Are Russian Propagandists Manipulating Footage of Syrian Devastation to Save Assad?
The levels to which Russian propagandists will stoop to cover for the Assad regime continue to hit new lows.
Syrian media activist Hadi al-Abdallah recorded a video yesterday, showing the devastation unleashed on Bustan al-Qaser and Kallaseh, rebel-held parts of Aleppo city, by what he quite clearly referred to as an aerial assault. Given that the only aircraft bombing Aleppo belong to either the Assad regime or the Russian Air Force, the possible culprits behind the killing of at least a dozen civilians, including a small child whose scalp was torn off, exposing the gray matter of his brain, were obvious. Until, that is, Russian propaganda channel RT got a hold of al-Abdallah’s reel minus the references to “warplanes” and “Assad,” then pinned the devastation on al-Qaeda.
Abdullah’s video was apparently edited by APTN, the Associated Press’s licensing service, to which RT is a subscriber. APTN nevertheless noted in its storyline that the footage showed the aftermath of what a “Syrian monitoring group and a first-responders team say [were] new airstrikes on the rebel-held part of the contested city of Aleppo.” RT’s article did not acknowledge that storyline.*
Disinformation like this is of a piece with how Moscow’s media surrogates have depicted the Syrian civil war for five years, but especially since Russia’s intervention in conflict last September on behalf of Assad. Still, this cynical distortion of evidence comes amidst a worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Syria’s industrial city. Pro-regime airstrikes and rebel artillery shelling have killed 200 people in the last week alone, rendering the international truce obsolete. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 60 percent of the fatalities have been on the rebel side.
Particularly egregious was yesterday’s destruction of the al-Quds hospital in rebel-held Aleppo by aircraft, which killed over 50, including patients and medical staff. Among the latter was Aleppo’s most prestigious pediatrician, Dr. Muhammad Waseem Maaz, who was mourned by one of his colleagues on Facebook as “the loveliest doctor in our hospital.” Al-Quds is supported by both Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Germany today blamed the Assad regime for the “blatant violation of humanitarian law.” (Another medical facility, this one a clinic in Aleppo’s al-Marja district, was also reportedly struck today in another airstrike, killing one adult and one child.)
Below is what al-Abdallah said in his original dispatch from Bustan al-Qaser and Kallaseh. The bits in bold are what RT Arabic used from the APTN-licensed footage to make its case that terrorists, rather than pro-regime forces, were responsible for the devastation:
“So here, another place, Bustan al-Qasir neighborhood, the buildings are burning because of the shelling executed by the warplanes on civil houses.
Here, civil defense teams are trying now to extinguish the fire in the civil houses, also here are tens of martyrs and wounded, and people under the rubble, everything is being destroyed.
If the other side of Aleppo is being destroyed, this side is being burnt by the air force of Assad, and by the silence and betrayal of the world, towards what is going on, what is going on in this city.
The hardest feeling ever, is that a mother looks for her children under the rubble of her house, or a father looks for his children under the rubble of his destroyed house,
This is the situation of the residents of Aleppo, everybody is looking for his/her children
A father hugging his child after he found her under the rubble of the house.
Reality cannot be described by words; there is no word that can express of the ugliness of the situation of the civilians in Aleppo city.”
RT’s article accompanying the footage is headlined: “People Killed and injured by ‘Nusra’ bombing on residential neighborhoods of Aleppo.” Nusra here refers to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, but there is no mention of al-Abdallah’s reporting. Instead, RT relies on a “source in Aleppo police command” and Syrian state media outlet SANA to claim that rocket-propelled grenades fired from Bustan al-Qasir caused the death of civilians and damage to residential areas in Meridian, regime-held neighborhood in Aleppo.Not only does this contradict al-Abdallah's clear location of the destruction as in Bustan al-Qasir -- in a part of his narration of the footage that RT used -- but it is belied by what monitors and other eyewitnesses claimed about the site and nature of the attack.
Al-Abdallah is incensed. He tweeted yesterday:
The Daily Beast got in touch with him today via WhatsApp.
“All areas in Aleppo are subject to Russian/Syrian air shelling,” he said, “except the areas that are under Assad control. Yesterday, the areas shelled are, Bustan al-Qasir, Al-Kallasseh, resulted in two massacres, in which 42 were killed and tens wounded.”
“We have some shelters underground but they are not real shelters. They are basements in the buildings but not safe and not enough, and they can be reached and destroyed by Russian rockets or [barrel bombs].” Rescue teams, al-Abdallah said, are “working day and night to help the victims, but it is not enough.” Relief organizations, such as the Syrian Civil Defense group, also known as the White Helmets, are unable to cater to the wounded, including those still trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings.
Al-Abdallah added that civilians are trying to flee the city but cannot because their only way out, the Castillo Road, is being shelled, and “most of them don’t have places to go anyway because the Turkish border is closed.”
Confirming what Syrian journalist Rami Jarrah told The Daily Beast in December, al-Abdallah said that locals are now able to discern the difference between Syrian and Russian warplanes based on three main differences.
The first is the scale of destruction wrought by the sorties: Russian aircraft cause more damage than Syrian aircraft. The second is linguistic: Free Syrian Army rebels intercept communication between jet pilots and their command centers, and can tell who’s about to enter their airspace based on whether Arabic or Russia is overheard. The third is flight formation: Russian planes fly in groups of two, three, and four, whereas Syrian planes fly solo.”
Listen now to the planes’ sound,” al-Abdallah said, as the sound of multiple aircraft could be heard over his voice. “These are the Russians.”
UPDATE: Since this article was published, RT Arabic altered the headline of its original story, the content of that story as well as the title of its embedded YouTube video of Abdullah's edited footage from Aleppo. All changes were made to suggest that the attacks on Bustan al-Qasir were via airstrikes, not Nusra shelling.
* Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that RT Arabic's video was actually pre-edited by APTN, which licensed Abdullah's video to its clients.