22 August 2012
Information Wars: Assessing the Social Media Battlefield in Syria
Syria's opposition forces are engaging the Assad regime both on the ground and on the Internet. Chris Zambelis outlines how the Free Syrian Army is using social media to promote its interests by waging information warfare.
By Chris Zambelis for Combating Terrorism Center (CTC)
Efforts to understand the nuances inherent to the political turmoil in Syria present daunting challenges. While the numerous insurgent factions and the Syrian security forces engage each other in combat in towns and cities to secure tangible battlefield gains, the warring parties are also waging a contentious information war in cyberspace, specifically within the virtual arena of online social media. The various strands of the opposition in Syria—political and violent—have taken to social media since the earliest stages of the uprising to advance their agendas. Analogous to their role in facilitating communication and information exchange during the wave of revolts that have been sweeping the Arab world since 2011, new media platforms such as the array of social media websites and related technologies that are available to the public at virtually little or no cost have become crucial to shaping how the crisis in Syria is portrayed and perceived.
This article examines the social media battlefield in the Syrian uprising with specific attention on the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) online activities. It also addresses the relative impact of the social media battlefield on dictating the course of events in Syria.
The Social Media Landscape
Every serious political or militant actor with a stake in what is happening in Syria has a presence on social media through some combination of officially hosted websites and blogs, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Flickr, online chat room forums, Short Message Service (SMS) platforms, and other venues. The leading political opposition factions, namely the Syrian National Council (SNC), National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), and the numerous Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCCs), all operate a network of professionally-designed and maintained websites and social media platforms to broadcast information. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a body closely tied to the SNC, is also widely active on social media. The SOHR publicizes alleged casualty counts and human rights abuses it blames on the Ba`athist regime's security services and irregular paramilitary forces.
Led by the FSA and the numerous insurgent groups that claim to be fighting under its umbrella, the violent strain of the Syrian opposition is also well represented on social media. The Omawi News Live network and Ugarit News are two of the most prominent among a host of outlets that serve as quasi-official information platforms broadcasting a wide range of material on behalf of the Syrian opposition on social media. Both networks air amateur video footage of alleged attacks by Syrian security forces and insurgent operations, reports documenting purported defections of members of the Syrian military, alleged evidence of human rights abuses and atrocities perpetrated by the Ba`athist regime, and other items that cast Damascus in a negative light. The growing radical Islamist current within the Syrian opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist movements that appear to be motivated by al-Qa`ida's style of radicalism are also active on social media. Jabhat al-Nusra announced its formation and claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks across Syria through official declarations and video features produced by its al-Manara al-Bayda Foundation for Media Production and issued on radical Islamist websites and chat room forums. Jabhat al-Nusra has since carved out its own place on social media through the creation of a dedicated website and affiliated online outlets.
The importance of winning the information war on social media has not been lost to the Ba`athist regime and its supporters. Official Syrian media and information outlets such as the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) are active online. The creation of the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) and a host of associated outlets, however, reflects a greater effort by the Ba`athist regime to combat the opposition's struggle to monopolize the information war. In addition to encouraging supporters of the Ba`athist regime to engage in online activism, the SEA is also involved in cyber warfare and hacking operations. The SEA has produced a recruitment video in Arabic and English that outlines its mission to defend Syria and is reminiscent of the videos issued by the hacktivist group Anonymous in its presentation and tone. In doing so, the SEA relies on a nationalistic discourse that emphasizes Syrian unity and loyalty among Syrians to their country. Social media platforms associated with the Ba`athist regime reflect the narrative presented by Damascus: Syria portrays the crisis as an effort by its primary enemies—the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel—and their regional allies to undermine and destroy Syria by way of proxy war and encouraging sectarianism, violent insurrection, and radical Islamist militancy. A range of social media outlets operated by supporters of the Ba`athist regime inside Syria and abroad also helps sustain this effort to counter the opposition.
The Free Syrian Army Online
The FSA, the amorphous insurgent movement that has emerged as the armed wing of the Syrian opposition faction directed by the SNC, along with its many armed affiliates are prolific on social media. The inaugural statement declaring the establishment of the FSA by defected Syrian Air Force colonel and subsequent FSA commander Riyad Musa al-Asa’d and seven fellow members of the Syrian military was uploaded to YouTube and other social media outlets. The numerous other militant groups that have proclaimed their allegiance to the FSA and intention to violently resist the Ba`athist regime have likewise taken to social media to announce their motives.
