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The British government’s covert propaganda campaign in Syria

Documents obtained by MEE reveal how British contractors recruited Syrian citizen journalists - often without their knowledge - to promote 'moderate opposition'

by Ian Cobain, Alice Ross

Part 4 - Opposition social media accounts

Meanwhile, other leaked documents seen by MEE show that the British government had awarded contracts to communications companies, which selected and trained opposition spokespeople, ran press offices that operated 24 hours a day, and developed opposition social media accounts.

British staff running these offices were told that their Syrian employees were permitted to talk to British journalists – as spokespeople for the Syrian opposition - but only after receiving clearance from officials at the British consulate in Istanbul.

One of the responsibilities of the press offices set up covertly by the British government under the terms of these contracts was to “maintain an effective network of correspondents/stringers inside Syria to report on MAO [moderate armed opposition] activity”.

In this way, the British government was able to exert behind-the-scenes influence over conversations that the UK media was having with individuals who presented themselves as Syrian opposition representatives.

People involved with the operation say that some prominent British journalists visiting Istanbul would be introduced to Syrians acting as opposition spokespeople, who had been prepared for the encounter by British handlers.

They say they would brief the Syrians before the meeting, and avoid any face-to-face contact with the visiting journalists themselves.

The propaganda initiative was primarily aimed at Syrians, living both inside and outside Syria. The blueprint explains that “radicalised UK citizens are not an explicit focus (target audience) for this work,” adding: “Those efforts are the responsibility of another government department.

It adds: “Nevertheless, it is accepted that some C-VE [countering violent extremist] material may reach the UK information space.

Furthermore, UK audiences could on occasion be “a specified target” of some media being produced as part of the initiative, with the permission of British officials in Istanbul.

The different strands of the propaganda programme were evaluated by a scientist from the UK’s Ministry of Defence, looking for evidence of “behavioural and attitudinal change”.

The companies bidding for the contracts were told: “Behavioural changes linked… to campaign activity will be especially highly valued.

During 2015, Free Syria, Syrian Identity and Undermine were funded in both British pounds and Canadian dollars, with the equivalent of around £410,000 ($540,000) being spent each month.

Some Syrians who became involved in the programme say that the money they received was the only means by which they could hope to support their families. "I have a wife and family," said one. "We need support in order to be able to live. Is there an independent media outlet in this world?"

The British government appears to have regarded its propaganda initiative as being in part a way to maintain a presence in Syria until it was able to become militarily engaged, with the blueprint saying that it should have “the capability to expand back into the strategic as and when the opportunity arises, to help build an effective opposition political-military interface”.

Around the same time that the initiative was being developed, the British government “loaned” a number of its pilots to the US, French and Canadian air forces, enabling them to take part in combat missions against Syrian targets, despite the country’s parliament having voted against such action.

British government enthusiasm for much of the work appears to have begun to wane as it became increasingly clear that the Assad government and its Russian and Iranian allies were winning the civil war, and funding for contracts began to dry up.

Early in 2019, the Free Syrian Police, a British-backed organisation, finally ceased operations following a militant takeover of Idlib province, much to the dismay of civilians and civil society activists. 

The Turkish government is also said to have become less tolerant of the propaganda initiatives being co-ordinated from its territory.

One British contractor is understood to have been expelled after the Turkish authorities discovered she had entered the country on a tourist visa.

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