How strategic communications set the bounds of acceptable debate about the war in Syria

Regarding the war in Syria, it has been shown that UK and allies have been engaged in a strategic communications programme (Hayward 2021a), that there has been the generation of an official narrative (Hayward 2021b), and that this narrative has occluded alternative accounts of what was happening in Syria in 2011 (Hayward 2021c). Nevertheless, it is possible in principle to argue that those alternative accounts present merely minor anomalies in the official narrative, rather than reasons to consider it seriously inadequate or misleading. Certainly, the mere fact of disagreement does not tell us which way a reasoned assessment would settle it.

What is to be introduced in this chapter, however, is some of the early evidence that suggests an important objective of the strategic communications programme has been not only to promote a certain narrative but also to impose a meta-narrative that sets certain contrary views beyond the bounds of epistemically warranted and ethically acceptable debate.

A basic pre-requisite for the accomplishment of this objective is organisational infrastructure that supports the promotion of one view while simultaneously occluding alternatives. It also requires producing an impression that Syrian voices, from multiple sources, report evidence and argument that strongly supports the official view. If this impression is achieved, then it can seem reasonable to claim that challenges to that view are beyond the bounds of credibility and ethical decency. Thus it came to be that questioning any criticism made of Assad, in particular, would be dismissed and condemned as immoral apologism.

Yet from the perspective being developed in this book, it is crucial to understand that no absolution from criticism is implied by an insistence that criticism ought to be grounded in appropriate evidence, honestly presented.

Accordingly, where the previous chapter (Hayward 2021c) emphasised the scope of legitimate and reasonable debate about events in Syria from 2011 onwards, this chapter examines some of the arrangements that had been put in place to ensure that such debate could be strategically limited so that the official narrative could prevail without serious challenge in public discussions in the West.

Central to the strategy was to ensure that people with the right message – and only they – would be in a position to get it heard, so that dissenting voices would not have access to the channels of communication that feed the media.

A sponsored government in waiting and a strategic communications programme to promote its cause

The strategic communications programme about Syria, as earlier noted (Hayward 2021a), has been oriented to a longstanding foreign policy goal. Over time, the specifics of the West’s policy towards Syria have mutated, but for many decades the over-arching goal has not significantly changed. This involves having installed in Damascus a regime that appreciates the value of a capitalist economy, respects the claims of Israel to its position in the Middle East, and helps extend rather than erode a geo-political buffer against Russia and Iran. With the accession of Bashar al-Assad to the presidency, the Western powers were ready to sound out the possibility that he might be encouraged to head-up such a regime – but this was perhaps more in hope than in expectation. Contingency plans were in place.

Syria had already been earmarked as one of the prospective MENA region targets of armed intervention before 2001, and by 2005 George W. Bush resolved that the contingency plans should be firmed up. This was no secret, with even the CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour (2005) confronting Assad on television with the assertion that “talk of regime change is coming your way…”. In February 2006 the Bush administration announced that it would award $5 million in grants to ‘accelerate the work of reformers in Syria.’

With the coming of the ‘Arab Spring’, strategists in the West initially thought it might be leveraged to achieve their goal of supplanting the ‘Assad regime’ quickly and easily. A fundamental problem for the strategy, however, was that the genuinely democratic yearnings of ordinary Syrians did not necessarily point to revolution or regime change, whereas the actual impetus for the latter came from the non-democratic Islamist hardliners. Given a choice between imperfect democracy under Assad, on the one hand, and his overthrow at whatever cost to the prospects of democracy, on the other, Western governments might have preferred, as they had in the case of Libya, the latter. Yet politicians were for the most part understandably squeamish about openly avowing this. Overt military intervention was effectively ruled out. Thus the foreign policy community appeared subject to what might be described as institutionalised cognitive dissonance – a condition that was only to worsen in the years to follow, when the expected expeditious removal of Assad failed to materialise: the West had to claim to be concerned about human rights, freedom and democracy for the Syrian people, while actually supporting a policy that many Syrians experienced as running counter to such aspirations.

