10 July 2012 - by Camille Alexandre Otrakji
Predictably, both the regime and its opponents are constantly attempting to influence Syrian public opinion and world opinion at large. Although most agree that the authoritarian regime and its state owned or controlled media outlets are not to be fully trusted, we find a tremendous amount of unwarranted, almost blind, trust in the news communicated on behalf of the regime opponents.
|A gunman who said he was a member of a jihadist group near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in Syria. The signs read “The solution is Islam,” left, and “There is no god but God.”|
The regime camp’s spin
The regime’s main narrative is centered around portraying the crisis mostly (not fully) as a product of foreign conspiracies. Syrian officials always recognized that certain protesters had legitimate demands and concerns, but most of the time their message is dedicated to warning against foreign conspiracies. The only exception has been the President himself who eventually realized the grave mistake he made in his first speech. In that speech he did not show sorrow for loss of life and he briefly mentioned the legitimate demands of protesters. Instead he spoke at length about the conspiracy Syria faces.
After his first speech, the President delivered four other speeches; spoke to Syrian television journalists and to Syria’s religious leaders during Ramadan. In all instances, he focused more on reforms and less on foreign conspiracies. His final speech that was delivered on Jan10th 2012. He spoke again about the difference between those who genuinely seek reforms and those who are using reforms as an excuse to try to topple the regime.
The President’s minimally balanced narrative aside, Syrian television continued to present conspiracy plots, some legitimate, others far fetched.
The regime also tried to exaggerate the significance of the sectarian and violent elements among the protesters. Again, there is always an admission that many protesters are decent young Syrians who want a better future and a better Syria, but then most of the energy and time are dedicated to reminding viewers of the less admirable protesters; those who are violent, Salafi, or paid by outsiders to demonstrate or to spread chaos throughout Syria. Pro regime pages on Facebook post news of the capture of foreign (Saudi, Afghan, or other Arab) fighters after brilliant surprise attacks by Syrian security forces. Some of that is true, but it seems given the lack of public sharing of names and photos of such foreign fighters, one would assume that such reports are highly exaggerated.
The regime gives the impression that ALL those killed by security forces are “armed gangs” or “armed Salafis”, although “mistakes were made” are the three words that qualify as the regime’s vague admission that it is responsible for some of those innocent civilians killed.
In general, the regime did not do enough to convince the peaceful secular protesters it recognizes their size and legitimacy. It is undeniable that the regime’s enemies succeeded in keeping the regime busy defending itself, but the regime’s numerous failures to promote its own narrative of the crisis was an indication of the inherent conflict between the modern need for a more frequent, transparent, and well planned communication strategy, and a regime that always kept its cards close to its chest.
Regime opponents’ narrative
The regime’s predictable list of arguments or deceptions is much shorter than its opponents’. It is clear that regime change and public relations specialists are working on shaping the Syria crisis narrative hoping to help topple the Syrian regime. Parallel to the legitimate protest movement there is substantial deception. Media institutions are followers and willing consumers of talking points they are fed by the revolution’s communication specialists. The sophistication of the opponents’ approach is evident by the amount of material churned and the speed of its availability. There seems to be a very good understanding of the news cycle and when best to release material and data.
Here are the top 25 most common arguments promoted through various degrees of deception to Syrian, Arab and international public opinions:
- The regime (or “Bashar”) is exceptionally evil (corrupt, violent …), willing to sacrifice everything and everyone for the sake of preserving its (or his) self-interests.
- The regime is not patriotic; it sold the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967. Today, it is dedicated to protecting Israel and Israel is secretly helping Assad remain in power. The regime’s near victory in the 1973 war and its resistance credentials (2000 and 2006 Israeli setbacks in Lebanon) should be forgotten. The regime never succeeded in anything. Its role in Lebanon, helping that country end its civil war at the cost of 13,000 Syrian soldiers is reduced to “they robbed the country and murdered late prime minister Hariri”.
- The regime is stupid. Bashar is stupid; he is the wrong man for the job. He cannot even drive a car without having an accident (see this very popular fabricated video).
- The regime is beyond repair. Only a revolution will do. Whatever the regime offered (starting in March 24, 2011 with Buthaina Shabaan’s news conference) or will offer, would be too little and too late. Whatever reforms the regime implemented are meaningless.
- Dialogue with regime is a stab in the back of brave young Syrians risking their lives who want nothing but to topple the regime. Calling for dialogue is immoral, it should be categorically rejected.
- The homegrown revolution is entirely natural, innocent, peaceful and highly moral. There is no reason why opposition figures should not be united … everyone in opposition shares the same noble values and the same aspirations for future Syria. If they fail to unite, it is because they might lack experience or because the evil regime has been trying for decades to weaken the opposition, not because some of them have conflicting priorities or values, and not because many of them arecompeting for personal gains or power.
