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Inside The Syrian Opposition's Media War

For peace talks in Geneva, the Syrian opposition is fighting hard to win the narrative — and suddenly playing hardball in their media campaign.

Posted on January 27, 2014, at 7:55 a.m. ET

A Syrian refugee is reflected in a mirror as he watches the Geneva peace conference on a television in Lebanon.
Ali Hashisho / Reuters

A Syrian refugee is reflected in a mirror as he watches the Geneva peace conference on a television in Lebanon.

GENEVA — It was a little past 10 a.m. in Geneva on Saturday, and the Syrian opposition's media center was a hive of frantic activity as peace talks got underway. Wearing an unassuming navy suit and eyeglasses that hung from a cord around his neck, Monzer Akbik clapped his hands and bellowed at his 30-person staff: "Excuse me please! We are still in a meeting!"

On the floor below, the lobby of the 5-star Intercontinental Hotel had become a magnet for international journalists chatting up diplomats around faux fireplaces. Others packed into the pressroom at the United Nations compound down the street to await word from closed-door meetings. The U.N. had issued more than 1000 press credentials — a record number — for the peace conference, the first time the Syrian regime and opposition were talking amid a spiraling civil war.

In this media frenzy, Akbik and his team saw their efforts as a crucial counterpart to those at the negotiating table. Both sides wanted to convince the world that they were the ones who should be running Syria — and more importantly, to convince those Syrians watching from afar. "I think most people realize that the Geneva conference will be won and lost in the media," said Rafif Jouejati, a veteran opposition spokeswoman.

After nearly three years of amateurish press efforts — always mismatched against the regime's well-oiled propaganda machine — the opposition now seemed to be playing hardball. In the media center, there was a team for newsgathering, a team for mainstream press and a team for social media. Media officers spoke Arabic, English and French, and there were press packets and a special Geneva Twitter feed, plus a small team of international consultants. The team responded right away to new developments and PR offensives from the regime — something Oubai Shabandar, an activist helping with outreach, called "rapid-countering." As he saw it: "This is revolution 3.0. It is faster, sleeker and more effective on the world stage."

But there were still growing pains.

"Do you know that our Facebook page was hacked?" Akbik asked the room. He detailed some other problems: the numbers for the press hotlines kept getting mixed up; there was no English-language Facebook page. Journalists were having a hard time setting up interviews with opposition delegates and were starting to get pissed.

"How many followers do we have on Twitter?" Akbik asked.

The new account got 500 followers in just 24 hours, someone said.

"Is that good? Is there a maximum?"

Akbik was told that his personal account had 37.

"I don't want anyone to follow me," he said. "What about a star? Jennifer Lopez—how many does she have?"

A successful businessman, Akbik became chief of staff last summer for the opposition-in-exile, the Syrian National Coalition. He had since worked to make its media efforts more effective, bringing on new staff and reaching out to the press, in an effort aided by international advisors brought on at the expense of the British Foreign Office. When Akbik took on the role, the regime's narrative was ascendant, as it painted its fight in Syria as part of a war on terror — even though much of the opposition blamed it for the Al-Qaeda-linked groups threatening to overtake the rebellion.

The opposition media team in Geneva had been reinforced with new bodies and about 10 Western consultants, mostly Brits. But the bulk of it was made up of Syrians with long histories as media activists, such as Ghassan Yasin, who had often risked his life to gather news from the frontlines in Aleppo. Amid the hectic pace of the conference, some saw their efforts as more akin to chaos than a well-oiled machine.

In the Intercontinental lobby, one British staffer was even overheard to say that she wanted to order "a half a bottle of whiskey in vitro," to alleviate the stress.

Each day of the conference, however, the opposition was winning on the media front. It pushed the blame for Al-Qaeda on the regime and turned the spotlight on the suffering Bashar al-Assad had inflicted with his brutal military campaign. The regime, meanwhile, seemed only to be flailing. "The opposition has shown much more competence and coherence than expected," said Steven Heydemann, a veteran Syria watcher and a vice president and director of Syria programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Heydemann said the improved media efforts were part of a wider push from the opposition to present an effective front at Geneva — something its Western backers had been keen to support. The opposition and its allies have brought in international experts to advise it on things like negotiations and putting together a transition plan. "They're corralling as much support as they can," Heydemann said. "They're taking this very seriously."

In the media center on Saturday morning, Akbik focused the conversation on the day's messaging. With the two sides entering negotiations for the first time, he warned, some Syrians might think the opposition had betrayed them just for sitting down with the regime. A British consultant put forward an idea: the opposition should say this was the first time in the regime's history that it was forced to sit and listen to the people's demands. Akbik liked the idea and moved along.

After the meeting, the consultant approached this reporter and said that the messaging exchange should be off the record. When that was declined, he became angry and stormed off. He worried it might seem that the media team was taking its directions from the outside. But it was clearly the Syrian staff, many of whom had been at their work for years, who were the driving force behind the media team — working 20-hour days, setting the tone and calling the shots. "They give advice, and we Syrians decide if that advice is what we want," said Jouejati, the opposition spokeswoman, who is a veteran of the Local Coordination Committees, a respected activist group with networks across Syria.

Jouejati pointed out that the work was deadly serious for the Syrians on the team — it was the first real push to bring the bloody conflict to an end, she said, and a chance to save lives.

If the opposition was winning the media narrative, she said, it was also because of the facts on the ground — the suffering inflicted by the regime's constant bombardment of civilian areas and starvation campaigns. (The regime's performance at the conference, meanwhile, had been surprisingly poor.) "Our job is to show Assad's crimes to the world by leveraging this political process," she said.

The campaign to win the narrative in the international press, she added, was secondary to the efforts to reach regular Syrians. There, she claimed, support for the Geneva conference had received a "huge upswing" since it got underway.

One of Jouejati's colleagues, Ahmed Fakoury, said it was important to keep in mind what they were up against inside Syria. He'd once been a key player on the other side, as one of the most popular evening news anchors on Syrian state television. Regime-friendly TV and radio stations dominated Syria's airwaves. "They are a lobby — and they are well-organized and very good," he said. It was the opposition's job to make their message heard anyway. "We have a very good narrative: We are the Syrian people," he said.