Had matters been otherwise, and had there been such a groundswell of support for a new regime that even the members of the conscripted army supported it, and had it not been the case that the most effective support for the cause came from Islamist groups prepared to take up arms against other sects as well as the government and even foreign journalists, then there would not have been such a need for strategic communications to maintain the West’s claim to be concerned about the freedom of the people of Syria.

As it was, the political opposition that the West supported as a government in waiting was working closely with Washington. We know that the US State Department had been secretly funding Syrian opposition groups and related projects since at least 2009, because this was revealed in documents from WikiLeaks published in the Washington Post in 2011 (Craig Whitlock 2011). Spokesman Mark Toner confirmed in April 2011 that the State Department was ‘working with a variety of civil society actors in Syria with the goal here of strengthening freedom of expression.’ (CBC News 18 April 2011) Charlie Skelton (2012) has pointed out that ‘a number of key figures in the Syrian opposition movement are long-term exiles who were receiving US government funding to undermine the Assad government long before the Arab spring broke out.’ The Syrian National Council (SNC), although not the only Syrian opposition group, was generally treated as the ‘main opposition coalition’ in the West. The most senior of the SNC’s official spokespeople was the Syrian-born academic Bassma Kodmani who was based in Paris and who, as an attendee at the Bilderberg conferences in 2008, was listed as French (Skelton 2012). In September 2005, Kodmani had been appointed executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) – a research programme initiated by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The CFR assigned “financial oversight” of Kodmani’s Middle East research project at the ARI, to the Centre for European Reform (CER) which was chaired by Lord Kerr, a former head of the British diplomatic service. Thus a picture emerges of Kodmani ‘as a trusted lieutenant of the Anglo-American democracy-promotion industry’. And many of her colleagues were also well-connected, Skelton points out:

‘Many of the “activists” and spokespeople representing the Syrian opposition are closely (and in many cases financially) interlinked with the US and London …. Which means information and statistics from these sources isn’t necessarily pure news – it’s a sales pitch, a PR campaign.’ (Skelton 2012)

In making this argument, Skelton was aware that his challenge to the received view was tantamount to sacrilege for those constructing and supporting it. He was making something of a stand:

‘it’s never too late to ask questions, to scrutinise sources. Asking questions doesn’t make you a cheerleader for Assad – that’s a false argument. It just makes you less susceptible to spin.’

This kind of information was hardly broadcast in the media, however, and indeed, the day after hosting Skelton’s heretical comment, The Guardian published a reply from staffer Julian Borger (13 July 2012), who had this to say about Skelton’s implicit accusation of insufficient epistemic diligence:

‘Even if I had been paid or programmed to falsify everything I write about Syria, my controllers would be powerless to alter people’s perceptions of what is going on there. The news is streaming out by Skype, emails and satellite phones, and in the testimony of refugees. We rely heavily on our correspondents on the ground to gather information directly inside Syria.’

Borger thus sidesteps the crucial point that Western papers have no correspondents on the ground in Syria but rely on the activist journalists whose satellite phones have been supplied by the people he suggests are in no way conspiring. Meanwhile, the more general point he makes is an express affirmation of the message of what I’ve called the ‘meta-narrative’:

‘The bigger picture, however, is abundantly clear. A slaughter is under way, largely carried out by government forces and allied militias. … Nothing could be more important than working out how to respond to the brutality in Syria. We ought to be having that debate. Investigating the pedigrees of cherry-picked individuals on each side is not the way to arrive at the right answer.’ (Julian Borger 2012)

He thus explicitly states the claim that Skelton has argued stands in need of epistemic diligence, and by implication rejects the argument for greater epistemic diligence out of hand. Given that we have examined how papers like The Guardian arrived at depicting a big picture by systematic selectivity and suppression (Hayward 2021b), Borger – from his position as an editor – has simply illustrated how entrenched is the problem.

