2011-02-10 US, Syria Propaganda War Over Syrian Nuclear Investigation and Diplomatic Relations

Cables released by WikiLeaks on Syria show a State Department eager to repair relations with Syria, which were in extreme ruin when the Bush Administration left power. They show the US government was eager to double their efforts at targeting Syria’s interest in developing nuclear capabilities.

The cable 09DAMASCUS142 from February 19, 2009, shows US officials wanted to find a way to break through Syrian media, which is tightly controlled by the government, and get its own propaganda into the country so Syrians could hear what the US considered to be the truth on US-Syria relations.

Officials were concerned that “savvy journalists” had become “adept at self-censorship.” And, thus, the truth about Syria’s nuclear activities was not being reported:

Syria's internal repression of the IAEA investigation into Syrian nuclear activity is perhaps the best example of internal controls. As noted in ref A, prior to the IAEA's June visit to Syria, journalists were enjoined from reporting on the story locally and foreign journalists were not given visas to Syria during the period. In January 2009, U.S. Ambassador to UNVIE Schulte's blitzkrieg with the pan-Arab media went completely unreported inside Syria. [emphasis added]

The problem with this concern over Syria’s nuclear capabilities, however, is by February 2009 the US government had pushed a fair amount of propaganda on the nature of Syria’s nuclear program. On November 14, 2008, The Guardian’s Shafar Nashashibi wrote about journalists repeating US army claims about Syria that were related to Syria’s supposed nuclear activities. He mentioned how media was still reporting a claim that Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear site in 2008, which Syria vehemently denied and which had not been proved by Israel or any credible source.

Nashashibi quoted "a tabloid article" that boldly stated, “Syria is believed to have continued with its nuclear programme by following Iran's lead and scattering its nuclear development programme around several sites in order to make it difficult to thwart with a single strike.” But, the article did not mention who believed this and Nashashibi who had been following British media coverage of Syria had not seen this claim anywhere in British coverage.

In April of 2008, investigative journalist Larisa Alexandrovna reported on propaganda being promoted by the Wall Street Journal on Syria and its nuclear program. It was repeating the same line about Israel having successfully bombed a nuclear facility. Yet, she proved any such claims to be pure propaganda by citing a respectable source:

Vincent Cannistraro, Director of Intelligence Programs for the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan and Chief of Operations at the Central Intelligence Agency's Counterterrorism Center under President George H. W. Bush, said Sunday that what the Israelis hit was "absolutely not a nuclear weapons facility."

"Syria has a small nuclear research facility and has had it for several years," Cannistraro said. "It is not capable of enriching uranium to weapons capability levels. Some Israelis speculated that the Syrians had succeeded in doing just that, but according to the US intelligence experts that is simply not true."'

That the CIA was fueling the spread of this story that Israel had bombed a Syrian nuclear site was particularly troubling to Alexandrovna because she had recently reported the CIA was running “black propaganda ops” against Syria. (Alexandrovna also wrote that the US could go after Syria for developing chemical weapons but was more concerned with going after its supposed development of nuclear weapons.)

It seems like whatever US officials were supporting or going along with in 2008 was escalated or continued. As the summary in the cable reads:

Our roll-out strategy on our new Syria policy should exploit the U.S.'s considerable advantage in the international and regional media. While the SARG's control over media inside Syria is near total and limits us locally, we will use all available resources, particularly Syria's only private newspaper al-Watan, to amplify Washington's message. We suggest talking points to put the ongoing review in the context of continuing day-to-day USG decisions regarding Syria. Messages directed at the Syrian people should be a component of any strategy.

Syria has openly established and reaffirmed ties with Iran in recent years. It has defended Iran’s right to enrich uranium and use nuclear power for peaceful purposes. This has created friction between the US and Syria.

The Syrian government tried in the beginning of the Obama Administration to get the US to respond favorably to Syria’s eagerness to re-engage diplomatically and begin a new era of diplomatic relations. But, what the cable reveals US officials thought this interest was not genuine. They believed Syria simply wished to promote “spin” in media to put pressure on the US:

…With a Syrian Ambassador to Washington who is desperate to remake his image with the new Administration and against the backdrop of a continuing U.S. policy review process, the SARG has capitalized by portraying the Obama Administration as actively pursuing engagement with the SARG [Syrian Arab Republic Government]. Ambassador Mustapha has wasted no time in leaking the travel of every Congressional delegation to Damascus in an effort to show the Legislative branch is actively courting the SARG. CODEL Smith, the first visit of the new Administration, traveled to Damascus January 30-31 and was heralded by local media as a "delegation dispatched by President Obama." Within hours of the CODEL's meeting with President Asad, SANA [Syrian Arab News Agency] was already disseminating the Syrian version of events -- namely, that Congressman Smith had reaffirmed Syria's important role in the region and the new Administration's desire to develop U.S.-Syrian relations. With the CODEL continuing its schedule and therefore unavailable for comment, SANA's release was immediately picked up by local media. Smith's departure statement to international wires allowed him to emphasize the CODEL's message, but the SARG version, namely, that Smith was sent by President Obama, lingered in media reporting long after the CODEL departed Damascus. Smith corrected the record from Brussels, but the SARG's message went unchallenged for several days…

At the time of the cable, the US was in the process of reviewing US policy with Syria. It not only wanted to gain a greater foothold in Syria to share the truth about Syria’s nuclear capabilities but also to promote the following “themes”:

…Decisions that have been taken recently are a part of routine business -- they do not necessarily reflect changes now or in the future. -- Congressional delegations travel in order to inform themselves about world affairs, not because the Administration has dispatched them. Congress represents a separate, independent branch of government. -- Sanctions imposed under the Syrian Accountability Act allow for licenses in several categories including medical devices and supplies, parts and components for civil aviation safety of flight, and telecommunications equipment. -- Even as we take specific steps - such as calling in the Syrian Ambassador, executive branch travel, engaging Syria at a higher level, or the return of a U.S. Ambassador -- we will continue to have ongoing concerns about Syrian behavior that have not gone away because of a change in administrations. Those concerns include Lebanon and the need for the SARG to fully implement UNSCRs 1559 and 1701 and to cooperate fully with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; Iraq and the continued flow of foreign fighters; and Syria's relationship with Hamas and Hizballah and other rejectionist groups that undermine international efforts to stabilize the Middle East. -- As we look at a new engagement with Syria, these issue [sic] will be important parts of our ongoing dialogue.

An analysis of Syrian news in the cable shows US diplomats thought the Syrians “ignored Washington completely” or indulged in “revisionist history to deflect criticism” while President George W. Bush was in power. Syrian government rarely took serious criticisms on the country’s human rights record (not surprising when you consider how poor the Bush Administration was on human rights). And the country’s only “privately-owned newspaper, al-Watan, reflected the government's growing optimism that change was coming with a countdown to the inauguration” of President Barack Obama “in the upper left hand corner of the paper, which “ran for more than 60 consecutive days,” demonstrating how eager Syria was to see Bush leave office.

In 2009, the US contended that Syria was not cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Then-Director General Mohamed ElBaradei was considered to be incapable of addressing the Syria’s non-cooperation on nuclear inspections and the US believed ElBaradei wanted the US and others to “solve” issues.

Since then, President Obama has extended threatening to use “special inspection” powers to gain access to the nuclear site bombed by Israel that Alexandrovna and others reported was not a nuclear site. And, citizens of Syria are becoming more upset with Syria’s regime, making it possible that an uprising similar to the one in Egypt could complicate diplomatic matters and planned US "messaging" or "spin" campaigns in the future.

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