Syria: How Assad manipulates US media

It is clear from US government pronouncements since the beginning of the public demonstrations in Syria that the Obama Administration wants the leadership in Syria to survive.

confidential memo dated 19 May 2011 from Brown, Lloyd & James to Syrian government official Fares Kallas.
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Before we address the question of how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad manipulates the media, we must address the reasons why he needs to do so. Hassan Hassan gives a thoughtful answer to that in his piece yesterday in Foreign Policy:

Assad's Massacre Strategy

The Syrian leader believes that a campaign of mass murder will be his path to victory. Is he right?

What is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad thinking? Over the past several weeks, his regime has escalated military operations throughout the country -- shelling neighborhoods in previously loyal cities, using airplanes to drop what rebel fighters call "TNT barrels" containing hundreds of kilograms worth of explosives, and unleashing its militias to commit gruesome massacres such as the one in the city of Daraya, where more than 400 people were slaughtered on Aug. 27. Approximately 5,000 Syrians were killed in August -- making it the deadliest month of the 17-month conflict.

At the same time, the Syrian regime has embarked on a PR offensive. Damascus invited the Independent's Robert Fisk into the country -- allowing him to interview Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, embed with Syrian forces battling insurgents in Aleppo, and interview imprisoned foreign fighters and Syria jihadists. Most prominently, Assad himself granted an interview to the pro-regime Addounia TV on Aug. 29 where he insisted "Syria will return to the Syria before the crisis." More ...

British journalist George Galloway has been bold enough to make public the fact that he is to be paid £80k for shilling for Assad. Robert Fisk's motivation may be nothing more than a desire to scoop other reporters with all the advantages that come with an official Damascus invite, but it is clear that his effects of prettifying a very ugly regime serves much the same purpose.

For example, recently Robert Fisk took a guided tour of one of Assad's prisons and came away with a much different assessment from the one arrived at the Human Rights Watch report, Torture Archipelago, which they put out in July.

Since the government line is that they are fighting Islamic extremists, it was not an accident that Fisk was given free access to jihadis in jail, and ones that hadn't been tortured to boot. Well, yesterday in Ahram Online, Mohammed Saad, a Syrian writer who spent 16 years as one of Assad's political prisoners took exception to Fisk's report:

Syrian writer: Robert Fisk is indoctrinated by Syrian regime

Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, who spent 16 years as a political prisoner in Syria, says that the imprisonment conditions in Syria are very different to those portrayed by British journalist Fisk in a recent newspaper article
Mohammed Saad, Tuesday 4 Sep 2012

Syrian writer and thinker Yassin Al-Haj Saleh has vehemently criticised British journalist Robert Fisk, who is the Middle East correspondent of the British daily The Independent, for the image that he portrayed of Syrian political prisons in an article published on Sunday, 2 September, titled 'Syria's road from jihad to prison'.

Yassin accused Fisk, who visited Syria this week, of being "indoctrinated"; his article portrays the intelligence officers at one of Syria’s most notorious military prison as friendly, agreeing to leave Fisk alone with the prisoners, who Fisk describes as "Islamic jihadists."

"Fisk reflected this view of the political prisons because he was just too embedded in the events, and couldn't see the wider vision; he was indoctrinated," Yassin told Ahram Online from Syria.

Yassin, who spent 16 years in military prisons in Syria, says that Fisk's description is not related to the facts on the ground.

"He visited a prison where all the detainees he met were extremist jihadists who came to Syria from Algeria and Turkey to make big explosions, and when intelligence agencies arrest them, they do not torture them as we may expect. One of them told Fisk that he’s fine, and thanks god for that; another one said that he was tortured for only one day," commented Yassin.

"The detainees are Salafist jihadists and yet the officer leaves Fisk alone to interview them freely." Yassin added, marking the friendly behaviour that Fisk asserted he witnessed from the guards.

"Personally, I was jailed for 16 years, for minor charges. The imprisonment conditions were worse; no Western or local journalist could ever have visited me nor any human rights activists. This applies to everyone who was arrested during the revolution, the thing that Fisk never revealed," Saleh argued.

The only explanation of the access Fisk got to the prisons is that the Syrian regime guaranteed that Fisk isn’t going to reflect this negative image, and made their arrangements with Fisk, who has allowed himself to be misled, according to Saleh.

Saleh, 51, is a Syrian thinker, writer and former political prisoner, and spent 16 years in the Syrian regime’s prisons during the 1980s and 1990s. He is a regular contributor to various Arabic newspapers and periodicals, including a weekly column in Al-Hayat newspaper. More...

The Young Turks have put out this in interesting ten minute video report on Assad's public relations efforts. This report focuses on the work the PR firm of Brown, Lloyd and James is doing for them:

Assad's PR Firm Manipulates American Media

Thanks to Anonymous and WikiLeaks, we have this extremely interesting memo from the firm of Brown Lloyd James to Syrian official Fares Kallas:


TO: Fares Kallas

FROM: Brown Lloyd James

RE: Crisis Communications Analysis

It is clear from US government pronouncements since the beginning of the public demonstrations in Syria that the Obama Administration wants the leadership in Syria to survive. Unlike its response to demonstrations in some other countries in the region, there have been no US demands for regime change in Syria nor any calls for military intervention, criticism has been relatively muted and punitive sanctions—by not being aimed directly at President Assad--have been intended more as a caution than as an instrument to hurt the leadership.

