The hard comms lessons of Syria

After a sceptical Commons rebuffed David Cameron's case for limited military action in Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed 1,500 people, Congress has forced Barack Obama to put a planned attack on hold pending a vote.

Philip Crowley: 'The complex and grinding Syrian civil war is now in its third year. The public sees little prospect of success at an acceptable cost.'
Philip Crowley: 'The complex and grinding Syrian civil war is now in its third year. The public sees little prospect of success at an acceptable cost.'

The US, with political if not military support from others, may still redeem the red line Obama drew over the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war. But what we see as a democratic strength, others will see as a lack of resolve.

But what are the strategic communication lessons from these unexpected detours? At this stage, three come to mind: credibility, context and sequencing.

Credibility lost is difficult to regain. Cameron could not overcome the ghost of Iraq. There is no guarantee Obama will either. What the public remembers ten years later is a rush to war, faulty intelligence, few allies and no weapons.

The British and US governments continue to differentiate Syria and Iraq, but the absence of a smoking gun, a still incomplete UN inspection and less than robust coalition keep the Iraq debate alive. The public has seen this movie before, with an unhappy ending.

Context matters. In 2011, Britain, France and the US (‘from behind’) led NATO intervention in Libya under ideal geopolitical conditions, including an Arab League call for action and a UN Security Council resolution.

The Libyan civil war developed rapidly amid the optimism of the Arab Spring. In contrast, the complex and grinding Syrian civil war is already in its third year. The public sees little prospect of success at an acceptable cost.

Finally, aligning one’s strategy, narrative, actions and outcomes in a global environment is hard. Obama’s red line may be right, but it was accidently drawn.

In the rush to defend it, the White House’s rhetoric outpaced the broader political process. The purpose was sending a message. And the greater the effort in London and Washington to convince domestic publics of its narrow purpose – Obama called it a ‘shot across the bow’ – the less the impact where it counts the most, in Syria.

Philip Crowley was assistant secretary for public affairs and spokesman for the US Department of State between 2009 and 2011, and is now a professor of practice and fellow at The George Washington University’s Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.

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