Given that many of the world's leaders are pointing their fingers in blame for the 21 August chemical weapons attack that killed an estimated 1,400 people straight at Syrian President Bashar Assad, the role the PR campaign that in the last week he, along with one of his greatest (and most powerful) allies, President Putin of Russia, has waged has certainly been surprising. It is not surprising in the sense that the battle for public opinion regarding a possible U.S. air strike on Syrian military assets is proving to be so important. Since at least the Crimean War, PR campaigns around international conflicts have been almost as influential as the military campaigns themselves. What is unique in this case is that, at least for the last week, President Assad has managed to avoid coming across as a deranged and bloodthirsty dictator in the tradition of former Libyan President, Colonel Gaddafi. How, especially in the eyes of a Western audience, is this possible for a man accused of committing war crimes just four weeks ago?
Perhaps it can be explained, at least in part, by the use of good, old-fashioned Aristotelian persuasion which, in my opinion, has been employed by President Assad and his ally to great effect in the last week. It was seen first in President Assad's interview with Charlie Rose, broadcast on September 9, and then in President Putin's direct appeal to the American people in his Op-Ed in The New York Times on 12 September.
During his interview with Charlie Rose, President Assad's demeanor was measured and calm, making what he did not do in the interview the most notable part of his performance. He did not use the kind of body language tactics that work when motivating his army and are often expected of authoritarian leaders in his position. He did not slam his fist on the table and he avoided using militaristic or conspiratorial rhetoric. Instead, demonstrating a skilful code-switching ability, his tone and style allowed for at least the potential for trustworthiness and credibility to be attributed to his arguments.
President Assad's interview also appealed to the viewers' sympathies through emotionally charged lines like the following: "I think sadness prevails in Syria now. We don't feel anything else but sadness because we have this killing every day." President Putin on the other hand focused primarily in his Op-Ed piece on eliciting fear: "A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."
The most successfully executed aspect of President Assad's communications strategy has been the coordination of the messaging between the Syrian government and President Putin. President Putin's Op-Ed in Thursday's New York Times had parallels with President Assad's messaging during his Michael Ross interview and furthered the argument that, by taking military action, the United States would not be protecting international law but violating it. This coordination is particularly impressive in light of the inability of the United States and one of its closest allies, the United Kingdom, to agree on the best strategy to pursue in reaction to the chemical weapons attack.
President Putin and President Assad have also both demonstrated knowledge of the weak spots in President Obama's appeal for military action, putting a significant emphasis on American concerns about the legacy of the Iraq war. This can be seen specifically in a statement President Assad made during his interview: "What do wars give the United States? Nothing. No political gain, no economic gain, no good reputation." He then continued his references to Iraq by making the argument that the United States also claimed to have proof of WMDs in Iraq before its 2003 invasion.
Saying that a communications strategy uses elements of Aristotelian persuasion by no means implies that the arguments being presented as a part of that strategy are truthful. Rather, what President Assad's communications strategy over the last week has shown is the great extent to which these principals can be effectively applied in an international conflict, regardless of who is pursuing the strategy. While it would be difficult to prove causation between the PR campaign being implemented by President Assad and the most recent Pew Research Centre poll, which shows that 63 per cent of Americans are against U.S. military action in Syria, the trend in U.S. public opinion illustrates that President Assad's PR campaign has at least not hindered his cause. While the outcome of the conflict is yet to be determined, the impact that the kind of communications strategy President Assad has pursued can have on an international conflict has already been demonstrated.
Rene Musech is an account team member at B2B tech and energy PR agency TopLine Communications. She holds an MSc in Comparative Politics with an emphasis in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science.