What do Jose Mourinho, ancient artefacts, and tourism have in common?
At first glance, not much, but on investigation we find that they all play a role in the continuous, if somewhat confused, campaign of propaganda by the Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad.
A story that emerged recently, that immediately jumped out at me as somewhat strange, was the news that Jose Mourinho – of Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid fame – had been targeted as the next manager for the Syrian football team.
Not one to shy away from controversy, Mourinho was said to be “honoured” at the approach, but ultimately rejected the job offer.
And whilst the audacious bid to land the “special one” came as a shock, in reality, we should not be too surprised when we see this move in the wider context of Assad’s propaganda machine.
Theatres of War
Like all heads of state, legitimate or illegitimate, Assad knows the value of public relations and the impact that people’s perceptions have on both his regime and the country he is struggling to hold on to.
In 21st century conflicts, there are multiple simultaneous wars being fought in a number of different theatres. The most obvious is the war going on in the physical world, with armies, navies, and air-forces fighting one another on land, sea, and air.
The advances in technology and the growth of the internet means that now there is also an online war being waged. China’s PLA Unit 61398 is said to operate out of a tower block in shanghai and conducts hacking attacks against Western targets on behalf of the Chinese government.
Recently, the UK has established its own online army with the formation of the 77th Brigade. Their aim, according to the MOD website, is to “challenge the difficulties of modern warfare using non-lethal engagement and legitimate non-military levers as a means to adapt behaviours of the opposing forces and adversaries.”
Of course, Assad has an online army of his own in the form of the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA). Though it is unclear whether the SEA take their orders directly from Damascus, they have been responsible for a string of hacks on Western news outlets and human rights organisations.
On top of physical and online warfare, there is also psychological warfare, a phenomenon that has been labelled “the war for your mind”.
Historically, this theatre of warfare has been most successful for authoritarian regimes as they have control of the media, and thus the narrative they wish to present as fact. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and modern day North Korea are the most obvious examples, but even Western “democratic” states act in similar ways. The United States’ strategy of winning the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese in the late 60s and early 70s, shows that psychological warfare plays a crucial role in both foreign interventions and domestic policy.
Since the Syrian revolution began in 2011, Assad and his regime have attempted to use any means they can to promote their version of events. This propaganda campaign at once seeks to highlight the virtues of the regime and the country, whilst demonising those who oppose them.
Seeking to paint the conflict as a war against terrorists, Assad has used his own state media, as well as the media of allies (see RT) to further his propaganda campaign.
In quite a disgusting act of acquiescing to the desires of a war criminal, the BBC also provided Assad with airtime – Jeremy Bowen famously interviewing him in February 2015.
Interviews with media channels, both at home and internationally, are just one method of disseminating propaganda however. Assad and his allies are not blind to the numerous other options that are available to them, and they have been using them with mixed success.
The biggest failure was the Summer In Syria campaign launched by the state in the summer of 2015. Inevitably, the appeal for users to share images of Syria using the hashtag #SummerInSyria backfired in spectacular fashion.
Rather than “snapping the moments of summer in Syria” as they had been requested to do, sharing photos of parties and family gatherings, Syrian, and later international, Twitter users hi-jacked the campaign and tweeted images of the death, destruction, and war crimes committed by the Syrian regime and its allies.
A more recent and more successful PR move by the Syrian regime has been the retaking of Palmyra from ISIS.
Such has been the (justified) international outrage and hostility towards ISIS, that in matters where they are concerned, they are without question the stereotypical villains, even when they are facing other forces who also deserve such categorisation.
(It is worth remembering that month-by-month Assad’s forces have killed the vast majority of civilians throughout the course of the war, even once ISIS had entered.)
And this is not to say that ISIS are not deserving of the hatred and vilification they receive from the world, it is just that similar to the case of Hitler and Stalin in World War Two, when one is painted as the greatest threat ever known, the other, almost by default, is then accepted as the lesser of two evils.
When these sides then inevitably meet, faced with the seemingly entrenched belief that one side must be good and one side must be bad, the world is forced, by its own simplistic logic, into supporting one of the evils, Stalin during World War Two, and Assad and his allies in the case of Palmyra.
The idea that perhaps both forces are unworthy of our support does not seem to occur to people. As if there is an accepted belief that during whichever fight may arise a side must be chosen and celebrated.
