Syria's PR campaign failed — and so did America's policy

Bashar al-Assad is on his last legs, but his campaign to crush the rebellion in Syria got a boost from Washington's astonishingly weak stance

D.B. Grady

This week will likely have proven to be the end of Bashar al-Assad, the tyrannical president of Syria. After a relentless military campaign against his own people, he has turned at last to directing Scud missiles at them, a crime against humanity to crown his previous feat of facilitating the deaths of some 50,000 Syrians. Even Russia, Syria's arms dealer, seemed to recognize the terminal status of the Syrian government on Thursday, though Moscow quickly backtracked on those statements.

Incredibly, as late as last year the Obama administration was still hailing Assad as a "reformer" whose situation was "unique." And the media was following right along. Indeed, it's become something of a grim joke to point at the fawning profile of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad that ran in Vogue last year. In it, the author marvels at the secular freedoms and safety of Syria, and the "startling 97 percent of the vote" that Assad attracted. The article features loving photographs of the Assad family playing together, Lego blocks and remote control trucks in hand. The reader is treated to a charming anecdote involving Brad Pitt palling around with the Syrian dictator. It ends with Assad literally ringing a bell and exclaiming, "This is how you can have peace!" The following month, Assad began washing the streets with Syrian blood.

It's easy to ridicule the feckless Joan Juliet Buck, the profile's author, if for no other reason than as she was writing the piece, Syria was on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. A sympathetic reader might assert that considering the length of such a list, Buck deserves a pass. How was she to know? Here's how: Syria has been on the four-country list for 33 years.

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It's an interesting exercise to see how a madman like Assad garnered such an obsequious reception. He's not the first, of course — in 1938, Homes and Gardens featured a spread on Adolf Hitler's house:

Hitler delights in the society of brilliant foreigners, especially painters, singers and musicians. As host he is a droll raconteur... Some of his pedigree pets are allowed the run of the house, especially on days when Herr Hitler gives a "Fun Fair" to the local children... Coffee, cakes, fruit and sweets are laid for them on trestle tables in the grassy orchards. Then frauen Goebbels and Goring, in dainty Bavarian dress, arrange dances and folk-songs, while the bolder spirits are given joy-rides in Herr Hitler's private aeroplane."

In Assad's case, the Vogue interview came about because of Brown Lloyd James, a British-U.S. PR firm that was hired to advise the Syrian government on how better to manipulate the world. (We know this thanks to WikiLeaks.) Here's the pitch: "If hard power is necessary to quell rebellion, soft power is needed to reassure the Syrian people and outside audiences that reform is proceeding apace, legitimate grievances are being addressed and taken seriously, and that Syria's actions are ultimately aimed at creating an environment in which change and progress can take place." (Of course, "hard power" is a cruel euphemism for turning guns on your own people.) "The [PR] campaign should create a reform 'echo-chamber' by developing media coverage outside of Syria that points to the President's difficult task of wanting reform, but conducted in a non-chaotic, rational way. The conditions for reform include peace and stability."

Of course, foreign policy professionals don't take Vogue seriously, and the Assad public relations campaign has clearly failed. But what of the astonishing failure of U.S. policy? In August, President Obama said, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation." By that point, 25,000 Syrians were already dead, and Obama's statement was excellent news for Assad, who proceeded to use everything but chemical weapons in his attempt to quell rebellion. Nobody believes America has an appetite for yet another war, let alone in a country as relatively unimportant to U.S. interests as Syria, but President Obama has a nice track record of dead tyrants to his name. Maybe it would have been a good idea to keep his "red line" to himself.

One would think the White House might walk back the president's remarks, and one would be right. Unfortunately, he's walking it back the wrong way. Earlier this month, it came to light that the Syrian government was, indeed, "moving around" chemical weapons. The crossing of the red line was raised to Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. "But at this point," asked a journalist, "you can't say for sure that what we're seeing right now does not cross the president's red line?"

Replied the White House: "Well, again, I think we're talking about the use of chemical weapons."

"But he also talked about the movement of chemical weapons in his press conference in August."

Said the White House, "Well, I understand that."

So does Bashar al-Assad.

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David W. Brown

David W. Brown is coauthor of Deep State (John Wiley & Sons, 2013) and The Command (Wiley, 2012). He is a regular contributor to, Vox, The Atlantic, and mental_floss. He can be found online here.