Despite securing varying degrees of financial, diplomatic, materiel, and logistical support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the United States, the FSA’s ability to defeat the far better trained and equipped Syrian security forces remains in question. Nevertheless, the FSA appears keen to compensate for its tactical and operational inadequacies by exploiting social media as a force multiplier. The circulation of amateur video footage of dead or captured Syrian forces undergoing interrogation by the FSA or a smoldering Syrian military vehicle relayed on social media can have a multiplier effect on domestic and international perceptions regarding the military prowess of the insurgents. This is the case even as the insurgents continue to sustain heavy losses in direct engagements with Syrian security forces. The proliferation of videotaped statements and other items issued by defected members of the Syrian security forces on social media can also work as an effective psychological tool to illustrate declining unity and morale among the ranks of Ba`athist forces even as the numbers of defected forces remain marginal.
Overall, the accessibility of social media enables the insurgents to participate on a leveled information playing field that was previously the exclusive domain of state actors or institutions closely aligned with ruling authorities. Similarly, the advent of social media enables individuals and organizations with little or no formal association with the factions currently operating inside Syria to project their influence into the events on the ground. Extremist ideologues such as Shaykh Adnan al-Arour, for instance, a Syrian Salafist cleric who currently resides in exile in Saudi Arabia, is among the most vocal supporters of the FSA on social media and traditional media outlets, including satellite television.
The FSA and its associates are also exploiting the virtual domain of social media to disseminate propaganda and disinformation to bolster their causes, with an eye toward capitalizing on its inherent multiplier effects. Evidence that activists sympathetic to the FSA have broadcast doctored amateur videos showing alleged battlefield successes executed by the insurgents against Syrian forces, desertions of Syrian troops from their posts, and massacres of civilians and other atrocities blamed on Syrian security forces in the absence of concrete proof implicating the Ba`athist regime is a case in point. Members of the Syrian security forces who undergo questioning by the FSA on video also often appear to recite claims frequently made by the insurgents to validate their positions. Along with the SNC, the FSA accuses Syrian allies Hizb Allah and Iran of actively assisting the Ba`athist regime to violently suppress the uprising. Alleged Shabiha members captured in Idlib Province admitted on a video that was circulated across cyberspace to receiving orders and support from Hizb Allah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran, among other claims, in spite of a lack of concrete evidence.
The FSA has also worked hard to refute accusations that radical Islamists and other extremists motivated by sectarian agendas or mercenaries acting on behalf of Syria's enemies make up their ranks. The dissemination of a video showing an alleged Syrian Christian military officer announcing his defection from the Syrian army—the first Christian member of the Syrian security forces to do so, according to the video’s title—and decision to join the Sham Eagles Brigade of the FSA is another example of the insurgency’s resort to social media as a force multiplier.
Effective messaging allows for the contesting parties in Syria to present unadulterated versions of their respective narratives and positions to supporters, opponents, and neutral parties alike in Syria and beyond. A successful information campaign also helps sway target foreign audiences that may have little or no stake in what is happening in Syria to choose sides. In this context, the competing factions in Syria are waging a virtual campaign to win over international public opinion. In today's information climate, an item posted to YouTube or Twitter by individual users or activists can easily compete with and often may supersede a breaking dispatch from reputable international media conglomerates in terms of the number of consumers it reaches in the public domain. Raw reports, such as amateur video footage and photography of events such as a public protest organized by opposition activists or a funeral procession for a Syrian who is believed to have perished at the hands of the Syrian security forces, make an impact on social media in such a way that is impossible to emulate through traditional print or second-hand news reportage. Amateur video footage of the funeral of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, a 13-year-old boy who was allegedly tortured and killed by Syrian security forces after being detained in a protest in his native Dera`a, spawned a wave of outrage in Syria and around the world that helped embolden the already simmering opposition against the Ba`athist regime.
At this juncture, it is impossible to determine the precise effect social media is having on shaping the course of developments in Syria. It is clear, however, that the virtual arena has emerged as a crucial battlefield for the warring factions, political and violent, operating on Syrian soil and outside of its borders. At the very least, the sheer volume of social media platforms operating independently and in unison by all sides suggests an interest to secure both tactical and strategic gains through victories in the virtual battlefield.
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Chris Zambelis is an analyst and researcher specializing in Middle East affairs with Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based near Washington, DC.