- The revolution is mostly secular; the regime’s claims are without foundation. There are no religious extremists fighting the regime. The Syrian people should not fear chaos or civil war; it is all regime scare tactics. If a civil war does erupt, it is entirely the regime’s fault.
- The probability of success (toppling the regime) is always high, no matter what the day’s news brings. Potential protesters should always believe that they are about to score the final victory and celebrate and live their Tahrir-square victory experience. That way the Syrianopposition figures, the Arabs, Turkey, Israel, Europe and the US can take turns (weekly cycles usually) in insuring enough young demonstrators find the courage and motivation to demonstrate and risk their lives on behalf of outsiders who would like to weaken or topple the Syrian regime.
- The time it will take to topple the regime is very short … Starting from the early days in March 2011 the regime was always about to fall.
- Destroying Syria’s economy is a legitimate strategy to topple the regime.Boycotting schools is also legitimate (“no studying and no teaching until the regime falls”)
- Foreign (military) help is necessary for humanitarian reasons. If millions die, it is the necessary price every nation has to pay to become democratic. “The Syrian People” want nothing more than massive NATOmilitary intervention.
- The Arabs, Turkey, the United States and Europe only want to help the Syrian people be free from a savage regime that does not live up to the level of civilization of the other leaders and their dedication to human rights. Alain Juppe’s “humanitarian” corridor being only one of his many, many humanitarian efforts.
- Iran and Hezbollah “Shia fighters” are shooting at Syrian civilians (and mostly at “Syrian Sunnis”) everywhere
- Regime supporters are mostly minorities and/or self-centered Aleppo and Damascus businessmen. In fact, there are NO regime supporters; the hundreds of thousands seen in numerous pro-regime demonstrations are all there because they were intimidated by the regime. Some are there willingly, but they are mostly (Alawite) soldiers transported in army busses.
- The Syrian army is disintegrating fast, it is exhausted and cannot afford anymore the cost of fighting the Syrian people everywhere. The Free Syrian army, on the other hand, has over 15,000 members, if any gun fights are heard it is always the FSA fighting the horrible “Assadian army” in order to protect innocent olive branch carrying civilians. If you absolutely must admit that some elements in the revolution are violent make sure you mention that this started to happen “only recently” to imply it is entirely a justifiable reaction to regime violence.
- Sectarian and civilian violence is almost always planned by the regime. All the casualties since the crisis began were murdered by the regime, even soldiers and policemen (army shot them as they tried to refuse orders to randomly shoot at old women and children or to rape women). When pro regime civilians are murdered, blame the regime anyway.
- Regime figures are panic-stricken … they are killing each other … Defence minister Habib was killed … Reckless Maher Assad shot Vice President Farouk Sharaa and slapped Bouthaina Shabaan because she dared to announce reforms … diplomats are deserting the regime and many more are about to next week … For the past ten months Bashar has been busy making arrangements to escape next week to Tehran, Dubai, Russia, or Hezbollastan.
- Russia, Iran and China decided to abandon the regime. Next week the regime will hear some depressing news.
- The fortune that Rami Makhloof and Bashar Assad stole from the poor Syrian people is enough to revive the Syrian economy if it is recovered from their secret Swiss accounts. The “Canadian Business Online Staff” are certain that Bashar, worth $122 billion dollars, is by far the richest man on the planet. They surely know how to find hidden funds. They should teach the Swiss the secrets of banking. The Swiss only managed to freeze $53 millions the combined assets of 54 Syrian regime individuals (including the President) and 12 Syrian companies.
- The army is frequently using tanks, jets, and naval ships to randomly bombard its freedom-seeking people. It is intentionally targeting women and children in addition to mosques. With all the cell phone cameras that regime opponents across Syria carry, none of them was able to capture a single incident showing a Syrian jet bombing a civilian target. The only clips that the opposition uploaded to their “Syrian revolution 2011” Facebook page showing Syrian naval ships had a title “Boats getting ready to fire” that indirectly conceded they could not find any boat actually firing at anyone. The vast majority of “tanks” reported by the media were in fact armored personnel carriers that the army uses to protect its soldiers. Eventually, there were some credible reports that tanks were indeed used in December 2011 to bombard specific areas where well-armed opponents have taken positions in parts of Homs.
- Maher Assad is one of the most powerful men in Syria. His 4th brigade attacked every Syrian city simultaneously (Daraaa, Hama, Banias, or Deir Ezzore …) and always “randomly bombarded civilians” and raped women. Eventually when it became clear that the 4th brigade was rarely used, the media and the opposition retired their daily Maher tales.
