“Assad or no one”; “Assad or we burn the country.” This slogan, first uttered by militiamen at the onset of the Syrian Civil War, reflects Bashar al-Assad’s relation to power: in his vision, the Syrian state and the name Assad are inseparable. Historically inherited from his father’s power practice,[i] he perceives himself as the sole legitimate ruler of Syria. He yearns for recognition from the international community, particularly ‘Western’—European and North American—countries.
Since 2011, the production of aggressive propaganda from this regime has aimed to relay this vision inside and outside of the country.[ii] Today, while Syria is still at war and the regime controls about 70 per cent of the country’s territory,[iii] Bashar al-Assad intends to recover the status he lost at the start of the war. He is pushing for the reestablishment of relations with states that cut ties following its outbreak. To do so, the regime is presenting itself as fighting against extremism, protecting minorities, and ensuring safety and stable governance in the territory it controls. However, from the regime’s strategy to make the conflict more sectarian[iv] to its exploitation of Daesh’s threat,[v] such assertions are widely disputed and denied. In other words, the absolute surveillance imposed by the regime on the areas under its purview contradicts its claims regarding minority protection, anti-extremist policies, and the production of a safe, stable government.[vi]
In his propaganda operations, Bashar al-Assad can count on the tacit support of many Western actors. All act as pawns in a large-scale strategy of influence, whose outcomes can be found in current Western political debates regarding what position should be taken vis-à-vis Damascus.
These tactics can be traced back to 2012. Then, press releases, interviews, and photos of official activities of the presidential couple started to be shared on social networks. Images of Asma al-Assad, Bashar’s wife, were displayed to engender an emotional response from audiences, whilst Bashar embodied a more “official” (i.e., serious and rigorous) version of the regime.[vii] This strategic narrative also insisted on Bashar al-Assad’s role as a “tolerant secular leader, defender of minorities and especially Christians.”[viii] At the time, this narrative was mainly aimed at penetrating Western societies enough for their political leaders to stymie any intervention in Syria against Assad’s interests.[ix] Key regime insiders such as Khaled Mahjoub, a friend of Bashar al-Assad, were tasked with influencing the way the conflict was portrayed in Western media.[x] Starting in 2013, many reporters and journalists were granted visas for short visits to the regime-held parts of Syria. Closely monitored by the secret services, the Mukhabarat, they fed the regime’s narrative and reported on “how life is normal in Damascus” despite the war. Doing so, they echoed the regime’s claims of how Bashar has been instrumental in bringing peace to Syria.[xi]
By the same logic, links were maintained and developed with NGOs such as French SOS Chrétiens d’Orient[xii] and European parliamentarians. Through so-called “humanitarian support,” political visits and the publicisation of their actions in Syria, these groups acted as the sounding board for the regime’s agenda. For example, after a trip to Damascus, former French MP Valerie Boyer explained that “it is better to speak with Bashar than with Daesh” and emphasised Assad’s role as defender of “Eastern Christians,” thereby echoing the regime’s communication and the forced enlistment of minorities to its side.[xiii]
More recently, tourism has been another strategic boon for Bashar al-Assad’s rehabilitation. In trying to restore his image, Assad has taken advantage of the regime’s stranglehold on parts of the country to open it up to “Westerners,” Europeans and North Americans, under strict conditions. In recent years, the regime has managed to attract a wave of influencers in Syria, many of whom post their videos on successful social media platforms.[xiv] Their accounts of a “safe and beautiful” Syria and its heritage follow a path defined by travel agencies close to the regime. These agencies hold a virtual monopoly on the issuance of tourist visas and have specialised in the organisation of touristic trips for “Westerners,” departing from Europe or Lebanon. Visitors are thus taken care of from start to finish, guided through the “good” neighbourhoods, carefully avoiding any potential reminder of the war.[xv] Through them, the regime bets on the snowball effect of social networks to serve its strategy of influence.[xvi] The depoliticisation of such trips is organised with the goal of normalising Syria for Western audiences. The war and the regime’s past are thus whitewashed—replaced by a new narrative that informs public opinions.[xvii]
At the level of state relations, Bashar al-Assad is taking advantage of neighbouring countries’ fatigue, caused by the lengthening of the war in Syria and the economic crisis in the region, to push for a normalisation of relations. Though the war is not over, such normalisation has started to occur, particularly among states in the Middle East and North Africa. It allows the regime to falsely claim that it has won the war and secured its long-term hold on power. For example, Jordan’s King Abdullah II’s phone call to Assad in October 2021, and, a month later, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan visit to Damascus, directly served this purpose.[xviii] The same year, Interpol reintegrated Syria as full-right member.[xix] The regime is using all of these political victories to legitimise its rule. These ‘wins’ pave the way for Damascus’ requests for reintegration into most international organisations, and for its assertion that Western efforts at regime change have failed.
