The Syrian revolution's comms chief Khalid Saleh talks massacres, media and messaging

In his previous life Khalid Saleh was CEO of an internet marketing firm. Now as media chief of the Syrian revolution he confronts horror on a daily basis.

Reviewing the grotesque catalogue of horror and unimaginable depravity that has seen up to 200,000 civilians die in the Syrian revolution so far, Khalid Saleh is unable to rid his mind of one image in particular.

At first glance it looks like a man holding up a broken doll dressed in a pretty blue checked dress and frilly white socks. After a moment you notice the doll has no head. But there is no clean plastic break. Above the neat little collar is a circle of red.

Then the nauseating realisation dawns that this is not a toy, it is the corpse of a small child, a little girl no more than three years old, and that someone has cut off her head.

On the afternoon of 25 May 2012, after several hours of shelling, 300 members of the Shabiha militia loyal to President Assad attacked the small town of Houla near Homs in western Syria and went door to door shooting, stabbing and killing everyone they found. According to the United Nat­ions, 108 people died during the attack including 20 women and at least 49 babies and children.

"You look at this and you wonder what kind of human would do that," says Saleh. "The pictures I saw still haunt me. You feel that you aren’t dealing with humans, they must be animals."

Saleh is media chief of the major opposition group, the National Coalition Of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC). The role of his office, he says, is to function as the "legitimate, credible, efficient political voice of the Syrian revolution".

That means talking to Syrians inside and outside Syria and of course trying to mobilise international support by direct pressure on governments and indirect pressure through public opinion. It also means suppressing the quite understandable desire for revenge.

He estimates that in Syria, perhaps 15 per cent of the population supports Assad, 25 per cent already supports the revolution, and the rest, the silent majority, are "just sitting and watching". He says: "We want to function as the primary voice of the Syrian opposition for everyone in Syrian society. We want to reassure them about the shape of the new Syria.

Everyone knows Assad is a criminal but everyone wants to know what the new Syria will look like. We want to calm any fears they may have – because that is what the Assad regime plays on."

He says atrocities like the one at Houla are an attempt by the Assad regime not only to spread terror but to enrage his revolutionary opponents so much that they start to respond in kind. It is absolutely crucial for both domestic and international support that this does not happen.

If it does, the revolutionaries may well lose the moral high ground, allowing Assad to position the conflict not as an uprising against a brutal dictator, but as a sectarian civil war in which there is a moral, or immoral, equivalence between the two sides.

It is one of the oldest tricks in the spinner’s handbook and Saleh is determined to deny the Assad regime that advantage. "There is so much anger but we know that if we do this [reprisals] we are doing exactly what the Assad regime wants us to do. We must fight as an army," he says.

That means obeying the rules of war. As a result, communicating with fighters on the ground is one of Saleh’s most important tasks. But it is a task complicated by the fact that the Syrian National Coalition is just that – a coalition of political and military groups.

It includes Western-educated democrats, tribal and ethnic groupings such as Kurds and Turkmen, Islamist organisations inc­luding the Muslim Brotherhood (off and on) and various military factions, in particular the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

"Yes, representing a parliament of 50 or 60 different groups with very different agendas is a challenge," he smiles.

To make his job even harder, the coalition has no operational control or line management of the armed fighters, yet their behaviour is key to outside support. "It’s one of the main difficulties we face, particularly when dealing with the international community," says Saleh.

He concedes that the SNC’s lack of military control over the FSA’s estimated 100,000 fighters is a major problem: "Anyone who wants to deal with a political organisation wants it to be able to make promises and then fulfil them."

He spends rather more time than he may want ‘educating’ the armed brigades. Last year his office created a series of training videos that were aired on local TV stations showing fighters what is and what is not acceptable behaviour.

"We try to educate the FSA on ethical conduct, how do you deal with others, even captured prisoners of war? How do you deal with liberated areas and protect the rights of average Syrians?"

He ran workshops for FSA leaders on human rights laws and printed material was created for distribution among armed groups.

His office also advises and guides the FSA, which seems to have its own media operations, ensuring that they issue the right releases and statements.

Saleh admits his message of restraint has been only partially successful. For instance Hezbollah militants from Lebanon have joined the fray, fighting for Assad.

According to several reports the Syrian rebels have resorted to a brutal tactic to dissuade them. They decapitate captured fighters and send the heads back to Lebanon as a warning.

"There are some atrocities from our side," admits Saleh. "But we deal with mistakes and make sure they don’t happen again – unlike the Assad side which adopts terror as a policy and is a million times worse."

Discussing atrocities and decapitation with Saleh over a Skype connection is an unsettling experience.

Obviously war and war crimes are not the usual remit of this publication, but there is also the mismatch of the subject material and Saleh himself.

He describes himself as a "revolutionary", talking of death and destruction. Yet with his slight lisp and perfect American-English, he comes across as a very gentle, very modern man who would be more at home in academe or a cerebral area of business.

In fact his opposition to the Assad regime runs in the blood. Saleh was born in 1974 in the oil-rich province of Deir ezZor, 450 kilometres north east of Dam­ascus. You never hear about Syrian oil because the Assads took it all for themselves, he says.

His family is Sunni and his father was an affluent landowner and lawyer who opposed the Assad regime from the moment Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad seized control of the ruling Ba’ath party in 1971.

