Revelations about UK covert operations in Syria challenge media narratives on the war

by Mark Curtis

Declassified UK, 18 May 2020

Newly-discovered documents show how UK covert operations in Syria helped “shape perceptions” of the war. The British government effectively ran Syrian opposition groups’ media offices and created publicity material aimed at Syrian and UK audiences, challenging the idea the UK has played little role in the conflict

Documents obtained by investigative journalist Ian Cobain at Middle East Eye provide details of five UK covert propaganda programmes in Syria that began in 2012, involving the creation of a network of citizen journalists across the country to shape perceptions of the conflict.

The revelations challenge some of the dominant narratives of the war promoted in the British mainstream media, notably that the UK has played only a small or no role in the conflict and that it has supported only “moderate” opposition groups.

They also confirm that the British public can be seen as a target for propaganda operations by their own government.

The journalists involved in the propaganda programmes were hired from offices in Istanbul and Amman set up by UK government contractors with funding from Britain, the US and Canada. They were commissioned to produce TV footage, radio programmes, social media, posters, magazines and even children’s comics.

The stated purpose was to undermine both president Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State terrorist group and to bolster the “moderate” Syrian opposition by promoting the “popular rejection of the Assad regime and extremist alternatives”.

The projects were run by Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) and military intelligence officers and given the codename Operation Volute, although those involved in the work refer not to propaganda but to “strategic communications”.

They were guided by the government’s National Security Council, Britain’s highest policy-making body, with a budget worth £9.6m ($11.9) during 2015-16 alone, with more money earmarked for later years.

The documents show that the UK was covertly running parts of the Syrian opposition. It awarded contracts to communications companies that selected and trained opposition spokespeople, managed their press offices and developed their social media accounts.

Although the propaganda initiative was primarily aimed at Syrians both inside and outside the country, the documents make clear that UK audiences could sometimes be “a specified target” of media material and that some “may reach the UK information space”.

Prolonging the war

The Syrian war has been violently and tragically fought on the ground, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced. There were no easy solutions to the conflict but British covert action contributed to the war, helping to prolong it.

Syria has also produced an information war waged by various sides to the conflict. The degree to which public perceptions have been shaped by British government information managers can, so far, only be estimated.

The evidence that has emerged belies the notion that the UK was supporting only “moderate” opposition forces in Syria.

Documents on the UK’s propaganda campaign examined by the Guardian in 2016 list several groups considered to be part of the “moderate armed opposition”. One was Jaysh al-Islam, a coalition of some 50 Islamist factions operating in and around Damascus and funded largely by Saudi Arabia.

This group excluded Islamic State and al-Nusra—the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria—and embraced non-jihadist units, but was led by Zahran Alloush, the former head of Liwa al-Islam, one of the most effective rebel fighting forces in the Damascus area.

Alloush later merged his group with al-Nusra, and was not known as a moderate; one analyst notes that his forces were seen flying al-Qaeda’s black flag.

Jaysh al-Islam has been criticised for using imprisoned civilians as human shields, and for releasing a glossy video in 2015 showing the grisly murder of 18 captive Islamic State fighters, a war crime under the Geneva conventions.

In 2015, a British court case collapsed when it was revealed that British intelligence agencies were supporting the same Syrian opposition groups as a Swedish national, Bherlin Gildo, who was alleged to have attended a terrorist training camp and received weapons training to fight in Syria. Gildo was reported to have worked with al-Nusra.

The new revelations are remarkable in that they confirm the extent to which the publicity work of opposition groups that the UK government has consistently invoked as legitimate opponents of the Assad regime can be traced back to London itself.

Two of the British programmes were run by a largely unknown unit in the MOD called Military Strategic Effects, and two others by a group in the UK foreign office called the Counter-Daesh Communications Cell.

A fifth was managed by a cross-government initiative called the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) which aims to tackle conflicts that threaten UK interests. It has been criticised for government funds finding their way to extremists in Syria and, more generally, for its lack of transparency and backing for human rights abusing regimes.

Four of the programmes were outsourced to British communications companies, some of them run by former army officers or intelligence officers. A fifth was outsourced to a polling company based in the United States, Pechter Polls of Princeton, New Jersey.

It was Pechter that devised a web-based protest movement that claimed to be a grassroots campaign by members of Syria’s Alawite community but was actually created on behalf of the British government.

Known as Sarkha (“The Cry”), the campaign began in 2014 and sought to encourage members of Syria’s Alawite community to accept that Assad, while a fellow Alawite, was also a tyrant, and to denounce sectarianism.

In a short period of time, the campaign drew in support from most parts of the country, with its main Facebook page receiving around 100,000 likes before evolving into a website.

