Winning the power of information: How Assad defines the facts

Riot police arrest an anti-Assad protester who ran onto the soccer pitch with a Syrian revolution flag, as Syria's national soccer player Mohammed Fares (L) looks on, during qualifying soccer match between Syria and Bahrain.
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Riot police arrest an anti-Assad protester who ran onto the soccer pitch with a Syrian revolution flag, as Syria's national soccer player Mohammed Fares (L) looks on, during qualifying soccer match between Syria and Bahrain.
When news of Germany’s willingness to accommodate 5000 civil war refugees spread amongst Syrian refugees in Lebanon, many were enthusiastic at first. However, when word reached them that German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich and other politicians want to give priority entrance to Christian refugees – describing Christians as facing “exceptional pressure of persecution” – the mood tarnished.

Protection of minorities is one of the pillars of human rights politics, and no one denies the existence of a long-term danger for minorities in Syria. Amnesty International warns that in the case of a regime overthrow, the Alawites (to which Bashar al-Assad belongs) will be the most likely targets for acts of revenge.

However, thus far neither Syrian nor international human rights organisations have seen evidence for a systematic persecution of Christians. If any group is currently being affected by persecution, it is the Sunni majority. Yet the need to protect a majority from persecution by a minority contradicts common perception. The repeatedly evoked claim that Christian Syrians face persecution is largely the product of adept propaganda from Damascus. Whereas the allegedly ubiquitous demonstration slogan “Alawites in the coffin, Christians to Beirut” is reproduced in article after article, in Syria it is nowhere to be heard. Furthermore, regional clergy and the Vatican news agency circulate horror stories of expelled or murdered Syrian Christians that originated from the regime’s PR fund and do not withstand factual scrutiny.

Other Christian authorities strongly object to this propaganda. One of them is Father Paolo dall’Oglio, who recently disappeared under dubious circumstances after having lived in Syria for 30 years while maintaining an interreligious meeting place in the Deir Mar Moussa Monastery close to Homs. He recently petitioned to the pope to personally trace the “systematic manipulation of the Catholic opinion” by members of the clergy. The Apostolic nuncio (papal diplomatic representative) in Syria, Mario Zenari, also cannot identify any signs of persecution. Some Christians side with the regime; others, like those in the town Yabroud north of Damascus, take up a seat in the local revolutionary council; most stay neutral.

 reduction of the Syrian conflict along sectarian lines fits all too conveniently with the Western view of crises in the Middle East. Thus, radical Islamists – read: terrorists – are perceived to dominate the uprising against Assad. While their presence does pose a large problem, their combat strength is not as potent as the headlines of some Western (amongst them German) media like to suggest. It was only following the most recent outbreak of the conflict between the Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups that it was made clear to Western audiences that the Salafists are neither the single, nor most important, group within the opposition.

The Syrian Regime knows firsthand the effectiveness of public allegations of terrorism. In the 1980s, Syria was internationally ostracized for its connection to terrorist attacks in Berlin and Aachen. In the 1990s, a war nearly broke out between Turkey and Syria due to Syrian support of the PKK. And in 2005, the regime found itself largely isolated in the international sphere because of its purported role in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and a string of attacks on critics of the Syrian regime.

Starting in 2011, the leadership has done its utmost to win the upper hand in international perception. From the very start of the revolution, when thousands of people surged into the streets with hands raised in order to show they were not armed, and long before the existence of the Free Syrian Army or the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra, Assad called demonstrators terrorists.
However, it was the Syrian secret services who from 2003 onward significantly contributed to the development of a Jihadist terror scene: after the Americans had overthrown the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, thousands of radicals from Saudi-Arabia, Libya, Kuwait and other states sought to enter the country – and took the Damascus route to do so. There they were received at the airport, brought to the Iraqi border in buses and oftentimes prepared for combat in camps. In 2007, members of the US secret service discovered an entire archive with information on hundreds of foreign Jihadists that had been brought to Iraq via Syria. At the time it was in the best strategic interest of Damascus to make life for US troops In Iraq as difficult as possible. The purpose was to discourage any ambitions the US Bush Administration may have had to attempt another regime change like in Baghdad.

At the time, detailed reports on Syria’s sinister role were common. Today, this role is willingly ignored in Washington, London and Berlin. Instead, the narrative in which Assad and his Alawite troops fighting against foreign controlled Jihadists for a secular Syria attains more and more followers.

This has engendered a perfidious dynamic in media coverage and the external perception of the conflict in Syria. Rather than viewing the revolution as a national uprising brutally stricken down by an authoritarian regime, most Western discussion is dominated by focus on a minority of radical insurgents. The revolution is being associated with Salafists, who will presumably – if not now, then surely in the future – single out mainly Christians.

Assad’s propaganda, which very effectively plays on Western fears, has proven itself successful. Although it has not insured Assad and his actions more sympathy, it has helped to discredit the opposition. The debate about the international community’s responsibility to provide protection, the horrific death-toll which by now has exceeded 100,000, reports of tortured and missing people: all of these discussions have long been pushed to the background. Even credible information on the deployment of chemical weapons – labelled a “red line” by the USA only last year – has not led to an outcry. Rather, the argument is automatically made that no credible information can be obtained out of Syria. Despite there being hardly a place in Syria in which the regime rules unchallenged, Damascus has largely won the power of information: the ability to define facts in this war.

International support continues to run largely through the UN, and is thereby controlled by the Syrian regime within its strongholds. To the liberated areas in the north of the country – which are by all means accessible – not a cent is distributed without careful consideration of whether it could possibly fall into the “wrong hands.” In these areas, help is more likely to arrive from the radicalizing groups that the West fears most.

Thus the West is making itself prisoner to its own dire expectations in Syria, rather than working to prevent the worst.
This Op-Ed was first published in the print edition of the German weekly Die Zeit on August 8, 2013.
Translated from the German by Christine F.G. Kollmar. Edited by Anna Fero.


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About the Author

Dr. Bente Scheller is director of the hbs Middle East office in Beirut. She specializes in foreign and security policy and holds a PhD of Free University of Berlin on Syria. Before coming to Beirut in 2012, she was head of hbs' Afghanistan office in Kabul.