Strategic Communications about the War in Syria: An overview

The aim here is to provide a brief overview of information now in the public domain concerning the programme of strategic communications instigated by Western governments, and particularly the UK, regarding the war in Syria.

Strategic communication is a matter of systematic persuasion, usually involving the collaboration of a number of partners deploying a range of methods. Strategic communication aims to influence people’s beliefs, value orientations, or psychological or cognitive attitudes more generally, so that they accept or even embrace those goals. Insofar as the beliefs to be inculcated concern claims of fact about the world, they can in principle be true, but if and when they are, this is fortuitous. The purpose of strategic communications is not to disseminate truth but to instil a certain view of the world. Typically, this involves generating a narrative about the causes, consequences and value of particular events.

Regarding the strategic communications programme focused on Syria since 2011, a particularly successful element has been to downplay the fact and significance of the West’s interest in regime change in that country. The goal of the communicative strategy has been to influence the public to support that geopolitical goal without necessarily overtly advocating it.

These claims can be asserted with a degree of confidence today because of documentary evidence now in the public domain that lays bare the strategy and some of its means of implementation.

This chapter provides an overview of some key evidence. The first section reviews evidence that the goal of installing in Damascus a compliant regime has long been embraced by UK along with US, France and other allies. It charts some of the plans hatched, and sometimes implemented, in the decades following 1945. Strategies for achieving that overarching goal only came to rest especially systematically on strategic communications with the protests in 2011 that could be seen as bearing a momentum for change in Syria generated by the ‘Arab Spring’. The second section reviews evidence of the UK’s commitment to supporting an elaborate strategic communications programme aimed at generating a particular understanding of events unfolding in Syria from 2011 on.

A longstanding strategic foreign policy goal in Syria

In the case of strategic goals on the part of UK and allied governments with respect to Syria, these have for many years centred on bringing about a political situation there that would be conducive to Western interests.Initially, the means for attempting to achieve this did not involve the degree of strategic communications activity directed at Western audiences that has been experienced since 2011. In the years following World War II, various more direct strategies to install a pro-Western regime in Damascus were tried. Initial attempts to influence elections failed, however, as did a series of coup attempts (Lucas and Morey 2000: 97). By 1956, US and UK governments agreed to put more effort into strategic communications, but in a programme of subversive activities aimed at the Syrian population. It was recognized that change ‘would be better to appear to come spontaneously from within, and not from outside intervention’ (Gorst and Lucas 1989: 581). Operation Straggle was to involve an ‘indigenous conspiracy’ and an ‘internal subversion program’, led by an expert in psychological warfare and the use of ‘gray propaganda’ (Lucas and Morey 2000: 113). When that plan was foiled, the UK and US devised the ‘Preferred Plan’, but this was not enacted (Curtis 2016). The Syrian political scene remained ‘chaotic and unstable, weakened further by the machinations of external actors’, writes Christopher Phillips (2016: 11), until Hafez al-Assad took power in a final coup in 1970.

When Hafez al Assad became president of Syria, it was in full awareness of the West’s readiness to form allegiances of convenience with sectarian groups in and around Syria. He was ruthless in his determination to stamp out sectarian challenge to Syrian state authority of the secular Ba’ath Party. This was notoriously evidenced in the 1982 Hama massacre, when, in dealing with an insurgency of the Muslim Brotherhood, the president’s brother Rifaat Al-Assad laid siege to their stronghold in Hama and in the process of seeking out insurgents and anti-government sympathisers is reported to have killed tens of thousands of innocent Syrians (Allouche 2018). The West, in turn, considered options for ‘bringing real muscle to bear’ against Syria’s hammerlock on US interests in the region by covertly stimulating military threats from neighbouring countries: these were set out in a 1983 CIA briefing by analyst Graham E Fuller. In 1986 a further CIA memo, now partially declassified, develops ‘a number of possible scenarios that could lead to the ouster of President Assad’ (Brad Hoff 2017).

On the death in 2000 of Hafez, and the accession of his son, Bashar, it was soon learned by the Western powers that the new president would not be sufficiently more accommodating of their interests than his father had been.