Influencing the media

The documents raise key questions about the extent to which media coverage of the Syrian war has been influenced by British propaganda – in both Syria and the UK.

Material was distributed to Arabic language media organisations through what was purported to be the press offices of Syrian opposition groups. It included film clips of opposition fighters handing out food or using sophisticated weaponry to good effect, which would then go to Sky News Arabia, BBC Arabic or Al Jazeera.

The propaganda initiative was primarily aimed at Syrians, living both inside and outside the country. But one document notes that “it is accepted that some C-VE [countering violent extremist] material may reach the UK information space”. It added that UK audiences could on occasion be “a specified target” of some media being produced, with the permission of British officials in Istanbul.

Many Syrian staff working in these projects were unaware that they were funded and managed by the UK government. The British staff running the opposition groups offices “were told that their Syrian employees were permitted to talk to British journalists – as spokespeople for the Syrian opposition – but only after receiving clearance from officials at the British consulate in Istanbul”.

The level of media management is noteworthy. Some prominent British journalists visiting Istanbul would be introduced to Syrians acting as opposition spokespeople, who had been prepared for the encounter by British handlers. They would brief the Syrians before the meeting and avoid face-to-face contact with the visiting journalists themselves.

Many of these citizen journalists used equipment they believed was being supplied by opposition groups but which had in fact been bought using funds supplied by the UK government.

So much material was produced by the propagandists that they created “a constellation of media outlets” in which “Syrian audiences and activists got lost and were distracted” and people no longer knew who or what to believe, according to an internal review of the programme seen by Middle East Eye.

The MOD targets Assad

Britain’s role in the war in Syria has been distinctly under-reported and mis-reported in the UK mainstream media. While the media has widely reported on UK military operations against Islamic State, its covert operations against the Assad regime have received much less attention

The media has been keen to repeat government lines about the atrocities committed by the Assad regime. By contrast, opposition forces have been largely given a free pass, with many reports failing to even note that in many parts of Syria those groups have been controlled or dominated by jihadists.

Evidence suggests that Britain began covert operations in Syria in late 2011 or early 2012. The UK was intimately involved in arms shipments, training and organising the opposition in a years-long secret operation with its US and Saudi allies.

In the first years of the conflict, the enemy was the Assad regime, a target for UK military operations that continued until at least mid-2018.

Yet the mantra repeated in the Guardian and its sister publication, the Observer is that Britain has “failed to act” in Syria. An Observer editorial in August 2019 was entitled “the west’s shameful failure to act” and described “Western governments’ neglect of the eight-year war”. 

The documents revealed by Middle East Eye offer more evidence of the extent of the UK’s hidden role.

One of the UK’s propaganda campaigns was said to have “brought about behavioural change in pro-regimists”, as it successfully encouraged them to speak out about the number of people who were being detained by the Assad regime.

A document covering one of the projects notes that the objective was “reinforcement of popular rejection of the Assad regime and extremist alternatives; promotion of the moderate values of the revolution; promotion of Syrian national identity.”

A review of the project also seen by Middle East Eye noted that “the inevitable sectarian spillover of the civil war” was a “political minefield”, but concluded that Pechter Polls had successfully navigated this by “holding the regime rather than its co-religionists responsible” for the many dilemmas and tragedies of the conflict.

The review added that Pechter Polls’ content and outreach activities had the goal of “narrowing the circle of blame to the regime’s inner core.”

The programmes are said to have been pushed most enthusiastically by the UK’s Ministry of Defence from 2013. This was a time when Philip Hammond was Defence Secretary, who went on to become Chancellor.

The revelations highlight the array of assets the British military and intelligence establishment can draw on to promote covert operations.

The companies involved in bidding for the contracts included several established by former British diplomats, intelligence officers and army officers. Although the contracts were awarded by the UK foreign office, they were managed by the MOD and sometimes by military intelligence officers.

Noteworthy also is that the propaganda element of these programmes was accompanied by an intelligence-gathering role, to acquire further information on the alliances and activities of opposition forces. A key benefit was assessed to be the British government’s “connectivity to different (armed or non-armed) networks”.

The press offices set up covertly by the British government sought to “maintain an effective network of correspondents/stringers inside Syria to report on MAO [moderate armed opposition] activity”.

In this way, Ian Cobain notes, the British government was able to exert behind-the-scenes influence over conversations that the UK media was having with individuals who presented themselves as Syrian opposition representatives.

Mark Curtis is an author and editor of Declassified UK, an investigative journalism organisation that covers Britain’s foreign, military and intelligence policies. He tweets at @markcurtis30. Declassified can be followed on twitter at @declassifiedUK