How can we understand strategic communication in conflict – Syria in context

By Dina Matar|June 23, 2019|Syrian conflict and strategic communication|0 comments

How can we understand strategic communication in conflict? The Syrian conflict in context

Dina Matar

It is impossible to find a single cause-and-effect argument relating to the Syrian conflict, and this applies to the role of media in conflict – a key concern of political communication scholarship. The conflict, now in its eighth year, has been described as the most socially mediated war due to the excessive use by diverse actors of different media platforms to disseminate ideologies, political positionings and images of war and violence, and as the first networked conflict in contemporary history. Compared with other Arab uprisings and long-term conflicts in the Middle East, the conflict has featured spectacular forms of violence mediated through a wide range of digital and social media practices created by a variety of content by a host of political activists, witnesses, rebels, state agents, and soldiers, underlining how media are part of social and political processes and are fundamentally implicated in practices of war as well as the battle over ideologies, image, rhetoric, and politics.  By the beginning of 2019, the Syrian conflict, had entered a phase marked by a broad consensus that the Assad regime had practically defeated its opponents, regained control of most opposition-held areas, and managed to sustain its long-standing mediated regime of representation.

In a recent paper,[1] I focused on one, and yet significant, aspect of the conflict: the Syrian regime’s strategic communication practices. The approach I took differs from the broad scholarship on strategic communication [2]which often discusses this in instrumentalist terms or as a form of propaganda intended to reach external actors and audiences. In the paper, I used the term to refer to practices of politics intended to control the Syrian population, ensure support and regime survival, particularly when challenged. These practices, as I showed, did not emerge with the uprising, but had pervaded social and political lives since the Ba’ath Party came to power in 1963 and particularly since the former president Hafiz al-Assad took over the presidency in a coup in 1970. What is different, of course, is that these practices were challenged by the socio-political challenges of the uprising that began as a protest movement against regime oppression and marginalisation in March 2011, and also by the expansion in media spaces and their use by diverse actors.

In the paper, I discuss the regime’s strategic communication as a two-track strategy. The first track saw the intensive use by the regime of media platforms as tools of war and as technologies of power to attack opponents, communicate its messages and spread false news about opponents through different digital sites and old media. This practice was helped by the emergence of diverse pro-regime online groups, such as the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), dubbed Assad’s cyber warriors, the Syrian Malware Team (SMT), the Electronic National Defence Forces (ENDF) as well as diverse pro-regime actors and groups acting from outside Syria as agents and actors to help its social media-based propaganda warfare and for tracking down dissenters and shutting down websites critical of the Assad regime. Other online tactics included an intensive media campaign to enhance Assad’s presence and visibility on social networks platforms through the establishment of accounts, such as Youtube (Syrian Presidency); Twitter (@Presidency SY) and Instagram (@SyrianPresidency) that claim to be related to the president.

The second track was the regime’s persistent invoking of a long-standing ideological stance through the articulation of a political language intended to construct what it means to be a Syrian subject. This language was pervasive in all media discourse, but it was particularly evident in the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main public speeches addressed to Syrians. In these speeches, he constructed the Syrian regime as the “Arab nationalist” regime par excellence and a regime committed to the defence of Arab nationalism as an ideology and way of life, and used a political vocabulary in which he portrayed the Ba’ath Party’s ideology of Arab nationalism as an inclusive ideology that embraced all ethnic groups, religions and communities, thus summoning his audiences as a united national polity while glossing over existing social realities, such as sectarian, regional and tribal loyalties. Assad also sought to link Arab nationalism with Islam to appeal to the Sunni Muslims and Arab-speaking religious minorities in the country as members of an imagined Arab community.  In almost all his speeches since 2011, he also mobilized a binary political language of “us versus them” to differentiate between regime supporters as “loyalists” fighting “oppositionists” involved in a foreign-aided conspiracy against the nation and its unity, and deployed the language of reform, not as a practice, but as an ideology to attract support. While his speeches responded to the socio-political contexts, he deployed the political language the Ba’th Party had used consistently to construct an image of Syria and its citizens, and to call to memory previous events and uprisings violently crushed by the regime.

It is not surprising that authoritarian regimes, such as Syria’s, continuously seek to produce their power through different practices, including discursive ones. These practices may not be always evident, but in conflict situations, they serve to underline that the material reality of war can no longer be separated from the representational regimes through which [they] operate and which rationalize its own operation.

Image credit: “The Voice of Truth”, the text next to Asad’s image proclaims, by Travel Aficionado is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

[1] Matar, Dina (2019) ‘The Syrian Regime’s Strategic Communication: Practices and Ideology.’ International Journal of Communication, 13. pp. 2398-2416.

[2] The term strategic communication has for the most part been addressed in the literature in terms of causality, policy, and outcomes, particularly in relation to international relations, rather than its significance to domestic or local practices of politics (see, e.g., Farwell, 2013; Holtzhausen & Zerfass, 2013; Simpson, 2012).

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