The United States that is facing hard times in Syria decided to invent a few PR victories in order to improve the public image of its ongoing military presence in the war-torn country.
On Janaury 23, James Jeffrey, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for Syrian engagement and the anti-Islamic State coalition, said U.S. forces intercepted an unidentified Russian major general near Manbij 14 months ago.
“At one point, we intercepted a Russian major general who was driving towards the town of Manbij,” he said in a televised briefing. According to hom, the supposed interception “was all dealt with in these military-to-military channels”.
To provide a broader look at this ‘successful interception’, it should be noted that US forces withdrew from Manbij and it is now under protection of the Syrian Army and the Russian Military Police.
Earlier in Jajuary, several reports appeared saying that US forces were blocking movements of Russian Military Police patrols in northeastern Syria. So far, the Russian side has not reacted to these actions. Most likely, Russian forces received an order to not escalate the situation, while Moscow was contributing efforts to stabilize its relations with Washington on the international level. It’s highly likely that the State Department took these reports to create another ‘US victory’ in Syria.
Since the very start of the Russian campaign in the war torn country, the propaganda was a weak side of Russia. In August 2018, SouthFront released a detailed summary of military and political developments in Syria in the period from 2015 to 2018. The situation with the mainstream media and propaganda was adressed:
INTERNATIONAL REACTION AND PROPAGANDA
Since the very start, Russian military actions in Syria have faced strong criticism from the mainstream media and governments of the US-led bloc. Opponents of the Russian military operation have used and continue to use the following theses:
- The conflict in Syria will be a second Afghanistan for Russia;
- The key goal of the Russian military operation is to combat the moderate opposition, not ISIS or al-Qaeda (also known in Syria as Jabhat al-Nusra);
- Russia supports the bloody Assad regime, which has no legitimacy and is hated by the entire population;
- Russia participates in indiscriminate bombings of targets and uses unguided, conventional “dumb” bombs thus causing a high degree of civilian casualties;
- Russian forces suffer casualties on a constant basis but the Kremlin is hiding them;
- The Russian Defense Ministry is an unreliable source of information in comparison to the Pentagon or the US Department of State or even to such “independent” organizations as the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, the White Helmets and Bellingcat.
These claims are especially interesting, because they exploit the audience’s lack of information about the conflict and mix facts with exaggerations or even outright lies. While the Russian side is also far from being innocent in promoting a one-sided version of the story, the US and its allies have a much larger and better funded media conglomerate by which to spread their propaganda. Mistakes of the Russian Defense Ministry in the coverage of its military operation in the country also played their own role.
Three examples of such high profile public speaking mistakes:
- On November 14, 2017 an official page of the Russian Defense Ministry released fake photos [old photos from Iraq and a screenshot from a video game] to illustrate a statement on interaction between the US-led international coalition and militants of ISIS. Later, the defense ministry said that a civil employee attached the wrong photos to the post and the incident was under investigation; however, no details on the result of this investigation were provided.
- In the third part of Oliver Stone’s Showtime special “The Putin Interviews” broadcasted from June 12 to June 15, 2017 Putin took out a cellphone to show Stone a clip of how Russian aircraft were striking militants in Syria. The video that appeared was US gun camera footage originally filmed in Afghanistan in 2013.
- On October 24, 2017, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that since the start of the operation in Syria, 503,223 km2 were liberated from terrorists. The problem here is that Syria’s total area is about 185,180 km2. Shoigu’s figure is 2.71 times larger than the entire country as it existed before the conflict.
One could describe these incidents as probable acts of informational sabotage. Putin does not use a personal cellphone, so some person had to have prepared the video beforehand. A Defense Ministry staffer provided Shoigu with the grossly incorrect figure, and someone released obviously fake photos via the defense ministry’s social media page. Were these very amateurish mistakes, or calculated sabotage? It is most probable that all of these cases are the result of the gross negligence or low quality of work of some middle to low level staffers involved in providing informational support concerning Russia’s military actions in Syria.
Only a small portion of the Russian Defense Ministry’s statements can be found on its website. Content demonstrated during press conferences – maps, photos and detailed information – is not translated into English and is not uploaded to the official ministry website after press conferences. The Russian mainstream media, such as Sputniknews and RT, do not attempt to cover all of the facts and details revealed during the press briefings. Thus, a major part of the audience, especially an English-speaking audience, remain uninformed about key facts and evidence provided. This situation is another factor allowing the Western mainstream media, pundits and experts to ignore the key arguments of the Syrian-Iranian-Russian alliance and to push their own narrative.
