As this week sees the 1,000th day of conflict in Syria pass, Muttahir Salim reflects on the role of propaganda in the conflict.
‘There is something of the propagandist in everyone’: A Syrian Perspective
“To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname
empire, and where they make a wilderness, they call it ‘peace.”
You know it and I know it, ‘there is something of the propagandist in everyone’. Human nature is, and always will be, bound by a jaded and prejudiced view of the world. No matter how we try, and without the proper checks and balances in place, propaganda will always form an exceptional instrument of choice for galvanizing favourable public opinion, particularly in times of conflict. Indeed the notorious and brutal Syrian civil war is an exact proponent of this notion.
As was once a notion wholly utilised by 19th century anarchists, select modern scholars have now coined this activity as ‘Propaganda of the Deed (POTD)’. The idea of POTD as suggested in Bolt and Betz’ 2008 Whitehall report is that it is a form of mass media political marketing with the aim of forming sympathetic patronage by way of the patron’s representative client.
In 21st century conflicts, POTD has shown to be an incredibly effective instrument for galvanising and mobilising public opinion. What has been especially remarkable in this rather unforgiving Syrian Civil War has been the prolific and successful use of POTD from all sides of the conflict including established media outlets. Indeed the swift media reaction and western governments’ spin, hastening affirmative military action over the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta in August of this year, was especially remarkable. Earlier claims relating to the use of chemical weapons declared Assad had crossed the ‘red line’ and claims of his irrefutable guilt, fed directly into a rapidly escalating western government media–blitzkrieg, mostly led by the US and the UK, for a ‘justifiable’ offensive on Syria.
While the UN has not yet established exact culpability, Syrian-allies Iran and Russia pointed the fingers at the rebels, and the US and its allies have blamed the Assad regime for the attack. Some could argue that the rebels had the motivation, the intent and plausible capability to gain the most from a POTD-related attack to mobilise favourable public opinion. However, uncertainty as to who carried out the Ghouta attacks remains. What is sure though is that UN inspectors have confirmed that sarin gas was used on relatively large scale massacring hundreds of people. However, obtaining substantiated proof is fraught with difficulty, particularly when the issues of collection of verifiable hard evidence (i.e. chemical samples), human and image intelligence are complex and often gathered under ambiguous ever changing front lines.
According to UN reports, nearly 93,000 people have been killed, though current invalidated figures put the casualties much higher, while millions have been driven from their homes due to the conflict. What began in March 2011 as an uprising against Bashar al-Assad that has now descended into a vicious civil war, where largely Sunni Muslim rebels are pitted against Assad’s forces (a Shi’ite Alawite). The onset of this is the potential to widen the conflict regionally (and to some degree it already has) and open up old cold war rivalries. Underneath the shadow of this forgotten Cold War contention,both sides have expertly utilised their patrons and have become connoisseurs in exploiting this rivalry to their distinct advantage.
As the civil war has gathered pace and both sides, the rebel forces in particular, have vied for international public opinion, it would seem that POTD ‘activity’ has become the mainstay tool of rebel fighters to correct deep-rooted grievances. By inference, when the resources of the protagonists differ significantly and there is no natural institutional outlet, POTD directive action looks at balancing the odds. Indeed, we know that the resources of the ‘belligerents’ differ significantly whilst both attempt to exploit each other’s weaknesses. The weaker of the two has attempted to use a strategy to offset deficiencies and given the lack of earlier unconvincing Superpower support (i.e. US Support) has arguably been left to the few ‘effective’ devices available to them, that being POTD.
There is still uncertainty as to which parties will be attending the UN-brokered Syrian conference scheduled for 22 January 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland. However one thing is for sure: in the run up to the conference there will be an upsurge of propaganda activity. Indeed, we expect the representatives that do attend the conference will be actively looking to optimise their preliminary negotiating position by way of mobilising the masses with a view to boosting favourable international public opinion. This may sadly involve further terrorist actions aimed at gaining support through their preferred choice of media outlets. It would seem that the protagonists of POTD acknowledge and agree that in ‘today’s fast changing political landscape where social and political agendas are being interpreted and shaped by global media’ it has become the latest vogue that which its protagonists expect rapid response times.
We would not want to overstep the mark here in terms of advocating responsibility of the use of such horrific weapons as there is yet no substantiated evidence to the fact. However, POTD would seem to be an effective asymmetric weapon of choice for the weaker of the two and the moral boundaries in which POTD is being used may have become inauspiciously blurred.
Muttahir Salim is an MA postgraduate student (War in the Modern World) at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is currently the Middle East lead for Arup’s Resilience, Security and Risk practice based out of Abu Dhabi.
 Eugen Hadamovsky (1933), Propaganda und nationale Macht: Die Organisation der öffentlichen, Meinung für die nationale Politik (Oldenburg: Gerhard Stalling).
 Neville Bolt, David Betz & Jaz Azari (2008), Propaganda of the Deed 2008 Understanding the Phenomenon, Whitehall report 3-08, pp. 2, (The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies)
 Ibid. pp. 2
 ‘United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013’
 UN Report – http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45162 (accessed on 27 November 2013,-13:17hrs)
 Neville Bolt, David Betz & Jaz Azari (2008), Propaganda, pp. 1.