Getting the Free Syrian Army on Message

Afghan Taliban on the frontlines. Photo by Luke Hunt

By Luke Hunt in Istanbul

AsiaWATCH — In an up-market hotel tucked away in Cihangir, the bohemian quarter of Istanbul, sits a barrel-chested American known to a few in media circles for his work in 30 countries. His name is a guarded secret and his job as a media advisor has included senior brass in the United States military, militants and jihadists.

He knows his business and avoids industry cliché’s and buzz words while opting for a minimalist approach. His clients are not journalists nor are they media savvy. Nearly all are difficult, activists in some shape or form and his latest mission is no exception, it’s the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

“It is about communications and messages,” he said after a brisk early morning walk. “There is no disagreement. There is a lack of clear leadership, hierarchy and structures within the FSA and that makes it all the more difficult.”

We are sitting at a sidewalk café with the Bosporus below. Turkey is a safe-haven for FSA rebels, provided by the Turkish government and its pro-Islamic Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan who would be happy to see the Syrian regime toppled.

‘But first,” he says, while taking a deep breath, “there needs to be a simple change”.

“The FSA have felt a lot of frustration that the world doesn’t seem to care very much. They now understand that one of the big problems in the Arab world, post 9/11, is the Muslim depiction of martyrdom – there should be no depiction of Syrian blood as the blood of martyrs,” he said.

More than 100,000 people have died and two million refugees have abandoned their country after two-and-a-half years of civil war in Syria aimed at ousting the hard line President Bashar al-Assad and his Baath Party, which has ruled since 1970 when his father took control in the Corrective Revolution.

The use of chemicals weapons, allegedly by Bashar and his military, has stirred outside sentiment but fears of spreading the conflict into Russia’s sphere of influence on top of more than 10-years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has curtailed the stomach for another fight in the war-weary West.

Much of this fatigue, the FSA’s media trainer says, stems from the propaganda emanating out of the Muslim world since the al-Qaeda strikes on New York and Washington in 2001.

“Over the last decade of the 9/11 conflicts in the Muslim world people have also been prone to making outrageous statements and blowing themselves up. This is not required and the FSA need to portray itself as a positive force. There is a need to say that it is very reasonable to not like the Assad regime, it’s reasonable and there are some very good reasons to get rid of all of them,” he said.

Almost 20 members communications wing of the FSA sit in on the course, normally run over two to three days. As their media mentor the American says it is difficult to gauge success

“How much training does a fighter pilot need before he gets to fly a plane? How much training does a General need before he gets in front of a camera? Now, if you want to put a four-star General before a camera with no training – well, then good luck with that.”

He said leaders and their militaries tend to fight their last wars – a criticism often leveled at the United Sates for using World War II battle techniques during the Vietnam War which cost them dearly.

The last war in the Middle East, the Arab Spring, was between the state and the people but the similarities of the popular uprisings that brought down governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have not automatically translated in Syria or in favor of the rebels.

“Put a million people into a square, make a movie about it and put it on Youtube – well that was a pretty interesting new tactic, now it’s common and the Syrians have become very good at controlling that. The FSA needs a new approach, to get their message across deep inside Syria and beyond.”

“I think it’s been hard. It’s the nature of the conflict. From the outside Syria mirrors the great battles of the past but it’s not like that at all,” he said referring to the destruction of Syrian cities.

“If there is anything called the Arab Spring it started on the streets, it’s about the streets. Now Syria is different to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. The FSA underestimated the strength of the regime. Iran and Russia didn’t have much to do with the Arab Spring but they have bought into this one,” he said.

The biggest issue confronting the FSA is finding a recognizable face, a spokesman, someone in charge who Western audiences and their political leaders can relate too.

“This war is going back to the streets. It’s street fighting being run block by block in every big city, like Aleppo. This limits the need for forward base and has destroyed these cities and towns, reduced them to rubble – and every block has its own leader acting unilaterally.”

Until a genuine leadership emerges, capable of uniting the various forces – which includes militants linked to al-Qaeda who do not want Western military involvement – the message is: “The Syrians just want get rid of Assad and there are a lot of good reasons to support this.”

With that said, the latest addition to the FSA finishes off his coffee, stands and wanders off towards a crowded Taksim Square – where thousands of protestors were injured and detained in July following another military crackdown. This time the demonstrators were opposed to an increasingly harsher rule by Erdogan and have promised to oust him. The barrel-chested American turns and offers one last quip: “My work here may not be done.”

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt

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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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