The UK’s covert propaganda programmes in war-torn Syria were poorly planned, probably illegal and cost lives, according to a scathing internal review of the initiative that has been seen by Middle East Eye.
Using news agencies, social media, poster campaigns and even children’s comics, communications companies working under contract to the British government attempted to undermine both the Assad government and the Islamic State group and bolster elements within the Syrian opposition.
The UK embarked on its propaganda efforts in the country in 2012 and stepped them up dramatically the following year as the government sought to maintain a strategic foothold after parliament had voted against any British military intervention in the conflict.
The series of programmes was given the codename Operation Volute, and those involved in the work talked not of propaganda, but of “strategic communications”, or “SC”.
However, a review that was conducted during the summer of 2016 concluded that the “fundamental shortcomings” of the initiative included “no conflict analysis [and] no target audience analysis”.
The review also reveals concerns within government about the need for the programmes, which were pushed most enthusiastically by the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) from 2013 onwards because of “policy restraints” imposed by the vote against military action.
Too many projects appeared to be completed because “we had to be seen to do things” or were designed to impress the US government, the review concluded.
“Projects have pushed quick wins and shallow, numbers-driven outputs,” it said.
It concluded that there was a “major risk” that some of the government contractors’ activities were “in contravention of UK law”, although the authors do not spell out how they believe the law may have been broken.
Moreover, so much material was being produced by the propagandists that they had 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.
‘Lack of understanding’
The review examined two programmes that were managed by a unit within the MoD called Military Strategic Effects, and two managed by a group within the UK foreign office called the Counter-Daesh Communications Cell.
A fifth was managed by a cross-government programme called the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), which aims to tackle conflicts that threaten UK interests.
Four of the programmes were outsourced to British communications companies, some of them run by former army officers or intelligence officers. These companies set up offices in Istanbul and Amman, where they recruited Syrians to carry out much of the day-to-day work. A fifth was outsourced to a polling company based in the United States.
The five programmes were intended to amplify the work of Syrian citizen journalists; bolster groups that the British considered to be part of what it termed “the moderate armed opposition”; counter violent extremism; and encourage dissent among members of Syria’s Alawite communities, from which the ruling Assad family comes.