Wartime propaganda has a long history. The earliest records go back to the rise of the Persian king Darius. In the modern era, some of the most effective propaganda occurred during World War I, with reports of German soldiers bludgeoning babies during the “Rape of Belgium.”
The conflict in Syria has produced plenty of propaganda, as well. Only now the info war is playing out on Facebook and Twitter with a ferocity I’ve never seen. Both sides—Bashar al-Assad’s government forces aided by their Russian and Iranian allies—and the opposition, are involved. The regime has tried to depict the rebels, monolithically, as supporters of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The government’s propaganda refers to the opposition as “head choppers” due to ISIS's preferred method of execution. Meanwhile, the rebels have demonized the soldiers fighting for Assad as rapists, killers, monsters. There have committed horrific war crimes, true, but so too has the opposition, though the latter has gone largely unreported.
Then of course there is propaganda from abroad. One of the biggest misconceptions about this war is that it’s largely sectarian in nature. The narrative goes like this: Assad’s Alawites and Shia counterparts (Iran) aided by Russia (Orthodox Christians) as well as minorities (Druze, Christians) are fighting the extremist Sunnis. The Russians play this up to emphasize their own war against Islamic extremists, turning Putin and Assad into strong leaders defending their nation against terrorists. Having turned Grozny into a parking lot back in 2000, the Russians took the lead in this propaganda battle. They even published photographs of a “new” gleaming Grozny, hinting that Aleppo could also be rebuilt once the terrorists were eliminated.
Nevermind the hundreds of thousands of civilians who wanted nothing to do with either side. During my time in Syria, I encountered Sunni fighters in Assad’s ranks as well as Shias fighting for the rebels in Aleppo. I also encountered Christians in places like Maloula, a neutral ancient Christian monastery town not far from Damascus, where most wanted to avoid the agonies of war—something they ultimately found impossible.
The Other Side
In 2012, when I was allowed into Damascus several times on a government visa, I spent time with some of Assad’s soldiers on a patrol in Homs. What I found were extremely young men who were fighting for what they saw as Syria’s freedom. In a military hospital, I sat with a young soldier, his mother weeping in the background, who had lost one of his legs in Homs. “I have two great loves,” he told me. “Syria and my fiancée.” I listened, took notes and tried to untangle a neutral narrative. It was not easy.
Access is a big part of the problem. During the Arab Spring conflicts in Egypt and Libya, reporters merely had to show up with a flak jacket, a notebook and some guts. Syria was a different sort of challenge. Reporting from the government side was difficult because you needed a visa. The few of us who got one really benefitted from hearing from those who saw the war as an extremist invasion—even if they disagreed.
Reporting from the opposition side was easy at first. All you had to do was cross over the Turkish border illegally. But eventually that became impossible, even deadly, after radical extremists beheaded journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in 2014. And those who had crossed the Turkish border and embedded with the rebels were banned from reporting from Damascus.
Some outlets, such as the BBC, got around this ban by smartly dividing reporters between those who covered the regime and those who covered the opposition, but not every outlete had a budget sufficient for this.
There were no real precedents for this sort of dilemma. During the war in Bosnia, most of my colleagues and I lived in Sarajevo, where we had extraordinary access; we were living on front lines, among the civilian population. Getting to a battle just meant attaching yourself to a commander or a soldier.
But after the war, some of us regretted not having spent more time in Belgrade, on the Serbian side—either because we were not given access or refused visas. But you could, if you wanted, meet with plenty of people from “the other side” outside their respective countries to hear their story. And somehow, there seemed to be more candor than in Syria.
‘No Black and White’
The real propaganda war began at the height of the battle of Aleppo. While U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power compared the city to Rwanda and Srebrenica, the tweets and Facebook messages pouring out of Syria’s largest city were mainly from civilians—leading the Damascus regime to say this was a slick PR exercise controlled by jihadists (which, given ISIS's brilliant and diabolical campaigns, would not be hard to believe). There were a few journalists there, but they were Aleppo-born, which made it harder for them to try and be neutral as the Russians pummeled their city into rubble.
Analysts lined up on both sides, launching their own full-scale campaigns on Twitter. Last winter, I moderated a heated debate in Geneva between Joshua Landis, director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Randa Slim from the Middle East Institute in Washington. Many of the civilians of East Aleppo, Landis pointed out, “never wanted to get into this war to begin with. Aleppo, interestingly enough, did not rise up ...in 2011. The rebels—who were mostly from the countryside around outside of Aleppo—were furious at Aleppans for not joining in the fight...”
“It’s a very complex picture,” Landis added. “Some of the civilians support the rebels, others do not. There is no black and white.”
What made it even harder for journalists: the bevy of videos and tweets coming out of Aleppo—some authentic, some not. How can we accurately decipher what’s real when we don’t have professional and seasoned reporters on the ground who are able to sift through the endless amounts of information? We don’t even have international humanitarian groups or U.N. workers we can rely on to pass on the story.
After last week’s horrific murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, some have blamed the press. One Iranian diplomat even said the lack of balance in coverage caused his death: "Russia and Iran have put the most efforts to minimize civilian casualties during the liberation of Aleppo. But propaganda of our enemies, of Aleppo liberation opponents, who have in fact created this crisis in the region, has resulted in such a barbarous murder of the honored diplomat," Hossein Sheikholeslam said.
The war in Syria is the most complex, challenging and cynical conflict I have covered. And I fear it will set a terrible precedent. Indeed, it might be the first of a long line of social media-inspired propaganda wars—from Yemen to Burundi—that await us in 2017.