Tony Badran

Defensive propaganda

Of all the uprisings of the “Arab Spring,” the Syrian revolt has been the one arena where pro-regime information warfare has been a central element in the ongoing conflict. While the regime has not been able to shape the information environment completely, it has nevertheless had some success in sowing confusion and reinforcing the fears of its target audiences. What’s more, the pro-regime information operations have found resonance in some rather unexpected corners in Washington.
Last week, John Rosenthal at National Review Online picked up on a report in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung claiming that the Houla massacre was in fact not perpetrated by the regime. Rather, citing anonymous “opposition sources,” the report asserted it was the rebels who were responsible. Furthermore, the report contended that the victims were not Sunnis, but, in fact, Alawites.
There were obvious indicators that the German article was false and based on claims made by the regime and its fellow travelers. For instance, the report stated that the supposed Alawite victims were from the “Shomaliya” family. The confused German author—and everyone who uncritically picked up his report—didn’t even bother to check his facts or his sources. There is an Alawite village by the name of al-Shumariya, near Houla, which the regime’s media and its third-party amplifiers claimed was attacked by “armed gangs.”
However, even some pro-regime websites noted that what had taken place in al-Shumariya was in fact a reprisal operation that lobbed RPG and possibly mortar rounds on the village after the Houla massacre had taken place. In other words, it may have been, at best, a retaliatory attack, especially since the onslaught on Houla was launched from Alawite villages.
The fudging of these kinds of details is what allows an information campaign to achieve one of its main purposes, which is to sow confusion, thereby clouding strategic judgment.
Assad’s operation could be categorized as defensive propaganda. The Syrian dictator is not counting on world sympathy for his cause. For that, having the Russians and the Iranians on his side suffices. Rather, Assad’s primary objective is to continue to ensure that the US remains on the sidelines in Syria.
Many (wrongly) thought the Houla massacre would tip the balance in favor of those arguing for an intervention on humanitarian grounds. The Assad regime’s natural response, echoed by the Russians, was to muddy the waters regarding what actually happened. The objective was to embarrass, throw off balance, and neutralize the humanitarian interventionists on their own turf, which is moral, not strategic. “There are no good guys,” is the message of Assad’s info op.
One could argue that in the case of the Houla massacre, the propaganda effort had limited success, as no major news outlet outside of NRO ran with the FAZ story. However, the information operation has another function, and this one appears to be more successful.
Since the outbreak of the uprising, the Assad regime has claimed that it was really combatting armed Islamist groups. By projecting the message that there is nothing and no one worth supporting in the opposition to his regime (“no good guys”), Assad’s propaganda aims to buttress the idea that his opponents are, if not all fanatical Sunni extremists, then certainly deeply penetrated and even dominated by them.
Beyond the moral realm, the “there are no good guys” message aims to influence strategic priorities. More specifically, it seeks to heighten strategic confusion about the primary US objective in Syria—toppling the Assad regime—and thus reinforce the Obama administration’s indecision and reluctance to lead.
Hence, we’ve heard senior officials in the Obama administration, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to UN Ambassador Susan Rice, say that arming the opposition could be tantamount to arming al-Qaeda, since we don’t know who this opposition really is.
This line has made successful inroads on the Right as well, as a quick perusal of recent articles shows. It helps explain why Rosenthal quickly embraced the FAZ report without critical evaluation. What it also reveals is a confused prioritization of US interests in the region. Paralyzed by the conviction that Assad’s opponents are little more than jihadists, proponents of this view lose sight of the fact that the Assad regime gave jihadists the run of the place for years, turning Syria into their hub as long as they focused their energies on Iraq and Lebanon.
More importantly, this position misses the key strategic objective for the US in region. In addition to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the primary goal for the US is to undermine Tehran’s ability to project power in the region by destroying its network of alliances. This begins with the removal of the Assad regime from power.
Sound policy emanates from clear strategic vision. Given that its survival is at stake, it is no surprise that the Assad regime has made maximum use of information warfare to cloud its adversaries’ strategic vision, planting second thoughts in their minds about the strategic goal of undermining the regime. What is surprising about this campaign is the way in which many on the US side have been so susceptible to it.  
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.