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‘There is something of the propagandist in everyone’: A Syrian Perspective

As this week sees the 1,000th day of conflict in Syria pass, Muttahir Salim reflects on the role of propaganda in the conflict.

The Editor

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‘There is something of the propagandist in everyone’: A Syrian Perspective

by Muttahir Salim

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“To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname
empire, and where they make a wilderness, they call it ‘peace.”
Tacitus

You know it and I know it, ‘there is something of the propagandist in everyone’.[1] 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,[2] 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,[3] 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[4] 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.[5]

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 mediablitzkrieg, 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.[6] 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,[7] 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’[8] 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.

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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.

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NOTES

[1] Eugen Hadamovsky (1933), Propaganda und nationale Macht: Die Organisation der öffentlichen, Meinung für die nationale Politik (Oldenburg: Gerhard Stalling).
[2] http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Anarchism_and_violence.html
[3] 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)
[4] Ibid. pp. 2
[5] ‘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’
[6] UN Report – http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45162 (accessed  on 27 November 2013,-13:17hrs)
[7] Neville Bolt, David Betz & Jaz Azari (2008),  Propaganda, pp. 1.

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One thought on “‘There is something of the propagandist in everyone’: A Syrian Perspective

  1. This article would benefit from clarity on the precise difference between POTD and propaganda in general. After all, since all propaganda is a deliberate act, the act of propagandising is in itself a deed. However, Bolt and others refer to specific physical acts, be it suicide bombing, or the terrorist attacks you mention, and the propaganda effect the images of the attacks have. That is very different from your statement that established media outlets have conducted POTD. Conducting propaganda and POTD are distinctly different – POTD is but one aspect of propaganda as a whole. Whilst POTD may be a form of political marketing, that does not mean that all political marketing/political communication is POTD. There is a clear difference between propaganda – in attempts to persuade people to support your view/policy/actions – and the very specific concept of POTD. Note the distinction between propaganda of the word (POTW) and POTD. You appear to conflate the two, implying that all propaganda related to Syria might be POTD. This is tautological, and misrepresents the concept of POTD as the authors to which you refer have conceptualised it.

    I am also uncertain as to how the Syrian war, as you state in your first paragraph, demonstrates that there is something of a propagandist in everyone. You then refer to ‘this activity’ in paragraph two – what activity do you mean, and by whom? You then say that all sides have very effectively used POTD throughout the Syrian conflict. What examples do you have of this? A ‘media blitzkrieg’ to justify Western intervention in Syria is not POTD; it is just propaganda. A chemical weapons attack might be POTD, but only if it was conducted precisely for the propaganda effect it would generate. Of course, this would be wholly illogical for the regime – such an act would, as it did, have a profoundly negative propaganda effect. If the rebels had perpetrated the chemical attack on themselves (which I personally doubt) then that might be an example of POTD, since the only logical reason to kill one’s own people in such a gruesome way would be to lay the blame on the government and generate negative propaganda against them. You are right that we cannot be absolutely certain who conducted the attack, but we can and should get right how we define the terms by which it is analysed.

    Due to the apparent lack of clarity in what you conceptualise as POTD one is left wondering what the precise argument is here.

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