However, the tone of the Administration’s statements has grown noticeably harsher in recent weeks and may be nearing a tipping point that could make a reassessment of the US position towards Syria inevitable. One potential bellwether of this shift is the transformation in the public statements of US Senator John Kerry, the Administration’s de facto point man on outreach to Syria. Senator Kerry has begun to publicly backtrack his often-repeated confidence in the leadership’s ability to reform.

Media coverage of the situation in Syria has tracked with the Administration’s political arc. US media coverage of events in Syria was initially marginal, but has since moved closer to the front of the newspaper and the top of the broadcast news. This not only reinforces the Administration’s change of tone, it is emboldening critics--who maintain that Syria's reform efforts are not sincere--and building up pressure on the US government to take further, more drastic steps against the country.

Assessment of Syria’s Communications:
Strategically, Syria has had an imbalance in its communications approach since the beginning of the crisis. If hard power is necessary to quell rebellion, soft power is needed to reassure the Syrian people and outside audiences that reform is proceeding apace, legitimate grievances are being addressed and taken seriously, and that Syria’s actions are ultimately aimed at creating an environment in which change and progress can take place.

No one within the leadership seems to “own” the reform agenda from a communications standpoint. Beyond the government reshuffle and the President’s two dramatic speeches, reform has taken a back seat to the immediate political crisis, which dominates headlines and the public’s perception of events. Domestically, This may result in a situation in which the demonstrators have been sent back to their houses, but predominantly out of fear rather than conviction that their government is responsive to their concerns—a recipe for restiveness and instability going forward. Here in the US and the west, the imbalance will embolden critics and reinforce those who don’t believe reform is sincere.

Syria seems to be communicating with two hands. One is offering reform and the other, rule of law. Rule of law is a fist. Reform is an open hand. Right now the fist appears to the outside world, and probably to many Syrians, as though it is ten times bigger than the outstretched palm. They must be brought into better balance.

Reform-oriented outreach must be dramatically improved, at home and abroad, or else the credibility of these efforts—and a key part of the President’s appeal and popularity among the people—will be diminished. Refocusing the perception of outsiders and Syrians on reform will provide political cover to the generally sympathetic US Government, and will delegitimize critics at home and abroad.

o In our view, the President needs to communicate more often and with more finely-tuned messaging and the First Lady needs to get in the game. The absence of a public figure as popular, capable, and attuned to the hopes of the people as Her Excellency at such a critical moment is conspicuous. The key is to show strength and sympathy at once.

o The “reform” program does not yet have a face or brand. A public, visible campaign should be launched, even while the crisis continues, to engage ordinary Syrians in reform. This will keep people focused on the future and remind Syrians and the world of the President’s hopes and expectations for the country.

o The campaign should deploy street teams in communities to poll citizens on their reform priorities and ideas; each team member can post their experiences online or on social media to create a cross current to the criticisms that dominate those mediums.
o This campaign should include a listening tour w FL and PR together. They can make unannounced stops that carefully engage families and young people.
o The campaign should create a reform “echo-chamber” by developing media coverage outside of Syria that points to the President’s difficult task of wanting reform, but conducted in an non-chaotic, rational way. The conditions for reform include peace and stability. These stories can be developed through direct interviews with the President and other senior advisors, op-ed and commentary articles written by credible third parties. This coverage will rebound into Syria.
o The campaign should be branded with a forward-looking title, such as “Syria al-Yaum, Syria Bukra.”

o Communications can also be improved on the security side. President Assad has ordered investigations into troops and security forces that defied his command not to fire on unarmed civilians. The leadership should make a very public, visible show of punishing/firing/indicting troops that violate his orders. It would be a way of unequivocally showing that anyone who breaks the law--whether they be demonstrators or soldiers--will be held accountable. It will also demonstrate his fairness and his committment that his objective is to restore calm and civility so that reform can take place.

o Syria must improve its ability to contain negative media stories circulated by opposition figures living outside Syria. This includes countering rumors (such as the recent example that stated Her Excellency has “left Syria for London”) and the daily torrent of criticism and lies. Such a professionalized, through capability would include:

o 24-hour media monitoring and response system should be in place with assets in UK and US markets.
o Social media sites should be monitored and false sites should be challenged and removed.
o A steady, constantly updated messaging document that contains talking points geared to latest developments.

o Efforts should be made to convey “normalcy” and a contrast to current news depicting Syria as being on the verge of chaos.
A crisis communications structure should be developed to help manage daily communications. Daily messages, statements and press releases should be developed by this team and disseminated worldwide.

As suggested above, messaging should be evaluated on a daily-basis. From a general standpoint, Syria should:

o Continue to stress that the majority of its people have legitimate grievances that the leadership wants to address. However, appeal to Syrians’ patriotism and emphasize that there is no need to destroy the country to achieve goals that everyone shares: a free and prosperous country.
o Acknowledge that the violence taking place is regrettable. But the leadership did not seek this. The leadership is obligated to protect Syria and to create the conditions of calm necessary for reform to take place.
o Continue to express confidence in the future, and that the crisis is waning.

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