Authoritarian media and diversionary threats: lessons from 30 years of Syrian state discourse

Scholars have long argued that leaders manipulate foreign policy, sometimes even initiating wars in order to enhance their domestic political position. But diversionary wars are relatively rare given the high costs of conflict. In this project, we examine data from major Syrian daily newspapers over a 30-year period (1987–2018) to explore how autocratic regimes use diversionary rhetoric. We find that before the 2011 Arab Uprisings, Syria's state-controlled media concentrated on Israel as a security and political threat. Emphasis on Israel as a diversionary threat decreased during peace negotiations between Syria and Israel, probably in a bid to prepare the Syrian public for normalization of bilateral relations. After 2011, scrutiny of Israel—and other long-standing topics of state discourse—was displaced by discussion of foreign plots and conspiracies against the Syrian state. Our analysis illustrates how authoritarian regimes make use of diversionary strategies as well as how political shocks generate discontinuities in authoritarian rhetoric.