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Statistics in the Information War: an Instructive Example from Hama, 1982

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

— Mark Twain

Statistics have a persuasive power. They are often perceived as unassailable and indisputable facts. By implying an aura of authority to particular narratives, they can serve particular causes as well as damage opposing agendas by misleading the public.

The war in Syria is as much an information war waged in the media as a military struggle on the battle field. The recent liberation of Aleppo from the grip of foreign-backed armed militants which the United States insists are “moderate” even as it acknowledged their cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra/al-Qa‘eda is no exception. Take, for example, the breathless and hyperbolic commentary on Aleppo whereby Secretary of State John Kerry described the situation as “Another Srebrenica . . . nothing short of a massacre,” and a newscaster called the evacuation of Aleppo as “nothing short of a Holocaust.” In addition to these statements, media outlets have disseminated a barrage of images, videos, and news stories about the war, the majority of which relies on second-hand accounts relayed by activists with their own political agendas and by sources supported by states that are themselves party to the conflict.

Such hyperbole is part and parcel of coordinated propaganda efforts to use humanitarian concerns as a means of arousing public sympathy and support for what is essentially a geopolitical regime change agenda that targets an adversarial government. As always, context is vitally important.

Washington has a long history of intervention in Syria. In the 1950s and during the Cold War, the U.S. tried to overthrow the Syrian government in a CIA-concocted coup. Prior to that, in 1946, the Truman administration had supported Syria’s right to independence from the French Mandate, allowing Syria to become one of the original signatories of the United Nations Charter. Shortly thereafter, however, Syrian President Shukri al-Qawatli and members of the Syrian parliament, objecting to the US recognition of the state of Israel, did not support passage rights for the ARAMCO (Arabian American Oil Company) pipeline from Saudi Arabia’s Dhahran oil fields to the Mediterranean – destined for Europe. As a result, President Truman authorized the CIA’s first coup. In March, 1949, the CIA worked with Syrian army chief of staff, General Husni al-Za‘im, who was described as a “‘Banana Republic’ dictator type” who “did not have the competence of a French corporal,” but did have a “strong anti-Soviet attitude.”[1] A series of coups and countercoups followed thereafter, shifting between CIA supported US allies like General Adib al-Shishakli and nationalist coalitions (Hashim al-Atassi), and ending with al-Qawatli’s reelection in 1955. Thus, the militarization of the Syrian newly-independent ‘post-colonial’ regimes was partly a necessary response to US interventionism and happened well before the Ba‘th Party rose to power in 1963.

Prior to the ‘Arab Spring,’ the policy of regime change in Syria was pursued by President G. W. Bush. Bush effectively froze diplomatic relations with Syria and announced that $5 million in grants will be awarded to “accelerate the work of reformers in Syria.” No dissidents inside Syria took up the offer. According to a 2006 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus: “no bona fide opposition member will be courageous enough to accept funding.” This rejection, of course, ought to have raised questions about the representativeness of the dissidents who did seek funding. Nevertheless, the U.S. chose to give Syrian exiles in Europe, described in U.S. cables as “liberal, moderate Islamists” who are former members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the money instead. Since then, the U.S. State Department has spent upwards of $12 million between 2005 and 2010 on funding some “Syrian opposition” groups, “civil society,” as well as satellite television channels like Barrada who would support regime change. In 2012, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland acknowledged that the U.S. spent $25 million in “non-lethal assistance” some of which was used to provide communications gear and to train activists in Syria in social media propaganda campaigns.

Funding for Islamists provides a wider context for the feeding of sectarianism and undermines the mainstream view that the “‘Alawite regime” bears the sole responsibility. A leaked secret cable from the US embassy in Damascus noted with alarm that: “As the end of 2006 approaches, Bashar appears in some ways stronger than he has in two years. The country is economically stable (at least for the short term), internal opposition the regime faces is weak and intimidated, and regional issues seem to be going Syria’s way, from Damascus, perspective.” The cable advised that the US and its allies, namely Saudi Arabia and Egypt missions in Syria, “play on Sunni fears of Iranian influence” in order to undermine the relationship. Even though the cable admits that these fears are “exaggerated,” it nevertheless wished to rub salt into the wound – exploiting this “vulnerability.”