His family fled Syria when he was five. His grandfather had been gaoled by the Ba’athist reg­ime in the 1960s and his father was imprisoned in the 70s. "We lived a couple of years not knowing whether he was alive or dead." Numerous cousins and uncles were also arrested by the regime.

Eventually the family moved to the US in 1995 and Saleh graduated in computer sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. After several years as a software engineer and architect, in 2006 he moved to Michigan and set up internet marketing firm Invesp with his wife Ayat Shukairy. Yes, the committed revolutionary is also a marketing geek.

"We did a specialised online form of marketing called conversion optimisation. Lots of marketing focused on driving people to a web site. Ours was the complementary aspect: after somebody comes to the website are you able to get them to take the action you want to take?"

They also wrote an Amazon bestseller on the subject – Conversion Optimization: The Art and Science of Converting Prospects to Customers. It is a skill that presumably comes in handy when dealing with waverers and the uncommitted in Syria.

When the revolution started in March 2011 he was still in the US running his company. But after a few months Syrians in the US felt there was a need to establish political representation for the revolution: "A small group of us met in Istanbul and we worked on creating a national council for Syria."

Eventually he was elected president of the media office by the SNC council. Initially at least he had real problems finding qualified staff: "Few people in Syria did media professionally as we know it in the West."

His top tier of comms people is largely professional. Some worked in the West, some worked in Assad’s media ministry, but the majority of junior workers are volunteers. He has just 40 people working for him in his office with another 25-30 volunteers and interns monitoring the world’s media.

Saleh is now based in Istanbul, where he has taken the opportunity to open Invesp’s first European office.

He used to visit the conflict areas regularly to gather news and promote the party line, presumably crossing into Syria from Turkey. But since he learned he is third on the death list of an organisation called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, a particularly bloodthirsty former Al-Qaeda affiliate now aligned with the Assad regime, his visits have been curtailed.

Politics and the people

Now, not only does his office have to educate the fighters about the right way to behave, it has the unenviable task of explaining the grindingly slow political context.

It is a hard, painful sell, he says. "We educate and inform Syrians about news of the revolution and the support we are receiving internationally. But what do you say to a man whose family has been blown apart by a barrel bomb? How do you explain to people dealing in death every day the significance of trying to win a seat on the Arab League? They ask is it going to stop the killing? Is it going to save my mother? Unfortunately I have to shake my head and answer no."

The SNC media office also has a more conventional press office role, supplying Syrians and the international community with the latest news.

"We also want to serve as the most reliable source of information. We want to be the go to source for commentary and events in Syria."

Internally, the objective is to calm the fears of the silent majority by positioning the revolution as compatible with good governance: "We want to reassure the majority about the shape of the new Syria. We want to calm any fears they may have because that’s what the Assad regime plays on: ‘Without me there will be chaos.’"

When it comes to the outside the world, the messaging is again primarily factual, he says, providing the international community with news and background to the revolution: "Why and how it started, who is behind it, how it is moving forward, what sacrifices Syrians are making, who the opposition are, what they want, how they are organised. And what kind of Syria will there be post-Assad?"

The main aim, he says, is to get material support. He is absolutely clear that the revolution does not want "boots on the ground". Funding for operations, he says, comes primarily from Gulf countries, particularly Qatar. The US government picks up the tab for salaries in the 40-strong media office.

He shrugs off the suggestion that accepting American funding may compromise the SNC’s position, marking it as an ally of an ally of Israel. "Quite the opposite; people here feel the US is not doing enough. The average Syrian just wants the world to help."

But he cannot conceal his disappointment at what he sees as the tepid response of the West in particular. He understands that previous adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the West wary: "Often we say that a discussion of helping Syria turns into a discussion about Iraq in 2002." But he says the background is so different this time: "Even if you don’t want to be militarily involved, at least help the FSA to operate."

Syrians are paying a very high price for the previous mistakes of neo-liberalism, he seems to suggest: "Countries don’t act on ethics and morality. They act in their own interests. So we have to take small political gains, talk to our people about them and explain this is the way the world works. It’s slow and we have to take whatever victories we can."

The SNC’s credibility and legitimacy is further compromised by the confused and fragmente nature of the Syrian revolution itself. The SNC is the most influential revolutionary body and its 114-member Parliamentary Assembly is recognised as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people by 120 states and organisations, including the US, the European Union, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. But it isn’t even the only coalition group.

The left-leaning National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change also claims to represent the revolution. Then there are the hundreds of militias, many with bizarre names such as the Authenticity and Development Front, the Al-Nusra front, Jaysh al-Sham, Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade, the Kurdish Jabhat  al-Akrad and the Iraqi Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, to name but a few.

Saleh half accepts the suggestion that the SNC has what would be called in business "a branding problem", although he is adamant that the people who matter know exactly what it is.

"Western governments understand very well what the coalition represents. It’s a diverse representative of Syrians on the ground. To the Western citizen it may look confusing, with too many groups and too many abbreviations out there. But that is one of our challenges."

He says that the legitimacy of the coalition is derived primarily from people on the ground – it claims to represent 60 to 70 per cent of opposition forces: "We can never reach 100 per cent, but I think we represent the needs and wants of the average citizen quite well.

"People cringe when I say this, but the truth is that revolutions are messy. After Assad, Syria is going to go through a tough time. But remember that Syrians have not practised politics for 44 years. So we are still new at this. We are trying to resolve our differences. In the midst of a revolution it’s an educational process."

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