- Size of anti-regime demonstrations is consistently growing week after week, even when it started to seriously shrink after Ramadan. Anti-regime demonstrations are always described as “massive”, hundreds of thousands of protesters are casually reported by reputable media outlets in the smallest Syrian towns with populations in the tens of thousands. In one instance, an official Arab League observer on the ground in Idleb counted only thousands, instead of the 250,000 widely reported in western media. On the other hand, pro-regime demonstrations in Syria’s largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo (population about 4 millions, each) that reach 100,000 to 200,000 in size (as Robert Fisk reported from Damascus) at best get described as “large”.
- You should not believe, pay attention to or quote ANYTHING from Syrian television or Syria’s official news agency SANA. The truth is that both are indeed government propaganda outlets but while they are totally selective in the choices of daily news they decide to report, they do not fabricate more than a fraction of the stories the opposition has been massively fabricating and promoting to a very receptive western and Arab media.
- Regime supporters are closed-minded, naïve, sheep-like followers. Opposition supporters (simply promoted to the more impressive term: “the Syrian people”) are brilliant, honest, brave, visionary … They value Syria’s best interests … freedom, dignity and democracy. The revolution does not make mistakes.
- Every Thursday, conveniently before Friday’s weekly demonstrations, a star victim is promoted into a rallying symbol on Aljazeera and on Facebook. Real victims, or fabricated … Like Ahmad Biassi who supposedly died while Syrian intelligence head Ali Mamlouk personally ended his life by stepping on his neck while torturing him (See Ahmad appearing later on Syrian TV to deny he is dead or tortured), or Zaynab Hosni whose mutilated body was considered by Amnesty international as evidence of unprecedented barbaric behavior by the regime, only to realize later that she is alive as she appeared on Syrian television.
It should be obvious to the reader why those working for regime change find it advantageous to promote each of the above arguments. If you read opinion pieces covering the crisis in Syria you would see that they are mostly constructed using the above 25 building blocks that the revolution’s strategists managed to pass to the media quite easily.
Why did the revolution’s PR specialists succeed in imposing their narrative and why did the regime fail?
- Journalists love to support the underdog and to help revolutions trying to topple dictators and establish a democratic system, even if they had to pretend they did not notice the strong ultra conservative currents within Syria’s revolutionaries.
- The Syrian regime restricted access to western journalists. Journalists mostly reported what they heard from opposition figures outside and from what activists and demonstrators told them. All heavily biased to the revolution.
- Syria is too complex to understand for most that did not visit frequently, or live there for years.
- Most mainstream Journalists trust and follow the policies of their state departments or foreign ministries.
- Journalists working for the Arab world’s two top TV News channels Aljazeerah (Qatar owned) and Al-Arabiya (Saudi owned) appear to be following Saudi and Qatari wishes in toppling the Syrian regime. They have been helping promote the Syrian revolution, often by providing a popular platform for shady figures accusing the Syrian regime of genocide or other atrocities. Two recent examples: A man claiming to be an Egyptian member in the Arab league’s team of observers speaks on Al-Arabiya about a genocide he witnessed in Homs. A few days later (after many believed his story) a small denial by the Arab league is published but not many read it. the week after an Algerian Arab league Syria observer appears on Aljazeera to explain that he had to quitbecause he could not tolerate anymore stepping on bodies of dead Syrian civilians everywhere on the streets of Homs. Again, everyone is outraged at the regime and not many will notice that a few days later the Arab League also denied the man’s fabricated story.
- Finally, while some reporters work hard to cover Syria’s news properly, many others are not as energetic. The revolution emails daily newsletters and press releases full of talking points and news items that can be borrowed by journalists to write a daily reports. A few months before the protests started, Ausama Monajed established the London based “Strategic Research and Communication Center”. He used to be in charge of the US financed Barada TV (Islamist Syrian opposition channel). The SRCC did not show any meaningful activity but when the protests started, Ausama alternated between lobbying the Europeans and Americans to place sanctions on Syria, and producing daily propaganda newsletters that his research center sent by email to a large database of prominent contacts.
The regime, in comparison, refused interviews with journalists and never released any original material that helped promote its views. All the damning clips on You Tube that show opposition violence for example, have been shot by opposition activists (bragging about their power). The regime does show footage of weapons captured on its borders or from armed opponents; Syrian television shows interviews with (confessions of) captured armed opponents. But Arab and western media very rarely report anything from Syrian Television as a rule of thumb.
A look at the various banners that the revolution’s main Facebook page cycles more than once per week makes it clear there are communication specialists helping the not very skilled admins of that influential page.
Written by Camille Alexandre Otrakji : Camille Otrakji is a political and strategic analyst specialized in the Syrian affairs. He is the editor of the Syria Page, and the founder of many dialogue blogs over the past decade. He has recently joined Syria Tribune's list of guest editors.