During World War Two it was Hitler who was the greatest evil, and so the forces that opposed him were, by default, considered good. Even though, quite clearly, Stalin was not a “good” man or the leader of a “good” regime, because he was fighting the Nazis, the Western media and leaders gave him favourable press and referred to him as “Uncle Joe”.
Similarly when the Taliban were fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, simply because they were seen to be opposing communism, they were freedom fighters and heroes. Ronald Reagan dedicated the 1982 launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia to the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden featured heavily in glowing media portrayals in the West – most notably in The Independent as he puts his “army on the road to peace”.
This simplistic good versus bad narrative, alongside the portrayal of ISIS internationally, played perfectly into the hands of Assad, his regime, and allies.
The retaking of Palmyra has not only been a military success, but it has also been a fantastic PR coup for the Syrian regime. For months the Western press have focused on this ancient city and its artefacts and the resulting destruction wrought upon them by ISIS.
Despite mass murder and war crimes being committed across the country at the hands of the Assad regime, for some reason the Western press chose to run unprecedented coverage on the city of Palmyra. Even whilst starvation sieges continued, barrel bombs fell, and mass murder was committed, the Western public was instead led to focus on the destruction of buildings and artefacts.
As upsetting as this may be for archaeologists and historians, there are greater tragedies within the war.
When ISIS were eventually defeated and driven from Palmyra, politicians and media outlets in the West found themselves in a catch-22 situation. The defeat of an enemy they had been opposed to for so long should have been cause for celebration, but due to the fact that it was Assad and his allies that caused that defeat, few knew how to react.
The “liberation” of Palmyra was widely reported, but the victory of those who participated in it was rarely celebrated. The illogical narrative of good versus bad had trapped the West in a situation whereby celebrating the defeat of the bad (ISIS) would in turn praise the victory of the seemingly good (Assad).
The majority of politicians and media outlets did not go so far as to praise Assad and his allies, but there were a few who defied this trend. London Mayor and potential Conservative leader, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – to give him his full name – penned a piece for The Telegraph on 27th March 2016 with the opening phrase “Bravo for Assad”. Likewise The Independent‘s Robert Fisk continued his support for the Assad regime and it’s allies by asking “why is David Cameron so silent on the recapture of Palmyra from the clutches of ISIS?”
The narrative that Assad and his forces were the saviours of Palmyra leaves a lot to be desired. For a start such a portrayal completely ignores the fact that it was the Syrian forces loyal to the Assad regime that lost the city in the first place.
The Abandonment of Palmyra
In the summer of 2015, before the Russian intervention to maintain his position as Head of State, Assad began a campaign of tactical retreat as the war continued to turn against him and his forces. The limited public support and military capabilities that he had at his disposal meant that he had been forced into a “strategic retreat”, as The Arab Weekly reported.
The Guardian reported that Assad was “ceding territory to rebel fighters and the terror group Islamic State [ISIS] in favour of regrouping in its strongholds to the west.” In a televised address to the Syrian people, Assad himself stated: “When we want to concentrate our forces in an important area … this sometimes comes at a cost to another area which is weakened, and at times we have to abandon those areas in order to move forces to the area we want to hold.”
This frank admission of their relative weakness came just two-months after Palmyra had been captured by ISIS.
Though the announcement of the tactical retreat inside Syria had been made in July 2015, it had been put in to practice much earlier, beginning with the loss of Palmyra in May of that year. The New York Times reported that “residents — supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad — described officers fleeing, leaving civilians and lowly conscript soldiers to fend for themselves.”
Kheder Khaddour, a Syrian expert with the Carnegie Middle East Center who has studied state institutions and their activities during the war, told The Guardian that “there was a practical calculation in Palmyra” and “there was no real confrontation with Daesh [ISIS], and they preferred to withdraw in the face of a powerful offensive as they don’t want to lose army officers.”
Though the withdrawal from the city was a military loss, it laid the foundations for a PR success. As I have noted, the Western media were only too happy to inform the public of the fate that awaited the ancient ruins in the city and the desire to save these artefacts held the potential for a softening of the stance on Assad. The UNESCO World Heritage site at Palmyra had been used as a pawn by Assad in an attempt to improve international opinion and support of his regime.
