Far from Syria’s battlefields, the regime and rebels are waging a bitter media war, trading videos and statements accusing the other of atrocities that are impossible in practice to verify.
Independent reporters struggle to confirm the allegations from both sides, because of the threat of kidnap in opposition-held areas and the government’s reluctance to issue visas to the foreign press.
This media battle reached new heights with the alleged chemical weapons attacks in the outskirts of Damascus on August 21 that are said to have killed hundreds of people.
Footage published on social media websites purporting to show the aftermath of the attacks documented the latest bloody episode in the 30-month conflict that has killed more than 110,000.
On the one hand, opposition groups circulated disturbing, but unverified, images of the victims, while President Bashar al-Assad’s regime flatly denied that the footage was what rebels said it was.
No independent journalists have had access to the site of the attacks, but opposition groups and Western governments used the videos as evidence in support of their campaign for military strikes against Syria.
“We have known the power of images since the Vietnam war,” says Lebanese sociologist Melhem Chaoul, pointing to the famous photograph of a young Vietnamese girl burned by napalm, fleeing naked and terrified from air strikes.
At the height of US President Barack Obama’s moves towards military action against Damascus, US television channel CNN played videos on loop of people racked by convulsions and of dead children.
The station said the footage had been shown to a small group of senators by the Obama administration to convince them to support military strikes in Syria.
But the Syrian regime first said that the videos had been faked by rebels, and then that opposition fighters themselves had used chemical weapons to halt the army’s advance in the outskirts of Damascus and to prepare the ground for the Western attack they were calling for.
Damascus also hit back by highlighting images of atrocities it attributed to rebels.
One set of photographs, published by Paris Match, showed jihadist fighters beheading pro-regime militiamen, and images posted online by the New York Times apparently showed the summary execution of regime troops.
The main opposition Syrian National Coalition, embarrassed by the images, tried to distance itself from them, issuing a statement on Thursday saying they “were not representative of the Free Syrian Army (its armed wing) or the Syrian people”.
— The end of Soviet-style propaganda —
Bassam Abu Abdullah, head of the Damascus Centre for Strategic Studies, which is close to the regime, said that initially, Syrian state television had refrained from showing any “images of the horrors committed by the rebels”.
But the state broadcaster now shows the footage “because everything is allowed in this dirty war when it comes to serving a political goal”, he said.
Another challenge for the regime is to showcase its own military successes.
One of the most recent examples was the ancient town of Maalula — a symbol of the Christian presence in the region — where television showed troops taking churches and convents.
Faced with the threat of strikes, Assad has not hesitated to defend his regime in public, giving interviews to French daily Le Figaro and US and Russian television stations.
“In this case, the regime has moved from Soviet-style propaganda made up of a mixture of jargon and slow reactions to a 21st century communication,” a foreign journalist in Damascus said.
“Assad knew to choose the media according to the countries he wanted to target… and tried to convince Western public opinion that striking his country was dangerous and wasn’t worth the effort,” the journalist said.
Assad’s government has also denounced what it sees as the bias of the international press and rights groups like Human Rights Watch. HRW accused the army of massacring 248 Syria villagers in two coastal villages.
“The West speaks of an alleged massacre in May in the Tartus region, but does not say anything about the sectarian one committed by the terrorists against a dozen (Alawite) villages at the beginning of August in the Latakia area,” a Syrian security official complained to AFP.
“There were at least 1,000 dead — they cut the men’s throats, forced the women to walk naked in the streets, disembowelled pregnant women, but of course that does not interest human rights organisations or journalists,” he said.