Borger mocks Skelton for implying conspiracy – which is a very familiar strategy for avoiding critical questions – but it is worth assessing evidence for one.

The West was preparing strategic communications operations for Syria before 2011

There is certainly evidence that the Western alliance was making concrete preparations for a compliant post-Assad order in Syria years before the Arab Spring, as we have seen. But this can also be linked to the coverage of Syria in the corporate and Western state media. The connections between the Western powers, including the lobbyists influencing them, and the media outputs are deep and extensive. We can trace well trodden paths and networks linking leading politicians – like John McCain and John Kerry, for instance – with opposition-run media and groups on the ground that work alongside violent extremists. We can trace how media outputs apparently originating spontaneously from Syrian democrats can in fact include messages placed by regime change lobbyists. Governments and intelligence agencies are involved, generally at arms length, but with connections that have been revealed in leaked documents.

Among the strategic communications projects with funding from the US was the London-based satellite channel, Barada TV, which began broadcasting anti-government programmes into Syria in April 2009 from its base in Vauxhall Park, a five minute walk from MI6 HQ. It was set up by former BBC journalist Malik al-Abdeh, who was co-founder also of the London-based Movement for Justice and Development (MJD), a political opposition group of Syrian exiles chaired by his brother, Anas, himself a founding member of the Syrian National Council. The MJD, which is thought to have received some six million US dollars by that time, operated Barada TV (CBC News 18 April 2011), whose founder and director was Ausama Monajed (source). Al-Abdeh claimed the TV station received funding of $1m from some Syrian businessmen and the California-based Democracy Council; he also stated ‘we have had no direct dealings with the US State Department’ (Morrison 2011). Nevertheless, an April 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus showed that ‘the Democracy Council received $6.3 million from the State Department to run a Syria-related program called the “Civil Society Strengthening Initiative.”’ (Whitlock 2011) This programme was a ‘collaborative effort between the Democracy Council and local partners’ to produce ‘various broadcast concepts’, one of which was Barada TV. Leaked files further show that another ‘$6 million went to support a variety of initiatives, including training for journalists and activists, between 2006 and 2010.’ (CBC News 18 April 2011)

It was not only funding that came from the US but also major policy statements of the SNC. A notable example is the case of an influential report written by the American journalist Michael Weiss, ‘director of communications and public relations at the Henry Jackson Society, [HJS] an ultra-ultra-hawkish foreign policy thinktank.’ (Skelton 2012) That report was first published with the HJS and was then repurposed with the new title ‘Safe Area for Syria’ to appear on the SNC’s official website as part of their military bureau’s strategic literature.’ The repurposing of the HJS report was undertaken by Ausama Monajed who, as well as director of Barada TV, was the executive director of the Strategic Research and Communication Centre (SRCC). Monajed had founded the SSRC in 2010 (i.e. before the uprising) to promote ‘a better informed public discussion of Syria which can influence the agenda of decision makers’. So, as Skelton sums it up, ‘the founder of Barada TV, Ausama Monajed, edited Weiss’s report, published it through his own organisation (the SRCC) and passed it on to the Syrian National Council, with the support of the Henry Jackson Society. … Monajed even ends up handling inquiries for “press interviews with Michael Weiss“.’

Connections that can thus be traced from Western governments through Barada TV, SNC, HJS, and the Western media even reach into the historical record laid down in scholarly publications. This can be illustrated by reference to the case of Hamza Fakher, a pro-democracy activist who features in an article of 1 January 2012 by Nick Cohen for the Observer. This included Fakher’s account of a particularly shocking form of treatment he had heard the Syrian regime engaged in, saying that this indicated ‘the scale of the barbarism’. Cohen billed Fakher as ‘one of the most reliable sources on the crimes the regime’s news blackout hides.’ Fakher, it turns out, is the SRCC’s communication manager. So Monajed was his boss. Skelton points out that this does not automatically mean his account is untrue, but it does raise the question of epistemic diligence: ‘how many of those who give it currency are scrutinising its origins?’ Certainly, Shamik Das of Left Foot Forward did not do so when he quoted again from Fakher’s account of atrocities, now describing it as ‘an “eyewitness account” (which Cohen never said it was) and which by now has hardened into “the record of the Assad regime”.’

