Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Propaganda and truth in Syria



These days it can be hard to know where the cold reporting of facts gives way to propaganda and public relations.

Journalism is the discipline of gathering facts and relaying them to the public in a comprehensible way. It’s an important part of a progressive society to have a free press, one removed from political motivation of manipulation. This is the process, generally speaking, that Western journalists follow to gather their news each day. It is a robust and healthy profession that is ever-changing and evolving.

However, the very openness of our society sometimes makes it easy to manipulate the media. Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war and it has been attacked for centuries. Our standards for what is real or true are high, but the constant stream of information makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially in warfare.

A few weeks ago the reasons that are convincing the international community to not intervene in Syria were explained. Outlined were the main arguments against intervention, from the suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) to the political fallout of post-regime collapse to the spread of weapons to the rest of the Middle East or even non-state actors in the region (now including the fear of chemical and biological weapons, of which Damascus has an enormous stockpile).

Many of these reasons for inactivity are explained by NATO and U.S. military advisors. The chances of significant outside assistance for Syria’s rebels fade as each day passes.

However, there’s one important piece of the puzzle that was missed, and for good reason: propaganda. That people are only obliquely discussing it points to its great effectiveness in the raging Syrian internecine war. Everyone seems to be focused on the imminent collapse of the al Assad regime. The rebels, say all the papers, have struck “significant blows” to the regime and are “gathering momentum”.

Indeed it was Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu who proclaimed that no-one believes Syrian President Bashar al Assad will keep his position. Davutoglu and other leaders are already preparing for the future when Syria will need a new leader. Who that might be is as yet unknown, but even the Syrian opposition cannot agree on a rightful successor. And if they cannot agree, then a smooth transition must be fanciful.

International leaders announce weekly that opposition fighters are quickly overwhelming Syrian government forces and closing off strategic routes. And yet, Damascus was able to position thousands of troops, drive tons of armour and fly squadrons of aircraft towards Aleppo a few days ago.

The logistics include a long, but direct route north through western Syria. Taking the troops through Homs, Hama, and Rastan (three towns that have seen heavy fighting between rebels and government forces over the past year) should have been near impossible. Such a route would surely be overrun by opposition forces.

Yet the Syrian troops managed to move through these towns with ease and launch a siege on Aleppo within hours. Syria’s largest city is important to the rebels, but the regime needs to gain control if it is to scatter the opposition.

A casual viewer of this intense conflict would assume Syria imminent collapse. With rebels pouring out of dark alleyways throughout the country to visit death on the dwindling regime figures, al Assad must be grasping at legitimacy as his power falls away from him.

The powerful propaganda machine has encouraged this idea to the waiting world media. Remember, for many months the international media has not been officially allowed to cover the conflict from inside Syria. They instead have to rely on snippets of home-videos or camera-phone movies, smuggled out of Syria. The viewer is constantly reminded that no report can be independently verified. So exactly how the media justify replaying them is a mystery.

These videos of vicious fighting between government forces and rebel groups, some supposedly showing artillery shelling and helicopter gunship strafing, have caused uproar around the world. It is said al Assad has clearly lost control of the situation, turning his troops into death-squads and incarnations. Photos and videos of massacres where children were targeted, no, executed by government artillery have trickled out supposedly showing how monstrous the regime really is.   

Yet only recently, alongside United Nations and Arab League observers have small portions of the international media gained any access to Syria. Inside they are finding the situation less gratuitous than perhaps expected. Fighting rages and people die, but the wanton destruction and wholesale murder of Syrians by al Assad’s troops is not happening as expected.

Indeed, it is becoming clearer that many of the ‘massacres’ may not have occurred as first described. Closer inspection of infamous videos reveal killed people, not by shelling as first explained, but by close-range small-arm fire. The deaths might have happened during a fire fight between government troops and rebel fighters. But other reports indicate it opposition members who committed the atrocities against Syrian regime supporters. Government troops may not be to blame after all for the Houla massacre.

The media failed to follow up this clarification and very few people know what actually happened, it is unlikely we will ever know for sure. Yet the propaganda that al Assad is a monster was released to the world, and the damage was done.

In the same way, not every explosion captured on video is unambiguously a nasty attack from Syrian government forces. The lack of context of the shots is exacerbating the already foggy nature of the conflict. Of course, horrible things are done by both sides in war, regardless of who occupies the “good” side. War is never fought by perfect angels; there is always carnage and stray bullets.

But it is incredibly important for the opposition to employ propaganda techniques. The rebels desperately need direct foreign intervention, so they have an incentive to ratchet up future reports of massacres to make al Assad appear more grotesque and illegitimate. Even at the expense of truth the rebels will fabricate stories.
 
This is to be expected. Whenever intelligence agencies are involved in conflicts (and that is every time) it pays to monitor the media. While journalists love to report the truth, they can be manipulated just like any other human. For example, a “Mohammad” calls a reporter residing in Turkey or Lebanon revealing a story of a new massacre or a victorious foray into government-held territory. The reporter has no way to verify the claim, but does have a deadline fast approaching. The reporter considers the validation, and writes the story. The result is obvious.

In Syria, Western intelligence does have a goal. Removing al Assad is strategically important because it undermines Iranian hegemony in the region. They must stop short of applying kinetic force to physically oust al Assad. But they have openly claimed to covertly assist the rebels with weapons and intelligence. To spread the idea that al Assad is ready to fall, international intelligence agencies and the Syrian opposition begin to seed the media with half-truths and exaggerated stories.

Whether the Syrian regime is about to collapse or whether it will remain for some time is simply unknown. At the moment, the regime can obviously still trek from one side of their country to the other and lay siege to a city. However the constant redeployment of troops is surely taking its toll on morale.

It is true key members of the al Assad regime were killed in a recent bombing that shows some signs of foreign assistance.

And also, many high-level defections are stressing the regime and sowing discord amongst those who remain at their posts. Yet even the most high-profile defection, that being of the Tlass clan, is not as it appears. This defection supposedly heralds the demise of the al Assad family, so close was Tlass to the Syrian leader. However, the Brigadier General Manaf Tlass had apparently already fallen out of favour with al Assad during the first stages of the uprising last year, and he had lost command of his troops up to 14 months ago. Some sections of the Syrian opposition are calling him to step into leadership when al Assad falls. Yet not all the rebels agree with this. Tlass now resides in France and is not showing signs of wishing to return to his embattled country soon.

All this is pointing towards al Assad’s demise. But while he has lost important strategic pillars of the state, al Assad survives. If the Syrian leader is as threatened as the media say, why does he still maintain relative control over his armed forces? Why is he able to drive rebels out of Damascus? Why is the Syrian government still functioning, even sending officials abroad to attend meetings?

Al Assad is doing what any government does when rebels threaten the incumbent regime. He is moving quickly and violently to stamp out the insurrection. No country would find this policy alien. China used force, Israel uses force, Thailand uses force, and even the United States during their civil war used force. An armed insurrection must be broken early and hard, otherwise more people die the longer it drags on. It might hurt to say it but, any government would probably do the same. In fact, because the al Assad regime realises it is fighting a foreign-backed insurrection, its actions become more legitimate in the eyes of supporters and could be making their responses increasingly vicious.

What is bothersome is how the media seem to be vacuuming up every video or phone call from the Syrian opposition without the slightest means of verification. Sure, the government in Syria is issuing similar propaganda to international media, I can understand this. But they are using the same methods for propaganda as the media-savvy and intelligence-backed opposition forces.

To loudly proclaim the rebels as inexorably pushing back government forces is assuming that stories from the Syrian opposition are all true.



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