Assad’s public relations offensive
While Syria President Bashar Assad’s forces and his array of allies continue to squeeze eastern Aleppo, the regime is looking to go on a public relations offensive. In recent weeks Assad and his representatives have been appearing far more frequently on Western media outlets, including the first appearance of his wife Asma Assad in a television interview in more than eight years.
In late October, several foreign journalists were granted meetings with Assad and even taken to the front lines of Aleppo. However, too often the questions from experienced and respected journalists fail to get through the armour of regime rhetoric.
Why is this the case? Whether addressing the BBC, the Associated Press or other media, the consistency of messaging as well as a tendency to completely ignore the questions has seen the regime come out unscathed from difficult interviews. The Syrian government’s media strategy relies on a number of components and needs to be better understood for media outlets to better plan interview questions accordingly; otherwise, they risk giving Damascus a propaganda tool.
The first thing to understand is that consistency works best with simple messaging. The vast array of opposition elements and their different ideologies, values and motivations have made it impossible to simply paint the picture of anti-Assad forces as “the good guys”.
Also the opposition has been divided into the value-laden concepts of “moderates” and “extremists”, which has become hostage to a counteroffensive that purports to be showing “moderates” committing “extreme” acts. A diverse and complicated opposition is a stark contrast to the stately image that the regime seeks to present: that it is the state and it is fighting terrorists supported by a cabal of external actors.
So the regime messaging is simple and consistent, what about the messengers? Bouthaina Shaaban was once a translator to former president Hafez Assad and is now a senior adviser to President Bashar Assad and one of the most frequently seen spokeswomen of the regime. Her style when being interviewed is a fascinating insight into the regime’s communication strategy.
First, she tends to speak against a backdrop of busy Damascene traffic, a sign of normality and business as usual. Then, as journalists often start off with accusatory questions such as “Why are you dropping barrel bombs?” or “Did you use chlorine on civilian targets?” her instant response is horror that the Syrian government is being unjustly accused and that she is a guest being abused by a rude media host.
The most common tactic that Shaaban relies upon is that she is in Syria and they are not, so how dare they presume to know what they are speaking about.
In a recent interview with the UK’s Channel Four news these tactics were evident when Shaaban explained: “I am the one living in Syria. Please don’t lecture me from London.”
She also said that she does not “believe any of those reports” from people who are not on the ground and that the “reports are irrelevant to our reality”.
The fact that the regime limits media access into the country and that in non-regime controlled areas there is no place more dangerous to be a journalist are irrelevant to this mode of aggressive defence.
Bashar Assad tends to give long prerecorded interviews with big names from print and television. The interviews often come across as quasi-academic discussions as Assad talks softly at length as to the situation as he sees it. While Shaaban raises her voice and interrupts her interviewers, Assad is a model of calm and almost laughs off awkward questions as when he told the BBC in 2015 that “There’s no barrel bombs. We don’t have barrels.”
So what kind of questions would disrupt regime messaging and messengers?
The first thing to explore is a better defining of terms. What, for example, are Assad’s definitions of “civil war” and “terrorism” and does he think there is such a thing as “state terrorism”?
Another option is to question his regular excuses such as blaming Turkey and other countries for the situation. Why did he previously go on holiday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and have good relations with Ankara? What has changed?
It would be interesting to ask why Syria is not giving financial support to UN agencies looking after Syrian refugees and to see if Assad has any empathy or feeling for those who have been forced from the country.
Finally, showing proof during an interview, such as rejected UN requests for aid access, could force Assad out of the bubble of his own reality.
So far the best question I’ve seen raised was by Newsnight’s Evan Davis, who simply asked “What is the biggest mistake the regime has made?” Shaaban smiled sweetly before avoiding the question entirely.
Davis asked the perfect question to a regime that relies on a consistent but essentially false narrative that it holds no responsibility for the tragedy that has blighted the country.