Since the first public protests broke out in Syria last March, the narratives about the Syrian crisis have stayed fairly true to the theme of all the Arab Revolts. An authoritarian ruler out to crush peaceful opposition to his regime opens fire on civilians and the number of protestors skyrockets as the body count mounts...
But we are now entering the tenth month of this particular violent revolt - even Libya with its full-fledged civil war didn't take so long. So what gives?
According to the Texas-based geopolitical risk analysis group Stratfor which released an eyebrow-raising piece on Syrian opposition propaganda efforts last week, "most of the opposition's more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue, thereby revealing more about the opposition's weaknesses than the level of instability inside the Syrian regime."
This is important for two reasons. Firstly, it may be the first time a mainstream US-based intelligence-gathering firm openly questions the existing narrative on Syria. Secondly, Stratfor's findings begs the question: what are we basing our policy initiatives on if our underlying assumptions are inaccurate?
How unstable is Syria, really? How widespread is opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad? The death-toll that has us riveted with disgust - today, the highest daily death rate yet - how accurate are those numbers? Who do they include and are they verifiable? Are local activists even capable of distinguishing between a dead pro-regime civilian and a dead anti-regime civilian - especially now that both sides are armed and firing?
I cannot begin to dispute those numbers and details, so I will not try. But I will ask the question: where are all the "facts" coming from?
Inherent Bias in Syrian Data?
The problem with information that originates from opposition groups is that there is a clear interest in disseminating "beneficial" data and underplaying "damaging" statistics. And that dynamic applies to the government too - which is why we take Syrian regime pronouncements with a grain of salt.
You don't see the Syrian opposition taking an active role in publicizing the slaughter of rank-and-file soldiers, for instance - except to claim these forces are being shot for deserting the army. Twitter is abuzz right now with news that more than 70 of today's 100+ dead are "deserters."
Nor do you hear about the numbers of pro-regime civilians killed by the armed opposition - some of them allegedly while "demonstrating" in support of the Syrian regime.
Now, this does not mean that the Syrian opposition lies outright to gain sympathy and foreign support - mostly because the "opposition" is not homogenous and comes in different shapes, sizes and flavors.
But Strafor clearly questions the intent of some of these groups based on very recent evidence of disinformation campaigns:
The Stratfor article focuses primarily on opposition efforts to create the impression in the past few weeks that there is a significant split within President Assad's own clan and within his Alawite minority sect, members of which man the top jobs in the country's armed forces and key government positions.
Among these high-profile gaffs are a December 10 report alleging that "Syrian Deputy Defense Minister and former chief of military intelligence Asef Shawkat had been killed by his aide and former General Security Directorate chief, Gen. Ali Mamlouk."
Stratfor posits that the unfounded "image of two senior-ranking Sunni members of the regime drawing guns on each other" helps to create " a compelling narrative" for groups that wish "to undermine the perception that al Assad's inner circle is united in the effort to suppress the opposition and save the regime."
In yet another example, a December 9 statement published in the Saudi-owned Asharq al Awsat by the previously-unknown "Alawite League of Coordinating Committees" which claims to represent the Alawite community in Syria, "rejected any attempt to hold the Alawite sect responsible for the 'barbarism' of the al Assad regime." Stratfor says the planted story gives "the impression that the Alawite community is fracturing and that the al Assad regime is facing a serious loss of support within its own minority sect."
The US-based analysts then cite their own Syrian opposition source who "acknowledged that this group was in fact an invention of the Sunni opposition in Syria."
On the same day, more mainstream opposition groups including the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights began disseminating "claims that regime forces besieged Homs and imposed a 72-hour deadline for Syrian defectors to surrender themselves and their weapons or face a potential massacre."
That news made international headlines - Homs has been the raging center of anti-regime dissent after all, with death tolls that appear to be well above those of other hotspots. Stratfor's investigation, however, found "no signs of a massacre," and warns that "opposition forces have an interest in portraying an impending massacre, hoping to mimic the conditions that propelled a foreign military intervention in Libya."
The article then goes on to suggest that any suggestions of massacres are unlikely because the Syrian "regime has calibrated its crackdowns to avoid just such a scenario. Regime forces," Stratfor argues, "have been careful to avoid the high casualty numbers that could lead to an intervention based on humanitarian grounds."
And so on and so forth.
Wrongful Narratives Muddy The Waters
Stratfor identifies some clear objectives that drive propaganda efforts by Syrian opposition groups:
- Convincing Syrians inside Syria (going beyond the Sunni majority to include the minorities that have so far largely backed the regime) that the regime is splitting and therefore no longer worth supporting.
- Convincing external stakeholders, such as the United States, Turkey and France, that the regime is splitting and is prepared to commit massacres to put down the unrest, along the lines of what the regime carried out in 1982 in Hama.
- Convincing both Syrians and external stakeholders that the collapse of the al Assad regime will not result in the level of instability that has plagued Iraq for nearly a decade, or in the rise of Islamist militias, as appears to be happening in Libya. To this end, the FSA has emphasized its defensive operations and the defense of civilians to avoid being branded as militants. Meanwhile, the political opposition has stressed that it wants to keep state structures intact, so as to avoid the Iraq scenario of having to rebuild the state from scratch amid a sectarian war.
Stratfor points out that opposition groups have made headway in getting their messages out to the mainstream western media, and that these outlets regularly "quote casualty totals provided by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, without the ability to verify the information." But the article also warns that "the lack of coordination among various opposition outlets and the unreliability of the reports threaten to undermine the credibility of the opposition as a whole."
Syria today signed the Arab League protocol that will make way for a fact-finding mission. Provided that this important process does not get hijacked by regional politics - an unlikely scenario even with the best of intentions - we may start to see verifiable information about what is taking place inside the country.
Without facts, the Syrian story does not stand a chance in overcoming the enmity and rancor felt by both sides. False narratives, even heartfelt ones, will only keep conflict buzzing. Kudos to Stratfor for underlining the importance of information transparency.