Feature

Bashar’s War

Bashar’s War

In the Damascus suburb of Jdeidet al-Fadl, according to the Syrian regime media, all is well.

Activists’ accounts of the Syrian military’s capture of the town over the weekend, which culminated in an alleged wave of summary executions and dismemberments, have placed the number of dead at anywhere from 80 to 500 people. But according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), Jdeidet al-Fadl saw "a series of successful operations" in which the Syrian military "destroyed the terrorists’ nests and gatherings." Forebodingly, SANA says that operations in Jdeidet al-Fadl "have neared their end."

This is the sort of victory that defines the worldview of the Syrian regime media. Television, radio, and print outlets controlled by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad articulate a single vision of the war: that the Syrian Arab Army is waging an unrelenting campaign against terrorists led by Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al Qaeda, who are the vanguard of a "universal" conspiracy against the Syrian people. But Syria will prevail, state media contend, and its people will build a new, better country founded on dialogue and openness — an oasis of religious and ethnic tolerance.

This is the war Assad chooses to show, and more importantly, it is the war as the regime’s supporters understand it. This narrative has been broadcast to the Syrian public for over two years now by the core of Syrian regime media: SANA; the newspapers al-Baath, Tishreen, and al-Thawra; the official Radio Damascus; the state’s satellite television network and its sister news network, al-Ikhbariya; and the technically privately owned but staunchly loyalist al-Watan daily and Addounia satellite TV network. And in this narrative, the Syrian regime is winning.

The regime advances its understanding of the war most effectively through its daily battlefield reporting. These reports are nearly identical across all media, and they employ a set, limited vocabulary. The regime’s Syrian Arab Army is "our brave army" or "our brave armed forces." The enemy consists of "terrorists" and "mercenaries," and the Syrian military typically "destroys" their "nests," "eliminates" them, and "leaves [them] dead and wounded." Often, state media give names for the militants killed in combat, and in keeping with the media’s emphasis on foreign fighters among the rebels, their nationality is provided if they are not Syrian.

The regime’s narrative robs the anti-Assad forces of any agency. The Syrian military is always "pursuing" or "targeting" terrorists, but it is never ambushed or attacked. The armed forces sometimes "clash with" or "repel" terrorists, but there are never regime casualties. The regime’s enemies only have initiative when they murder and rob civilians due to those civilians’ "rejection of the terrorists’ crimes and refusal to harbor them." Terrorists’ actions are "desperate" or "attempts to raise [their] morale" after significant losses.

The pro-regime media acknowledge no divisions among the opposition, painting the many factions as an undifferentiated bloc of militant fanatics. When coverage is more specific than simply "terrorists," militants are most often identified as belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra, though "the terrorist gangs belonging to the so-called ‘Free Army’" make occasional appearances. When Jabhat al-Nusra publicly pledged loyalty to al Qaeda on April 10, regime coverage was nonplussed: The announcement was "nothing new," reported regime television; it was only something "the external opposition and their supporters had insisted on denying for appearances’ sake" while secretly arming the group.

The regime’s media outlets also supply a rationale for why these foreign terrorists have come to Syria. The West and its tame Arab allies, they say, have targeted Syria because it has championed the resistance against colonialist and Zionist plots to dominate the Middle East. In Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi’s words, the terrorists’ goal is to "break apart the countries of the Arab world, loot their resources, and destroy their social fabric."

Who are the chief conspirators in this plot? State newspaper al-Thawra identifies them as "Zio-American circles and oil and gas sheikhdoms in the Gulf" — including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the NATO countries. The United States and Israel ultimately steer events, the media report, and U.S. President Barack Obama is "the maestro of the war."

The United States may publicly disavow terrorists like Jabhat al-Nusra, but according to al-Ikhbariya, Washington quietly pushes its minions in the region to fund and arm them. After all, America and its allies "created these terrorist organizations so that, like a mount, they might ride them into the region, divide its land, and tear apart its people."

The rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are regularly described as "a’arab" — uncultured Bedouins, it is implied — of whom Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani comes in for the most vitriolic criticism. Syrian television regularly cuts to stock footage of the Qatari ruler when it refers to those who conspire against the Arab people. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the media report, "are blessed with peace and tranquility because they send death abroad and export terrorists."

The international media aren’t spared the regime’s criticism. Foreign media engender a sort of free-floating hostility; the state media accuse them of "beat[ing] the drums of terrorism in Syria." But Al Jazeera, which is financed by Qatar, is singled out for having "long played a role in spilling the blood of Arab peoples."

Regime media also attack the Turkish government for openly supporting terrorists in Syria, implying that Ankara is motivated by imperial ambitions. The Turkish government is referred to as "neo-Ottomans," while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly "selling Syrian refugees’ organs before burning their dismembered bodies.

The Syrian regime, which has long presented itself as "the beating heart of Arabism," reacted to the Arab League’s recent decision to hand over its seat to the external opposition with contempt. The Baath daily called the Arab League’s March summit "the Summit of Shame." The event, Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi explained, was "convened in Qatar under the control [of Qatar] and its money, which allowed it to hijack the league and do as it pleased."

