Syrian state media: War propaganda, whitewashing and denial

Syrian state media: War propaganda, whitewashing and denial
Comment: A new phase in Syrian state media's wildly distorted output attempts to depict life in regime-controlled areas of the country as 'business as usual', writes Kareem Chehayeb.
6 min read
12 Oct, 2016
State propaganda claimed that only a minority did not support the regime [Getty]
At a time when widespread rebellion was sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, the Assad regime showed no hesitation in delegitimising Syria's own popular uprising.

State media, notably the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), bent over backwards to contain organising and mobilisation, both among Syrians in Syria, and the Syrian diaspora who were quick to express their support and solidarity.

Over time, as the uprising turned into an armed conflict, and as new militias and armed groups were added into the mix, the state media's rhetoric and strategy have adjusted to the situation.

So far, there have been three phases in the Syrian state media's approach to covering the uprising and conflict.

Phase I: Uprising, what uprising?

The first phase involved delegitimising the popular uprising by claiming that only a small minority do not support the regime, while most Syrians do. And while the uprising did start in the form of small-scale organising in several neighborhood, that's not to say that they were irrelevant.

During this time, SANA appeared to focus on two things, the first was pro-regime counter-protests, such as the massive rally called "Defenders of the Homeland, Peace Be Upon You", in appreciation of the Syrian army. At that time, protesters were being rounded up, imprisoned, and tortured on a regular basis.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was also falsely portrayed as a reformer, and SANA continued to present this image of him. In this pro-regime rally, which took place in several cities during the end of 2011, the main theme was not just simply supporting the regime, but emphasising the reforms they believed Assad would implement.

Phase II: Whitewashing crimes

As protesters were imprisoned and tortured, and Syria's civil uprising turned into an all-out armed conflict, state media depicted the situation as a foreign invasion. SANA emphasised that opposition groups were foreigners, and that Syrians stood by the regime, the army, and the regime's allies wholeheartedly. During this phase, whitewashing the killing of civilians was the norm.

SANA emphasised that opposition groups were foreigners, and that Syrians stood by the regime

Let's take a look at the Ghouta massacre that took place on the morning of 21 August 2013, where the Assad regime murdered 1,729 people using sarin gas. Local doctor Amer al-Shami says that he "couldn't distinguish between the living and the dead". Of course, the Assad regime was not going to admit being behind the attacks, but they did respond.

The Ministry of Information immediately dismissed "rumors" by "some outlets" that chemical weapons were used in opposition-held Ghouta, which is regularly the target of mortar attacks by the Syrian army.

A month after the attacks, SANA tweeted a quote from Former British Ambassador Craig John Murray, who said that Israel provided the US with "fabricated evidence" on the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta.

After all, it was - as they say - all part of the conspiracy to overthrow the regime via foreign states. Less than a year before the attacks, SANA had quoted Hizballah Secretary Hassan Nasrallah who stated that the uprising was a conspiracy by Israel and the United States in collaboration with "moderate" Arab states.

Phase III: Today's Syria is thriving

Much has happened since the Ghouta massacre in 2013. Three years on, we have seen Islamic State (IS) grow exponentially, and former Al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat Al-Nusra now Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham make an impact among the opposition.

We have seen sieges and starvation used as a tactic both by the regime in places such as Madaya, and by opposition forces in Fouaa and Kafraya. There's also the regime's brutal siege of East Aleppo, and the infamous photo of the traumatised Omran Daqneesh.

Russia is now working on setting up a permanent naval base in Syria, and is engaging in military cooperation with the United States, albeit with many bumps on the road. Things could not look worse for the Syrian people.

But lo and behold, the Assad regime and Syrian state media have decided to interpret things a little bit differently to the outside world.

Syria's Ministry of Tourism released a video on 30 August, 2016 called "Syria Always Beautiful", focusing on Syria's regime-controlled northwestern coastal areas.

Beaches, jet-skis, techno music; you name it, Syria has it. SANA released a video on Twitter less than a month later, emphasising the nightlife in Tartous featuring footage of overcrowded clubs, DJs, and bass-heavy electronic music.

It gets more tasteless, though. Syrian state propaganda even extends beyond cities they have full control of in Syria. Despite the tug-of-war - sieges between regime-held West Aleppo and opposition-held East Aleppo - and despite the many instances of civilians being killed on both sides (though the number in East Aleppo is far greater) the Assad regime has used Aleppo in their latest propaganda campaigns.

SANA posted a video on Twitter when the attacks on Aleppo were the Middle East's major headlines, showing how Syria's second-largest city "boasts a thriving nightlife", despite everything that's happening.

The Syrian Ministry of Tourism posted a video about Aleppo on their YouTube channel, called "Aleppo Will Of Life", showing drone footage of historical sites in West Aleppo with the Game Of Thrones theme played with ouds.

There has been conflicting commentary about this new chapter of Syrian state propaganda. Who does it target? What is its primary goal?

Assad has always portrayed himself as the secular alternative to jihadi organisations
- Syrian activist Loubna Mrie

Editor-in-Chief of Syria Deeply, Annia Ciezaldo believes that while the propaganda would be considered laughable to people knowledgeable about the conflict, Assad is primarily targeting people in Syria.

This concerns both those in regime-held areas who fear the encroachment of organisations such as IS, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham and other extremist groups, as well as those starving in besieged areas, who do not know whether they will live another day.

She considers that the regime is trying to show that it is in control, and that its rule is the only way for normality to return.

On the other hand, Syrian activist Loubna Mrie told me that such propaganda is also intended for western audiences, who have witnessed attacks claimed by organisations such as IS.

"People who endorse the regime are even upset with these videos. They know that people are starving and injured and suffering," says Mrie. She believes that this is simply taking the regime's rhetoric from day one to a new level. "Assad has always portrayed himself as the secular alternative to jihadi organisations when discussing the uprising," she says, "westerners will see those videos and buy it out of fear".

There is indeed a strong case for both claims. There has been increased sympathy towards the Assad regime in the West due to the secular-jihadi binary that became more visible with the growth of IS and the impact of other jihadi extremist organisations within the opposition.

Moreover, it appears that even the United States has shown an interest in preserving the Assad regime in its negotiations with Russia and military cooperation, perhaps only hoping to have him implement a few reforms.

With the regime clearly not going away anytime soon, and extremist organisations growing thanks to their financial resources, there is a clear feeling of hopelessness among many who once were so optimistic about overthrowing Assad's dictatorial regime.

Perhaps this new phase, in which Assad portrays his areas of control as "business as usual", is the sucker-punch that he was waiting to give to his own people, who one day decided to take to the streets to live a life of dignity.

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and musician based in Beirut. He is the co-founder of Beirut Syndrome, a grassroots media platform.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.