Syrian opposition groups are engaged in an aggressive propaganda drive to promote the perception that the Alawite community is splintering and that the Syrian regime is cracking from within. Most of the opposition's more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue, thereby revealing more about the opposition's weaknesses than the level of instability inside the Syrian regime.
The continuity of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime depends on his ability to maintain unity within a few groups: his own al Assad clan, the Alawite-dominated army and the wider Alawite community. Were his patronage networks to unravel and the regime's powerful figures to start viewing each other as liabilities worthy of elimination, the demise of the regime would not be far off.
This concept is well understood by various groups that are operating under the Syrian opposition umbrella and trying to create the conditions for foreign intervention to bring the regime down. The Syrian opposition movement exhibits more coherence today than it did three months ago, but its efforts at propagating disinformation still render highly mixed results. Several opposition claims in the past week illustrate these shortcomings.
A Series of Doubtful Reports
Syrian opposition officials in London disseminated a report Dec. 10 citing unnamed sources who claimed Syrian Deputy Defense Minister and former chief of military intelligence Asef Shawkat had been killed by his aide and former General Security Directorate chief, Gen. Ali Mamlouk. The story alleged that the two officials got into an argument and that Shawkat was secretly rushed to a Damascus hospital after suffering fatal gunshot wounds. Other Syrian opposition sources claimed Shawkat was in a coma, while other Arabic-language reports citing unnamed sources claimed Shawkat was shot and killed by his driver.
The image of two senior-ranking Sunni members of the regime drawing guns on each other — or at least the thought of a senior member of the regime dying under mysterious circumstances — helps create a compelling narrative. The opposition movement wants to undermine the perception that al Assad's inner circle is united in the effort to suppress the opposition and save the regime. Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law, is a particularly controversial member of the regime given his ongoing feud with Maher al Assad, the president's younger brother and the head of the elite Republican Guard forces. It is rumored that Maher shot and wounded Shawkat during an argument in 1999. Shawkat was also placed under temporary house arrest in 2008 after allegations that he was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh.
Anyone attempting to split the regime would likely seek out Shawkat as one of the first regime leaders willing to instigate a palace coup against their in-laws. High-ranking Sunni regime figures like Shawkat and Mamlouk warrant close monitoring, but Stratfor has found no evidence to back opposition claims that Shawkat was killed. The story also failed to gain traction with Syria's more prominent opposition outlets, such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the Local Coordinating Committee, not to mention mainstream media outlets in the West.
In a Dec. 9 statement issued to the London-based, Saudi-owned Asharq al Awsat news website, a group calling itself the Alawite League of Coordinating Committees claimed to represent the Alawite community in Syria and rejected any attempt to hold the Alawite sect responsible for the "barbarism" of the al Assad regime. The report described the Shabiha militias, which the regime has used to crack down on protesters, as tools of the al Assad regime that have nothing to do with the Alawite community. This report gives the impression that the Alawite community is fracturing and that the al Assad regime is facing a serious loss of support within its own minority sect. However, no record of the Alawite League of Coordinating Committees exists, and a Stratfor source in the Syrian opposition acknowledged that this group was in fact an invention of the Sunni opposition in Syria.
Another set of reports, which Syrian opposition groups including the Syrian National Council, the FSA and the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights began to disseminate Dec. 9, claims that regime forces besieged Homs and imposed a 72-hour deadline for Syrian defectors to surrender themselves and their weapons or face a potential massacre. Although regime forces have been cracking down on dissent in Homs, there have been no signs of a massacre there. Syrian opposition forces have an interest in portraying an impending massacre, hoping to mimic the conditions that propelled a foreign military intervention in Libya to prevent former leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces from leveling the opposition stronghold of Benghazi. However, the regime has calibrated its crackdowns to avoid just such a scenario. Regime forces have been careful to avoid the high casualty numbers that could lead to an intervention based on humanitarian grounds.
In an attempt to demonstrate that the regime has lost the backing of the merchant class, Syrian Local Coordinating Committees called for a "strike of dignity" Dec. 12. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the strike was followed in opposition strongholds such as Homs, Daraa and Douma and that it was spreading to the financial hub of Aleppo in the northeast. The regime countered the strike call with an eight-page photo spread in state media showing shops that remained open. Meanwhile, Stratfor sources in Damascus reported receiving multiple text messages from an American phone number calling on them to strike — and they added that the strike went largely ignored in the capital. The actual turnout for the strike likely lies somewhere between the opposition's and regime's claims, but it appears that a significant number of Syrians, especially in the key cities of Damascus and Aleppo, will not yet risk openly confronting the regime.
Syria's opposition camp comprises a high number of different groups, and not all of these claims are coordinated by mainstream entities such as the FSA, Local Coordinating Committees and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Although the stories may not always arise from a fully coordinated effort, the overall propaganda campaign includes the following core objectives:
- Convincing Syrians inside Syria (going beyond the Sunni majority to include the minorities that have so far largely backed the regime) that the regime is splitting and therefore no longer worth supporting.
- Convincing external stakeholders, such as the United States, Turkey and France, that the regime is splitting and is prepared to commit massacres to put down the unrest, along the lines of what the regime carried out in 1982 in Hama.
- Convincing both Syrians and external stakeholders that the collapse of the al Assad regime will not result in the level of instability that has plagued Iraq for nearly a decade, or in the rise of Islamist militias, as appears to be happening in Libya. To this end, the FSA has emphasized its defensive operations and the defense of civilians to avoid being branded as militants. Meanwhile, the political opposition has stressed that it wants to keep state structures intact, so as to avoid the Iraq scenario of having to rebuild the state from scratch amid a sectarian war.
Coordinating Propaganda Efforts
Syrian opposition groups have improved their ability to develop contacts in the media and reach mainstream Western outlets such as Reuters, AFP and BBC with their stories. Western wire services run stories regularly that quote casualty totals provided by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, without the ability to verify the information. Western media are also increasingly reporting claims emanating from the FSA.
The opposition's disinformation campaign still has its limits, though. The lack of coordination among various opposition outlets and the unreliability of the reports threaten to undermine the credibility of the opposition as a whole. Inside Syria, the regime is also waging a relatively successful counter-propaganda campaign to brand opposition fighters as armed militants. On the external front, the Syrian regime has found support from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which recently condemned the West's alleged "double standards" — for relying, in Moscow's eyes, on biased reporting while sanctioning Syrian media outlets.
Although Syrian opposition groups have increasingly been able to organize their efforts to disseminate information to Western media, they still lack a complementary political presence inside these Western countries — a necessary component to create the justification for intervention through the media. There are still a number of factors impeding military intervention. These include the threat of Iranian retaliation, the logistical complications involved in carrying out a military campaign in Syria and the general fear of the instability the regime's collapse could leave in the country. Propaganda alone will not be able to shift that part of the equation, especially when the propaganda effort itself lacks credibility and coordination.
Editor's Note: Syrian Deputy Defense Minister and former military intelligence chief Asef Shawkat and former General Security Directorate chief Gen. Ali Mamlouk are members of Syria's Alawite sect, not Sunnis, as they were identified in this analysis.