Given the above history, readers ought to be cognizant of the use of propaganda to further these agendas. Key psychological aspects make propaganda persuasive. Among those are authority, narratives, and repetition – the main methods used by governments and mainstream media today. Like images and statements, seemingly empirical statistical evidence ought to be weighed in light of the source. More importantly, when given as an ‘estimate,’ a number is one among other possibilities. Not mentioning particular estimates, when they are provided by authoritative sources, enables the media to mislead by omission.

The case of the ‘Hama massacre’ of 1982 is instructive.

How many times have we been told that Syrian President at the time, Hafez al-Assad, systematically killed between 20,000 and 40,000 Muslim Brotherhood members in Hama? A simple search on Google yields numerous articles in Western mainstream media about the current war in Syria that recall the events in Hama in 1982 and reiterate these estimates. News outfits, such as Qatar-based al-Jazeera favor the higher and more sensational Muslim Brotherhood estimates of 40,000 killed. Middle East Watch, the predecessor to Human Rights Watch, also cited these statistics, calling the period in the late 1970s to 1982 as “the great repression” in a 1991 report, “Syria Unmasked: The Suppression of Human Rights by the Assad Regime.”

Alternative estimates are publicly available. According to a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document that was declassified in 2012, these now mainstream numbers are exaggerated by a factor of at least ten.

The DIA document, “Syria: Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies,” was written in May, 1982, three months after the events. Not only does it describe the actions of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorism,” it reveals that only two thousand Islamists were killed by the government in Hama. (p. 8)

The DIA report is instructive because it outlines tactics, methods, and narratives used by the Muslim Brotherhood that are similar to ones adopted by militant regime opponents in the Syrian war today.

The sectarian motivations and fundamentalist rationalizations that feed the majority of the armed oppositional groups in Syria had precedents in the riots by the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria starting in 1964. Sunni fundamentalist opposition intensified after March 1973 when reference to Islam as the state religion was discarded by the secular Ba‘thist government in the new constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood’s position considered Assad’s presidency unacceptable because they labeled him a non-Muslim. According to the Muslim Brotherhood: “Islam is the solution” and “Allah is our objective; the Qur’an is the Constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish.”[2]

Attempting to start a popular revolution to oust Assad – or the illusion of such a revolution – the Muslim Brotherhood attacked the artillery school in Aleppo in June of 1979 and killed fifty ‘Alawite cadets while they were sleeping. There followed a series of armed hit-and-run and bomb attacks against ‘Alawite villages, security targets, Ba‘thist party members, and government officials.

More importantly, and again paralleling their actions in the current war in Syria, the DIA document noted that the Muslim Brotherhood expanded “their covert arm for nonattributable political violence, the Secret Apparatus” around 1964. (p. 1) Subsidiary covert armed groups operated using Islamist names such as The Youth of Muhammad, Soldiers of Allah, Faithful Youth, and Islamic Vanguard, just as contemporary oppositional groups like Jaysh al-Islam, Nur ad-Din Zinki, Fa’istaqim Kama Umirt, Jabhat Ansar al-Islam, Jaysh al-Sunna, and Fath al-Islam adopt names with (Sunni) Islamist credentials.

Following months of bloody fighting in 1980, the Muslim Brotherhood staged an uprising in Hama in February 1982.

