During one of his meetings with a group of Syrian students on May 5, 2011, Bashar Assad mentioned that it was not the demonstrators that bothered him so much as the people who filmed them and sent the images to the media. In my view, this is a deeply significant admission of how much the Assad regime places value on information, and how far it will go to contain the threat it poses. It also suggests that the decision to target those who capture events on film—or rather, on their mobile phones—and even to have them killed, is a presidential one.
Father and Son
Under Hafez Assad the Syrian regime enjoyed almost total control over the flow of information, something that made it very hard to predict what would happen inside Syria when he passed away, even for Syrians themselves. The regime and its security officials monopolized the vast majority of information, including that which touched on citizens’ private lives and public opinion. A notable example of this information policy in action was when Syrians, in the 1990s, learned of secret negotiations between Syria and Israel, even as the Syrian state media continued to talk of the “Israeli enemy”, plots by the “Zionist entity” and promoted their favorite slogan: “no sound is heard over the sound of battle.” Maybe it was at this point that Syrians finally realized that their political leadership was fundamentally unpredictable, a quality Hafez Assad himself considered as a badge of honor: evidence of his strength and artfulness.
It was a model Bashar Assad sought to emulate to maintain the freedom of manoeuvre enjoyed by his father. State affairs were dealt with as state secrets, not permitted to be disclosed and discussed. They were a red line. It is interesting that most Syrian opposition politicians and activists were accused of “spreading false information, thus weakening the spirit of the nation.” In a sense it is true, this ‘spirit’ that Assad is trying to impose on the nation will be weakened when information is no longer censored; herein lies the importance of spreading information, and its danger, too.
As a result, Syria is listed as having some of the most rigorous media and Internet monitoring in the world. The authorities shut down newspapers, censor entire issues, pull other issues off the newsstand, physically cut pages out of “brother Arab” publications that make it into the country to prevent the free circulation of ‘dangerous’ information to the masses.
Were it not for the Arab Spring, the events of Daraa in March 2011 would have remained an isolated incident of which no one would have heard. Over the years, the Syrian regime has amassed considerable skills in restricting information, but it does not, it seems, possess much expertise in dealing with information once it is out. This can be clearly seen in the official response to information that Syrian activists succeed in publishing. At the outset, when the president was still focused on containing events, the state media simply denied them. Regime-aligned analysts and state controlled media outlets claimed, for instance, that footage from the village of Bayda (where tens of villagers were rounded up in a public square on April 12, 2011 and humiliated, while armed security troopers jumped up and down on their backs) was in fact of Kurdish Peshmerga militants in Iraq. This prompted a man named Ahmed Bayasi, who appeared in the footage from Bayda, to appear in a YouTube video which was circulated on Facebook and satellite TV channels, showing him standing in the same square, stating his name and brandishing his identification documents. Bayasi was subsequently arrested and activists leaked news that he had been killed. Some weeks later, the Syrian media aired an interview with Bayasi in the state security headquarters denying reports of his death. Ironically, with this interview the same media defused its own claim that they were Peshmerga fighters in Iraq and not Syrian security forces.
Another example is the video that was posted on YouTube and broadcast on satellite television, purporting to show the discovery of the first mass grave in Daraa in May 2011. State television and the state-affiliated Dunia channel rushed to denounce the video as a fake, but that same night, the Syrian state news agency reported that Bashar Assad made a phone call to the victims’ families—three of them were from the same family—promising to hold those responsible for the massacre to account.
At a meeting with another group of citizens from Douma, a Damascus suburb, Assad admitted his disappointment at the state television service, stating that he personally never watched it, giving the impression that he was locked in a struggle against the malign influence of his own media outlets. But his outrage was short-lived. Soon, he willingly embraced these media tactics (in essence, the tactics developed by his father) and at his second speech, delivered at Damascus University in June 2011 he praised the efforts made by the state media in what he termed “an information war”. On the side of the regime was “the Syrian Electronic Army” that attacked public and personal social media websites, deluging them with comments and invective, and attempting to get Facebook pages and accounts shut down by reporting them to the administrators. Assad also expressed his admiration for the Syrian media’s brave confrontation with a universal media “conspiracy” against the regime, joining state television in denouncing the uprising and casting doubt on all non-official accounts of events.
