Assad’s media game

During most of the conflict in Syria, Bashar Al-Assad stayed away from the public, making public appearance only to proof that he was still alive and well. For two years, he did not seem to have a communications strategy. However, for a couple of months now Assad has realized that he needs to work on his “image”. This became particularly evident with the threat of a Western military intervention.

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In the aftermath of the chemical weapon attack, Assad suddenly made himself available to several high-profile, well-selected foreign media. On 2 September, he gave an interview to French newspaper Le Figaro, in which the Syrian leader spoke about chemical weapons and the risk of regional war, and warned France that there would be repercussions for the French interests in case of a military strike. A week later, just days after the anniversary of 9/11, Assad sat down with PBS Charlie Rose.  Here again he warned that the U.S. “should expect everything” in case of a military strike. Talk about selected foreign media: France and the U.S. were the nations closest to intervene in Syria. 

Assad is playing with Western fears and chooses his words wisely according to his interlocutor. In both interviews, he makes it clear that a strike would make the situation worse, lead to a regional war and the spread of terrorism. He told Charlie Rose that it would benefit Al-Qaeda and hinted at another September 11. In Le Figaro, Assad referred to Mohammed Merah, an Islamic gunman extremist who killed seven people in Toulouse last year and shocked the nation. Assad knows how to play with Western public opinion and trauma. In France, the U.S. and the U.K., the main proponents of intervention, most of the public is against military intervention.

 As Syria’s most important international supporter, Russia plays a role in the regime’s communication strategy as well. On 13 September Assad gave an interview to Russian newspaper Izvestia and TV channel Rossiya 24. He made sure to make use of Putin’s anti-Americanism and dreams of new grandeur, thanking Russia for helping Syria “face down the savage attack… and the Western, regional and Arab-backed terrorism.” President Putin played his part as as well by publishing an op-ed in the widely-read New York Times. This was perfect timing – a day earlier Obama had addressed the press on the situation in Syria. What better way for Putin to reply?

Instagram: illusion and delusion 

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Then there is also the strange case of Bashar and Asma Al-Assad’s Instagram account. This is a typical propaganda campaign aimed at cleaning up Assad’s reputation. Dictators in the past have used pictures and paintings of themselves with children in order to win public opinion.

The account was opened at the end of July, when the army was making progress in the city of Homs. “Syrianpresidency” takes you to an alternate, delusional world where the Syrian conflict somewhat exists but where Assad appears as a protective modern leader who care about the well-being of his people. There are pictures of him with religious representatives, students, journalists and civil society leaders. But the most striking shots are the ones of Assad and Asma in soup kitchens and comforting injured soldiers.

 Just thinking about The Economist’s “Hit him hard” page 3 weeks ago, this is miles away from Assad’s image in Western media, where almost unbearable pictures of the chemical weapon attack victims have been widely printed. The Assad family uses its Instagram account the same way every other politician does…except that the “look-how-sweet-we-are” promotion campaign is colossal. But in the modern world of social media, where dictators cannot hide their crimes, his 40,000+ followers cannot be fooled. Other pictures are there to destroy Assad’s fairy-tale portrait of his regime.

 The “traditional” media offensive is more efficient.: Assad cannot change his image of a ruthless dictator, but he can play with the public’s psyche. The PBS interview revealed the persona that Assad has become. He appeared disturbingly calm, calculating, and subtle – he even laughed at times (*shudder*). He has become an expert in sophistry (“Would any state use chemical or any other weapons of mass destruction in a place where its own forces are concentrated?” he asked), trying to appear oblivious to the state of his country. Not too long ago I read Riccardo Orizio’s Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators, which contains interviews with disgraced dictators. All are convinced that they were loved by their people and that they were right to do what they did because things would be worse without them. Haiti’s Jean Claude Duvalier for example stated: “I am the only one who can save the country, which is now reduced to such a miserable state.” Assad make a  perfect fit in Orizio’s book. Hopefully he will soon be a fallen dictator too.

