Syria and the fog of infowar
Like innumerable others, we here at The Long War Journal have been trying to piece together on a daily basis what exactly is happening in Syria. It has become evident to us that the Syrian conflict, which is already a proxy war, has also evolved into an information war of unprecedented dimensions.
The major players in the conflict, namely the regime of President Bashar al Assad and the Syrian opposition, have well-oiled publicity machines. The supporting players, which include but are not limited to the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Hezbollah, are industriously managing the flow of information from their own perspectives. In addition to all this, a large number of the groups fighting the Assad regime, including al Qaeda's Syrian branches, the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, issue regular updates on their operations along with other statements. And last but by no means least, activist organizations such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights command a wide audience for their reporting on events inside the war-ravaged country, where at least 29 journalists were killed last year.
This daily tide of information from a disparate range of sources makes accurate analysis of the evolving situation in Syria very difficult. And over the past year or so, starkly divergent views of a number of significant issues have surfaced.
To name a few:
Perhaps most startling is the disconnect in the US government's statements on al Qaeda and its role in Syria. The Obama administration has long pursued a policy of minimizing public reporting on the terror group's organization, operations, and global reach [see, for example, LWJ report, ISAF ends its daily 'operational update' reports, on ISAF's discontinuation of its reporting on raids against al Qaeda in Afghanistan]. In line with that policy, US officials tried last year to portray the Syrian opposition as largely secular, with few jihadists and little al Qaeda presence.
But in Congressional testimony on Jan. 28, National Intelligence Director James Clapper said that al Qaeda's Al Nusrah Front in Syria aspires to attack the US and is "one of the newest threats emerging in the past year to US security." In addition, the publicized US estimate of the number of extremist fighters in Syria was recently raised to about 26,000, a number that is probably far below the actual figure.
And while his agency's 2014 global threat assessment reiterated the administration's frequent theme that "core al Qaeda" is "on a path to defeat," indications are that al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri is actively engaged in the management of the global group's expanding branches in Syria as well as elsewhere. Just last week Zawahiri addressed a message to them, urging an end to infighting between ISIS and other Islamist factions and a focus on the common enemy [see LWJ report, Al Qaeda head addresses infighting in Syria].
Calling into question previous US assertions that the al Qaeda emir/al Qaeda core is disengaged and on the run, the Associated Press reported yesterday: "U.S. intelligence officials say Zawahri so far has not called on the Syrian branches to attack U.S. targets, allowing them to focus on the war against Assad."
Another confusing factor is the nebulous media coverage of the Islamic Front, a large coalition of Islamist fighting groups estimated at some 45,000 strong. Seen by some in the West as a 'swing vote' between the al Qaeda-linked fighters and more moderate, secular rebels, the coalition nonetheless says foreign fighters are "our brothers" and calls for the imposition of sharia law and an Islamic state in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights' daily reports on the conflict rarely refer to the Islamic Front, mentioning instead the more general term "Islamic battalions," and the SOHR has declined to answer a Long War Journal query as to why. In a similar vein, the US recently decided to resume shipments of aid to Syrian rebels that had been suspended after the Islamic Front took over Free Syrian Army warehouses containing US-supplied equipment. US authorities said only that the equipment had been returned, but gave no specifics as to how or when this was accomplished. A few days earlier, on Jan. 20, the Islamic Front issued a statement rejecting participation in the Geneva II talks and thanking Turkey and Qatar for their support.
The role of Turkey in supporting the Syrian opposition is also puzzling. While Turkey claims its role in Syria is purely humanitarian, there have been instances of arms shipments to Syrian rebels being intercepted by local Turkish authorities near the border, only to have reports of the shipments quashed by the government and the local officials demoted or reassigned. Just yesterday, the head of Israeli intelligence claimed that al Qaeda maintains bases in three Turkish provinces for militants fighting in Syria. Yet Turkey is also where the Syrian National Coalition is largely based, and its southern borders are the site of US efforts to funnel aid to Syrian rebels.
Another unresolved and contested issue is culpability for the chemical gas attacks in August 2013, which were immediately seized upon by the US and allies as grounds for a military intervention; the latter was avoided only after widespread indications that the US Congress had no appetite for a new war, and a face-saving diplomatic agreement was made for the removal of Syria's chemical weapons. The US has continued to maintain that only the Assad regime can be held responsible for the sarin gas attacks, despite expert analysis questioning that conclusion, the official Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons report that indicated a possible rebel role in the attacks last year, reports that al Qaeda operatives were arrested in May with sarin gas in Turkey, and strong denials by the regime and Russia.
And similarly, another controversial claim drew headlines last week, just before the commencement of the Geneva II peace talks, when a Qatar-funded report with photographs allegedly documenting thousands of regime atrocities was released. The US said it had been aware of the trove of photographs since November, but has yet to officially either endorse or repudiate the disturbing allegations.
As the US seeks to implement a foreign policy that minimizes American military involvement abroad by ramping up its diplomatic and information operations, there is a danger that truth, along with US credibility, will be among the casualties of this war.