‘Though the US initially courted Damascus after 9/11, leading to some intelligence cooperation, Assad’s staunch opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq in 2003 prompted confrontation, with then Undersecretary of State John Bolton adding Syria to a second tier of Bush’s famous ‘axis of evil’.’ (Phillips 2016: 14)

In fact, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had already been corresponding by the end of 2001 with US President Bush on strategies concerning regime change in a number of countries including Syria (Blair 2001a, 2001b) under the rubric of the post-9/11 ‘War On Terror’. Concrete plans for this were afoot even before the 2003 Iraq invasion, according to General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. He related that a Pentagon contact had advised him at the time of ‘a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran’ (Clark 2007). By 2005 it was such public knowledge that a CNN interviewer openly stated to Bashar al Assad: ‘Mr President, the rhetoric of regime change is headed towards you from the United States. They are actively looking for a new Syrian leader. They are granting visas and visits to Syrian opposition politicians. They are talking about isolating you diplomatically and perhaps a coup d’état or your regime crumbling’ (Amanpour 2005). In fact, a leaked CIA briefing from 2006 reveals quite starkly the planning for a systematic weakening of the Syrian president, who is clearly perceived as the key figure preventing an otherwise rather corrupt and unpopular elite quite readily being displaced by a pro-West regime. In 2009 – two years before the start of hostilities in Syria – the former French foreign minister, Roland Dumas, recounted that British officials told him that ‘Britain was preparing gunmen to invade Syria’ (Nafeez Ahmed 2013).

By the time of the Arab Spring, the West’s strategy had become – in line with the growing influence of ‘smart power’ approaches – one of using communications to do as much as possible of the work of shifting the political situation.

The organisation of communications to exert ‘soft power’ in pursuit of the strategic goal

A key requirement of successful strategic communication is that it is not noticed as such. In the case at hand, this means that information about events in Syria needs to be seen as originating there. Externally generated propaganda, or stories simply invented for external audiences, might have had some success in an era before communications technology had become as advanced as in the 21st century, when audiences had no means of checking but also no direct stimulus to suspect a need for checking. By 2011, however, the reach of the internet and social media meant that inauthenticity could be more detectable. Hence a key constraint on strategic communications programmes was that the source of information about Syria should be perceived to come from Syria: as far as possible, and as far as consistent with maintaining the desired narrative, it had to come from Syrians in Syria. This was necessary for it to be persuasive within Syria, but it was also important for giving the impression of authenticity outside too. That impression is promoted when secondary uptake is generated within Syria so that a given narrative appears to be supported by diverse voices close to events.

Given the levels of genuine dissatisfaction, resentment and anger to be tapped within Syria – which the West had long been laying plans to do – it was not difficult to recruit Syrian citizen journalists and other kinds of communicator, particularly as the incentives Western powers could offer were very attractive compared to what employment in the Syrian state had to offer.

We now know in some detail about strategic communications operations directed from London. This is thanks to the 2020 release of a body of confidential documents obtained by parties that style themselves the ‘hacktivist’ collective Anonymous (links here). Some of the key insights delivered by the documents are helpfully summarised by Ben Norton (2020). Prior to that, a few of the documents had been seen by investigative journalists (Cobain et al 2016Cobain and Ross 2020a; Cobain and Ross 2020b), but otherwise a great deal about the nature and extent of the operations could only be inferred through careful consideration of circumstantial evidence. The wealth of further specifics revealed in the full set of leaked documents include details of UK Government StratCom requirements and of how the StratCom contractors planned to meet those requirements – which often involved demonstrating how they had previously met related requirements when fulfilling prior contracts for the government.

The documentation shows that the UK government has supported Syrian media activists through ‘a variety of implementation vehicles.’ This has involved ‘selection, training, support and mentoring of Syrian oppositionist media activists who share the UK’s vision for a future Syria … and who will abide by a set of values that are consistent with UK policy.’ A particular requirement stipulated for contractors was that media content should be ‘Syrian-developed and Syrian-delivered.’

A major role in the UK-directed strategic communications programme in Syria was played by the company ARK (apparently an acronym of Analysis, Research, Knowledge). Headed by Alistair James Harris, an experienced diplomat, ARK was established in 2011, within months of the initial protests in Syria. Its staff were ‘in regular contact with activists and civil society actors whom they initially met during the outbreak of protests in spring 2011.’ Norton (2020) Harris was evidently well prepared to respond to developments on the ground, and ARK was to create, direct or facilitate several of the most significant strategic communications projects relating to Syria. The documentation shows that ARK’s planning was premised on the view that the situation prevailing in so-called ‘liberated areas’ from around 2012 on should be regarded as a transitional stage towards a post-Assad Syrian political order. By the time of tendering for a 2013 FCO StratCom contract, ARK could make impressive claims about its competence and experience both in intelligence gathering from opposition fighting forces on the ground and in feeding stories to the media, prepared for Syrian and Gulf audiences by appropriate communicators.

