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For more than three years, Syrian actors have been making statements from inside Syria about the inhumane situation the public is forced to live in, a crisis that caused more than 90 per cent of the population to live below the poverty threshold, according to reports issued by the UN agencies.
Curiously, those same artists who dedicate their influence to express their dissatisfaction are well-known for their support of the regime, according to past statements during and after the Arab Spring of 2011.
Weeks ago, Abbas al-Noury, a prominent Syrian actor and household celebrity, was featured on the front page of media outlets in footage that went viral on social media but for an unusual reason. In an interview with Al Madina FM, he said that the military dictatorship robbed Syria of its hope for democracy and how the Gulf states are more democratic.
Noury also mentioned that the intelligence agencies create barriers that frighten the people. Hours after publishing the interview, it disappeared from the radio station’s website.
At the same time, a campaign was launched against the star by the Syrian pro-regime influencers on both local and social media. In a matter of days, Noury appeared on the same radio to retract his statements and acknowledge the army’s role in making the country safe.
Some pro-Syrian regime actors like Ayman Zeidan, Firas Ibrahim and Shokran Mortga defended Noury’s freedom of speech. Not too long ago, they expressed their dissatisfaction with the domestic situation, accusing the government and the corrupt officials of being responsible for the deteriorating living conditions in the country without any explicit or implicit mention of the head of the regime and the army, as these two are untouchable.
Those who cross them are subject to prosecution, arrest, torture or even death. And it happened already with thousands of activists who protested against the regime following the civil uprising in March 2011, some of whom were well-known artists.
Celebrities and the Regime Pre-2011
The Syrian drama was the most prolific entertainment for the past three decades in Syria. It outperformed cinema, theatre and every other form of art, which were all policed by the regime back in the 1960s either officially or unofficially.
TV dramas have been broadcasted on various Arab satellite channels over the years, and the regime had strict control over them. They are even leveraged as an effective tool for propaganda.
Perhaps the most notable example of using drama as a political tool is the Syrian historical dramas, which are presented through the regime’s narrative in many places.
The image of Turkey and France as occupiers is more prominent when tension with the two countries rises. Additionally, the role of the ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party is featured on TV as it is in the state-approved school books, especially the “Civics” course.
The Syrian regime played an essential role in filtering dramas before broadcasting through multiple layers of censoring nets. Historically, many shows had scenes modified or edited out, while others were outright banned because the regime claimed they could influence public opinion.
“Ayam Al Waldana” was banned from Syria for many years due to its political content and the mockery of the Syrian intelligence agencies. Also, the 2007 period drama “Al-Hussrum Al-Shami” was banned in Syria for somewhat unknown reasons, but it may be because Damascus is shown in a different light than the regime is used to.
The influence of the mega-celebrities of Syrian dramas did not go unnoticed by the regime. They were rarely ever seen on screens discussing political issues. It was limited to specific scenarios like events that have a political impact on Syria, such as the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005 and the Israeli bombings of the Gaza Strip.
During these times, some celebrities turn into mouthpieces for the regime. They miss no opportunity to promote the same image the Syrian regime has been polishing since the 1970s, which is that Syria is a “country of resistance that pays the price of standing against Israel.”
These messages were echoed across all state-affiliated satellite channels and some privately-owned ones. There were no opposing voices as the celebrities had taken a vow of silence because the hefty price tag was crystal clear after 2011.
2011: Celebrity as a Variable in the New Equation
The role of the celebrities emerged strongly after 2011 when some of the top Syrian drama actors swarmed TV screens to support the regime. Hardly a day had passed without a high-profile celebrity emphatically defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian army and denouncing any opposition.
They used a language used by Assad himself in describing the protestors, from “infiltrators” to “terrorists” and “conspirators.”
Duraid Lahham, one of the most famous Syrian actors, who featured fighting authoritarianism in a lot of his theatrical productions during the 1970s, was now featured on talk shows to confess that his love for the Syrian president had turned into “infatuation,” calling the demonstrators “the deceived.”
Other famous stars like Ayman Zeidan, Ghassan Massoud, Abbas al-Noury, Sulaf Fawakherji, Bassem Yakhour, Seif Eddin Subaie, and dozens of others followed suit. They parroted the same narrative that stood with the regime.
It was possible, though, to talk about the administrative corruption and to consider it partially responsible for the unrest in the country.
The constant appearances of Syrian celebrities on local satellite channels and social media to talk about the war against their country, the role of the Syrian army in protecting the country, and what was called the “cosmic war against Syria” spread with great intensity.
And it drew attention to the role played by this class of influencers and the regime’s interest in featuring these actors on screens even if it appears theatrical. At one point, clips went viral of Syrian actors crying because the entire world was conspiring against their beloved country.
Some artists gush about the Syrian army that “persevere in cold and hunger to protect the country.” These clips gained millions of views, and they are considered a propaganda tool to support the Syrian regime in its battle.
In contrast, the celebrities who opposed the regime were considered a minority. They were labelled “conspirators,” and foreign governments financed their voices. Among them are Khaled Taja, May Skaf, Jamal Suliman, Maxim Khalil, Fares Al-Helou, Nawar Boulboul and others.
Hostility towards the anti-regime Syrian actors abroad quickly grew. After all, they publicly protested against the regime on TV and social media. The first to accuse them of treason were their colleagues who frequent cultural and political shows.
The Syrian Actors Syndicate revoked the membership of the opposing artists. Zuhair Ramadan, the late chairman of the syndicate who died recently, was known for his clear hostile attitude towards his colleagues abroad and was one of their most vicious critics.
Are Things Different Today?
Some media outlets describe the attitude of the celebrities living in Syria today as contradictory compared to 2011. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. The escalation of the anti-corruption rhetoric, and the discontentment with the living conditions, was always in line with their support for the Syrian army.
Perhaps what happened recently with Abbas al-Noury, who apologised publicly for what he said, is only evidence of the inability to backtrack from previous stances. The criticism the artist is allowed is never more evident than when it comes to the army and the president himself.
These past years have not yet recorded any radical change in the position of any Syrian celebrity, as those who supported the Syrian regime in 2011 kept doing so in 2022, they live in Syria or neighbouring countries, and they can visit whenever they want.
On the other hand, for opponents like Zaki Cordello and thousands of victims of enforced disappearance since 2012, those abroad know their fate is sealed the moment they step foot back in Syria.