16 Dec 2012

Winning the YouTube PR war in Syria

It was quite a sight: almost the entire foreign press corps in Damascus gathered together in one place for breakfast. All three of us. This of course left around 20 empty tables, as usual, at the capital’s Four Seasons hotel where business will remain a tad slow for the foreseeable future.

We fell to discussing just how the rebel movement has won the propaganda war in Syria hands down. It’s been almost pathetically easy. In a sense, the 21st century upload/download YouTube generation pitted against highly-centralised government. No competition there, then.

One of our number (whilst dealing with the excellent porridge they dole out daily here) made the following observation about the western media’s use of YouTube rebel war propaganda: “It is like covering a US election by staying in Britain and using only right-wing Republican sources based in Belgium.”

We laughed – it’s an amusing and passable analogy up to a point. Of course, you’d have to add that the ruling Democrats restrict foreign journalists from entering the US in this analogy, and then further restrict those who do get in.

OK – the analogy is already overstretched, but it exposes shortcomings at every turn. Let’s take the rebel propaganda. It’s certainly a lot more sophisticated than, say, the often absurd tweets I get from the Taliban daily, detailing how many “regime puppets” they’ve killed today.

More from Channel 4 News: Syria uprising videos

But it is propaganda and this is dodgy in many respects. Months ago there was the notorious video sequence of an aircraft “shot down” near Aleppo, which turned out to be less than accurate. Then, even in the past few days, a woman and child blaming government “shabiha” militias for a massacre of up to 250 Alawites in the town of Aqrab. Again, it’s rebel YouTube.

Well, any Arab will tell you that both witnesses speak under obvious duress. And there is still no evidence at all of said massacre, the best part of a week on from when rebels say it happened. Equally, some of the extreme horror videos put up on YouTube are highly damaging to the revolutionary cause in the west.

Whoever thought showing video of a child attempting to decapitate a captured Alawite Syrian army officer in a town just north of Homs recently, would advance the cause of the rebels in the west, needs a urgent course in PR tactics.

Or perhaps the video somehow fell into government hands. You could not wish for a better promo VT for those who fear Syria is about to fall radicalised jihadists.

Remember, the idea of making children put “enemies of God” to the sword is absolutely one imported from southern and eastern Afghanistan to this war. But the problem is that would imply subtlety and sophistication on the part of the Damascene government.

This is not their style. This nation of unsecured secret policeman monitoring your moves has a default switch set firmly at “no”. Boy, have I ever tried long and hard to point out to officials that the rebels are running away with their side of the story every day, but when you have to send a fax and full passport details with talk of a CV just in order to film how the government here cares for people displaced by fighting – well then you know how they are losing the struggle to tell their story. I mean- a fax?

And it’s a genuine shame because obviously there two sides to every war. All we seek is to tell both without fear or favour and it is primarily the Syrian government which has made that task impossible. The west got the idea that Damascus was about “fall within days” about two weeks ago. Shutting the airport was a coup for the rebels, no question, but it was not the signal that the end is at hand.

If I could beam you down to Damascus right now, it is the normality of much of the city that will shock you – not the sense of impending implosion. Flooding this country with foreign reporters would do much to dispel the notorious that victory is at hand in a few days, for the rebels.

This is not to take sides or be sympathetic to any party in this vicious civil war with documented atrocities from both sides. It is to plea that both sides be heard and thus the strategic truth of this war can be revealed as it has not thus far been.

Right now – the YouTube kids have it.

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