The political opposition is covered as an afterthought in the regime media — as a front for the terrorist core of the insurgency. The aforementioned Baath report calls opposition leaders the "kumbars of global terror." "Kumbars" means "film extras"; it doesn’t quite map onto English idiom, but the point should be clear.

Of course, this array of enemies doesn’t necessarily mean that the Syrian regime portrays itself as confronting "global terror" alone. State media are quick to emphasize anything that runs counter to a narrative of Syria’s international isolation. This ranges from any official support — including statements from Russian and Iranian officials — to popular support, like a "mass" solidarity march in São Paulo or reports that "dozens of Yemeni youths" are ready to head to Syria to support the military. Foreign experts and media reports are also given prominent placement when they reinforce the regime narrative. Some foreign journalism is faithfully reported, but sometimes the source material is made more palatable for the regime narrative. An article on a King’s College London report on Europeans joining the rebels, for example, referred to the Europeans as "mercenaries" — a charge absent in the original study.

The Syrian state also leans on support from religious leaders as a key source of legitimacy. It promotes calls by Pope Francis for a political solution to the crisis, for example, and highlights a mixed assemblage of Aleppo priests and imams who participated in the lead-up to the country’s national dialogue. While foreign media often emphasize the conflict’s sectarian dimension, the Syrian official media consistently stress what they portray as Syria’s relative religious harmony. Damascus is, in the words of Syria’s satellite station, "the Damascus of Arabism, the city of love, tolerance, and coexistence." This ecumenical language reinforces the regular portrayal of the terrorist rebels as takfiri — extremists willing to murder the insufficiently pious.

In contrast to the rebels’ alleged nihilism, regime media consistently advance what they describe as "the only way out of this crisis" — a political solution. Syrian media report daily on meetings held by the "ministerial committee tasked with the implementation of the political program to solve the Syrian crisis" — meetings to which the external opposition is invited, it is emphasized. The process is meant to strengthen respect for a plurality of opinion and ultimately build a "strong, new, united Syria."

But this regime-run process of dialogue seems, in practice, to amount to little more than a monologue. While the government and its interlocutors do reportedly engage on concrete issues — including security, housing, and municipal services — participants interviewed stress their total commitment to both Assad’s political program and the ongoing military campaign to purge the country of terrorists. This is a discussion in which participants may differ on the details, but the broad themes are fixed. As al-Ikhbariya puts it, its goal "is to bring everyone together for dialogue under the roof of the nation, with an emphasis on the need to combat alien takfiri thought and to root out the forces of terrorism."

The challenges of the moment aren’t necessarily papered over. Regime media acknowledge the economic hardships facing average Syrians but frame such difficulties in terms of their determination to persevere. "The terror of militant groups in Syria hasn’t been able to prevent the student, the employee, the laborer, and the simple shopkeeper from going about their lives and performing their duty for their nation," SANA reports.

Prime Minister Halqi, meanwhile, reassures the public: "The Syrian Arab Army is at its strongest and its best, and the Syrian people are behind the state. They believe in it, and their morale is high. If the feeling of concern is legitimate and natural, fear is not."

Such sentiments are intended to communicate confidence, but the Syrian regime’s messaging is, at best, primitive. In a conflict where new media — both pro- and anti-regime — have helped shape events on the ground, the traditional Syrian state media feel robotic and derivative. The print media coverage consists largely of rewritten SANA news releases, while Radio Damascus’s call-in shows — and their suspiciously articulate participants — sound like playacting. The one bright spot is Syria’s official television: If you can detach from the content of the coverage, the reports are frequently so acid and sarcastic that they’re hilarious. (For subtitled translations of Syrian television reports, see here and here.)

Average Syrians’ views, however, seem to get lost in the mix. State media produces man-on-the-street quotes and interviews, but only with proud citizens who express unflinching support for the regime. In a report about a school for martyrs’ children, for example, a war widow says, "I still have a girl and a boy, and I, all of us, would love to give our blood and our lives in the defense of our mother, Syria." Now, this sentiment is real. A broad segment of Syrian opinion is committed to the regime’s vision for the country — or terrified enough by the opposition to side with the familiar. But when you see this in the Syrian media, are they showing that genuine commitment to Assad’s Syria — or a sort of facsimile thereof?

Still, you can be forgiven for occasionally thinking that the regime media’s accounts offer a glimpse of something real — something that taps into the suffering of Syrians, for and against the regime, who are seeing their lives fall away from them. Reporting from Damascus’s Sabaa Bahrat Square after an April 9 car bomb, Addounia narrates that the area "once more polishes its
veneer and restores a luster that says, ‘Syria is for us.’"

As it shows people sweeping dust and debris from their storefronts, the television network assures its viewers: "Not one speck of Syria will ever fall under the control of monstrous takfiri terror or be at the command of bastards coming from the depths of ignorance and its garbage dumps, supported by the sellers of gas and slaves, traders in white flesh, and owners of red rooms."

And then the report cuts to locals estimating the cost of rebuilding their livelihoods — figures in the hundreds of thousands or millions of Syrian lira, a lifetime’s savings. And the Syrians just look tired.