Most Western governments, including the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, have not acquiesced to Bashar al-Assad’s “normalisation agenda” trap. Instead, they have maintained sanctions on the Syrian regime while denying it any diplomatic recognition. However, several actions have fuelled its propaganda and shown Western susceptibility to it. In the last years and months, Greece, Cyprus and Hungary have reopened their embassies in Damascus, and appointed chargés d’affaires there. Such actions fit into specific contexts; for one, they square with Nicosia and Athens’ anti-Turkish positioning and Budapest’s anti-EU alignment. Assad’s propaganda has largely exploited such divisions and exploited these states’ reengagement with Damascus to emphasise a façade of European recognition and normalisation.[xx] More directly, European countries’ refugee policies have played an important role in feeding the Syrian regime’s version of events. Countries such as Denmark, for example, have removed refugee protections for Syrians living on their territories as war-related violence in Syria has decreased.[xxi] Such assessment plays into the regime’s post-conflict narrative, highlighting both that the war in Syria has ‘ended’ and that the country is ‘safe.’ It also emboldens those who assert that besides the war, no other issues—such as systemic repression, arbitrary arrest and torture of dissidents—could justify Syrians’ refugee status in Europe.[xxii]
Bashar al-Assad’s communication strategy is not unusual; it parallels many other authoritarian states’ efforts to defend their interests.[xxiii] However, its systematic use in a civil war, its scale, its duration, and its unrivalled effectiveness in penetrating foreign political debate make it unique.
Though the current situation still contains many threats to the Assad regime’s survival, the question of how to deal with the Syrian regime remains. The state of the economy and the pauperisation of the population make the re-emergence of a radical jihadi actor or new insurgencies more likely. Discussions about the return of displaced Syrians and refugees cannot neglect the danger to their life that Bashar al-Assad represents. How the international community ultimately deals with the Assad regime, which has committed proven war crimes with impunity, also sets an important precedent for the future.
In such a context, Assad’s propaganda in European domestic debates represents a significant danger for the health of Western democracies. Debates and decisions related to Syria cannot be grounded in the regime’s preferred narrative. Welcoming political actors waging an information war can only weaken Western institutions and erode public confidence in them. In diplomatic, political and media circles, we must advocate for the establishment of a sanitary cordon against these actors that promotes their systematic denunciation. Beyond this, the Syrian case also showcases the need to strengthen international efforts against misinformation. Finally, from a humanitarian standpoint, the re-evaluations of Syrians’ refugee status are being most impacted by this discourse. Thus, it must be the object of heightened vigilance to avoid any Syrian regime-fed interpretation.
[i] Dagher, Sam. Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria. (Little: Brown and Company, 2019).
[ii] Scartozzi, Cesare Marco, “Assad’s Strategic Narrative: The Role of Communication in the Syrian Civil War,” Contemporary Review of the Middle East 2.4 (2015): P.321
[iii] UN Syria Commission, “Don’t look away: Syrian civilians face the prospect of a new escalation,” 14 September 2022. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/09/dont-look-away-syrian-civilians-face-prospect-new-escalation.
