These accounts and portraits exemplify a conflict fought parallel to, but distinct from, the fight for physical territory…
As the threat of disinformation enters the public consciousness, the scale of the problem already confounds the effective implementation of counterstrategies. There is evidence of incremental progress within the ongoing information arms race against high-profile, government-led disinformation campaigns achieved through the hard work of open source investigators, journalists, and forward-thinking social media outlets. However, conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War demonstrate that politicized information transmitted through low-profile avenues can shape international perception of events, while bypassing effective means of filtering and fact checking.
Since the Syrian Civil War began, each faction and its supporters have framed the conflict in mutually exclusive terms, establishing competing narratives about the war and what is at stake. Opposition activists, like those in the northern Syrian town of Kafranbel, have focused attention on the Assad regime’s human rights abuses and have lobbied for western intervention through pithy protest signs and well-publicized demonstrations. In northeastern Syria, supporters of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces have portrayed a revolutionary struggle against fundamentalists, often spotlighting the importance of women’s empowerment in areas they govern. The Assad regime’s supporters have focused their media campaigns on portraying symbolic associations between the defence of religious minorities and values of pluralism.
These accounts and portraits exemplify a conflict fought parallel to, but distinct from, the fight for physical territory—a Syrian narrative war waged by media-savvy partisans, targeting both domestic and international audiences. If the high-profile dimension of Syria’s narrative war is the prominent clash of states and academics, then the low-profile aspect is the diffuse background noise—a spectrum of conflict where competing narratives are asserted by diverse sources in ways that blur the line between activism and disinformation.
Consider the Facebook video entitled Children of the Blue Marian celebrate the liberation of the city of Aleppo, uploaded by Franco-Syrian Christian Non-Governmental Organization Maristes Alep in February 2020. The video depicts school children and staff waving the Syrian flag as patriotic music plays. The video achieved 7,300 views within eight months of its posting. As a francophone NGO spotlighting Christian children, Maristes Alep targets Syrians as well as an international audience with the clip. The video contributes to a narrative that implicitly connects the regime and Syria’s minorities while framing the regime’s victory in Aleppo as a liberation.
Across the siege lines in the neighboring Idlib Governorate, an unlicensed KFC restaurant has mounted a similar guerrilla press campaign. The videos created by the restaurant, narrated in fluent English and interspersed with Islamic phrases, outline the restaurant’s efforts to provide food relief for internally displaced Syrians fleeing regime and Russian bombing. One such video pans through recently prepared meals and solicits international donations before cutting to clips of food distribution efforts among a crowd of children and other civilians. Both the religiously infused vocabulary of the narrator and the scenes of Idlib highlight the dire humanitarian situation continuing to unfold in the area’s majority Sunni population. The video advances the opposition’s preferred narrative: the Assad regime and its allies are brutal and repressive authoritarians who have no concern for the Syrian people.
Within territory controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Democratic Union Party (PYD), an equally novel form of media relations has developed. As one of the only factions to openly solicit foreign recruitment on social media, the PYD targets international audiences through the diverse language skills and experiences of its volunteers. Interviews with foreigners, including Americans, British, Spanish, French, Italian, and Finnish fighters, are spread across outlets like Facebook and YouTube to support resistance to the Islamic State and Turkey.
When interacting with international media and the western public, PYD volunteers focus their message on the fight against militant fundamentalism and often link the threat of terror attacks in the west to the ongoing fight in Syria. PYD representatives generally portray their ideology in broadly palatable terms of a commitment to local democracy and women’s rights. By contrast, PYD supporters more freely tailor their ideological message and often criticize western nations when interacting with far-left media or when courting foreign militant leftists who also serve in affiliated armed-wings.
Syrian opposition civil society groups like Souria Houria have framed these efforts as an unacceptable normalization of the regime…
Contrary to depictions of a nation in crisis, efforts to display a return to normalcy have also been highly politicized. In 2018, Bassam Barsik, Marketing Director of the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, declared, “this year is the time to rebuild Syria and our economy,” a statement which captured the spirit of the regime’s efforts to invest in partnerships with travel agencies and attract international tourism.
