TV, radio and internet campaigns paint glowing picture of president Bashar al-Assad and stir up sectarian tensions
Brute force has been the main weapon of the Syrian regime as it has sought to crush growing protests, killing at least 1,500 people and torturing hundreds more. But Syrians have also been besieged by relentless propaganda.
In a week that has seen at least 40 die and escalating violence in Homs, the country’s third largest city, state radio and private stations owned by regime cronies have been blaring out songs exalting Bashar al-Assad as “Abu Hafez”, suggesting his son Hafez could succeed him, or anointing him president for “all eternity”.
Baseball caps, T-shirts and flags adorned with the president’s face are sold around Damascus. Billboards show him surrounded by pink hearts – in stark contrast to the sterner, more militarised pictures of his father, Hafez, the former president.
Television programmes show residents shopping and driving, portraying calm and order while regime supporters chant that they would shed blood for their leader.
Within weeks of the outbreak of unrest in March, posters went up around Syria warning of fitna, an Arabic word for division that has sectarian connotations.
But as Assad’s use of force has failed to crush the protests, now in their fifth month, propaganda has become a key element of regime efforts to rally support.
“The propaganda is relentless,” said one businessman. “The regime has hijacked the idea of national identity and is pushing divisions.” Official rhetoric is sectarian and blames foreign and Islamist armed miscreants for the violence. In contrast, the protesters have been keen to portray Syrians as united and peaceful.
Such crude misinformation can be surprisingly effective in a country where there is no independent media, reporting is difficult and news comes mainly from witnesses and amateur film footage.
The regime and its opponents have become increasingly polarised, raising the spectre of clashes of the type activists say are happening in Homs, where sectarian tensions are rising amid claims that gangs from the minority Alawi sect, to which the Assads belong, have been deliberately provoked by the regime to attack protesters.
Christians and Druze have also been drawn to the cause through state propaganda. Early in the unrest protesters carried crosses and shouted anti-sectarian slogans: “Muslims, Christians, Alawis are all one.” But when a sit-in was held in Homs in April the regime framed it as Salafis (extreme fundamentalists) taking over the city. State TV aired staged accounts of “armed terrorists” admitting receiving cash from foreigners and showing caches of weapons and money in mosques.
Imams report being told what to say in sermons, while a so-called “electronic army” has mounted an online campaign to fill Twitter with pro-regime messages.
But at the same time the regime has also sought to portray Assad as a reformer – with a westernised wife to boot – who is adored by his people.
Only a small minority of Syrians believe this narrative, which is contradicted by satellite channels such as al-Jazeera and material on the net. But Assad undoubtedly retains some support. “People choose to close their minds,” said one young professional in the capital. “This is due to fear, but also to brainwashing and the strong idea of authority in our society.”
Children are taught to exalt Assad and his father, while schoolbooks describe Syria as one of the most powerful nations on the planet. Pictures of the ruling family hang in every shop and building while many places such as sports grounds are named after members of the family, including Assad’s younger brother Basil, who was being groomed for the presidency when he died in a car crash in 1994.
During Assad’s first speech after the unrest began, one MP shouted: “The Arab world is too small for you, dear leader, you should rule the world!”
But propaganda can backfire. “It is all lies, lies,” protested a trader in Damascus’s old city, who just two months ago was blaming the unrest on Salafis.
The battle is not all one-sided. Activists had to become media-savvy to counteract the regime’s domination of domestic media. They have had success – some say too much – in finding the ear of international outlets and have been accused at points of distorting information too.
A report by the International Crisis Group last week accused activists of playing down reports of sectarian tensions. “Unfortunately the propaganda could become a reality if this situation goes on too long,” warns a veteran dissident.