The horrific scenes from Syria in the last few days and months portray a violent struggle between old-fashioned authoritarianism and the very modern aspirations of an overwhelmingly young population. Syria’s citizens have shown astonishing bravery and determination in standing up to a brutal and corrupt regime which seems unable to understand demands from its people for a genuine say over their own futures, let alone be ready to meet these ambitions.
The regime couldn’t be further from the moral high ground. Its disastrous efforts to communicate a ruinous agenda have failed. It’s not that the Syrian government cannot make its case; it has no case to make.
When he took power in 2000, the soft-spoken President Bashar Al Assad projected an image of a leader who would modernise his country and work to liberate the Syrian people. For a brief period, it looked as if he could end Syria’s pariah status and lift it from the state of emergency rule imposed since 1963. This tragically proved a false dawn.
Over the last decade little has changed for the better in Syria. Repression has continued. While the Syrian economy grew strongly, ordinary people saw little benefit because of widespread corruption and cronyism. The old guard stayed in control and remained deaf to the hopes of the Syrian people and the changes taking place in the outside world. Since the start of the democratic uprising, the total failure of President Assad’s attempts to communicate demonstrate both this failure to understand the modern world and the regime’s wider incompetence.
The struggle has shown two communications extremes. The opposition has been using new media in a very pro-active way. The world has been able to access the conflict through passionate online campaigns and political activity in the blogosphere. Journalists, unable to get their own cameras into Syria, follow footage emerging on social media networks and accounts from activists.
The regime’s communications disaster is symptomatic of their wider illegitimacy, characterised by the heinous crimes perpetrated in their name. On the other hand, Syria’s opposition has capitalised on foreign offers of communications assistance, termed “non-lethal” technical support. Its official satellite channel “Barada” has made good use of Qatari funding and British advice and experts.
The London ophthalmologist turned-President and his advisers have shown little grasp of modern communications. The regime has learnt to intercept, scan and catalogue virtually every e-mail that flows through the country. But internet monitoring is just the latest example of old-fashioned censorship. When it comes to trying to communicate their position, the regime has ignored the social media, falling back instead on set-piece speeches and formal interviews.
Assad’s recent speeches, in response to the continued deaths of civilians, show how acute the problems are. In long, dictated statements on state television, his references to the protestors as “saboteurs”, “traitors” and “criminals” have further isolated him from the Syrian people.
Further illustration of his separation from both the Syrian people and political reality has been the President’s failed attempt to calm the situation through TV interviews. The President has conducted eight internationally broadcast interviews. As Colonel Gadaffi’s infamous performance on the BBC and Mubarak’s “chat” with CNN’s Amanpour before they were toppled showed, this type of messaging simply makes a bad position worse.
Pre-recorded interviews in the gilded surroundings of a palace reception room reinforce the view that the regime is not committed to change. They cement an image of “bunker mentality”, in Assad’s case, of old-fashioned draconian military rule that is on the offensive against its own people.
It won’t be a failure to understand the modern media which eventually brings down this regime. The charge sheet against Assad and his cronies is far longer and more serious. But it does help underline just how out of touch the regime is and why its downfall is a matter of when, not if.
Zaid Belbagi (@Moulay_Zaid ) is the Business Development Manager at Portland with an interest in the Arab World. He was previously a Visiting Scholar at the Gulf Cooperation Council and King Faisal Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.