Syrian opposition civil society groups like Souria Houria have framed these efforts as an unacceptable normalization of the regime—which seeks to dazzle foreign tourists with an orientalist Potemkin village while simultaneously displacing millions of native Syrians.
Normalization efforts bear key similarities across media platforms with slight divergences between Arabic language offerings and those made by westerners. Consider the twitter account “Rebuilding Syria” for which the bio reads: “20-year-old Syrian. Mainly focusing on matters concerning construction and reconstruction”.
In a 2020 video posted by Rebuilding Syria, snappy clips focus deliberately on pro-regime imagery capturing the restoration of historical architecture, smiling children, and busy tradesmen in Aleppo and featuring regime banners and Syrian Arab Air Force overflights. American travel vlogger Drew Binksy creates similar but less explicit pro-regime content.
As a successful travel media personality, Drew “Binksy” Goldberg has access to a wide international audience with 1.97 million YouTube subscribers. His 2019 video Life in ALEPPO, SYRIA (post war reconstruction) begins with statements linking the city’s destruction to Syria’s 2011 wave of civil protests: “since the Arab Spring [Aleppo] has become the centerpiece of destruction where the vast majority of the city is now in rubles(sic)-.” The video then pans over damaged buildings, mentions the bombing of civilian areas and hospitals, but omits identification of the responsible parties. This style, of providing context without specificity, is characteristic of the entire video, which pairs jaunty music with brief interviews from friendly English language speakers.
Throughout the video Mr. Goldberg is shepherded by tour guides, one of whom is wearing a shirt from SOS Chrétiens d’Orient. While never stated openly, this detail indicates that video’s facilitators are supporters of a France-based NGO whose mission is to “promote brotherhood with Christians of the Orient” and which has ties to both far-right groups as well as the Assad regime. When distant explosions threaten the impression of normalcy evoked by images of colorful street life or restored buildings, one of Mr. Goldberg’s guides appears in frame to accuse the Turkish military for the violence. In this manner, the video acts as a conduit for a pro-regime narrative but maintains the brand of an apolitical travel documentary.
Such media underscores the importance of carefully analyzing the intentions of its creators. However, when filming relies on external parties for information and access, the creator’s intent may be entirely irrelevant. This holds true for all media campaigns in Syria, but is most salient when examining the tactics of the Assad regime, which seeks to legitimize itself as Syria’s lawful government by courting foreign tourists, journalists, and even politicians.
No western or independent media of any kind can travel through regime-held Syria without well-connected officials and mukhaberat escorts selected from Syria’s numerous secret police bodies. The omnipresence of such regime stalwarts serves as a constant, although sometimes unseen filter to interactions with the general population. This reality was perhaps best captured by a 2018 tour of regime-held Syria by Vice News in which particularly cynical mukhaberat discreetly joked about the parallels between their own lives and those of the characters in Orwell’s 1984.
No war is free of politicized information, but the Syrian Civil War coincides with an era of unprecedented access to information technology. As a consequence, the propaganda, activism, and disinformation of Syria’s warring factions permeate diverse and enormously popular venues, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Once widely diffused, narrative conflict is difficult to effectively analyze or efficiently track and is easily spread by both witting and unwitting sources.
Despite emerging attempts by social media outlets to flag potential disinformation and incisive investigative work from analysts, the effectiveness of low-profile narrative campaigns continues to outpace containment attempts. The scale of these campaigns indicates that, within the ongoing information arms race and without decisive policy counterstrategies, disinformation maintains the advantage. Thus, Syria’s low-profile narrative clash represents a major threat that will have lasting consequences for both the region and the future of information warfare and armed conflict.
Karl Nicolas Lindenlaub is an independent researcher with a thematic focus on asymmetric warfare, security force assistance, and sub-state militant groups. All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the stance of any institution, public or private. Follow him on Twitter: @KNLindenaub. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Thousands of desperate residents flood a destroyed main street January 2014 in Damascus, Syria, to meet aid workers from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The UNRWA was able to complete its first humanitarian food distribution in Yarmouk Camp there after almost six months of siege.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of UNRWA