Islamic State Propaganda during the Damascus Offensive

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A series of defeats for the Islamic State (IS) through 2017 had reduced their territory in Syria to a handful of holdouts and pockets by the beginning of 2018. The once-expansive organisation, targeted by opponents on all sides, had been reduced to mere pockets scattered throughout the countryside.1.“Islamic State and the crisis in Iraq and Syria in maps” : BBC By then, the only urban area they still controlled was a pocket of territory in Syria’s capital, Damascus. After clearing several rebel-held parts of Damascus, most notably the Eastern Ghouta pocket, the government’s attention turned to the IS-held pocket, the last part of Damascus outside of government control.2.“Assad steps up efforts to crush last besieged enclaves” : Reuters In a month-long offensive, government forces succeeded in capturing the remaining IS territory.3.“Syria’s army captures last insurgent area near Damascus” : Reuters Despite the outcome of this fighting being certain, IS did not waste the opportunity to gain what they could from this situation. The fighting in south Damascus was the most prominent topic for IS propaganda while it was ongoing. With its trademark ultra-violent tone, IS propaganda reinforced broader, long-held stances such as the ‘illegitimacy’ of the rebels. They also showcased the destructive tactics of Russia and Syrian government forces.

IS has had a presence in various parts of rebel controlled Damascus since before declaring their Caliphate in the summer of 2014. Tensions increased throughout 2013 and 2014 between IS and various rebel groups. As a result, this led to several battles that by the end of 2014 forced IS back to Hajar al-Aswad district in south Damascus.4.Kozak, Chris. “The Islamic State Eyes Expansion in Damascus” Institute for the Study of War In the following years, IS would clash with both rebel and government forces, succeeding in an expansion of territory they controlled.5.“Jihadists, Palestinians battle in Syria refugee camp” : Yahoo News

The Syrian government has often used reconciliation agreements to regain territory from rebel groups. Rebels handed territory over to the government in exchange for the evacuation of fighters and their families to rebel held territory elsewhere, usually Idlib province. In March 2018, IS exploited one of these agreements, attacking newly deployed government troops in Qadam district following its handover to the government by rebels. IS succeeded in capturing much of the district and inflicting heavy casualties on government fighters.6.“ISIL takes control of Damascus area after rebels pull out” : The National By the start of the government offensive, IS in southern Damascus controlled parts or all of several districts, with their territory mainly based around Yarmouk Camp, Hajar al-Aswad, Tadamon, and Qadam.

According to the pro-government al-Watan newspaper, on 18 April IS were given a 48 hour deadline to surrender or face a government offensive. During this period, IS controlled territory faced heavy shelling and airstrikes by government forces in preparation for the offensive.7.“Assad steps up efforts to crush last besieged enclaves” : Reuters Unsurprisingly, IS did not surrender, and a government assault began on the early hours of the 21st. It would last for a month, with all IS territory being recaptured by 21 May. A deal was reached a few days before, purportedly to evacuate old, young, and women from the remaining IS territory, but it was instead believed to have seen the evacuation of remaining IS fighters and their families.8.“Syria’s army captures last insurgent area near Damascus” : Reuters

Despite being completely cut off from the remaining pockets of IS territory and under sustained assault, IS in Damascus succeeded in distributing information about the offensive along with pictures and videos, allowing the release of a significant amount of propaganda during the offensive right up to the final day of fighting. In total, during the 30 days of fighting, IS released 135 pieces of propaganda about Damascus from official IS media outlets, including the Amaq news agency. Additionally, the fighting in Damascus featured prominently in multiple editions of IS’s weekly newsletter al-Naba. Unofficial pro-IS media outlets, such as the Moata news agency, were not looked at during research for this piece. Aside from 22 April, propaganda was released daily throughout the offensive. Propaganda relating to that day was instead released a day later, suggesting a brief breakdown in communication which led to IS being unable to release propaganda about the fighting in Damascus that day.