Chemical Weapon Agreement…then what?

Just a couple of weeks, the prospect of a military intervention in Syria was high. A week later, things have changed. Most states were opposed to the idea, citing risks, international law and efficiency. Then all eyes suddenly turned to Russia who proposed to put Syria’s chemical stock under international control (ultimately for destruction). Intense negotiations between U.S. and Russian diplomats ensued, finally leading to a breakthrough on Saturday: an ambitious chemical arms-control agreement which involves the inventory and seizing of Syria’s chemical weapons. According to the framework, the Assad regime has week to provide an inventory of its arsenal and international inspectors will be in Syria by November to assess the situation.

But where will this really lead? An end to the civil war? Let me be skeptical here. First, the war continues, with or without chemical weapons. Considering the war has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians, the Assad regime has showed that it kill a lot of people with guns and bombs….Guns don’t kill people, PEOPLE do.

“Things are improving…These here were not killed by chemical weapons” – Côté

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Second, what will happen in case of non-compliance? Anything can be expected from Assad. Russia and the U.S. have agreed that violations would be referred to the Security Council but the nature of potential measures against Syria remain undecided and will be decided at the UN. Since nothing is said about penalties, Russia could very well once again use its veto to prevent sanctions and certainly intervention. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, warned that the use of force remains a threat if the deal is not respect. In this case, we would be back to two weeks ago.

Third, the rebellion is completely fragmented and growing more sectarian every week. Two western hostages freed last week described the situation as chaotic and the rebel groups as “midway between banditry and fanaticism.” Detained by the rebels for 152 days, Italian journalist Dominico Quirico said a new movement within Syria: the emergence of gangs of thugs with no code of conduct, who take advantage of the revolution to “take over territory, hold the population to ransom, kidnap people and fill their pockets.” Treated like an animal, he said he found in Syria “a country of evil.”

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If the Russian initiative truly works, only the issue of chemical weapons will be solved. Countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia will continue to arm rebels, especially radical Islamists. As Quirico explained, some of these rebel groups only care about money and weapons. At this point, arming the rebels is likely to lead to more conflict, more sectarianism and more human rights violations, especially against minorities such as Alawites and Christians.

While a Syrian resolution on chemical weapons would be significant, it would not end the crisis and world leaders should not feel relieved. This is not a long-term solutions since it does not deal with the root causes of the conflict and the many problems that have arisen since the revolution started. Syrians are still dying.

Fifth annual report on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P): shining a light on local and national actors

As we sit and wait for world leaders to take a decision on the Syrian conflict (while Syrians are dying and suffering), I am reminded of the “international community’s incapacity to learn and listen. Listen because civil society groups, NGOs, think tanks and many others have been pushing for some type of intervention for two years now. Learn because world leaders always act when it is too late or too complicated to intervene. Once it is too late, we send the military in without finding a proper solution to the root causes of the conflict. The longer a conflict lasts the greater the difficulty and cost to act. Remember what the “Responsibility to Protect” states: if a state fails to protect its citizens, the international community should act in a “timely and decisive manner.” That is still something it is failing at.

In July, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon published his fifth annual report on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) called “R2P: State responsibility and prevention” (official publication next week). In his introduction, the Secretary General explains the main focus and argument of the report: 1) prevention of mass atrocities 2) the main responsibility for mass atrocity prevention lies in the hands of the State.

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 To put the report together the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect held a consultation process with UN member states, regional and sub-regional organizations, and civil society. They were invited to submit their views on progress made in terms of mass atrocity prevention, lessons learned from their own experience as well as challenges faced implementing these measures. In the end, 27 member states, one regional organization and 27 civil society organizations sent written submissions, and consultations were held with more than 120 members states.