Once Palmyra had been seized, ISIS set about destroying historical artefacts and executing hundreds of opponents and civilians, including women and children. As well as committing these disgusting crimes they also destroyed the Tadmor Prison. This prison was notorious within Syria for its extensive human rights abuses and harsh conditions. Torture and executions were routinely carried out there, including the Tadmor Prison massacre of 1980 where roughly a thousand prisoners were killed in their cells by members of the military. It is estimated that 30,000 inmates have died behind its walls since that time.
Writing for Al Jazeera in May 2015, Ahmad Zaidan questioned why the international community was so determined to save the ancient ruins of Palmyra and yet did so little to oppose the “similarly decrepit hellhole of a prison in the city” which was “home to tens of thousands of desperate souls left to rot in the desert.”
Zaidan continues “we know the priorities of this corrupt world. It sounds so politically incorrect to mention the plight of Assad’s prisoners, while a top UNESCO heritage site faces likely destruction. Why should we care about the desperation of dissidents when there are rocks and rubble that need saving?”
The rocks and rubble however, provided Assad with the material he needed to attempt to change public opinion on his regime. If he could be seen as the liberator of Palmyra and the saviour of these ancient monuments perhaps there would be a place for him in Syria’s future after all.
Both ISIS and Assad as Occupiers
But once again, the simplistic good versus bad narrative clouded the truth and the realities on the ground.
Both ISIS and Assad were seen as illegitimate occupiers within Palmyra. Anti-government demonstrations had been taking place in the city since 2011 and the mainly Sunni population was opposed to the existence of government forces. The New York Times reported that “a young officer serving there from the Alawite heartland had confessed a year earlier that he felt no connection to the population and feared residents would kill him the first chance they had.”
In that same New York Times article, a former hotel worker in Palmyra said “I’m happy that Palmyra was liberated from the regime, but not happy it fell under Daesh [ISIS] control… In my view, as an activist, it is not a liberation.”
In May 2015, a survey was conducted in Palmyra by the opposition’s Orient media house and found that “both the regime and ISIL [ISIS] pose similar threats to the heritage site” and that “some 38 percent even responded that the Damascus regime was a bigger threat than ISIL [ISIS].”
These claims from 2015 that the civilians within Palmyra see both ISIS and Assad’s forces as the enemy are supported by further reports that have emerged since the city has been retaken by the Syrian regime and its allies.
Whilst the city was under the control of the Syrian regime, popular protests occurred denouncing Assad, as ISIS invaded and took control, the local population found themselves under the rule of a new and different evil. When ISIS subsequently retreated from the city, Palmyra, and its civilian population, found itself once more under the control of a regime they had been opposing since 2011.
Trapped between two hells, there has been no freedom for the Syrian people of Palmyra since the revolution began.
Writing for International Business Times, Kyle Orton perfectly illustrates how Assad – with the help of Russia – has used Palmyra, and its population, as a pawn in a game designed to get the West reading from their script of events. “Palmyra”, he says, “is a political message” with “Assad posing as the frontline for civilisation against barbarism.” He quotes the former leader of the Syria desk at the State Department, Frederic Hof who stated: “Moscow’s aim is to drive Washington into an anti-ISIS working relationship with [Assad]”.
Syrian activist Muzna Al-Naib appeared on Channel 4 News on the 27th March highlighting the fact that Palmyra’s apparent liberation at the hands of Regime forces, was in fact a fiction. She draws attention to the minimal difference between ISIS and Regime forces, the existence of the Tadmor Prison, and the fact that forces loyal to Assad had been bombing the ancient city almost indiscriminately ever since it was lost.
Four days later, an article written by Mohamed Alkhateb appeared in The Independent with the headline “I’m from Palmyra, and can tell you – the Assad regime is no better than ISIS”. As other commentators have noted – those able to see through the propaganda of Assad and his allies – Alkhateb states that “Palmyra has not been liberated. It has just been transferred from one tyranny to another.”
The fictional “liberation” of Palmyra unravels even further when the forces doing the “liberating” begin to be questioned.
Rather than Syrian regime troops returning to Palmyra to save its people and UNESCO artefacts, it was in fact “an eccentric multinational force” according to The Telegraph‘s Middle East Editor, Richard Spencer. Analysis of the propaganda output and media from the city shows that Palmyra was taken by Russian-led forces comprised of mostly “Afghan Shia and Iraqi militiamen under generals from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.”
