How Assad Wooed the American Right, and Won the Syria Propaganda War

Even before President Barack Obama put his plans to strike the Syrian regime on hold, he was losing the battle of public opinion about military intervention. Part of the credit, no doubt, goes to a successful media blitz by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its supporters. In an interview aired on Monday night, Assad himself advanced his government's case to Charlie Rose, saying that the United States had not presented "a single shred of evidence" proving the Syrian military had used chemical weapons.

Assad has always been able to skillfully parry Western journalists' criticisms of his regime -- and, at times, it has won him positive international coverage. Before the uprising, the U.S. media often described the Assad family as Westernized leaders who were trying to bring their country into the 21st century. The most infamous example was Vogue's profile of Asma al-Assad, which described Syria's first lady as "a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind ... [with] a killer IQ." But even experts in the field went along: Middle East historian David Lesch wrote a biography of Bashar describing the president as a modernizer, before changing his mind during the uprising.

The carnage over the past two and a half years put an end to much of this praise -- but now pro-Assad media outlets have found a new way to influence the American debate. Assad supporters' claims have repeatedly been republished unquestioningly by right-wing commentators in the United States, who share their hostility toward both Sunni Islamists and the Obama administration. It's a strange alliance between American conservatives and a regime that was one of America's first designated state sponsors of terror, and continues to work closely with Iran and Hezbollah.

"There is evidence -- mounting evidence -- that the rebels in Syria did indeed frame Assad for the chemical attack," conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh told his audience on Sept. 3. "But not only that, but Obama, the regime, may have been complicit in it. Mounting evidence that the White House knew and possibly helped plan the Syrian chemical weapon attack by the opposition!"

Limbaugh's cited an article by Yossef Bodansky on Global Research, a conspiracy website that has advanced a pro-Assad message during the current crisis. "How can the Obama administration continue to support and seek to empower the opposition which had just intentionally killed some 1,300 innocent civilians?" Bodansky asked.

Bodansky is an ally of Bashar's uncle, Rifaat al-Assad -- he pushed him as a potential leader of Syria in 2005. Rifaat is the black sheep of the Assad family: He spearheaded the Syrian regime's brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, but then was forced into exile after he tried to seize power from his brother, President Hafez al-Assad, in 1983. Despite his ouster, however, Rifaat is just as hostile to a Sunni Islamist takeover as other members of the Assad family -- a position Bodansky appears to share. Ending Alawite rule in Syria, Bodansky wrote on another pro-Assad website, "will cause cataclysmic upheaval throughout the greater Middle East."

Pro-Assad voices have also helped shape the debate in Europe. The British organization Stop the War, which was instrumental in convincing Parliament to reject a strike on Syria, is not just made up of opponents of intervention -- it includes staunch supporters of the Syrian regime. The organization's vice president is a Stalinist who praised Assad for "a long history of resisting imperialism," and warned that his defeat "will pave the way for a pro-Western and pro-U.S. regime." Other top officials in the organization have also spoken publicly about the benefits of keeping Assad in power.

One of the most common ways for pro-Assad propaganda to find its way into reputable newspapers is through Christian news outlets. Arab Christians have many legitimate fears of how Islamist takeovers in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East could affect them -- but nonetheless, some of the outlets that cover their plight regularly trade fact for fiction.

The official Vatican news agency, Agenzia Fides, for example, was caught reproducing word-for-word a report on the alleged mass killing of Christians in the city of Homs from Syria Truth, a virulently pro-Assad website. The Agenzia Fides report was eventually picked up by the Los Angeles Times -- with no mention, of course, of the original source.

It's not only the LA Times that has been duped in this way. USA Today ran an article earlier this year saying Saudi Arabia had sent 1,200 inmates on death row to fight in Syria, sourcing the claim to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). The document, however, appears to be a hoax, and had been passed around frequently by pro-Hezbollah websites prior to appearing on AINA. In addition to relying on pro-Assad sources, AINA also looks to U.S. conservatives for inspiration -- it republished an article titled "The Myth of the Moderate Syrian Rebels" that first appeared in the far-right FrontPage Magazine.

One of the most prolific defenders of the Assad regime is Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, who says she is a Carmelite nun born in Lebanon who converted to Christianity when she was 19. The National Review uncritically cited her claim last year that Syrian rebels had gathered Christian and Alawite hostages together in a building in the city of Homs, and proceeded to destroy the building with dynamite, killing them all. More recently, she has argued that the video evidence of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack were fabricated, writing that it was "staged and prepared in advance with the goal of framing the Syrian government as the perpetrator."

