressly as Trojan horses to get control of these new flows of information in the interests of the powerful, namely repressive States. A recent study noted of Russia’s subversion of the West: the postmodern approach to dictatorship is to get inside institutions—whether it is social media or globalisation—and then bend them to Moscow’s will. With Russia in the lead, Assad and Iran have been able to do this rather successfully during the Syrian war, all-but securing Assad a loan of the U.S. Air Force and being important in sparing the regime retribution for the Ghouta chemical massacre. In Kessab, the Old Media corrected the New Media’s claim of a massacre of Christian civilians, and has added evidence of insurgent desecrations. We now await the reaction of the New Media—and the rest of the Old Media—to the questions spawned by this update.