In a clear sign of the minimal strength that Assad holds within the country, a city he chose to abandon then had to be retaken by foreign forces, helped in no small part by relentless Russian bombing.
Despite the war that is rampant across almost the whole of Syria, Assad and his regime attempt to portray a society that continues as normal. This was the message behind his Summer in Syria Twitter campaign, and it is a message that is reinforced by the continuation of everyday life, no matter the cost or discomfort.
Assad’s courting of Mourinho as the manager of the national team, even if ultimately unsuccessful, shows to his supporters that not only is it possible for society – and thus the life they once knew – to be rebuilt, but it could also thrive.
$3 million is the reported amount that Mourinho would have received had he decided to take up the job offer from the national football association.
As the Romans once used the games and the Colosseum to pacify and distract the masses, so too do Heads of State today. Assad uses the Syrian national team in a similar fashion, but their exploits are also used as evidence that normal life continues under his rule. Whilst his world was crumbling around him, Assad saw the opportunity to use the Syrian national team in his wider PR campaign.
Purely in sporting terms, the recent success of the Syrian national team has been remarkable, and has been a welcome distraction from the war for both the regime and its supporters. Despite numerous players quitting the team to join or support the revolution, or fleeing from the country entirely in order to secure their safety, the Syrian national team has continued to participate in international sporting events.
If they were to finish first or second in their qualifying group of China, Iran, South Korea, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, they would automatically qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The team ranked 110th in the world would defy all the odds.
Before the outbreak of the revolution and the descent into war, Syrian players were used to playing in front of as many as 50,000 fans. As the conflict escalated FIFA prevented Syria from hosting any home games and so now all matches are played overseas, mostly in neighbouring Oman.
Their success on the pitch is largely met with silence as the team achieve “more goals than fans” each game. But ultimately, the sporting achievements are secondary to the political ends that the Assad regime is able to extract.
The Politics of Football
The Guardian reported that “the official team is used as a political tool to legitimise the Assad regime”, and according to James Dorsey, the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, that is precisely what is happening. Like Palmyra, the players are pawns in Assad’s propaganda campaign.
Dorsey says that the existence of the team projects “a sense of normalcy amid the mayhem” and “lends the government a degree of prestige”. And though sport is often depoliticised, the former Head Coach of the team, Fajr Ibrahim, is open and outspoken about the role the team plays: “We want to fight all the world that is fighting us in Syria,” he says.
Just hours after the attacks in Paris in November 2015, Ibrahim and national team player Osama Omari appeared at a press conference in matching Assad t-shirts. When asked about his choice of attire, Ibrahim said: “this is our president, we are proud because Mr Bashar is our president, so proud.” Asked why he was proud, he responded: “because this man fights all terrorist groups in the world, he fights for you also. He is the best man in the world.”
Unsurprisingly, in a state as authoritarian as Assad’s, politics and sport have always been closely linked within Syria. Al-Jaish has long been Syria’s most successful club, winning titles and providing players for the national team, but it is a club that is said to be run like “a unit of the armed forces”. Perhaps this is unsurprising seeing as Al-Jaish is Arabic for The Army and the club itself is owned by the military. These facts have allowed it to “fend of allegations of corruption and match fixing”.
Historically, their recruitment policy has been somewhat unorthodox, if not illegal. Taking advantage of Syria’s conscription policy, where at the age of 18 all males have to serve in the military, Al Jaish would “sign” any talented players that were called up to do their service.
Dorsey says that the current Syrian national team is unquestionably “a team of the regime”. Under no illusions as to their role in the wider conflict, he states that “Syria is a country that is at war with itself. The national team, however you want to play it, is a team that is controlled by the government of Assad, in a place where he controls only a minority of the country. Even if you did not have this current situation in Syria, it’s a total politically controlled sport in that country and always has been.”
Though the success of the Syrian team on the pitch should be praised, even diaspora Syrians feel unease at showing their support.
Kenan Rahmani is a 27-year-old student at American University’s Washington College of Law. In an interview with USA Today he says that “any Syrian is going to be happy that there is a Syrian team that is competing on the world stage. But it is a team that is run by the same government that is killing its own citizens. The Syrian people have suffered every tragedy you could ever imagine. It is hard to think about soccer when there are terrible forces destroying our country.”
Whilst undoubtedly there is some support for Assad and his regime inside Syria, as is the case with conscription into the military, support is often forced or coerced.
