Of all the uprisings of the "Arab Spring," the Syrian revolt has been the one arena where pro-regime information warfare has been a central element in the ongoing conflict. While the regime has not been able to shape the information environment completely, it has nevertheless had some success in sowing confusion and reinforcing the fears of its target audiences. What's more, the pro-regime information operations have found resonance in some rather unexpected corners in Washington.
Last week, John Rosenthal at National Review Online picked up on a report in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung claiming that the Houla massacre was in fact not perpetrated by the regime. Rather, citing anonymous "opposition sources," the report asserted it was the rebels who were responsible. Furthermore, the report contended that the victims were not Sunnis, but, in fact, Alawites.
There were obvious indicators that the German article was false and based on claims made by the regime and its fellow travelers. For instance, the report stated that the supposed Alawite victims were from the "Shomaliya" family. The confused German author - and everyone who uncritically picked up his report - didn't even bother to check his facts or his sources. There is an Alawite village by the name of al-Shumariya, near Houla, which the regime's media and its third party amplifiers claimed was attacked by "armed gangs."
However, even some pro-regime websites noted that what had taken place in al-Shumariya was in fact a reprisal operation that lobbed RPG and possibly mortar rounds on the village after the Houla massacre had taken place. In other words, it may have been, at best, a retaliatory attack, especially since the onslaught on Houla was launched from Alawite villages.
The fudging of these kinds of details is what allows an information campaign to achieve one of its main purposes, which is to sow confusion, thereby clouding strategic judgment.
Assad's operation could be categorized as defensive propaganda. The Syrian dictator is not counting on world sympathy for his cause. For that, having the Russians and the Iranians on his side suffices. Rather, Assad's primary objective is to continue to ensure that the US remains on the sidelines in Syria.