This attitude was particularly evident in the interview he gave to ABC News in December 2011, during which he appeared in denial and totally out of touch with reality. Instead of acting as the head of state and hence highly-informed on all matters, Assad came across as a member of the public with no conceptions outside that of the state’s own narrative. In his last speech, on January 10, 2012, Assad expressed his disgust at the interview, claiming it was fabricated and edited in a misleading way.
The current Syrian information policy has been in place for nearly four decades and is simple: “We decide what other people should know, and we present an image of our strength and resilience”. Until recently, this approach had proved successful, but the official depiction of events - that the uprising is just a “passing summer shower” and “a crisis that is now over”; that “all is well with Syria” and “we’ll emerge stronger than ever” - no longer convinces anybody. This is chiefly due to the extraordinary efforts of activists using the most basic technological tools and in many instances paying with their lives, despite the regime’s tireless attempts to kill, imprison and isolate them. The men and women who film the demonstrations are indeed the most potent foes of the Assad regime, for they threaten one of his most effective weapons: information.
On March 25, 2011, I joined a demonstration in Damascus with a group of friends, a day after Vice-President Buthaina Shaaban had declared that demonstrating was a right and that the state had no problem with peaceful protest. We caught up with the demonstration at the Hamidiya Bazar and walked towards Marja Square in the heart of Damascus.
We saw large groups of civilians standing about, some looking up at the surrounding buildings and pointing out people taking video footage, while others pointed to those using mobile phone cameras on the ground, shouting: “Over there! He’s filming! Grab him!”
The people taking footage were subjected to ferocious beatings as they were dragged off towards secret police vans. When they were confident that no one was filming and there would be no ‘information’ available to show what had happened, the plain clothed security men pulled out black rubber and wooden truncheons, which were hidden under their clothes and attacked and beat us. In a few minutes, some demonstrators were arrested while others fled, and more people started to appear brandishing pictures of Bashar Assad, accompanied by a camera from the state television, which broadcast images of the pro-Assad rally that night, March 25, 2011, after the presenter declared: “Al-Jazeera and the other conspiratorial channels spoke today about a demonstration against the regime in Marja Square, whereas it was in fact a rally in support of His Excellency the President.”
The official media persisted with this ruse until recently, then abandoned it for a new trick: filming footage of the supposed site of the demonstration showing it to be empty, or rather, a scene of daily life. This is because the “civilians” (who turned out to be security forces and republican guard soldiers) who attacked us at that demonstration, on March 25, 2011, are no longer capable of chasing down cameramen at every demonstration and setting up counter rallies.
The Image of the Syrian Regime and its Contradictions
Despite the control of the authorities over information in Syria, the truth, in its broad outlines at least, was known to all: Syria is a country ruled by a politically corrupt security regime under authoritarian dynastic rule.
Attempts by Bashar Assad and his wife to present a more civilized and youthful image collapsed after the president’s first speech to parliament following the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. Contradictory accounts and analyses offered by the Syrian regime dealt further blows. For instance, he said the failure to implement political reforms over the preceding eleven years was down to the urgent need to implement economic reforms first. When the protests in Syria first started, the regime spread rumors that the demonstrators were demanding economic rights and improvements, not political freedoms.
Similarly, the regime plays on its supposed qualities of security and stability, comparing the status quo with a freedom that is associated with chaos and regional instability. At the same time, it talks continuously about arms smuggling and armed gangs lurking everywhere, which - contrary to the regime’s own boasts about stability - the combined efforts of the army and security forces have failed to defeat after ten months of intensive campaigning.
Since the beginning of the revolution, the regime has portrayed itself as reformist, taking a number of measures to bolster its credentials, such as abolishing the emergency law and the state security court and passing a media law, a political party law and looking into amending the constitution. But Assad has retained the founding decree of the state security administration which gives special powers to the military and special courts (allowing security operatives to kill, detain and torture citizens without fear of retribution), as well as issuing a judicial control law and a demonstrations law, both of which negate the impact of the reformist measures and empty them of meaning. Evidence for this is the rise in forcible detentions, disappearances, torture and assassinations that has followed the abolition of the state of emergency.