Back then, just as now, the counterattacks by the government, drove many in the Islamist opposition to Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Then, as now, armed and trained members who had hidden in neighboring states, infiltrated back into Syria from points in Jordan and Iraq. Then, as now, the town of Der‘a on the border with Jordan was a center for the Muslim Brotherhood’s covert infrastructure. (p. 4) The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s sectarian objections to the Ba‘thist Syrian president did not impede its political opportunism. Back then, it announced an Islamic Front which received support from the Ba‘thist secular Iraqi government headed by (Sunni) Saddam Hussein. In the current war, technically secular Turkey, under the leadership of Islamist President Rajjab Tayyib Erdogan, has been a prime support and base for the leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

As part of its tactics to unseat the government, “Simultaneously, a sophisticated worldwide propaganda campaign was to be launched supporting the rebellion and emphasizing its victories and the wholesale desertion of army units to the rebel side.  Press releases were to be made in Europe and the US, while propaganda broadcasts against Syria were to be carried by the Phalange-controlled Voice of Lebanon and the Iraqi-controlled Voice of Arab Syria.” (p. 4) Themes included human rights abuses and atrocities as well as the isolation of Assad in Syria and the Arab world – themes that are very much in line with the prevailing mainstream oppositional narrative.

Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood was not above using places of worship for political violence. The DIA document records that on February 2, 1982, “loudspeakers atop the mosque minarets in Hama called on the people to begin a Jihad (Holy Struggle) against the government. The appeal also told the people the arms were available at specified mosques.  At about the same time, teams of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Secret Apparatus, some in army uniforms, moved to attack preselected government targets in the city. ” (p. 6) Using the nom de guerre of the Islamic Revolution in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood broadcast communiques alleging widespread defections in the armed forces, wide-scale desertions by soldiers, mutinies against the government, and clashes in other cities, including Aleppo. From Bonn, the Muslim Brotherhood claimed that 3000 soldiers were killed and that “Hama had been liberated”. (p. 6) Bonn was not an unlikely location for this announcement, since the transnational Muslim Brotherhood has headquarters in Europe, including, London and Munich.[3] From Hong Kong, they announced that the radio station in Aleppo was captured and from Paris, they broadcast that defense units had joined the Islamic Revolutionary command in Hama. Exaggerating the level of support from the populace and success on the ground, from Vienna, Muslim brotherhood sources announced triumphantly that fighting spread to Damascus, Latakia, Aleppo, and eastern Syria. From Ankara, they announced that the Damascus-Hama-Aleppo Highway was largely under the control of the Islamic Revolution. From Iraq, Muslim Brotherhood leaders issued a fatwa (legal ruling) making jihad against the “tyrant” compulsory and the payment of taxes to the government forbidden.

There was no substance behind these claims. The DIA report asserts that the uprising did not spread outside of Hama.

In particular, two segments in the conclusion of the DIA report stand out.

First, in summarizing the general political sentiment, it states that “… Assad’s strategy continues to be based on the realization that most Syrians, regardless of their differences with the present government, do not want the Muslim Brotherhood in power, although they would undoubtedly prefer one dominated by Sunni Muslims. Furthermore, the Syrians are pragmatic and realize that Assad has given Syria greater stability during his rule than it has had at any other time since achieving independence in 1946. This is not to say that Assad’s government is popular with all segments of Syrian society, but under the present circumstances it is doubtful any alternative government could do better.” (p. 8)

Second, it forecasts that in the future “The Syrian dissidents (sic) modus operandi will continue to be terrorism, particularly bombings and assassinations.” (p. 8)

Such assessments that provide context and alternative perspectives are publicly-available but are largely ignored in most mainstream reporting on Syria. It does the victims of war, on all sides, no good to omit inconvenient facts.

Dina Jadallah received her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona. She is the author of U.S. Economic Aid in Egypt: Strategies for Democratization and Reform in the Middle East (2016) and has published numerous articles about the Middle East.

Notes.

[1] David W. Lesch, Syria and the United States: Eisenhower’s Cold War in the Middle East. (Westview Press, 1992: 18)

[2] Kamal Helbawy, The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Historical Evolution and Future Prospects. (2009: 65)

[3] In A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West (2010), Ian Johnson outlines the history of how the CIA was eager to use organized Islamist groups in Europe to fight communism.

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