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.
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
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.