Two major examples of this:
On April 25, 2018 Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy held a press briefing providing details on the results of the April 14 US-led missile strike on Syria. Colonel General Rudskoy demonstrated a presentation that included maps with locations and details of the missile interceptions and multiple photos of the intercepted missiles with comments explaining what they illustrated – all in Russian. Some vestiges of the intercepted missiles were also showcased during the press conference.
None of the content demonstrated by Colonel General Rudskoy was uploaded online following the press briefing. None of the content demonstrated was translated into English and covered in detail by RT, Sputniknews or any other Russian mainstream English-language media outlets. Even a detailed photo-report showing the vestiges of the intercepted missiles demonstrated during the press conference can hardly be found in English reporting of the event.
On April 26, 2018 Syrian and Russian officials held a press conference in The Hague. As previously stated, it was entitled “Presentation by the representative of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation with direct participants of the fake video produced by ‘White Helmets’ on 7th April 2018, in the Hospital of Douma”. The press conference included a detailed overview of the results of the Russian-Syrian investigation of the April 7 incident in Douma with photos, videos, and statements from experts and eyewitnesses. None of the content demonstrated during the 2 hour press conference was uploaded online. No comprehensive coverage of the entire story, including facts and details, provided during the event appeared in the Russian mainstream media’s English language reporting.
As a result, the Western mainstream media was able to ignore these events and Western officials denounced them as propaganda stunts, while not addressing any of the facts or evidence provided by the Russian side, demonstrating the sad fact that if something does not exist for the English-speaking audience, it does not exist at all. Another failure of the Russian media is the unclear opinion expressed regarding the status of PMCs involved in the conflict. Private military companies and mercenaries are illegal in Russia, at least officially; however, such entities do exist and their members have been participating in the conflict for quite some time.
Here is an example how the MSM and U.S. officials exploit this official ambiguity:
On February 8, 2018 the US-led coalition released a statement saying that on February 7th it had struck “pro-regime forces” attacking “Syrian Democratic Forces headquarters” in the Euphrates Valley. According to local sources, the US strikes hit pro-government forces in the area between the village of Khasham (controlled by the government) and the CONICO gas facility (controlled by the SDF). Pro-government forces, supported by some PMCs, were allegedly trying to recapture the gas facility from the SDF.
The Pentagon stated that the strikes were defensive. The Russian side said that the US had attacked local militias carrying out operations against ISIS cells. However, the difference in these claims is not the most interesting part.
Almost immediately after the first reports of the US strikes, western MSM outlets started releasing reports based on anonymous sources that stated that between 100 and 300 “pro-Assad fighters” were killed by the strikes. A few days later, once again relying on anonymous sources, 100 to 300 allegedly killed “pro-Assad fighters” morphed into 100 to 300 killed “Russian fighters” – i.e. PMCs. Some “experts” and outlets even claimed that this number was much higher, in the realm of 600 killed.
The story developed further on April 12, when Michael Pompeo, then the CIA director recently nominated to be US State Secretary, claimed that the US had killed “a couple hundred Russians”. On April 20, US President Donald Trump provided his own statement based on the same story, claiming that there was a direct engagement between US and Russian troops in Syria and “many people died in that fight”.
This entire story demonstrates how a clear media forgery could reach the wide international audience and start being repeated as a fact. Since February 7, when the strikes took place, there has been zero evidence that can confirm any major casualties among Russian PMCs in this incident. 300 or 600 killed Russians in Syria is not something that can be hidden; however, no photos or videos of the bodies, names or any other evidence has ever been presented. The analysis of open data made by both pro-Syrian and pro-US analysts has concluded that 5 Russians may have reportedly died during the week when the US strikes took place. However, no details regarding the nature of their deaths are available. Sources in the SAA and other pro-government formations also deny any such casualties among Russian PMCs.
On February 14, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that five “presumably Russian citizens” could have been killed in Syria and described reports about “mass” casualties among the Russians as fake news. The MSM has continued repeating the “300-600 killed Russians” story for almost half a year now. The narrative works because there is no official data on Russian PMCs in Syria. The MSM can effectively repeat a story which has no factual basis, while claiming that the Kremlin is hiding hundreds of casualties, because the Russian government continues to maintain a position of strategic ambiguity regarding the issue of Russian PMCs’ activities in Syria.
The Russians forgot to create their own army of NGOs and activist groups that would be able to oppose a media campaign run against them by the White Helmets, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Bellingcat and other organizations that claim impartiality, but are funded and promoted by the US and its allies. Only the many hard-won military victories on the ground allowed the Syrian-Iranian-Russian alliance to compensate for the many setbacks faced in the information war being waged by the US-led bloc and its massive media arsenal.
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