Damascus’s push for soft power legitimacy

While no leader has emerged in the pro-regime online community, social media influencers are on the rise.
Sunday 14/10/2018
A participant attends the opening of the Syria rebuilding exhibition at the fair grounds in Damascus, on October 2. (AP)
Re-imagining Syria. A participant attends the opening of the Syria rebuilding exhibition at the fair grounds in Damascus, on October 2. (AP)

BEIRUT - On several occasions over the past seven years, soft-power techniques have been used to rally support for popular causes in Damascus, seen as more cost-effective than sheer military might.

Initially immune to public criticism, Syrian authorities have been surprisingly attentive to what is being said about them on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter, especially when it comes to the whims and complaints of their constituency. They never really cared what the opposition was saying, looping all its branches and figures into a one-size-fits-all jihadi basket.

The Assad government is using soft power to peddle its version of events, so successfully it seems that its official channels on YouTube were shut down in September. Contrary to what many believed, most outreaches were never aimed at convincing the opposition but at uniting the converted behind a single cause.

More recently, however, Damascus has been reaching out to the millions of refugees abroad — especially the politically neutral among them — trying to lure them home, at the urging of the Russians. The objective was to attract international aid off the backs of the refugees, repeating the experience of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Syrian authorities have provided returning refugees with construction materials, electricity and running water, nudging them into physically rebuilding their homes, hoping this will inspire international donors to pitch in.

In recently retaken territories, former militants have been pardoned if they join the Russia-led reconciliation process, surrender their weapons and inform on the whereabouts of people in the underground. Those who want to join the government armed forces are being welcomed, especially in southern Syria.

On October 9, a pardon was issued to army deserters and conscription evaders. The objective was to bring as many young men as possible into the government fold, using them as a powerful labour force in post-war reconstruction.

Within Syria, the government’s presence on social media has become a fixture in the daily lives of thousands, as Damascus exerts its influence on Syria’s populace and signals how power might be channelled in post-war Syria.

Domestic activists have increasingly been relying on the internet and social media, using its power as a tool for change, no matter how slowly or sluggishly that may come. In many cases, online campaigns have been ad hoc, triggered by reactions to bad government, corruption or lopsided legislation. Much of that activism started after the battles of the Damascus countryside ended last May, which shifted the attention of many Syrians from the military conflict to other issues affecting their daily lives.

From education to the official tolerance of illegal bars in some of Damascus’s oldest neighbourhoods, the Syrian government has been at pains to show itself as a reasonable interlocutor more than capable of admitting to and even rectifying mistakes.

While no leader has emerged in the pro-regime online community, social media influencers are on the rise. Nabil Saleh, a secular writer and member of parliament, recently leaked via Facebook controversial legislation giving wide and unprecedented powers to the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf).

Saleh started an online campaign that snowballed into “#I am Syrian opposed to Law # 16,” whipping up an impressive assortment of artists, journalists and poets. They objected to the new powers vested in the ministry, raising such an uproar that Awqaf Minister Mohammad Abdul Sattar Sayyed defended the law in a televised appearance, saying its clauses were no Quran and were open to debate and amendment. However, the law has not been revoked, amended or put up for debate in parliament.

How far Damascus will go in presenting itself as a new and moderate force in Syria’s internal politics is not clear. Much of the country is in the hands of foreign powers, with the almost certainly savage battle for Idlib ahead. However, for now at least, Damascus is trying to walk an extra mile keep its constituency happy, with tid-bits and carrots, here and there.