Syrian regime, winning the propaganda war

GlobalPost dissects Syria’s surprisingly effective state media strategy

Published August 20, 2012 2:27PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

One image of the Syrian conflict that has resonated widely in the West is that of corpses, including those of children, who have fallen victim to government attacks.

Global Post

But a far more heroic image of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's security forces is being fostered by the regime’s own media, part of a determined effort to keep up morale as fighting continues to rage in Aleppo and other cities.

Nightly on state television, pictures are shown of children kissing soldiers or being hoisted aloft by them, with a patriotic song, “This is the Nation’s Army,” playing in the background.

On Aug. 1, Armed Forces Day, a picture of a small boy in a scouts uniform, saluting and handing a red rose to a wounded soldier on his hospital bed, led state media coverage. It was complemented by reports from across Syria of citizens paying blustery tributes to the army for, in their words, shielding the nation from the sweeping international conspiracy against it.

A citizen identified as Mohammed al-Samia was quoted in al-Baath, the daily newspaper of Assad's political party, applauding the army for ''arriving in neighborhoods to save [citizens] from the crimes of traitors. The army is showing that Syria is a rock that won't be broken by conspiracies.''

Such invocation of conspiracies underway against Syria are all pervasive on television and in the newspapers, including state-run Tishreen, and al-Watan, which claims to be independent but is published by Assad's tycoon cousin, Rami Makhlouf.

The Syrian government is telling its people that the bloodshed is not the result of an uprising, or even civil war, but rather entirely the outcome of conspiratorial foreign (be it US, Turkish, European, Saudi, Qatari, Israeli, Al Qaeda or others) interventions aimed at subverting Syria. The reason? Because Syria is a steadfast Arab nationalist state.

As the conflict drags on, some developments have emerged to support such conspiracies. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both funding and arming Syria’s rebels. And groups aligned with Al Qaeda have trickled in over the borders of Iraq and Lebanon to join the fight. But foreign governments and other groups are also backing the Syrian regime, including Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.

Analysts say that for the regime, credibility is not the key to winning the media war, but rather the ability to pass a strong, consistent message.

Nadim Shehadi, a specialist on Syria and Lebanon at Chatham House, the think-tank of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, said Syrian television, despite a lack of credibility in its reports, is playing a highly effective role in the war.

''My impression is they are doing quite a good job and are much more effective than the opposition media. Their aim is not to be credible but to pass messages, such as that the regime is strong. People don't have to believe what is being broadcast, but the overall message is 'we're here and here to stay,' which is quite strong.''

Both the regime and its opponents view the media war as crucial to the outcome of the fighting, with the Arab League in June officially asking satellite operators Arabsat and Nilesat to stop broadcasting Syrian television stations. On Aug. 6, a bomb exploded at the offices of the Syrian broadcasting authority in Damascus, wounding several people.

The regime’s claim of a foreign conspiracy reached a fever pitch in an analysis earlier this month in al-Watan by Maysoun Youssef. Citing what she said were Turkish media reports, Youssef wrote that the American military in Turkey is equipping Al Qaeda fighters against Syria.

''The real cooperation between this terrorist organization and American intelligence affirms the American dissemblance in fighting Al Qaeda and its terrorism,'' she wrote.

On Aug. 15, al-Baath, also citing Turkish media reports, charged that Turkish President Abdullah Gul was cooperating with Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri with the goal of “partitioning Syria and shaking its stability.''

The same day, Tishreen proclaimed that the bombing of national security headquarters in Damascus last month, in which several key regime security figures were killed, ''was carried out with American logistical support.''

Writer Nahla Al-Muaz provided no evidence for this but said it was part of a US attempt ''to push the Syrian government to surrender.''

''Obama never mentions the reason for his interest in overthrowing the government of Syria. But hidden behind the humanist claims, the motivations are clear to any political analyst,'' she wrote. ''They are firstly to get rid of the Russian naval base in Syria and deprive Russia of its only Mediterranean base. Secondly, the aim is to isolate Syria to prevent the provision of arms to Hezbollah so as to help Israel in its efforts to occupy South Lebanon and control its water resources.''

In their accounts of the fighting, Syrian newspapers invariably stress the presence of ''terrorists of Arab, foreign and African nationality.''

Meanwhile, Al-Watan, Assad's cousin's paper, claimed the West is conspiring to destroy the country because Syria ''refuses the demands of imperialism and refuses to sign a peace treaty with the Zionist entity," according to an analysis by Mohammed Ashraf al-Bayoumi. "Refusal to meet foreign demands is the real reason the regime is being targeted.''

To counter Syria's international isolation, the media gives great stress to statements of support for Syria from Russian and Iranian leaders. ''Democratic Korea (North Korea) fully supports Syria against the state terrorism of the United States and its allies'' flashed a ticker on state television last week.

On Thursday, a day after Syria was suspended from the Saudi-backed Organization for Islamic Cooperation, coverage focused not on the decision itself but on condemnation of the move by Iran and a group of pro-Syrian Lebanese clerics.

Above all, the Syrian media tries to give the impression that the army is winning the war, inflicting ''awesome'' losses on opponents, constantly pursuing ''scattered remnants'' of terrorist cells and that the military is strong.

''Every day the achievements are greater and greater,'' an announcer said on Aug. 15. Over and over again, military recruitment advertisements are broadcast, inviting youngsters to join in the homeland's defense. The ads feature fighter jets streaking across the skies, ships firing off missiles, and a woman soldier opening up with an automatic weapon.

Another key message is that life is going on as usual despite the uprising, with the television news headlines last week stressing that Damascus markets are full and a report featuring interviews with children about what toys their parents had bought them for the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

By Ben Lynfield

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