Part of ARK’s strategy, as outlined in its bid for a contract, was

‘to identify credible, moderate civilian governance spokespeople who will be promoted as go-to interlocutors for regional and international media. They will echo key messages linked to the coordinated local campaigns across all media, with consortium platforms able to cover this messaging as well and encourage other outlets to pick it up.’

ARK’s CEO Harris played a part in creating several of the most influential Western-backed StratCom operations in Syria, which included the White Helmets and the ‘evidence hunters’ of the organisation called the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA). A strand of ARK’s activities less well publicised in the West but influential in Syria from early on involved the media organisation called Basma, a ‘brand’ ARK claims to have created. Basma received funding from both US and UK governments. Reflecting retrospectively in tender documentation, it was claimed:

‘ARK/Basma have developed an extensive network of Syrian grassroots partnerships, been instrumental in supporting the development of delivery platforms, such as FM radio, using HMG and USG funds, and delivered appropriate, high quality, impactful media content through TV, FM radio, social media and print material (posters, magazines and comics).’

In the Western media, Basma was referred to as a “Syrian citizen journalism platform,” or a “civil society group working for a ‘liberatory, progressive transition to a new Syria.’” In light of the documentation released, however, the reality appears possibly closer to Ben Norton’s description of it as ‘a Western government astroturfing operation to cultivate opposition propagandists.’ (Norton 2020)

In all, in a report for the UK FCO, filed three years into its work, ARK claimed to have ‘trained over 1,400 beneficiaries representing over 210 beneficiary organisations in more than 130 workshops, and disbursed more than 53,000 individual pieces of equipment,’ in a vast network across Syria. Additionally worth noting is a point whose significance will be further elucidated in the next chapter, namely, that nine of the 16 stringers used by Al Jazeera in Syria, according to ARK, were trained by Basma.

Another organisation whose documentation featured in the leak was Albany. It boasted a ‘network of over 55 stringers, reporters and videographers’ in Syria who could influence media narratives in line with UK foreign policy interests. Particularly significant is that Albany was involved in creating the influential media outlet Enab Baladi. According to Kholoud Waleed, one of a ‘group of young passionate Syrians’ who founded Enab Baladi in 2011 in the anti-Assad hub of Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, their purpose was ‘to convey the atrocities committed by the Assad regime to the world.’ (Raw War 2015) They appear to have been mainly opposition activists rather than impartial professional journalists.

The significance of this particular operation will be further explored in a later chapter when assessing evidence in academic writings that Enab Baladi’s claim to present authentically Syrian voices was accepted as a basis for giving it credence as an epistemically authoritative source.

Another UK government contractor working alongside ARK was The Global Strategy Network (TGSN), which developed the media office for the Revolutionary Forces of Syria (RFS), a popular source for the mainstream Western press. The leaked documents confirm emails earlier reported by Rania Khalek (2016) revealing that the RFS media office was a UK-backed propaganda outlet that offered reporters huge sums of money, essentially to engage in propaganda.

The messages for Western consumption were further amplified by another contractor, InCoStrat, which received funding from UK FCO’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) (Kit Klarenberg 2020). InCoStrat boasted of building a network of over 1600 journalists and key influencers with an interest in Syria. Its contract involved ‘managing and delivering a multi donor project in support of UK Foreign Policy objectives’ in Syria, and ‘providing strategic communication support to the moderate armed opposition.’ Some of InCoStrat’s own members previously worked as Middle East correspondents for news agencies like Reuters, and it claimed to have established a vast media infrastructure, with 130 stringers and 120 reporters as well as ‘five official spokesmen who appear several times a week on international and regional TV’. It also established eight FM radio stations and six community magazines across Syria. Like ARK, InCoStrat worked closely with the press, including directly with ‘heads of regional news in major satellite TV networks, press bureaus and print media.’ It said it ‘helped plant its own Syrian opposition activists in BBC Arabic reports.’

InCoStrat had set up Syrian opposition media offices not only in Turkey and Jordan, but also in Dera’a, Syria. It claimed to have ‘strong relationships with 54 brigade commanders in Syria’s southern front, that involved ‘daily, direct engagement with the commanders and their officers inside Syria’ (Norton 2020) and included organizing ‘interviews with many armed opposition militias, including the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.’

