People living on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have to say frequently due to their daily hardships that carrying a small coffin is the hardest thing. These words have become especially popular in social networks during the Syrian war.
Figures are the biggest tragedy of the Syrian war – half a million victims among civilians, who have been succumbing to Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, self-proclaimed Islamic State and Russian aggression for almost nine years. Moscow’s biggest cynicism in this war is just the use of propaganda methods to convince the world that its military intervention is legal, whereas the deaths of Syrian children in allegedly Russia-led attacks are frequently invented or staged. According to the Russian version, this dramatic scenario has been invented by “indifferent,” “deceitful” and “depraved” West.
Russian “peacekeeping mission” in Arabic
Russia’s military intervention, which began in September 2015, has led the Syrian crisis to the deadlock and it is almost impossible to find the way out. First of all, it was reflected in strengthening Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State (Daesh) was cited as an official reason behind Russia’s intervention. During that period, the terrorist organization had one third of Syria under its control. It was no surprise that Russia’s Cerberus, propaganda machine, would portray an absolutely new, alternative reality in Syria.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria was preceded by years of disinformation campaign for Russian population as well as the states targeted by Kremlin’s information warfare, including Georgia.
“The military circles prefer to develop forces and means to achieve information advantage during the war, crisis or peacetime, implying control over information content and technical means of spreading this content. The key effect of “Information Confrontation”, a concept that is deeply embedded among military circles, is to form the consciousness of target audience and to manipulate their behavior,” says Andro Gotsiridze, cybersecurity expert.
Considering the occupation, terror and hybrid warfare in neighboring countries, the Russian government had several reasons for intervention in the Syrian conflict. The first and the simplest reason was to divert its own population’s attention from social problems to military issues.
Russia’s internal propaganda works so powerfully to achieve its goals that it is difficult for real facts to timely overshadow disinformation. FSB-controlled Russian media easily managed to strengthen Putin’s reputation of alpha dominant, world ruler and “great peacekeeper” in the period of intervention. The myth created during the same period about Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Syria penetrated into those countries through trolls and Russian media outlets, where resistance to Russian propaganda is low. Anti-Western and openly pro-Russian media outlets or Facebook pages operating in Georgia represent a clear example. Rather than cover Russia’s war crimes, in their debates and journalistic materials, the above mentioned media outlets focus on the operation carried out against Daesh, as if the presence of Russian troops and the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization, in Syria serves the only mission – peace.
Diverting the West’s attention from Russian-occupied and annexed territories of Eastern European countries to the Middle East can be clearly named as one of the reasons. Here again, Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) had a strategy to hit several countries with just one shot. In particular, if following Russia’s intervention in Syria, the United States fully switched to deterring Russia’s influence, weakening its attention towards Ukraine and Georgia, Kremlin’s propaganda machine would start working more powerfully. As a result, disinformation full of more arguments would start inciting skepticism in Eastern Europe towards the West.
It partially happened so. Kremlin’s propaganda works in several parallel regimes. Nevertheless, not only the U.S. support for Georgia and Ukraine has not decreased since 2015, but it has even increased that is confirmed by a number of documents adopted by the Congress.
The third and main reason of military intervention was to strengthen Assad’s regime. Russia has two military bases in Syria since the last century. A naval base in Tartus is Moscow’s biggest foothold in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, it gave way to assumptions that to achieve full hegemony Russian troops would not refrain from massacring Syrian population. It is clearly confirmed by all the facts assessed by the UN Human Rights Committee as crimes against humanity since 2011.
Russian troops that intervened in Syria under the pretext of combating terrorism actually targeted Kurdish units fighting against the Assad regime rather than the jihadists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Since 2015, Russian air strikes have killed about 22,000 people, including at least 2,000 children. Eastern Ghouta and Idlib province have been constantly attacked by Russian SU-34 aircrafts from the Hmeimim air base in Latakia over the past three years.
Today, the Russian government, together with the Assad regime, has full control over almost entire territory of the country. The fact that the life of peaceful population does not cost a penny has been confirmed by one of the reports released by the UN Human Rights Committee, according to which in July-August 2019, Russian air attacks killed about 1,900 people in Idlib and its vicinity.
Russian propagandistic media outlets describe the developments in Syria as establishing peace and combating terrorism. Russia Today, Sputnik and Россия Первый канал are carefully hiding the facts of war crimes or are distorting the reality. Russian media did not cover the tragedy of May 16, 2019, when following the schools, residential houses and 19 medical stations, Russian aviation bombed a maternity hospital in the town of Tarmala of Idlib region. Neither had anti-Western Georgian media outlets covered this information, saying instead that Russia was clearing terrorists from Idlib.
Turquoise in Russian propaganda kaleidoscope
In 2005, six years before the Syrian war, the Russian government used the Trojan Horse to enter the Western world. This horse has two names – Russia Today and Sputnik. Russia Today television network with the budget reaching several millions launched its broadcast with an English-language channel. Today, amid information warfare, Russia Today operates as a multilingual service with channels in five languages: English, Spanish, French, German and Arabic.
Following the Ukrainian crisis, the key tool of Russian propaganda – Russian and pro-Russian media – switched to Syria at its full capacity. Several citizens of western countries were also involved in the process. Eva Bartlett, so called Canadian independent journalist and blogger, who, as it emerged later, was hired by Russia Today, arrived in Syria eight times to tell the world about what mainstream, western media outlets “were hiding.” Eva Bartlett, who arrived in Syria to establish the truth, was searching for “the truth” from 2014 to 2018.
Bartlett appeared in the focus of attention after she released a scandalous material three years ago about the White Helmets, a rescue-humanitarian group operating in Syria. The journalist accused the rescuers of staging footages, abusing children and lying.