‘So, a report of atrocities given by a Henry Jackson Society strategist, who is the communications manager of Mosafed’s PR department, has acquired the gravitas of a historical “record”.’ (Skelton 2012)

Confirmation of this status is then provided by at least the two philosophers who have cited it as a real world illustration of ‘evil’ (Garrard and David McNaughton 2012, reproduced in Harrosh and Crisp 2018). Even though its factual accuracy was not the philosophers’ primary concern, their unquestioning repetition of the claim does serve to further embed it in the record. Yet no epistemic diligence is recorded as having been done on the report by anyone citing it. Concern on this score is not lessened by the fact that the journalist who first published the claim, Nick Cohen, was a prominent member of the group that promoted the pro-war agenda of the ‘Euston Manifesto’. This group’s membership was closely aligned with the pro-war stance of the HJS. In fact, these overlapping coteries of hawks in the media have continued to play a significant role in strategic communications to this day, as will be further discussed in later chapters.

However, with regard to the situation in 2011, a crucial feature for the persuasiveness of strategic communications about Syria, as already noted was a condition for UK funding (Hayward 2021a), is that they should appear to come from Syria.

Cyberactivism directed from abroad

As early as 23 April 2011, (Anthony Shadid 2011) described in The New York Times how for weeks already activists had ‘managed to smuggle hundreds of satellite and mobile phones, modems, laptops and cameras into Syria.’ These activists, he wrote, based in the Middle East, Europe and the United States, were coordinating across almost every time zone, and formed part of a ‘network that literally spans the globe’. These regime change activists overseas were financed, he added, ‘by various American programs that the Obama administration continued to finance despite seeking better relations with Syria.’ Shadid speaks of ‘a coterie of exiled Syrians fomenting, reporting and, most remarkably, shaping the greatest challenge to four decades of the Assad family’s rule in Syria.’ Among them was Ausama Monajed, the director of US-funded Barada TV. In his estimate, speaking in April 2011, ‘18 to 20 people are engaged in helping coordinate and cover the protests full time’; he claimed to have ‘a contact in every Syrian province, who in turn have their networks of 10 people.’ The situation was one where ‘Cyberactivists outside of Syria fashion slogans of unity for a revolt that the government insists is inspired by militant Islamists. The voices of protesters smuggled abroad have drowned out the sentiments of the president’s supporters’  (Shadid 2011).

Important for coordination in the early days was the Syria Revolution Facebook page which was widely described as ‘the most influential social networking tool in the mobilization of protestors against the Syrian regime’. This was administered from Sweden by the Swedish citizen Fidaaldin Al-Sayed Issa (Adam Almkvist 2011-05-11). Issa stated that the page was run by around 10 members, with about 350 people – some in Syria and some elsewhere around the world – working in the network: ‘Our business is not just about organizing the protests, but also to act as an information platform – a source – where media, such as Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Al-Arabiya can retrieve information.’ The fact that Issa had become so well-connected from Sweden might be explained his high-level connections in the Muslim Brotherhood. Joshua Landis (2011-04-12) noted that ‘on his Facebook profile he had photos of meetings he held with Egyptian brotherhood leaders, he had the logo of the brotherhood’, although Landis also mentions that ‘when he appeared on the BBC and exposed his identity, he removed all previous photos from his profile on FB.’