But right-wing Americans partisans have not been shy about simply copy-and-pasting claims made in pro-Assad media outlets when it suits their interests, no matter the source. For example, the website Jihad Watch, which is run by leading Islamophobe Robert Spencer, repeated a claim by the Arabic-language al-Hadath that Syrian rebels attacking the Syrian town of Maaloula "terrorized the Christians, threatening to be avenged on them after the triumph of the revolution."

It doesn't take much time reading al-Hadath to realize that this is a site staunchly loyal to the Syrian regime and its allies -- and therefore inclined to dramatize stories of rebel crimes. The website contains an editorial by the editor-in-chief lauding Hezbollah, and another article reports that a kidnapped European writer said that the rebels launched the Aug. 21 chemical attack (the writer has denied making such claims).

Other stories in such publications, of course, would never see the light of day in the U.S. media. Al-Hadath, for example, features a section dedicated to news about Israel titled "Know Your Enemy" -- a strange match for the American right-wing, to say the least.



The Massive Mural That Captures Syria's Surprising Alliance with North Korea

In 1973, to aid in a surprise attack on Israel, North Korea reportedly sent hundreds of troops to Syria. The conflict, which became known as the Yom Kippur War, was an embarrassing defeat for Syria -- Israeli troops made it within dozens of miles of Damascus. Like so many dictatorships, the Syrian government tried to fashion a triumph out of a loss. On the outskirts of Damascus, the October War Panorama museum, a castle-like structure built with the help of North Koreans, memorializes Syria's "victory" over Israel.

If there's anywhere that shares Syria's sense of insecurity right now, it's North Korea, a country that appears to count Syria as one of its closest allies. KCNA, North Korea's official news agency, slathers praise on Syria, and Kim Jong Un recently met with a high-ranking Syrian delegation (to be fair, he also recently met with Dennis Rodman, and looked happier with the former basketball player than with Bashar al-Assad's envoys).

While it's difficult to say how deep their ties run, the two countries are surprisingly suitable partners. Both hate the United States and Israel -- Syria's enmity for its neighbor is well-known; North Korea views Israel as a running dog of the United States and a mortal enemy of its friends Syria and Palestine. (The Syrian nuclear reactor that Israel allegedly destroyed in 2007 was built with help from North Korea.)

North Korea, which over the centuries has been overrun by larger nations like Japan and the United States, views friendly nations able to overwhelm it -- countries like China, Russia, and even Pakistan -- with added suspicion. Syria is more of an equal: Both countries have roughly 20 to 25 million people, and pre-civil war Syria ran a police state nearly as effective as North Korea's. Ominously, the Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun reported that Turkey recently intercepted gas masks en route to Syria from North Korea, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

The bilateral ties extend beyond geopolitics into the realm of culture: what could be called, only semi-facetiously, North Korean soft power. North Korea has exported doctors, construction workers, and artists to Syria and at least half a dozen other countries. It has a surprisingly decent graphic design industry, and fosters a talented group of artists who have created works of social realism for those countries -- often massive paintings showing rosy-cheeked babies, steel mills, and citizens enlivened by their leaders' smile.

Perhaps the best place to observe these links between Syria and North Korea is the October War Panorama museum -- or at least it was when I visited in October 2009, when Syria was a more welcoming tourist destination. (I'm not sure if it's still open, but it was recently in the news after Syrian activists claimed rockets carrying chemical weapons had been fired from the site.) 

The two most memorable parts of the museum are a mural, which shows a majestic Hafez al-Assad flanked by ecstatic Syrians gravitating toward the former Syrian president, and a 360-degree panorama, which could be described as a Stalinist merry-go-round. As I sat on a platform in the middle of the panorama, it began to move, telling through tiny figurines and poorly designed army vehicles the story of Syrians wresting territory from Israeli soldiers circa 1973. 

What makes the mural and the panorama particularly noteworthy is that they are copied from the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, a creaky building that showcases artifacts from North Korea's "victory" over the United States during the Korean War. In the Pyongyang painting, former North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung replaces Hafez al-Assad, his delighted citizens replace the ecstatic Syrians, and defeated Korean war-era Americans replace dying Israelis. North Korean artists created all the installations, and they look like they're drawn from the same paint-by-number kit.

So why did the Assads choose North Koreans to design their memorial? Maybe national mythologies are difficult to create, and Hafez al-Assad turned to the best in the business. More likely, North Koreans were just the cheapest option.