Syria’s Propaganda Cloud: How the West Is Falling for Misinformation

How the media war is oversimplifying what could be a powder keg for the West. By Riad al Khouri.

Mohammad Hannon / AP Photo

Having just returned from Syria a few days ago, I can confirm that the situation on the ground there is very disturbing, though perhaps not in the way that many might assume. As it stands, the government remains in control over most of the country—including the economy—despite the best efforts of propagandists to say otherwise. Yet if the Syrian economy worsens, and if the crisis there comes to involve more and more groups—both inside and outside the country—there is a growing possibility that what started as a conflict between the Syrian government and a ragtag group of rebels will become a powder keg that could escalate into a regional war and possibly even an international confrontation.

Already, tourism has collapsed in Damascus and much of the country’s economy has become stagnant. Nevertheless, Syria’s historical self-sufficiency, coupled with help from the likes of Russia and Venezuela to meet shortages, means that the economy is not in dire straits. What is clear, however, is that the violent instability facing the country (whatever its origins or aims) is exacerbating a shaky economy that was weak even before the crisis blew up last year. Today, money is coming into the country from many sources, including Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, among other nations who are supporting one or more of the various players. Yet such political inflows of funds have a tendency to eventually do more harm than good.

Some of those inflows, for instance, are funding propaganda, which serves to exaggerate Syria’s genuine problems—economic and otherwise—as part of a great spectacle to sway world opinion. This includes Saudi money coming into Syria via Lebanon to fund demonstrations, with people getting $30 a day to protest—in front of cameras and microphones, of course. That isn’t to say that there aren’t many genuine demonstrators with real grievances; at the same time, the government habitually stages its own propaganda shows, also inducing people to whoop it up for the media. Such stage-management, along with fake torture videos and a host of other propaganda stunts, provide false justification for or against outside meddling, with some Europeans and certain people in Washington pushing for various military options, and a broad group led by Russia and China, but also including many in the region, calling for diplomatic solutions to the crisis.

The recent launch of the Mayadeen television by Syrian and other private-sector money and including some ex-Al Jazeera staff, presumably to counter the latter station’s anti-Damascus slant, is a good example of how this media war is evolving. The problem is that many in the Gulf and the West seem keen on turning Syria into a pit of conflict, with the aim of isolating Iran and her allies. Such plans are foolish and will likely backfire, leading to more violence along the Syrian borders and beyond.

The sheer amount of propaganda makes charting the future scope of the conflict difficult. But one possibility is that Syria will explode into all-out civil war, replicating the dark days of Lebanon in the 1980s or in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam, some two decades later. In both cases, different shadowy groups ran amok, as economic fragility and security fears allowed outsiders to indulge in political manipulation. For some in the West and elsewhere, all that would be good news, providing as it does “leverage” to “send messages” to others through car-bombs, kidnapping, etc. Yet, meddling in this manner might backfire, as troublemakers flourishing in a chaotic Syria could damage Western interests in the region, putting oil facilities and other businesses at greater risk from armed groups, while making life less safe for tourists and others from Europe or America.

The signs are already ominous. As the violence intensified this spring, Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for the joint Arab League-United Nations special envoy, Kofi Annan, said at a press conference in Geneva that “there is a third element that appeared on the ground in Syria,” adding that hallmarks of some activities or incidents “appear to come from sources other than opposition or government.” A few days later, Fawzi’s perspective was confirmed by Martin Nesirky, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s spokesman, who told reporters in New York of his fear that a third force was “at play in Syria.” Though he insisted that “there’s no hard evidence on specific groups," Nesirky added that this “undoubtedly complicates the task” of stabilization by the international community. At around the same time, U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous spoke at a press conference in Damascus of a terrorist “third party,” warning against “further militarization of the crisis.”

The problem is that these and other impartial observers do not (and probably are unable to) specify exactly who this third group could be, making any effort to counter it that much more difficult. As usual, the name of al Qaeda (whatever that may be these days) is brought up in the speculation as to who this third group may be, and other possibilities are that fourth, fifth, and sixth groups, etc., are also running around stirring up trouble. However, it is difficult not to get the impression that neither the U.N. nor anyone else really knows what is happening on the ground in Syria, a country increasingly shrouded in the fog of war. Finally, there are criminal elements that seem to be preying on all sides of the conflict. So to blame the violence in the country purely on “terrorism” or on an evil government is an oversimplification of the unfolding drama.

These days, unfortunately, this oversimplification is all that seems to make it into the newspapers or on the airwaves. The fatuity of 21st-century media and the blinkered ignorance of audiences, especially Western viewers and readers who are under the illusion that they are well-informed, mean that this circus of disinformation will likely continue. My message in this tawdry mess is for people in the West to be wary of propaganda (especially that coming out of their own countries), which is helping to escalate the Syrian crisis into this season’s geo-strategic summer blockbuster.