[iv] McLauchlin, Theodore, “The Loyalty Trap: Regime Ethnic Exclusion, Commitment Problems, and Civil War Duration in Syria and Beyond,” Security Studies, 27.2 (2018): pp.296-317.
[v] Levitt, Matthew, “The role of the Islamic State in the Assad regime’s Strategy for regime Survival,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 14 July 2021. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/role-islamic-state-assad-regimes-strategy-survival.
[vi] Droz-Vincent, Phillipe, “Security and Syria: From “the security state” to the source of multiple insecurities.” In Routledge Handbook on Middle East Security (Routledge, 2019), P.116-117.
[vii] Dagher, 2019, pp.356.”
[viii] Scartozzi, 2015, pp.320-325.
[x] Barnard, Anne, “Syria Plays on Fears to Blunt American Support of Rebels,” New York Times, 24 April 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/world/middleeast/syria-campaigns-to-persuade-us-to-change-sides.html
[xi] Dagher, 2019, pp.361.
[xii] Lavrilleux, Anne, Elie Guckert, and Frank Andrews, “SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, une ONG française au service du régime syrien” (French), Mediapart, 01 October 2021. https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/dossier/international/sos-chretiens-d-orient-une-ong-francaise-au-service-du-regime-syrien
[xiii] Dagher, 2019, pp.423-430
[xiv] Bostock, Bill, “Travel influencers are flocking to Syria and hyping the war-torn country for tourists. Critics say they’re normalizing the Assad regime and parroting its narrative of the war,” Insider, 10 July 2022. https://www.insider.com/travel-syria-youtubers-critics-say-whitewashing-assad-regime-2022-7
[xv] In such trips, visitors are supervised in such a way that the expenses incurred almost only benefit people connected to the tourism agencies themselves linked to the regime, rendering the potential economic benefits of such an opening quasi non-existent for the population. – Retrieved from Key Informant Interview.
[xvi] “The ‘Post-War’ Tour: How Tourism is Empowering the Syrian Government,” Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, 15 July 2021. https://syriaaccountability.org/the-post-war-tour-how-tourism-is-empowering-the-syrian-government/
[xvii]Munawar, Nour A, “Reconstructing narratives: The politics of heritage in contemporary Syria,” Journal of Social Archaelogy, 22.2 (2022).
[xviii] Alrifai, Oula A, and Aaron Y. Zelin, “The policy consequences of Arab state normalization with the Assad regime,” Middle East Institute, 2021. https://www.mei.edu/publications/policy-consequences-arab-state-normalization-assad-regime
[xix]“ Interpol on Red Notice: Why Syria Should Remain outside International Law Enforcement,” Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, 28 October 2021. https://syriaaccountability.org/interpol-on-red-notice-why-syria-should-remain-outside-international-law-enforcement/
[xx] Amiel, Sandrine, “Which EU states are rebuilding diplomatic relations with Assad’s Syria?” Euronews, 19 June 2021. https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2021/06/17/which-eu-states-are-rebuilding-diplomatic-relations-with-assad-s-syria.
[xxi] Alfred, Charlotte, and Benjamin Holst, “How Denmark’s hard line on Syrian refugees is an aid group’s ethical dilemma,” The New Humanitarian, 11 January 2022. https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2022/1/11/how-Denmark-hard-line-Syrian-refugees-aid-group-ethical-dilemma.
[xxii] Bellintani, Veronica, “The Assad Regime’s Post-Conflict Narrative in the International Arena,” The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, 10 May 2022. https://timep.org/commentary/analysis/the-assad-regimes-post-conflict-narrative-in-the-international-arena/.
[xxiii] See notably Filiu, Jean-Pierre, Generaux, Gangsters et Jihadistes, 2018: Histoire de la contre-révolution arabe. (French) La Decouverte, showcasing the instrumentalisation of Islamist threats by authoritarian power in the Middle East as a structural pattern.