Written statements formed the overwhelming majority of IS propaganda, with over 113 released. This makes the propaganda difficult to verify, while allowing IS to embellish or make up content entirely. Of these, most were brief Amaq statements while longer ones and official statements remained a minority. A total of 11 IS propaganda videos were released, alongside 10 sets of images, and 1 infographic. Excluding the propaganda video released by Wilayat Dimashq that was just over 18 minutes long, the videos released during the fighting in Damascus were very short. Only one was longer than a minute, at 1 minute 17 seconds in time, while the shortest was just 18 seconds long. The average length of all the videos was 44 seconds long. Despite being released on 27 April during the government offensive the Wilayat Dimashq propaganda video focused little on it. Most of the video was footage about the ‘illegitimacy’ of rebels, older footage, or footage of clashes with rebel forces. There was greater content in the form of images, with 70 photos released among the 10 photo sets. However, on two occasions only a single picture was released. A significant number of pictures were of poor quality, or taken in portrait format, possibly taken using a mobile phone instead of a dedicated camera. 

The majority of the propaganda released was from Amaq, primarily short Amaq statements though a few longer ones, with official IS statements were the next most common. The remaining propaganda was split between Amaq videos, photo sets, along with one each of an infographic and Wilayat Dimashq video.

While most of the propaganda, including virtually all of the written statements, focused on combat, some highlighted other common themes in IS propaganda. There was a noticeable amount of propaganda pushing the concept of victimhood and the idea that Sunni Muslims face persecution directed overwhelmingly and unfairly towards their sect to help justify their actions.9.Winter, Charles. “Documenting the Virtual Caliphate” Quilliam Foundation So-called victimhood propaganda typically focuses on the death of civilians, but the limited number remaining in IS held parts of south Damascus meant this was not a possible narrative. The propaganda instead focused on the overwhelming use of indiscriminate airstrikes by Russia and Syria and their high level of destruction. Two videos and one photo-set of 16 pictures focused on this destruction, while the video documented airstrikes. Although victimhood propaganda is normally visual, several written statements were also released about the number of airstrikes that were occurring.

A picture released by IS showing destruction in south Damascus.

Brutality is another common form of IS propaganda, with violent executions often reported as headline news in the Western press. The executions in south Damascus were less like the infamous cases of foreign hostages being killed that were intended to provoke a global reaction. Instead they were likely directed at the government forces opposing them on the ground to demoralise and deter their ground forces.10.Winter, Charles. “Documenting the Virtual Caliphate” Quilliam Foundation During the offensive IS released footage or photo-sets of executions on 6 occasions showcasing the gory executions of 10 captured government fighters.

A final aspect documented within IS propaganda is their attempt to construct a narrative surrounding the ‘illegitimacy’ of rebel forces operating in Syria. This narrative was prominent in the Wilayat Dimashq propaganda video released during the fighting. Particular focus was given through selective footage showing the incompetence of rebel fighters alongside surrendered weapons and equipment. This narrative was soon extended to other propaganda released during the offensive. An example of this narrative pushing could be seen in a picture-set showing equipment IS had captured from government fighters, which highlighted the symbol for the rebel group Jaysh al-Islam present on one of the armaments. Written statements also pushed this narrative, claiming that government attacks were supported by rebels or came from rebel-held areas that were recently handed over to the government.

A picture released by IS showing equipment captured from government fighters. The symbol of the rebel group Jaysh al Islam has been highlighted.

In analysing propaganda, media which is distributed is as significant as media which is absent from releases. It is notable that not a single piece of footage in this dataset was shot via drone. Drone footage has become almost ubiquitous with IS propaganda, and its absences is significant. Not only does it add to the quality of propaganda but the implied lack of drones would have impacted IS’s combat prowess. Without drones, activities like reconnaissance and target acquisition would have been hindered. The lack of drones may be due to this pocket having been constantly besieged since it’s inception. While smuggling is rife, they were apparently one item IS were unable to acquire.

With the fall of the IS pocket in late May the group’s propaganda ceased. No mention of the evacuation was made, with the final piece of propaganda released on May 19 about clashes that had occurred the previous day. Despite the short time-frame and being besieged, IS succeeded in releasing large amounts of propaganda. However, propaganda was predominantly in the form of written statements and the quality of visual propaganda varied. Yet IS was still able to produce plenty of combat propaganda as well as propaganda supporting core IS narratives such as the ‘illegitimacy’ of rebels and victimhood. With the fall of their territory in Damascus, propaganda from there ceased and is unlikely to start again, thereby continuing a downward trend of propaganda production that has plagued the group recently.

Robert Postings

Robert Postings is a writer for the International Review whose research focus is the Islamic State. As well as writing for the International Review he co-authored the 'Spiders of the Caliphate' research paper for the Counter Extremism Project and has published work with the Modern War Institute at West Point and The Defence Post.

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