Warning notes raining over Eastern Ghouta
Syrian regime leaflets claim “the army is coming”.
As the residents of the Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, struggle to piece their lives back together amid ongoing air strikes by both the Russian and Syrian air forces, they have been subject to a psychological warfare as regime warplanes continue to drop thousands of leaflets upon their war-torn villages most recently during the last week of 2015.
“Return to the arms of your nation,” one crumpled paper read. Another note invited the rebels to “lay down your weapons … and let’s begin buidling the homeland“.
Other notes were more intimidating with the familiar threats of the regime: “You are surrounded. The army is coming. The Ghouta will return to the arms of the nation.” They were signed at the bottom: The General Commander of the Armed Forces.
Another asked people to search for a green-coloured note among the dropped leaflets that would offer amnesty and “safe passage” through any of the army-controlled checkpoints surrounding the Ghouta.
“It’s all deceit and lies,” says Salim al-Shami, a humanitarian and development coordinator in the Eastern Ghouta who spoke exclusively with Al Jazeera. Al-Shami says that these leaflets may have had some effect early on in the war, and several people had defected and surrendered early on; but now, after countless civilian deaths and unimaginable devastation, it’s not the case. “Those who witnessed the destruction and raised their weapons to fight against the injustice and bring down the oppressive regime are completely unfazed by these empty words.”
READ MORE: Letter from Douma: ‘Our children are being killed’
This form of psychological warfare is not a new tactic of the regime, and there have been numerous attempts to reach into the rebel-held areas in the vicinities of the Ghouta, and such notes have reached as far as Aleppo and Idlib, as well as Rastan and Talbiseh in the province of Homs.
Other areas, including Daraya and Moadamieh located southwest of Damascus, also witnessed similar leaflets being dropped by regime helicopters, some addressing the “dear young people” of these villages early on in the war, prior to the bloody massacresthat took place in 2012.
“The notes were very frequent in the early days of the war,” al-Shami said. “The army would send them when some major event happens.”
Also when emotions run high and people are in a state of panic and uncertainty. This particular set of leaflets followed the death of rebel leader Zahran Alloush, the leader of the Jaysh al-Islam group who was killed December 25 in an air strike claimed by Syrian government forces.
Ammar Waqqaf, director of Gnosos, an organisation that reflects stakeholder opinion in Syria and the Middle East, said that the dropping of these leaflets are likely “not intended to to be a tactic to gain advantage of the instability that would naturally follow the death of someone of Alloush’s calibre”.
“They are part of a continuous operation the government hopes might secure both a softer resistance and a faster reintegration of people who have been living outside government control,” Waqqaf said. Such leaflets, he added, are a part of the standard psychological warfare doctrine of the Syrian army.
“These tactics are more likely to work in areas where internal divisions are present. The Eastern Ghouta is a relatively large area in which such divisions are indeed present.”
READ MORE: Survival in Madaya: ‘We are living on water and salt’
However, al-Shami says that people know that if they were to take the notes to regime-controlled areas, they’d be detained or even killed. “Today, everyone in the area knows that the leaflets [offering amnesty] are complete lies,” he says, adding that he believes these “safe passage” notes are only a new way for the regime to identify those on the inside who could potentially be tortured for information or killed if they’re deemed to have no useful information.
According to al-Shami, many of the people who attempted to leave the besieged Eastern Ghouta with these cards were arrested and are either still imprisoned or their whereabouts are unknown.
These groups of people consisted primarily of widows and children and elderly, with few young men. None, according to al-Shami, had any links to the rebels or posed a threat to the regime.
“The siege has been harsh on all of us. Many people couldn’t be patient any longer and would think to themselves: ‘We don’t carry weapons, we have nothing to do with this war. We don’t want to suffer under this siege any longer.’ They thought they’d found a way out. But they didn’t realise that death was waiting for them at the other side,” al-Shami says.
“Such tactics always work in a besieged and tired area, but their success rate is relative to many factors,” Waqqaf says. In this case, these factors are likely dependent on the history of the besieged group and their overall trust that the goverment will uphold the promise of security upon surrendering.
Layla Saleh, assistant professor at the department of international affairs and a researcher on Syria at Qatar University, says the very act of dropping the leaflets suggests the regime knows the degree of resistence coming from these areas. “The construction and dropping of these messages is an implicit recognition [by the regime] of local resilience, despite years of siege and continued aerial bombardment.”
Saleh noted the striking “combination of threats with almost cajoling appeals to reason and patriotic sentiment” as well as “religious overtures to ‘sinners’ against the nation”. She added that “these same ‘citizens’ are also called ‘terrorists’ in some of the leaflets”, likely increasing scepticism of those who may not know what their standing will be and whether or not they’d be welcomed or punished upon surrendering.
“So, [they’re told to] repent, act in your own self-interest, lay down your weapons, come back to the national fold – or your life is in danger,” Saleh told Al Jazeera. “The regime narrative has been consistent in this regard since the early days of the revolution.”
But, the scepticism runs deep and the people in Ghouta know their worth to Assad’s army, al-Shami says. “The army is willing to kill 100 civilians in order to target three known rebel fighters.”
“Some people who made it to the other side [with the green-coloured notes] were given an ultimatum: They’d have to join forces with Assad’s army either as fighters or spies. They’d be told to fight against their families still in the rebel-held areas,” he added.
“There were times when dozens of people would go to the checkpoints and they would be killed on the spot.”
“That’s what made these leaflets completely ineffective in the end. People know better than to trust anything that the regime says – not after what we’ve seen from them.”