This effacing of Islamist markings from communications materials about the ‘revolution’ is something of a recurring theme. One of the activists interviewed by Shadid said ‘he had urged people to use slogans that are free of the sectarian or religious bent popular with Islamic activists. “We have to worry about these people,” he admitted.’ Shadid also notes Camille Otrakji’s view that ‘the activists’ mastery of image belies a revolt more sectarian than national, and deaf to the fears of minorities.’Indeed, Camille Otrakji (2011-05-02) has observed, ‘If you read the older posts on the Syrian Revolution Facebook page (before they got a facelift and professional PR help), you wouldn’t believe how much religious language you find, and also how much deception there is. They were trying to whip up sectarian hysteria, to radicalize Syria’s Sunnis so as to bring down the regime. This is not what most Syrians want, but they have enough Syrians they can potentially influence.’ The peaceful and progressive opposition, on the other hand, was calling for reform rather than revolution, and would have preferred to negotiate with Assad rather than see an Islamist regime installed.

As for the possibility of a peaceful revolution, the prospects were actively appraised early on by Srdja Popovic, the Colour Revolution professional who was well known as an activist who had played a role in bringing down the president of his native Serbia in the 1990s and who acted as trainer and facilitator with opposition groups around the world where regimes had been deemed ripe for change. In his book Blueprint for a Revolution, Popovic offers this assessment:

‘The Syrian resistance was completely disorganized. They’d jumped the gun on their revolution and started marching in the streets before they were ready. … What people didn’t realize was that the group of Egyptian revolutionaries trained by CANVAS in Belgrade had spent two years winning small victories, building coalitions, and branding their movement before they undertook their Tahrir Square action. Proper revolutions are not cataclysmic explosions; they are long, controlled burns. Unfortunately, the Syrians just dove right in, and now the anti-regime people were scrambling to develop a united message ….’ (Popovic 2015)

This organisational unpreparedness of a spontaneous movement for peaceful change within Syria thus contrasts markedly with the deep and extensive preparations for regime change driven from outside. Popovic tells of a group of seventeen Syrian activists who had come to him for training (without mentioning how this was arranged) ‘right around the time that the uprising against Bashar al-Assad began’.

‘They were very different, but what united all of them was that they were not revolutionaries. None of them had ever expressed any burning interest in politics before the previous year. None of them identiɹed him- or herself as a Marxist or a nationalist or any other kind of -ist. When you asked them what kind of country they wanted Syria to be, they all said, “Normal.” They were just decent people who were never given opportunities to advance in their society and were bitter because they felt their futures were being unjustly robbed.’ (Popovic 2015)

But if a nonviolent democratic revolution was not likely to prevail in reality, then in the interests of preserving the Western narrative, a contrary impression had to be conveyed in the Western media.

The rest of this book is to investigate various ways this objective was achieved, with particular reference to activities in which academic research was discernibly involved.

Postscript (26 May 2021)

It is ten years now since the activities related here were initiated, and, as I post this draft chapter, Syrians – in Syria, and also in other countries where it is permitted – are voting in their presidential election. The Western media have written it off in advance as a sham. But the question that the Western media cannot expunge is this: how is it that ten years on from presenting Assad’s imminent departure as a foregone conclusion they must now speak of his imminent re-election as the foregone conclusion?

The answer that emerges from studying the matter is that the Western media have been too much influenced by an agenda rather than a genuine search for knowledge and understanding. By contriving to depict challenges to their narrative as unwarranted and immoral they have compounded their contribution to the egregious harm inflicted on the people of Syria due to Western government decisions that were inadequately scrutinised.

1 Response to How strategic communications set the bounds of acceptable debate about the war in Syria

  1. timhayward says:

    Brian Berletic in a video on the 2021 presidential election in Syria gives some further links to relevant sources on pre-2011 preparations involving Western training and sponsorship of Syrian activists:
    In case his video is deemed against ‘community standards’ at YT, his links are reproduced here:
    NYT – U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings (2011):

    Washington Post – Syrian rebel force announces shift of its headquarters from Turkey to Syria (2012):
    Reuters – Obama authorizes secret support for Syrian rebels (2012):
    NYT – Rebel Arms Flow Is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria:

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