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Syria: the war propaganda in the 21st century

This post was published in Heise. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.

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BERLIN, (BM) – Leaks from the British Foreign Office confirm allegations of systematic whitewashing by the armed Islamist militias as moderate opposition

The label “moderate opposition” or “rebels” as a collective name for the militias who wanted to bring about an Islamic state in Syria by force of arms has been around for a long time. Only in the last few months has the term “Islamist” or “jihadist” been appearing more frequently in German, English or French reports when it comes to these groups.

There are several reasons why the view of the situation on Syrian territory only changed after such a delay; one of them is the professional and far-reaching media PR work for the benefit of the militant god warriors against the Syrian government. How fast the media departments of the Islamist, Salafist and jihadist militias worked was no secret in journalistic circles. Events and conflicts in media reports were responded to very quickly via email or WhatsApp contacts. The militias are well connected.

200 to 300 leaks “with sensitive content”

At the beginning of September, a large number of documents were published which point to media PR work for the armed Islamist opposition in Syria, the strategy and scope of which are huge. It is an example of war propaganda at the beginning of the 21st century. It was funded by the governments of Great Britain, the USA, European countries and the EU, as the papers show.

There are probably 200 to 300 leaks “with sensitive content” from the British Foreign Office [FCDO], as reported by the Middle East Eye. The hackers are still a mystery. The question arises as to how it was possible to break into the computers of the Foreign Office.

Numerous samples of the leaked documents are published here and here. So far, only the US journalist Ben Norton for The Grayzone and the French journalist Maxime Choix for Deep News Media have bothered to evaluate the material in longer reports.

Whether the documents are authentic has not been proven, but little speaks against it. The British Foreign Office does not comment on this.

However, this is not the first publication that concerns the funding of media work by the British and US governments in order to present the activities of the armed opposition in a good light. There is official evidence that the UK government has worked with communications consultants on Syria.

The UK government contractors listed in the documents are known. One of the partners, InCoStrat [Innovative Communications & Strategies], had already confirmed to the Guardian in 2016 that it was providing media and communication support for the moderate Syrian opposition. The other major agency, ARK, has been “advising” since the beginning of the Syrian opposition, as reported in an analysis brochure from 2016 [keyword “Understanding the Syrian conflict”].

InCoStrat was founded by a British ex-military who also worked as a strategic advisor on communications for the UK Ministry of Defense. The head of contractor The Global Strategy Network [TGSN], also a contractor of the UK ministries, was formerly a head of the global counter-terrorism unit at MI6. The aforementioned communication agency ARK is based in the United Arab Emirates.

This implies the amalgamation of the military apparatus in image work, the British Ministry of Defense was also involved in some PR campaigns, and the possibilities of an enormous range through excellent relationships in the Arab world, especially with Arab broadcasters.

Best contacts to the New York Times, CNN, the BBC, the Guardian, the Financial Times…

The contractual partners of the British government – in some cases they are also contractual partners of the USA, in some areas the EU or Denmark are also involved, according to papers; where the White Helmets are concerned, one can also assume that France was involved – they provided training, equipment and money for journalists who provided the Syrian, Arab and international public with reports, films and radio broadcasts in order to improve the image of the political opposition, the “Free Syrian Army “ and included radical, jihadist, al-Qaeda-affiliated militias, as well as possible.

Excerpts from the success reports of the contracting parties as they emerge from the leaked documents: More than half of the stringers who worked for al-Jazeera in Syria were trained in a joint USA-UK program called “Basma”. Hundreds of Syrian media activists come from Basma. InCoStrat boasts that its network includes more than 1600 international journalists and influencers who can be “pushed” to pro-opposition talking points.

ARK boasts that the agency has excellent contacts with Reuters, the New York Times, CNN, the BBC, the Guardian, the Financial Times, al-Jazeera, Sly News Arabic, Orient TV and al-Arabija. More than 668,000 of the print products that were produced with ARK’s advice were distributed in Syria. The agency from Dubai also took over the PR strategy of the Supreme Military Council [SMC], the leadership of the then FSA called militias. According to ARK, part of their communication strategy was to keep the image as soft as possible.

In the FSA, there were militias who, like Jaish al-Islam, pursued a strict Islamist agenda with Sharia courts and from whose sphere of rule there were reports of cruel treatment of oppositionists; there were also expressions of sympathy for fanaticism and terror from the ranks of the FSA militia by al-Qaeda groups with whom they formed fighting alliances. First and foremost the al-Nusra Front [later renamed in Hayat Tahrirash-Sham], which comes from al-Qaeda and was formerly closely linked to militias of the “Islamic State”. So it was not uncommon for jihadists arriving from Turkey to switch between groups when they arrived in Syria.

Citizen journalism on behalf of a PR agency with a political agenda

The leaked documents show that representatives of al-Nusra were also interlocutors with the “citizen journalists” recruited, trained and paid for by the PR agencies, who then passed their material on to the media. Talking to extreme groups is one thing, the other, systematically and planned downplaying their activities and goals – which helped prolong the war.

The white helmets benefited from special PR maintenance. This will not surprise anyone who has seen the professionally staged clips and press statements of the “helpers” and was amazed at how people with close ties to hardcore militias get ceremonial appearances in the Elysée Palace.

It is surprising how far the PR strategy extends. The EU-funded Commission for International Justice and Accountability [CIJA] was also part of the agencies’ PR offer, according to the leaked documents. From ARK it is even said that the consulting company first launched the [then renamed] predecessor organization Syrian Commission for Justice and Accountability [SCJA]. Grayzone authors accuse parts of CIJA of being close to jihadists.

It is also interesting that the PR makers boast of including “guerrilla tactics” in their communication. “Creating events that will become a media event” is the keyword here. As an example, it is mentioned that during the siege of Homs people with T-shirts were shown in the TV pictures that showed Assad as the creator of IS. This myth persists to this day.

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