Syria and the Battle for Public Opinion

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recent intervention in American politics with an article placed in The New York Times was possibly the most spectacular turn in an immense battle raging in parallel to the Syrian civil war over the past two years – a battle for control of the narrative.
Putin wrote an opinion piece against American use of force against Syria over chemical weapons deaths. Published in The New York Times, it struck straight at the heart of public debate within the United States by using one of its prime vehicles. It was the first time Russia had sought to strike at the American center in such a brazen manner. It overtly addressed the American people and their leaders, appeared on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and came two days after Obama tried to make the case for intervention in a speech to the nation. Putin was “doing donuts in Obama’s front yard,” as one commentator said.

In his closing remarks, Putin even took a swipe at the sense of American exceptionalism that Obama had tried to tap into to drum up Congressional support for American action. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” he wrote. “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that it was Putin himself who penned the piece. BuzzFeed revealed last week that New York-based public relations firm Ketchum had placed the article in the Times. Russia has been a lucrative contract for the firm. From 2006 to 2012, it earned about $23 million in fees and expenses on its Russian government account and another $17 million from Gazprom, and in the six-month period ending 31 May it earned $1.9 million.

The crux of the Russian argument was that nothing was definitively proven regards the Syrian regime’s responsibility for the attack. It was an argument typical of this conflict, where the narrative of those opposed to Assad has been met every step of the way by another one defending him. One side says the regime is so mired in atrocities that it must be fought until it caves one way or another, the other depicts the regime as the defender of secularism and confessional plurality. Western liberals and Arab Spring revolutionistas have gone with the former, the left and anti-imperialist crowd in both the West and Arab world have tended towards the latter.

The battle to convince public opinion has been fierce. Videos uploaded YouTube and made available to Western and Arab news outlets served the rebel cause well in the first year of the conflict, but the tide began to turn with the exposure of fraud with footage, particularly some of it making its way onto the main pan-Arab TV stations. Whenever news of an apparent regime massacre emerged, the government would accuse rebels and eventually some Western news outlet or other would pick up the counter-narrative. Some writers have turned themselves into counter-narrative specialists, suggesting that the rebels were behind the sarin gas deaths. People are often simply preaching to the converted.

But as the Putin incident showed, audiences are there to be swayed and influenced, whether they be media, political elites or the general public, in the Middle East or in the West. Obama may have been looking for a way out of the rhetorical corner he had backed himself into with talk of red lines and the American public may have been mostly opposed to more overseas intervention, but Putin realized all was to play for.

This raises the question of whether there is a global public opinion to speak of. It seems to me there is. In successive stages over the last two decades – via CNN, Al Jazeera, online news, social media – a global arena has taken shape where stakeholders in a wide range of issues can promote their cause, whether it be commercial, humanitarian or political. Putin and his handlers tapped into views they knew had currency in this public space, enabling them to effectively deliver their message to the heart of the American body politic.

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