Furthermore, Assad claimed that these reforms are part of an old scheme, whose implementation was delayed by unfavorable regional and international circumstances and cannot be seen as a response to the legitimate demands of the protestors themselves. Indeed, they have no value as a political “gain” for the protestors: they were merely designed to placate protestors before the uprising could get out of hand. When these placatory measures failed, Assad began to talk about “individual errors” committed by members of the security forces and created investigative committees who have yet to hold anyone to account for their crimes, a failure that Assad excused in his most recent speech by decrying - irony of ironies - a lack of verifiable information.
Perhaps the most contradictory story propagated by the regime, and the most damaging to its carefully constructed image, is the claim that “armed gangs” have been murdering civilians and soldiers. This ignores the following points:
These gangs are present at anti-regime demonstrations yet avoid pro-regime rallies that are announced in advance, which would give such gangs plenty of time to prepare operations against them. Yet this never seems to happen (with the sole exception of the incident in the regime-loyalist Homs neighborhood of Akrama, when unknown persons fired RPGs and other firearms in which six civilians and a French journalists were killed on January 11, 2012 and yet the investigations indicate Pro-Assad involvement).
The regime denies the existence of civilian casualties and focuses on military casualties (most of whom are said to be members of units tasked with protecting the regime).
The type of operations carried out by the army and the security forces seem designed to inflict mass punishment against recalcitrant civilians rather than targeting armed gangs. These include surrounding cities and cutting off water, electricity, food, medical services and communications, thereby leaving civilians trapped and easy prey for any armed gangs wandering about. Once the city is entered it becomes impossible to identify these gang members, as all they have to do is throw away their weapons. A more appropriate tactic would surely be to surround specific neighborhoods and permit non-combatants to flee, leaving only fighters behind.
The majority of the “terrorists” and “armed elements” who have been arrested and shown on television, turn out to be peaceful demonstrators. Most have been arrested at least two weeks prior to the operations they are confessing to. In one case, a supposed gang member stated that his operation had been planned by a man who had been killed sixty days before the alleged crime was carried out.
In his most recent speech on January 10, 2012 (and his third since March 2011), Assad dedicated the first and last sections to a discussion of information and the media, and his profound revulsion at the conspiracy being engineered by some sixty television channels and dozens of websites against his regime and the deliberate misrepresentation that they engaged in. He justified his refusal to allow foreign media into Syria on the grounds that such fabrications had less impact when they came from outside. If they were allowed in, he all but admitted, that would be equivalent to handing them control over the image and the information that the regime had worked so tirelessly to control and manipulate.
Information about the regime, its stability and unity, remains hard to come by and predictions are difficult. Even political and military defectors such as the Senior General Inspector, member of parliament Imad Ghalioun or Brigadier-General Mustafa Sheikh know very little about what goes on at the highest decision-making levels, or in the security forces’ operation rooms. This leads me to believe that radical change in Syria, when it comes, will happen overnight. Everything we know about the regime is no more than a cover. If the regime seems unified that is only because it wants us to see that. We are not permitted to get a glimpse of any divisions that may exist, as this is what truly terrifies Assad. Today, he is more frightened of his own henchmen than he is of the peaceful protestors in the street or the thousands of conscripts and officers who have decided to take up arms against him. He fears his closest friends, because they possess the inner secrets; the ‘information’. Like Assad, these men know that it is far easier to cut the top of a pyramid than turn it on its head, and this is a game at which they are very expert.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.
Mustafa Haid is a human rights activist from Damascus. He was banned from travel from 2007 to 2011 and is currently exiled in Beirut. He served at the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, and led social media campaigns related to human rights and gender equality in Syria as local partner of the Swedish NGO SIPU. Since March 2011, Haid advocates for the Syrian uprising, documents testimonies for human rights organizations, assists foreign journalists in Syria, and runs social media sites supporting the uprising with non-violent strategies.