Syrian forces assaulted rebel strongholds in Aleppo with tanks and artillery Saturday afternoon, and it seemed a massive confrontation in the country’s largest city was almost at hand. As the shelling raged, Capt. Ammar al-Wawi, the rebel commander and spin doctor, was holding court in a Turkish luxury hotel. Sharply dressed in a pin-stripe suit, he sat in the vast lobby of the Ottoman Palace, a short drive from the border with Syria. The hotel is on the outskirts of town—and to facilitate the meeting, al-Wawi had grandly sent a car. He was flanked by aides, and four cell phones were spread out on a coffee table before him, ringing often with requests for news of the war. "There are more phones in the car," al-Wawi said.
As the regime marshaled its forces around Aleppo and the lightly armed rebels braced for the fight, international officials were sounding the alarm. The top human rights official at the United Nations warned of “atrocities” and “imminent confrontation,” as the U.N. reported some 200,000 people had fled the city. A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department worried that a “massacre” might be at hand. Al-Wawi, though, was keeping his cool. “We are in control,” he said.
The regime’s forces were depleted, al-Wawi claimed. Defections, always publicized with great fanfare, had hit the Syrian military hard. Its focus in Aleppo on artillery and air power—helicopters had been firing into rebel strongholds of late—was more a cry for help than a show of force, masking the fact that the numbers were no longer there. Aleppo would soon become a Syrian version of Benghazi—though with the twist that, even then, help from the West would be unlikely to arrive. “It was once a powerful regime, but now they’re like the walking dead,” al-Wawi said.
A former government intelligence officer, al-Wawi defected to the rebel Free Syrian Army last July. From there, he quickly became a regular presence on YouTube and Arabic-language TV, where he advocates for rebel forces and fires threats at Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In the process, al-Wawi has become one of the highest-profile figures in the opposition. But he’s more than a flashy spokesman—when not in the Turkish border area, where the FSA military council is based, he can sometimes be found commanding a battalion in Aleppo. He said he’d returned from Syria the previous day.
Al-Wawi seems to embody two defining features of the uprising: armed resistance, and an increasingly aggressive media campaign. In the hotel lobby, he propped his iPad on the table and used a ruddy finger to flip through a photo gallery that showed him posing with munitions at his desk. In the photos, his attire changed from officer’s garb to power suit—he was fighter and public relations flack all at once.
In the Syrian rebellion, media gears are always churning alongside the fighting on the ground. FSA officers and fighters are a regular presence in the press, highlighting the evils of the Assad regime and calling on the international community for help. Over the last month, as Western concerns have mounted over the presence of al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, the FSA has stepped up its international outreach, pushing a more sophisticated message in the foreign press.
“We are trying to explain to the foreign media that in the FSA there are regular civilians who are connected to the rest of the world,” says Louay al-Mokdad, an FSA spokesman and coordinator. “They’re not just fighters from the Dark Age—they are engineers, doctors, educated people.”
Despite the FSA’s best efforts, the loose nature of its coalition can lead to mixed messages, and the scattered effort can result in potentially harmful slips of the tongue. In a recent interview, for example, an FSA media officer said its military council had split between its two leading generals, Mustafa al-Sheikh and Riad al-Assad. “We don’t like to talk about this in the media, because it gives the impression that we are separating,” he said. (He went on to explain that the grassroots nature of the revolution meant everyone considered himself a leader.)
But the real strength of the rebellion’s media machine lies in the civilian networks that sprang up with the protest movement that gave the revolution its start—and the FSA has tapped in. Activists across the country mastered the kind of social media campaigns that helped define the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, sending out word of protests and crackdowns and connecting reporters with voices on the ground. With international media access often dangerous and difficult to obtain, meanwhile, people such as citizen video journalists pushed into new frontiers, and the activists became increasingly important sources of facts on the ground.
Now, those same resources often work in lock-step with the armed rebellion. “Most of the people involved in this revolution, whether media or any other kind of activist, have sympathy for the FSA,” says Amr, an administrator with one of the most respected citizen-journalist groups, the Sham News Network. Amr, who gave only a single name, stressed that SNN works to maintain its independence. Al-Mokdad, the FSA coordinator, started as a civilian activist and considers his new role one and the same. “All of us are now FSA,” he says.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center, notes that the rebels take note of how their struggle plays in the international press. “The rebels are fighting on Syrian soil, but they’re also fighting for hearts and minds in the international community, and in the Western community in particular. When you look at what the rebels do, you have to keep that in mind,” he says. “That always affects their overall strategy. Ultimately, they’ve been saying from the beginning that they do want Western support.”
For some, the very idea of the FSA—promoted by defected officers based in Turkey to bring together a scattered coalition of armed groups—is a media coup on its own. “If we were talking about this last year, the FSA was an idea. It was an aspiration. In many ways it was a media operation as well,” Hamid says.
Many voices inside the opposition, meanwhile, still insist that a unified front simply doesn’t exist. “I would like to tell you that the FSA is the biggest lie. It’s a big media balloon,” says one head of regional coordination efforts inside Syria. “We don’t want to say that we have a lot of armed people working on their own to defeat the regime.”
“All warfare is based on deception,” Sun Tzu says in The Art of War. In the Ottoman Palace lobby, al-Wawi seemed certain of the rebel forces, as he predicted victory in the battle for Aleppo—and the downfall of the Assad regime. When challenged, he reached again for his iPad, this time to play a YouTube video of rebel fighters massed confidently in Aleppo. “Before, we were just using a strategy of defense, but nowadays we’ve switched to one of attacking the regime,” he said.
Shortly after, he and his retinue rushed off to another meeting, and the driver did too, pointing the way to a shuttle bus as he made for the door. Whatever the state of the rebellion, al-Wawi seems determined to present its best face.