Communication tools are used not only for peaceful, social, economic and political purposes, but in military conflicts as well.
The changing conditions in which contemporary wars and conflicts are fought, enhanced digital connectivity, democratization of technology, urbanization and tech-savvy populations have led to the emergence of “virtual theaters” (T.E. Nissen, The Weaponization of Social Media, 2015, p.102). The confrontation between state and nonstate actors occurs not only on the conventional battlefield, but also in the information space. A striking example is the conflict in Syria.
When the first protests sprang up in Syria, state media did not cover the events, but instead broadcast patriotic programs, movies and music to divert public attention. As this approach failed, the Assad regime preferred a strategy of confusion.
By means of this strategy, opponents of the Assad regime were presented as “infidels,” who “lead the country to ruins” and promote “atrocities” against moderate opposition and religious groups. The main objectives of the Assad government’s strategy were to increase the prestige of the regime among the population and to split their rivals. State media choose to target and attack groups, mostly Sunni, to enhance confrontation between the Sunnis and the Alawites. The Assad regime was able to achieve on one hand the transformation of a civil war to a sectarian confrontation, and on the other hand to cause the Alawites (a Shi’ite sect), considered a main stronghold of the regime, to rally around Assad.
Ola Rifai, a researcher from the Centre for Syrian Studies at St. Andrews University, notes that the opponents of the Assad regime (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) are called “traitors” (khun
) and “conspirators” (muta’miriyyn
) on state radio and television programs. Whereas the supporters of Assad’s regime are called “guardians of unity, independence and tradition.” The government’s propaganda campaign has labeled the Arab League a “Hebrew League.” According to Rifai, Assad’s government was trying to strengthen Syrian nationalism.
Syria’s information space remains a battle ground. The main sources of information are TV channels (satellite broadcasting), social networks, websites, mobile phones and interpersonal communication (in the regions where the electronic and print media are not accessible).
According to the studies of the German M’CT in 2014, the popular Arabic-language television stations in Syria are Al-Arabiya (reflects the interests of Saudi Arabia and basically provides a lot of media space to the Free Syrian Army, a.k.a “moderate opposition”) and Al-Jazeera (covers all parties, including Jabhat al-Nusra); Al-Mayadiin, headquartered in Beirut (represents the interests of the Assad government and Hezbollah-Lebanon); Orient TV based in Dubai (supports the moderate opposition groups and broadcasts information about religious military organizations, such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, and one hour in Kurdish, too).
Syrian Kurds also have several media outlets.
Some Kurdish media are closer to Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Others are close to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which controls the most Kurdish area on the ground: Hawar News and Ronahi TV (pro-PYD, supported by the Europe-based Kurdish Firat News and Roj TV); Rojava TV (PYD related); Kurdistan TV (KDP related, Iraq); Rudaw Media Network and Zagros (KDP related, from Iraq); Kurdistan 24/K24 (based in Erbil, KRG); the independent Kurdish news website Welati (claimed to be an independent, was closed after facing financial difficulties in May 2016); the first Kurdish-language newspaper in Syria, the bimonthly Nudem (claims to be an independent); Arta FM radio (claims to be independent, the office of the radio station was burned in April 2016), etc. There is a Free Media Association, which trains journalists, grants permission to media organizations to operate and helps foreign journalists to register at their office in Qamishli. The KDP-funded media do not recognize this organization, they have their own journalist association for Syrian Kurdish journalists.
Moreover, most Syrian Kurdish media are active on social networks too. Tensions between the Kurdish political groups influenced Syria’s Kurdish media as well.
Russian and Turkish media outlets also have some impact on Syrian audiences. Russian news companies such as RT and Sputnik, which broadcast in Arabic as well, provide coverage of the Syrian conflict. Moreover, thousands of Syrians attended universities and passed professional training programs in soviet republics during the Soviet Union period. The Syrian community with Russian language skills is a potential audience for Russian media outlets.
Turkish media is popular among the Syrian Turkmens (ethnics Turks), which use a similar language to Turkish.
All parties in the Syria conflict actively use social media. Thousands of activists carried out information activities on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube to spread the interests of different groups.
Among them are pro-Iranians, the participants of training led by Western media organizations (BBC Media Action; the Institute for War and Peace Reporting; Avaaz coaches and instructors from the US, France and from other countries), and the supporters of moderate opposition.
Radical and terrorist groups such as Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra participate in the capacity of “organizations” and “individual users” on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Youtube), as well as on Telegram (respectively “A’mag” group and “Manara Baydha” group). These groups are mainly engaged in examining the developments from the field. The main information center of ISIS on Telegram is “Al-Hayat.”
Information support of ISIS is carried out both in institutional and individual forms. The ISIS supporters on social media who act individually do not go beyond the basic ideological lines. ISIS is a leading group in the Syrian conflict, that uses the information sphere and the social networks for propaganda, and to attract new recruits as well.
Horrific video of execution scenes, filmed by ISIS supporters, are considered the most popular content on social networks from the conflict zone.
According to Thomas Elkjer Nissen, an expert from the Royal Danish Defense College, these clips appear very professional and in many cases resemble Hollywood-style productions. They use a number of techniques, including slow-motion sequences and first-person-shooter like graphics.
ISIS uses other and much simpler yet still violent videos.
The main component of terrorist organizations’ activities is the spreading fear, which has several goals. The main goals are self-statements, demonstrations of strength to opponents and followers, and demoralizing enemies. State and private organizations are working on ways to combat ISIS propaganda and recruitment activities on social media. Despite individual and organizational activities (removing videos and accounts) against active ISIS sympathizers on social media, they are continuing to spread propaganda for ISIS via new accounts. This problem urges state and private IT companies to find new tools. Recently, Google-owned tech incubator and think-tank Jigsaw launched a new program, the Redirect Method, which is a combination of Google’s search advertising algorithms and YouTube’s video platform to target aspiring ISIS recruits and ultimately dissuade them from joining the group’s cult of apocalyptic violence. This program places advertising (testimonials from former extremists, imams denouncing ISIS’s corruption of Islam, and surreptitiously filmed clips from inside the group’s dysfunctional caliphate in Syria’s north and Iraq) alongside the results for any keywords and phrases that Jigsaw has determined may indicate attraction to ISIS.
ISIS has also been successful in the hacking business. In February 2013, ISIS hackers broke the website of Dubai-based Orient TV. It has a professional hacker group or individual hackers sympathetic to its cause. ISIS accepts all form of jihad.
To sum up, the Assad’s regime, the Syrian moderate opposition, Kurdish and radical religious groups consider the information sphere an important and necessary battle ground. Each side uses various communication channels to influence both their own and enemy audiences.
New communication tools will continue to be actively used in the military sector and in conflicts, including in Syria. They will be used not by the military and intelligence agencies only, but also by non-state actors, who are actively using new communication technologies for their own purposes. This will be one of the main challenges for the state and private organizations in the combat against terrorism and other threats in the near future.The author is a Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan.