Until late February Syria had remained, much to the bewilderment of headline-hungry newspaper editors, immune to revolutionary revolt.
When Tunisian-inspired unrest began rippling across the region, the regime had moved quickly to prevent the wave from rolling up on Syrian shores. The sophisticated public relations campaign was two-fold: international media was coveted to convey democratic, happy ideals of transparency and secularism; domestically, details of financial appeasement packages were heavily promoted.
First came the news that Syria was effectively reversing its decade-long policy of gradually cutting costly subsidies, announcing a $250 million dollar handout package to “combat poverty.” Then came an exquisitely placed interview in the Wall Street Journal with Bashar al-Assad — no local or Arabic media outlet has ever been granted such a privilege — where the president pledged a host of progressive reforms, including holding municipality elections and media liberties. (Many swiftly became suspicious of the lifting of the ban on Facebook and other networking sites, seeing it as designed for intelligence services to keep a closer watch on users.)
The Syrian government has recognized for some time that it was suffering somewhat of an image crisis, and last year employed German-based Keybrand PR agency to “re-brand” the government. Syrian Ali Mahmoud, who runs the agency, told local press the regime’s image was “a mess and they know it.”
Thus the stony-faced images of the president covering walls and billboards have been getting a face-lift, while long-lens paparazzi-style shots of the President sharing an intimate moment with his wife, Asma al-Assad, in Paris were leaked from the presidential palace to local media.
The Syrian state appears to have clocked on to something important; improving a regime’s international image is crucial to keeping one’s own house in order. Acceptance in Western circles gives anyone thinking of raising alarms over anti-democratic principles considerably less potency.
But there’s a problem. Those same newspapers used to peddle these messages keep catching on to unfortunate incidents, ramming home pervasive stereotypes that Syria is a closed and oppressive state with a brutal, feared and endemic secret police.
The case of 19-year-old blogger Tal al-Mallouhi, who was sentenced to five years in prison by a closed state security court on charges of espionage after being detained for nine months, made headlines. As did peaceful protesters beaten by secret service agents after staging vigils in support of protesters in Egypt and Libya.
Equally ineffective is expelling foreign journalists from the country and interrogating their professional contacts, given that Journalists have a habit of writing about it.
If there was one thing that oppressive regimes should learn from recent revolts, it is the power of the press. Brutal secret intelligence agents operating with apparent impunity cannot be kept secret anymore. But old habits die hard: since the first significant protests broke out in Syria in, of all places, the Southern city of Deraa, the state has reverted to its tried and tested means, opening fire on protesters, killing at least 61 and attempting to “secure” the area from the eyes and ears of the outside world while publicly claiming the protesters are a small group engaging in “acts of sabotage.” No one is buying that anymore. Killing your own people is a red line that has the ability to turn even the most politically apathetic or blind supporter (as Syrians are often labeled) into an opponent.
More social policy reform carrots followed those particular sticks, with a reduction in the length of compulsory military service, an announcement of the release of underage prisoners, dissolution of cabinet and rumors of an end to emergency law. But those carrots look damningly apologetic for a regime desperately trying to promote itself as a democratic ideal in the face of the unavoidable evidence.
Intriguingly, the Syrian state seemed to be aware of the problem. In January the British Syrian Society (BSS), which is headed by the First Lady’s father, Fawas Akhras, working with the Syrian ministries of tourism and the interior, launched a pilot project to “put a friendly face on Syrian policing” and change the perception of Syrian police from a “force” to a “service.” But If the Syrian state wants to fix its image problem, the challenge is to unravel a complex apparatus of fear and habit that infiltrates every level of society. The state has recognized the power of the media.
Now the question is whether it is ready, or able, to relinquish such control. But perhaps it is too little, too late.
Lauren Williams is a correspondent for The Guardian and is the former managing editor of Forward Magazine in Syria