Russia in media crossfire over Syria

The media war against Syria has got a new target – Russia. Far-fetched stories circulating in western media this week have been raising eyebrows in Moscow.

­Paraphrasing Napoleon’s saying about God and the artillery, today it is “God fights on the side with the best (or at least the most active) media.” This week has been marked with a salvo of controversial news on Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict.

There have been several reports on Russian battleships heading towards Syria. Also, there has been breaking news about Russia, China and Syria conducting joint military exercises on Syrian territory. And on top of that there has been the head of the British government declaring Bashar Assad’s regime falling out of grace with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But truth, as they say, is often the first casualty of war.

“As soon as you have so many forces excited about the war option, there is that danger always, and they will get there through disinformation as usual, like they did before the Iraq war, and before intervention in Afghanistan in the late 1970s also – they always rely on disinformation,” warns Camille Otrakji, a contributing editor for the Syria Comment online magazine.

According to some reports flying in the mainstream media over the past week, Russian battleships laden with arms and troops were rushing to Syria, full steam ahead. Later it turned out they were nowhere near the country, in their home ports in the Baltic and Black Seas.

But in the fog of war, any report, however inaccurate, can have influence.

A Russian ship was turned back from off the coast of Scotland, after it was found to be carrying helicopters bound for Syria. Cue assertions that Russia was supplying combat helicopters to President Bashar Assad.

“We’re concerned about the latest information we have about attack helicopters on their way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically,” said US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Later Ms. Clinton admitted that she wrong in her assertions.

“The ship which is being discussed these days was indeed carrying air defense systems. And it was carrying three helicopters which had been repaired in Russia under contracts signed in 2008. Those are Soviet helicopters. They have been in Syria since Soviet days,” stated Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “In 2008 there was a contract to repair them. They are still to be assembled after delivery. That entire process will take at least three months. So to speak about something we have just sold to Syria, which is then to be used in action, is not true at all,” Lavrov added.

But it wasn’t only ships. There have been claims that Russia-China-Syria war games were planned, too. Iranian news agency Fars reported that Iran, Russia, China and Syria are planning to conduct joint military exercises in Syria next month. Many analysts say the story was planted by Syria or Iran as a show of strength, and that US outlets took it up because it suited them.

“All the US news agencies love the story because it matches their narrative that the Syrian regime and its supporters in Iran or Russia or China are the bad guys in this battle, and they are the ones who are escalating the conflict, instead of seeking a peaceful solution. So they like the story, even though they rarely pay attention to Iranian news agencies,” Camille Otrakji explained to RT.

Then there is the war of words. British Prime Minister David Cameron came out of a meeting with President Putin at the recent G20 summit saying that Putin no longer wanted President Assad in power in Syria. Russia’s Foreign Ministry later denied that was Putin’s position. But was this a case of lost in translation, wishful thinking on the PM’s part, or another attempt to exert pressure on Russia? The Russian President will have to be more careful in choosing his interlocutors next time.

“The last 15 months there has been a media attack on Syria. The Syrian crisis is 70 per cent in the media, 30 per cent on the ground,” Haitham Alsibahie from Syrian Social Club says. “So there are quite a lot of stories every day, like some Arab channels and Al Jazeera using YouTube, and there are no confirmed reports anymore.”

All this international rumor-mongering and jockeying for power comes at the expense of the Syrian people. Their situation doesn’t change regardless of which country wins the latest battle of words.