Assad’s Fourth Division Jihadis
“A man wearing a black shirt bearing an Al-Qaeda flag (L) speaks with a UN observer as monitors meet with rebels and civilians in the village of Azzara in the province of Homs on 4 May 2012. (Photo: AFP- Joseph Eid)”
by Fady Mqayed
The above photo, originally published by AFP, depicting a man wearing an al-Qaeda themed armband accompanying UNSMIS personnel is one of the recent examples of the Syrian regime’s ongoing media campaign aiming to frame the now year-old uprising challenging its rule as an al-Qaeda-sympathetic Islamist insurgency.
Of course, the above photo made the rounds on the usual regime-owned & regime-sympathetic outlets – initially featured on the state-owned daily al-Watan, where it was depicted as “proof” for the regime’s claims about “Salafi terrorist gangs” and even as a basis for accusing UNSMIS observers of “collaboration” with them. The photo also made an appearance in an article by Sharmine Nawrani on al-Akhbar claiming “a growing Jihadi presence in Syria”.
The only, and perhaps most damning, caveat in these claims is that the man in the above photo is in fact the exact opposite of what he claims. In a recorded video statement earlier today, the man identifies himself as “Ahmad al-Mustafa”, a soldier in the Syrian Army’s fourth division, and announced his defection shortly thereafter, revealing that he, along with others, were instructed by superiors to “grow beards” and wear the outfit seen in the video in order to “help confirm the regime’s story”.
If anything, this incident reminds us that some elements of media coverage related to events in Syria are not always what they seem to be, adding to the difficulty of doing journalistic work in what is already a heavily locked-down environment.
The fact that the Syrian regime follows a policy of deliberate disinformation, even going as far as manufacturing fake “Salafi terrorists” in order to feed to to the media – and perhaps even the UNSMIS observers – highlights one of the less-mentioned weaknesses of the monitoring mission – its vulnerability to the regime’s distortion campaign aimed at the Syrian opposition in general, and its armed wing – the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – in particular.
That is – UNSMIS personnel can not easily determine whether alleged opposition-affiliated individuals interacting with them in heavily-controlled environment are genuine. There is nothing to say that an “FSA fighter” accompanying UNSMIS observers is a real FSA fighter, nor is there anything that can immediately prove a well masqueraded “Salafi Militant” is an actual Salafi militant or rather just one of Assad’s fake 4th Division Jihadis.