It all began when the Russia Today-hired Canadian journalist obtained the footage of rescuing a child from the bombed building in Aleppo. The girl was dressed in turquoise clothes. Strange as it may sound, the color of her clothes turned into the main compromising material against Western media and the White Helmets.
Eva Bartlett claimed that the girl in the same clothes rescued by the White Helmets was initially seen in August and later on September 23. The journalist’s material triggered strong outcry among the fans of conspiracy theories, but what is more dangerous, it has reinforced one of the key postulates of Russian propaganda – “The West is lying.”
Quite soon, Eva Bartlett addressed the UN Human Rights Committee, where she claimed that with the involvement of western journalists, the White Helmets, allying with terrorists, were staging footages, abusing children. She claimed that the purpose of this show was to demonize President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Bartlett rejected Russia’s air strikes in Aleppo and its vicinities, as well as the fact of bombing the al-Quds Hospital. This latter incident, leaving 55 people dead, was confirmed by the U.S. Department of State in 2016, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights spread the footage of explosion via Internet.
Eva Bartlett, like all other journalists affiliated with the Kremlin, regardless of their citizenship, was lying. This is confirmed by the reports on civilian casualties released by the United Nations and non-governmental organizations, as well as photo materials of military reporters, including the photo by Reuters photographer, Abdalrahman Ismail, depicting a little girl. Aya was really dressed in a turquoise top, when Russian aviation turned her house into ruins. The second girl is Rawan Alowsh of about the same age, who was also dressed in similar turquoise top and who was rescued by the White Helmets during the September 23 bombing.
But it was not the end of Russia Today’s “independent investigation.” It decided to prove that chemical attacks in Khan Shaykhun and Douma that took place in 2017 and 2018, respectively, were “a performance” masterminded in the West, particularly in the United States, with the White Helmets playing a key role.
Although the case of turquoise clothes, like a crucified boy in the Ukrainian village, is a legend born in the realm of Russian propaganda, sometimes post-truth still works against reality. In the information warfare, anti-Western Facebook pages, trolls, pro-Russian media outlets operating in various countries create fake news on the basis of post-truth.
“Through its paid journalists planted in western media, Russian propaganda spreads content aimed at confusing, demoralizing and influencing the target audience. Simultaneously, it is obvious that trolls are using fake profiles and blogs to promote Russian narratives in information, preliminarily raised topics and ongoing developments, to circulate fake reports and establish desirable public opinion,” cybersecurity expert, Andro Gotsiridze said.
The so called “Turquoise dress case” is one of numerous lies spread by Russian propaganda during the Syrian war. Russian disinformation machine, more aggressive and powerful, as well as intensifying efforts of its trolls and bots, became especially active from April 4, 2017. It was the day when Assad’s dictatorial regime used the chemical agent sarin against the population in Khan Shaykhun (Idlib province).
It was no accident that the Assad regime chose Idlib as the target of its attack. This territory in northwestern Syria remains the main bastion for rebels. The chemical attack killed 89 people, including children. A year later, on April 7, 2018, a chemical warfare attack was carried out in the Syrian city of Douma, killing 50 people. The West responded to the both attacks with precision strikes, prompting Russian disinformation to intensify its efforts. According to the Pentagon, number of fake stories in social networks increased by 2000%; number of fake accounts increased on Facebook and Twitter; Russian media outlets, as well as anti-Western media outlets in various countries, including Georgia intensified their efforts.
Regarding chemical attacks, Russian propaganda works in two various directions: according to the first version, as officials claim, chemical weapon was used by terrorists. According to the second version, the chemical attack was staged by terrorists and their allies, the White Helmets, as a show. Russia media outlets claim that video footages featuring children with health problems and dead bodies wrapped in plastic were staged. However, the truth is quite the opposite. It turned out later that what Russian media or western conspiracy far-right media outlets described as staged, appeared to be the scenes from the filming location. To fabricate their own version, they also used the footage of the so called exercises, where the White Helmets are training Syrian population in how to act during attacks.
No matter how much the pro-Kremlin puppet media outlets deny, the governments of the United States, France, United Kingdom, the United Nations, international non-governmental organizations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have confirmed numerous facts of using chemical weapons in the Syrian war, among them mustard gas, chlorine gas and the most dangerous substance - sarin. The reports are based on doctors’ testimonies and patients’ symptoms. According to the available data, during the Syrian war, chemical weapons, use of which is prohibited, were used almost 80 times. The Assad dictatorial government was behind eight cases, including those cases where the most dangerous substance – sarin was used.
Putin’s Russia has long realized that it will be impossible to prove its own advantage over western civilization through lies or fake news. Just therefore, the Kremlin created a giant mechanism aimed at demoralizing the West rather than portraying Russia’s advantage.
Russia gained huge experience during the August 2018 war. Moscow guessed that at the present epoch, victory will go to the one who successfully leads the information warfare. This is just when a new, most powerful and aggressive stage of Russian propaganda started.
Today, the Russian Federation is sinking in its own toxic lies, making 150 million citizens and millions of other people residing in other countries live in a parallel, false reality. It is just the false reality, where Russia is portrayed as a peacekeeper in the Syrian war, where it “defends” Russian-language population against oppression in Eastern Ukraine, where it “defends” sleeping Tskhinvali with tanks and barbed wires against Georgian aggressors.
Correspondent of Public Broadcaster Especially for Myth Detector
The article is published within the framework of the project #FIGHTFAKE, which is implemented by MDF in cooperation with its partner organisation Deutsche Gesellschaft e.V.