Syria crisis turns into 'psychological war'



NICOSIA- For almost nine months, Syria has been gripped by a crisis that now risks spiraling into all-out war -- a conflict not limited to bullets in a country that has all but squeezed out the international press.
Amid a rising death toll, a battle of rumours and images is also heating up as President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the opposition each fight to boost the morale of their supporters.



In sidewalk coffee shops, at dinner parties and online, whispered talk of assassinations and invasions are rife in a growing "psychological war," said Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"We have long lived under a system where the only source of information was official media," said a Syrian businesswoman, requesting her name be concealed.
"Today it's information overflow: when I watch local television channels versus Arab satellite channels, it looks like there's no way they could possibly be talking about the same country."
On Friday -- the day that sees the biggest weekly protests after Muslim prayers -- Syrian national television broadcast footage of men peacefully exiting mosques in Homs and Hama, two bastions of the anti-Assad revolt.
Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya, meanwhile, aired footage of military raids on massive protests outside the same mosques, filmed on mobile phones.
One protester caught on camera humorously captured this dual reality in a banner which read: "Dear viewers, this is a fake protest conjured up by Al-Jazeera in their studios."
Both satellite channels are highly critical of the regime and regularly broadcast footage of protests captured on activists' mobile phones.
Al-Dunya, Syria's only private station which is owned by Assad's tycoon cousin Rami Makhlouf and blacklisted by the European Union, for its part has launched a campaign to track what it says are "false images" on Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera.
"The official Syrian view is a totally false reconstruction of reality, while that of Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya is what you might call augmented reality -- basically, most of the events are real but exaggerated for dramatic effect," said Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert and professor at the University of Edinburgh.
The hottest rumour last week was of the murder of Maher al-Assad, the president's younger brother who commands the much-feared Fourth Battalion as well as the Republican Guard.
"Killed at Mazzeh airport by his own men," people whispered, amid talk of defections of generals from the army, none of which has proven true.
The authorities, meanwhile, are doing their fair share of spreading fiction.
Officials in the Mediterranean town of Banias claim Israeli officers and Salafist hardline Islamists were plotting hand-in-hand against the regime, while a German ship had delivered weapons to "terrorists" holed up there.
They say Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods in Homs now look like Afghanistan's Kandahar, with Islamists banning children from attending school.
A battle for martyrdom rankings has also emerged, with the opposition and regime both airing gruesome images of people beaten or killed.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem at a press conference last week showed graphic video footage he said was of "terrorist" gangs killing Syrian troops in various towns across the country.
In one segment, armed and bearded men are shown making their way through bushes and trees in what the caption said was terrorists training in the coastal city of Latakia.
A group of seven men in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, however, quickly identified the video as their own, shot in Lebanon in 2008 during clashes with political rivals.
Another point of controversy has been the death of 10-year-old Sari Saoud, a Syrian Christian, killed in the Bayada neighbourhood of Homs as he ventured out to buy cookies.
The opposition accused Assad's troops of killing the boy -- but his mother appeared on official Syrian television to say "armed gangs" were behind the murder.
Some have taken to music to express themselves.
"Oh Bashar, it's time to go," read the lyrics of what has become the hymn of the rebellion written by Syrian singer Ibrahim Qashoushe, who the opposition says was killed on July 4 by state forces.
Today, in the centre of Damascus, his tune still rings loud and clear -- with a twist. "Oh Bashar, we are your men," chant supporters of the president to Qashoushe's melody.
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Monday, December 5th 2011
AFP
           


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