The brutal civil war in Syria that has lasted since March 2011 has killed hundreds of thousands of people and led millions to flee the country in search of refuge in foreign lands.
At the center of the war is the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has been accused of intentionally spreading lies about the Syria conflict in Western media.
For years, even prior to the war, Assad has used public relation tactics in an attempt to improve his image in the West. Now, nearly a decade into the war, it has been alleged that Western journalists and politicians have been paid to act as PR agents for Assad’s regime. In doing so, they have helped to obscure horrific human rights abuses, including multiple chemical attacks.
PR agents of Bashar al-Assad
As the president of Syria – and the son of the previous president – Assad has numerous powerful allies, none more so than Russia’s Putin who has supported Assad’s prolonged war with the pro-democracy opposition in Syria both militarily and financially.
But as the Syrian civil war drags on, its humanitarian and financial costs are growing increasingly insurmountable.
That’s why it is so important for Assad to gain support from the international community, which has repeatedly sanctioned Syria. As a result, in the West Assad’s most powerful allies are not heads of state, but rather politicians, businesspeople and, especially, journalists who are alleged to be working as PR agents for him.
Perhaps the most influential politician in the United States to actively promote Assad’s cause is US House Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who was for a time a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Gabbard met Assad in 2017 for a “fact-finding” mission and since then has refused to publicly denounce Assad’s actions. This has led Senator Kamala Harris, among others, to label Gabbard an “apologist” for Assad.
In 2014, Newsweek wrote about Akram Elias, a businessman based in Washington, DC. Elias traveled to Damascus, Syria with a proposal on how to help Assad improve his image in the US capital. For US$22,000 a month, Elias provided a “communications strategy” for a PR campaign designed to “soften the image of the regime in Washington.”
In 2019, Bellingcat reported that the San Francisco-based nonprofit Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees (AIPAC, not to be confused with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) was in reality a pro-Assad shadow group.
The organization gives money to journalists to support independent journalism, but, Bellingcat alleges, it does so specifically to pay for positive reporting on the Assad regime.
(Influence Watch, an independent investigator of public policy influencers, says AIPAC promotes “anti-Israel views” and supports “dictatorial Middle East regimes.”)
Among the journalists who have received US$5,000 through the Serena Shim Award are Max Blumenthal, whose website, The Grayzone, regularly criticizes Western intervention in Syria, including sanctions. Blumenthal has often railed against US efforts toward regime change and has met with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
The Grayzone has also repeatedly criticized the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has determined that there was an airdropped chemical attack in the rebel-held city of Douba. As Bellingcat has documented, though, The Grayzone’s criticisms are based on Russian-released leaks of a “fundamentally flawed” inspection.
Another prominent journalist who received the Serena Shim Award is Rania Khalek, a former contributor to the Russia-backed news site, RT. In a 2018 RT op-ed, she said “biased media coverage” was falsely accusing Assad of using chemical weapons, claiming much as the Grayzone has, that the “lie” was an attempt to push America into a regime change war.
Al Jazeera has noted that Blumenthal and Khalek traveled together in Syria as part of a campaign to rehabilitate Assad’s image. The publication claims these efforts aren’t solely for Assad. These journalists are part of “a new form of junket journalism that serves as a global laundering service for blood-splattered autocrats.”
Downplaying atrocities in Syria
Blumenthal’s The Grayzone has regularly questioned the accepted stance that Assad gassed his own people and has pushed the conspiracy theory that the White Helmets, a humanitarian aid group, is a terrorist-led opposition group.
In fact, as Wired explained in 2017, the concerted efforts to smear the White Helmets has one purpose – to “bolster the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and undermine its opponents, including the United States.”
In an example of how far this misinformation campaign has spread, in April 2018, Fox News host Steve Doocy discussed the theory that the White Helmets “staged bodies to make it look like there was a gas attack.” While his co-hosts disputed the “Russian propaganda.” Doocy appeared at least partially receptive to it.
Far-right activists have also played into the PR campaign by downplaying some of the worst of Assad’s alleged crimes.
In 2015, the British political commentator Katie Hopkins (who was recently banned from Twitter for “hateful conduct”) claimed that a viral photo of a dead Syrian refugee boy was “staged.
Bashar al-Assad on Twitter
Giulia Prati, who has worked in public relations for multiple US-based firms, has written on Assad’s use of digital media to spread messaging in support of his regime.
Writing in Columbia’s Journal of International Affairs in March 2015, Prati noted that social media was key to “The regime’s ability to effectively target strategic audiences and opinion leaders.”
The regime’s social media outreach includes official accounts on Instagram and Twitter (and formerly YouTube, though that page is no longer active).
Twitter, in particular, is useful to Assad, because it allows him “to establish a flow of direct communication with the international media” while “employing Twitter solely as a means of emitting desired information.”
Importantly, Prati catalogs an uptick in activity on the president’s official account whenever critical reports of Assad’s actions occur. For instance, in 2013, days after it was reported that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons on opposition forces within Syria, tweets from the account increased twelvefold.
Despite these efforts to control the narrative via social media, Prati says there is little evidence the Assad regime has changed minds in his favor. But that hasn’t stopped the regime from attempting to get its side of events told in the West. (Both Blumenthal and Khalek are active on Twitter.)
Using public relations to fight a war
In 2013, as then-President Barack Obama was contemplating military intervention in Syria, Assad appeared on CBS in the US for a September 2013 interview with Charlie Rose. His twofold purpose was apparently aimed at manipulating the “American psyche.”
With the interview, Assad hoped to persuade the American people against military action and to present himself as a moderate leader who was simply trying to quell terrorism in his country.
In the end, perhaps it worked, as Obama ultimately decided against an airstrike later that year.
One critic of the Assad regime, James Denselow, writing for The Arab Weekly, discussed how the regime uses Western media to push its narrative.
In the rare instance when a member of the regime does submit to a live interview, they have myriad methods for assuring a pro-Assad message is delivered. The first of these methods, Denselow argues, is by playing on the complexity of the war. The opposition to Assad’s regime isn’t one uniform group, instead it’s made up of varied factions, some of which are not particularly friendly to the US or its allies.
By shifting the focus to the most “extreme” factions within the opposition, Assad can distract from the accusations that his regime is complicit in war crimes against innocent Syrians.
Spokespeople for Assad also utilize a variety of rhetorical counter trusts to avoid tough questions, including denying reports and evading questions altogether. Often, the rebuttal to a question about the Assad regime’s alleged human rights abuses is to state that the journalist wasn’t in Syria, so they couldn’t speak to what was really going on there.
Of course, as is common under dictatorial leaders, much of the official news coming out of Syria and spreading within is strictly controlled by the regime.
The Assad Family PR gambit
In March 2011, Vogue Magazine published an exceedingly generous article about Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, that, as The Guardian described it, praised her beauty and philanthropic efforts. The article was immediately taken offline amid backlash in the wake of the uprising in Syria.
Nonetheless, the fact that a major US publication was willing to heap fawning praise on Syria’s first lady (changing the writer’s initial intent) clearly indicated that there was an audience for Assad’s version of reality in the West.
Assad even hired the Washington, DC public relations firm Brown Lloyd James to soften his image in the West. Or, as The New York Times put it in 2012, “the president and his family have sought over the past five years to portray themselves in the Western media as accessible, progressive and even glamorous.”
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