A Russian buildup in Syria? The propaganda machine strikes again

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
A man walks along a damaged street in the al-Katerji district in Aleppo, Syria. © Abdalrhman Ismail
Somebody wants the Saudis and their Arab neighbors to believe that Russia is intensifying its presence in Syria. That possibly explains a hysterical propaganda overload this weekend.

They seek them here, they seek them there. According to certain elements of the US media, Russian soldiers are everywhere. At this stage, the moon is probably the only place you are safe. Then again, maybe they are readying copy which 'proves' that the Russians are hiding on the dark side. Or perhaps even they believe that such an accusation would be a bridge too far.

Russian military personnel have always been in Syria. Moscow has a base there. Furthermore, Vladimir Putin has hardly hidden the fact that his government has fulfilled defense contracts with Damascus. That would require trainers on the ground.

So why did Russia’s involvement in Syria suddenly become such massive news? Is it because relations between the Kremlin and Saudi Arabia are rapidly improving? Or maybe it's down to Washington's fears that Moscow may decide to take out ISIS, unilaterally, or with European approval, freezing America out?

The latest torrent of propaganda started with a post on an obscure Israeli website called Ynet. The portal, which is attached to Yedioth Ahronot, claimed that Russia had begun a military intervention in Syria. Amazingly, in a week, this piece has been ‘recommended’ 24,000 times on Facebook. This is staggering, in light of Ynet’s regular social media penetration. Its total Twitter following is only 12,900. RT’s, for context, is over 1 million. The leading mainstream Israeli outlet, Haaretz, boasts 220,000.

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The menace of unreality

Ynet’s completely unsourced diatribe made a number of outlandish allegations. It suggested that a Russian “expeditionary force” had already established itself inside Syria and that thousands of Russian military personal were en route to the tragic country. Additionally, Ynet, more-or-less, claimed that Iran, Turkey and Russia were all in it together - with the tacit approval of Washington.

Less than 24 hours later, The Daily Beast (which is considered a comic by serious Russia watchers) followed up Ynet’s outlandish allegations. The by-line was interesting. One Michael Weiss, a New York neocon activist, and a failed Republican Party candidate. Weiss has attempted to position himself as a ‘Russia expert’ in recent years. This is despite never having lived in the country and being unable to speak the language.

Some Russia analysts believe Weiss to be a sinister ‘grey cardinal,’ manipulating chunks of Russia coverage in America. It's far more likely that he’s a chancer attempting to cash in on the Russophobia so in vogue in US media these days. A smarter, more streetwise, Ben Judah, with even less scruples.

The day after The Daily Beast’s little slice of fiction; Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations came to the table. Using Weiss and Ynet as his sources, Abram's ‘Putin in Syria’ yarn was, without question, read by Washington policy makers. In fact, that’s the whole point of the CFR. It is regarded as "the nation’s (US) most influential foreign-policy think tank".

© Stringer

On September 3rd, three days after Ynet’s initial foray, the White House was involved. A completely fabricated story on a minor Israeli website was now headline news. Spokesman John Earnest said: "We are aware of reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and aircraft to Syria, and we are monitoring those reports quite closely.” Earnest added that, if true, Russia’s alleged actions would be "destabilizing and counter-productive.”

The “destabilizing” remark can’t pass without comment. The US has trained and armed foreign militants in a bid to overthrow Syria’s government. It is currently illegally bombing the country. Of course, this helps to fuel the migrant crisis in the EU. One assumes that Earnest knows the importance of keeping a straight face when spouting hypocritical baloney.

The hive brain

Following the White House remarks, the usual media suspects dutifully splashed the exaggerated ‘Russians in Syria’ narrative. This one from London’s Daily Telegraph is especially good fun, if baseless promulgation turns you on. Soon, Twitter was abuzz with debate about the Kremlin’s imminent troop deployment. By Saturday, John Kerry was involved. “Secretary of State John Kerry expressed U.S. concern over reports of Russia's enhanced military build-up in Syria in a telephone call on Saturday with his Russian counterpart,” said Reuters.

So, John Kerry, a man of more-than-reasonable intelligence, rebuked Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over a made-up story? That this could happen in 2015, at the highest levels of global diplomacy, is mind-boggling. But happen it, apparently, did.

After the travails of bs-life.ru and its fantasy about 2,000 Russian soldiers killed in the Donbas, another fake casualty story was inevitable. On Saturday, a made-up thing named “pressafoto.ru” reported that 103 Russian troops had been killed in Raqqa. This was no doubt inspired by news that 103 foreign fighters were allegedly killed in Yemen last week. Yes, things really are this crazy.

In the meantime, President Putin, speaking in Vladivostok, repeated what everyone already knew. “We are providing Syria with significant support anyway, both in equipment and personnel training, and armaments. We signed major contracts with Syria some five to seven years ago, and we are complying with them in full.”

READ MORE: US State Dept. nervous about ‘press reports’ of Russian military in Syria

Putin’s words were presented as fresh information by some key Western media organizations, such as the New York Times. However, there was no original content. We are in the territory of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, who mused that "the sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new."

The real story here is not about a non-existent Russia troop buildup in Syria. The pertinent question is why the sudden campaign to spread fear about “Russians in Syria?” Either the US wishes to distract from the European refugee crisis its actions created or it hopes to cool Arab moves towards reconciliation with Moscow. Or both.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.