Furthermore, ‘InCoStrat served as a liaison between its government clients and the Syrian National Coalition, the Western-backed parallel government that the opposition tried to create. InCoStrat advised senior leaders of this Syrian shadow regime, and even ran the National Coalition’s own media office from Istanbul, Turkey.’ (Norton 2020)

InCoStrat, like the operations spawned by ARK, was set up by a former British Army officer. This was Paul Tilley. Tilley had previously worked with Kevin Stratford-Wright, a Lt-Colonel in the British Army before he was appointed, in 2012, Strategic Communications Programme Manager at the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD). It was as part of the latter role that Stratford-Wright ‘[d]eveloped Statements of Requirement in partnership with selected enabling-contractors’ (as noted on his LinkedIn page – see McKeigue et al 2018).

A co-founder of InCoStrat was Emma Winberg, who later went on to become a director, with particular responsibility for ‘impact’, at Mayday Rescue, the organisation created to support the White Helmets. (On marriage in 2018 to its founder, the late James Le Mesurier, she took his surname.) Since the dissolution of Mayday, she has continued to engage in Syria-related operations, including as a senior fellow at Guernica Chambers, a legal practice co-directed by Toby Cadman, who in 2012 was engaged by the UK FCO ‘to head a team to investigate crimes committed in the Syrian Arab Republic.’ (IFDHR 2015) Cadman also works closely with CIJA (Commission for Justice and Acountability) and SETF (Syrian Emergency Task Force), as will be discussed further in later chapters. So Winberg has been involved in UK-funded strategic communications operations in several roles during the conflict.

One of the main specific tasks that the UK charged contractors with, particularly from 2013 on, was the portrayal of the FSA (Free Syrian Army) as a ‘moderate’ rebel force palatable for Western consumption. For stories had been circulating in the West about the activities of the FSA being largely indistinguishable from those of groups condemned as violent extremists. The idea of a Moderate Armed Opposition (MAO) capable of supporting the ascendance of a credibly competent political opposition was a central plank of UK strategic thinking and the focus for a distinct StratComs tender for the period from 2014. Thus battles over the ‘truth’ about what was happening in Syria came, in the words of seasoned BBC journalist Lyse Doucet, to be ‘fueled by Western government funding of media operations for what it promoted as a moderate armed opposition.’ (Doucet 2018: 142) Doucet records that ‘[o]ften, when I reported on the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, I would get a call from a British aide’, sometimes ‘to take issue with reports we were getting from other sources’.

Meanwhile, given the objective difficulties of sustaining the image of ‘moderate rebels’ in the face of contradictory evidence, a new communications strategy was to shift focus onto a different group of ‘good guys’ – the White Helmets. James Le Mesurier, who set up the White Helmets while still a co-director with Alistair Harris of ARK, explained the thinking in an early presentation which highlighted how research had shown first responders to be the most trusted profession – in marked contrast to his own (Le Mesurier 2015). So the civil defence teams could be portrayed as selflessly doing good while also depicting how bad was the government. Le Mesurier’s wife at that time, Sarah, had become head of ARK’s Communications Programme, where she ‘designed and delivered the successful local, regional and international strategic communications campaign to support Syria Civil Defence.’ Thus ARK took credit for developing an international communications campaign to raise global awareness of the White Helmets. This also involved facilitating communications between the White Helmets and The Syria Campaign, a PR firm run out of London and New York that helped popularize the White Helmets in the United States.

More generally, the strategic communications programme run from the UK had several international partners, and many of the firms contracted by the British government were running ‘multi-donor projects’ with funding also from the US and other Western European states. In some cases, like InCoStrat, funding also came from Gulf states and anti-Assad Syrian businessmen.

Working alongside the UK’s contractors were also distinct entities established by other Western powers, notably the US, but France, too, was a key partner and provided a base for those of Syria’s opposition leaders in exile most favoured by Western governments to replace Assad. The US participation in media operations, although partly channelled through support for the British instigated projects, also included some of their own – like the Kafranbel Media Centre (to be looked at in the next chapter). A notable contribution of France was the Aleppo Media Centre established in 2012, which would in due course channel much of the information and images reaching the Western press. In describing the project, its funder, Canal France International (CFI) – the cooperation agency of what was then known as the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development – was quite frank about the kind of reporter it used: ‘”Citizen-journalists” without basic journalism credentials but who have, since the start of the conflict, acted as mouthpieces to provide information to the outside world’. (CFI January 2014)

On the most charitable interpretation of all this media activity sponsored by the Western powers which were most invested in regime change in Syria, and were to become involved in arguably illegal bombings of Syria, the information from these various media operations would be judged selective in conveying truths. On closer inspection, however, it can be shown – and later in the book will be – that they were not merely selective with the truth but severely skewed perceptions of it, sometimes to the point of falsification.

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