Military operations resulting from the media in Syria

Traditionally Israel, like other armies around the world relies on open source information as part of its intelligence gathering. That includes the media be it newspapers, radio or TV (The Old Media) and Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and other online sources (The New Media). However when these are used for propaganda purposes then intelligence is impaired.

In Syria the most socially mediated civil conflict in history; the media and propaganda dimension has impacted the course of the war on the ground and affected the policy of foreign States. The Islamic State (IS) originating from the Islamic State of Iraq as Jabhat an-Nusra sent men to Syria in August 2011. Nusra ultimately gained independence and after a power struggle, April 2013 – February 2014, it was expelled from al-Qaeda for defying the orders of al-Qaeda’s Emir Ayman az-Zawahiri to restrict themselves to Iraq.

Announcing the Caliphate in June 2014, IS switched its narrative entirely from the need for foreign volunteers to help defend Muslims against a heretical dictatorship to one where they had the Promised Land, and all good Muslims should come to it. In other words, where IS had previously paid lip-service to the idea that it cared about Syrians, it now abandoned that entirely and stated that the land belonged to g-d (represented by IS).

At the same time IS made the Internet a weapon for the Salafi jihad whereas al-Qaeda had used it mainly to recruit, raise funds, and deliver instructions to its operatives. IS uses a sophisticated media apparatus that included “disseminators” like “Shami Witness,” the unmasked Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who has been important in the reach into the English-speaking world, and spam-bots that falsely amplify their message on Twitter.

IS has been able to push its narrative on Twitter far more effectively than the rebels against Assad’s regime because it has more money and because it has more money it has gained more recruits who bring with them more resources. The new, open media, without gate-keepers, serves and strengthens the powerful and the tyrannical.

IS has also used social media to demoralize its enemies, notably the nationalist rebels, convincing them that the only alternative to Assad is IS. This weaponization of the media has forming a central part of its war-making.

The Assad regime’s media war is perhaps not so novel, but it’s no less effective. The Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian supporters also wage an elaborate disinformation campaign to push its own narrative of the conflict. This centers on the claim that the uprising, comprised of peaceful protesters for the first six months, was a sectarian, Islamist conspiracy stirred up from outside.

In order to change the narrative to one of sectarianism the regime sacked mosques using Alawi auxiliaries rather than uniformed soldiers. It attacked Sunnis to try to provoke a sectarian response including a series of massacres beginning at Houla in May 2012 that used Alawi villagers to shoot and butcher at close-quarters their Sunni neighbors.

The regime also turned loose violent Syrian Salafist oppositionists, and al-Qaeda and other foreign Salafi-jihadists, from in its own prisons in May and June 2011 and from Lebanon in November 2011 creating armed brigades. This created anarchy broadcast to the world has resulted in international paralysis that allowed Assad to present himself as an ally in the global war on terror.  Today, the conflict has morphed into a sectarian regional proxy war.

The tactic of provocation that Syria is a binary choice, Assad or the Salafi-jihadists, was perfected by Assad to control his enemies by using Russia RT (formerly Russia Today) and Iranian Press TV, to internationalize his view-points. Falling for this the United States has effectively rescinded its stated regime-change policy and has also become the the de facto air force for the Assad regime. It has ceded Syria to Iran and Russia as a sphere of influence having reassured Iran before the airstrikes in Syria began that it would not attack Assad.

The aftermath of the sarin gas attack on Ghouta in August 2013 demonstrates the Assad regime’s media strategy. Through RT, Press TV and other online sources the world had been fed a context-free, anti-Western, conspiratorial version of events in Syria, sprinkled with dezinformatsiya further decreased American willingness to help the rebellion against Assad.

Too often such stories go down the memory hole; they flare up and then the conclusion is never reported. Citizen journalism and the individual with a camera phone have never been more important than in Syria. Videos and pictures have flooded out of Syria, telling the outside world things it could never have known any other way since the rise of IS which has made insurgent-held areas as dangerous as regime-held areas for journalists.

This New Media has been very useful in providing access to primary sources from inside Syria but has proven to be more easily manipulated than the Old Media, which had some standards of fact-checking and ethics that, while not always successful, provided some barrier to the spread of outright propaganda.

Turning to the value of this for intelligence gathering in Israel, who relies inter alia on open source information – the media. It is clear that the media in Syria be it newspapers, radio or TV (The Old Media) or Twitter, Facebook and Youtube (The New Media) have been used for propaganda purposes. This makes analysis crucial to discerning faction from fiction. Where there is doubt, there is no doubt. Israel will respond or initiate action based on rumors and innuendos resulting from disinformation as well as from information.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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