Having had the luck to take part to meetings on this consultation process, I know that the Office’s main challenge was to find enough examples of lessons learned and to involve local civil society groups (this was a language issue). R2P is still an emerging norm and states are still in the process of creating or implementing prevention measures. Furthermore, the results of these policies and activities are unlikely to have immediate effects. Nonetheless, the consultation exercise provided important example of emerging mass atrocity prevention policies. 

Interestingly, the report starts by presenting a list of risk factors related to atrocity crimes. In doing so, the Secretary General emphasizes that no country is safe from mass atrocity crimes – preventing these crimes both at home and abroad is therefore everybody’s and every state’s responsibility. Particularly at risks, are states that have a history of discrimination, identity politics and/or deliberate exclusion. The absence of structures and laws designed to protect civilians, the presence of militias or a permissive environment increase these risks. But, nonetheless “No State can consider itself immune to the risk of atrocity crimes.” It is therefore wise of the report to provide examples of policy measures implemented in Australia, Portugal, Canada, France, Mexico, and Denmark.

At the heart of the Secretary General’s report lies the idea that because states have a responsibility to prevent mass atrocity crimes, they must build “societies that are resilient to atrocity crimes.” This focus on the state is smart because it corrects the misconception that R2P infringes on state sovereignty. Instead, the report clearly explains that creating an environment of resilience to mass atrocities reinforces State sovereignty and increases prospects for peace. Sovereignty is a right and a responsibility, and the best way to protect that cherished sovereignty is to respect the rights and lives of those who reside in the country.

In terms of policy measures, the report differentiates between structural and operational policy options. Structural policies are implemented to create an environment of resilience by addressing grievance and atrocity crimes (operational measures seek to mitigate tensions, halt imminent or ongoing crimes). These early preventive measures are interesting because they emphasize the need to get rid of sources of grievances before they create real tensions or escalate into violence. Among the policies cited are:

–       Constitutional protections;

–       Democracy (democratic electoral processes, political pluralism etc); National accountability mechanisms such as a fair and equal justice systems);

–       Security Sector reform (a legitimate and professional security sector);

–       Measures that address actual or perceived (economic) inequalities.

The emphasis is therefore on strong and legitimate national institutions and infrastructures that promote and guarantee human rights. Inclusive and accountable national infrastructures combined with specific national policies and measures are seen as the best ways to develop state resilience to mass atrocity crimes. 

One of the most interesting points of the report in the emphasis on the need for the creation of national or regional committees, parliamentary groups, or focal points that focus on atrocity prevention. Focal points and committees help coordinate national efforts to implement atrocity prevention strategies. Because these committees exist at local/national/regional level they are adapted to the local context. Indeed, while the responsibility to protect is a universal norm, there is no one-size-fits-all model for prevention policies. It depends on the country’s history, culture, demographics, etc. National and local actors are the ones who know what is needed.

The second appealing aspect of focal points or national committees is that they can include a variety of actors. Mass atrocity prevention and R2P are about national and internal actors first and should therefore encourage the participation of legislators, government officials, local NGOs and civil society groups. The best way to come up with policy and strategies that are adapted to the local and nation context is to create focal points that are inclusive and participatory.

Such focal points and regional committees already exist in Denmark, Ghana, Costa Rica, Canada, Kenya, the U.S. and Tanzania, among others. There have also been efforts to establish networks between focal points and committees so that states can share experiences and get an idea of the wide-ranging of existing initiatives available to them. This is crucial because even if policy measures are context-specific, policymakers can learn from countries where prevention measures have been successful. Such networks can create a “database” of policy options.

 Next week, the Deputy-Secretary-General, the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and member state panellists, and civil society groups will convene in New York to discuss the report’s findings and national actions to strengthen government capacity to prevent mass atrocity crimes. Considering the present situation in Syria and our incapacity to learn from mistakes, one could question the need for such meetings. However, this is what makes the new report appealing: we should not wait and simply rely on external actors but on local and national ones. Considering the failure of the international community to act in a pro-active manner, starting the local and national level seems to be a more effective path to follow.

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