Mohammed Jaddou was captain of Syria’s under-16s team, but fled to Germany with his family last year.
Speaking with James Montague, a freelance football journalist, Jaddou spoke of how when he played for the national team, he was in almost constant danger. Travelling from his home to the capital of Damascus, the team bus came under attack on numerous occasions and a friend and teammate of his had been killed in a mortar attack. Jaddou said “whilst we were training, we got used to seeing the missiles landing. Sometimes we saw clashes between the regular army and the free army”.
After telling his parents of the danger he faced, they pleaded with him to quit playing, but the Syrian Sports Federation said that if he didn’t play for the national team he would be banned from playing for life. Jaddou tells Montague that one of the key reasons for not abandoning football straight away was “because I would have been forced to join the regular army. I would have to hold a gun and become a killer, a killer of my people, and a killer of the Syrian nation.”
Jaddou says that the Syrian government “used to threaten to end my career and punish me if I did not show up for a training camp. The government also threatened to call me a deserter and sue me if I ever left the team.”
Eventually Jaddou and his family could take no more. His father sold their house and used the money to pay people-smugglers to get them to Europe. Together they made the treacherous journey through Turkey and then across the Mediterranean into Italy. For five days and nights their overcrowded boat was at sea, before finally being found by the Italian military. After spending a few nights in Milan’s train station, they travelled north to Germany.
Though his mother and two brothers remain in Syria for the time being, Jaddou says that he will never return to the country: “Syria is being completely razed to the ground,” he says. “Football in Syria is gone.”
For those that choose to remain – or perhaps cannot escape – the Regime can use the carrot as well as the stick. There have been reports that Assad awarded flats, cash, and government positions to national team players when they were successful.
Mosab Balhous, Syria’s goalkeeper, had been jailed by the Regime for apparent ties to rebel groups, but he was later released. Apparently satisfied by his dedication and commitment to Assad, he was welcomed back into the national team and has since been awarded the captains armband.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2014, the general coordinator for the Union of Free Syrian Athletes, Yasser al-Hallaq, said “the regime’s persistence on resuming sporting activities is an irresponsible decision in light of the risks and dangers athletes could potentially face. This decision only validates the notion that the ruling regime wants to show the public that life is normal, which is absolutely not the case at all.”
Opposing Assad’s Football Propaganda
Those unwilling to participate in Assad’s propaganda campaign have established Syrian teams in exile with sides formed in both Turkey and Lebanon.
In the southern Turkish province of Mersin, Syrian footballers who escaped the war have formed a team and applied to both FIFA and the Turkish Football Federation for recognition. Their coach, Marwan Mona recently told the Daily Sabah “we left Syria because of the war. There isn’t a league there anymore and football tournaments are banned. Everywhere is destroyed anyway. The team came to Turkey when Turkey opened its doors to us. We are fine here and don’t think about returning to Syria. We have everything here, a place to stay and a place to train. We have nothing back at home. They bombed stadiums and killed players.”
In Lebanon, Syrian refugees have also formed a team which has the support of the Free Syrian Army. They choose to wear green jerseys – the colour of the revolution – in opposition to the Assad red that the official national team wear. Al Jazeera reported that the coach, Walid al-Muhaidi, escaped Syria in 2013 alongside 100 other athletes. One of the teams players encouraged others to defect and told a local radio show “leave such a criminal team. It is not Syria’s team. It is the team of a criminal regime.”
Unlikely though it may seem, if the Syrian national team were to qualify for the 2018 World Cup it would prove to be a major PR coup for the regime and its supporters. The site of the event provides an almost poetic coincidence as its set to take place in Russia, a country which is one of Assad’s greatest allies.
No doubt Assad and his supporters have imagined the scenes with tens of thousands of Russian fans cheering for the Syrian national team as they play against one of the Western nations opposed to the Regime and its backers. Such images would be projected across Syria and the world, providing Assad with the kind of propaganda opportunity that Hitler benefited from in 1936 with the Summer Olympics.
Football in Syria should not be seen as anything less than a deeply political theatre, with even the unsuccessful courting of Jose Mourinho being a pawn in the wider propaganda campaign.
As Martin Rogers writes for USA Today, “the commonly held belief is that the existence of a Syria national team, especially a successful one, allows Assad to promote the notion that it is still a country under his control.”
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