Since the beginning of September, Russia’s top officials have been on the offensive, calling repeatedly for the creation of an “international coalition to fight against terrorism and extremism,” in the words of Vladimir Putin on September 4.
In a widely reported press conference, Putin gave his own assessment of the Syrian crisis and the rise of the Islamic State (IS). A few quotes tell the story:
“We have to fight together against terrorism and extremism.”
“People are not running away from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but from IS.”
“The U.S. air force is conducting certain air strikes. So far, their effectiveness is not high.”
“This [refugee] crisis was absolutely to be expected. We in Russia, including your humble servant, said years ago that there would be massive problems if our so-called Western partners carried on with their mistaken foreign policies… Of course it was mainly the policy of our American partners… Europe, following America’s orders blindly, is now carrying the burden.”
Just over a week later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov previewed Putin’s address to the United Nations—his first in a decade—in a TV interview. His quotes indicate that Putin will tell world leaders exactly what he told the press:
“Air strikes alone cannot solve the problem. If the coalition forces could establish contact not only with the Iraqi government, but also with the Syrian government (…) the synergy effect would be much stronger than what we are seeing now.”
“The Syrian armed forces will come out on top as the most effective military force on the ground.”
“Efforts to combat terrorism should be free from double standards. Terrorists shouldn’t be divided into good and bad. Nobody should think of working with some of those ‘bad’ extremists to achieve specific momentary geopolitical gains.”
“We want to make our [EU] partners learn the lesson of their earlier deeds. Everyone should understand from where these migrant waves are coming, and why.”
And after Russia, Syria. On September 16, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had his own say, giving a rare and lengthy interview to Russia’s state-run media, including the official state newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta. His comments might almost have been scripted in the Kremlin, so closely did they echo those of Putin and Lavrov:
“We are open to cooperation with any other state which seriously wants to fight against terrorism, but we do not see that desire in the so-called ‘anti-terrorist, anti-IS coalition’ led by the U.S.”
“These [refugees] actually fled Syria because of the terrorists.”
“That coalition is having no effect on the ground.”
“We are the only force which is fighting IS on the ground.”
“Europe is responsible [for the refugee crisis], because it supported terrorism, and still supports it. They call the terrorists ‘moderate’ and divide them into different groups, but really they’re all extremists.”
It is a wholesale rebranding of reality. In the Russian-Syrian narrative, the civil war was started only by terrorists attacking the legitimate government. Refugees are fleeing the barbarism of IS. Assad’s forces are leading the fight against IS. All those fighting Assad are terrorists, and the only way to defeat them will be for the West to stop pushing for Assad’s removal, and to support his army militarily.
There is no room in this narrative for Assad’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, nor his army’s use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons on civilians; no room for the huge variety of fighting groups in Syria, from pro-democracy moderates to out-and-out extremists; no room for the U.S.-led airstrikes in northern Syria which allowed the Kurdish militia YPG to retake the city of Kobane from IS.
It is a narrative which portrays Assad as a victim, Russia as a concerned bystander and the West as incompetent imperialists bent on world domination.
Given that the two presidents’ speeches align so closely, and that Assad’s interview was published in media controlled by the Kremlin, the chorus looks like a deliberate campaign in the run-up to UNGA.
What is it meant to achieve?
If the words are to be taken at face value, they represent an attempt to forge an international military coalition against IS involving U.S.-led airstrikes, Russian military equipment, and a ground effort spearheaded by the Syrian army.
There is, however, significant reason to doubt that this is the goal. First, the U.S., which would be vital to any international coalition, has flatly rejected the idea of cooperating with Assad on airstrikes, or even of condoning Russian military support for him: In the words of State Department spokesman John Kirby, “If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Assad.”
Second, the other current participants in the U.S.-led coalition flying strikes against IS in northern Syria include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates—fierce critics of Assad, fierce rivals of his key regional ally Iran. It would take an optimist or surrealist of the highest calibre to believe that such countries would back Assad militarily, and Putin is neither.
Third, to portray Assad’s forces as leading the fight against IS is a grotesque misrepresentation. As reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights show, Assad’s troops are fighting in the north, south, and centre against a wide variety of militants and civilians, ranging from the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army to the al Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Confronting IS is just one part of their activity, and not even the largest one.
To suggest that Assad could safely turn his forces to a full-scale assault on IS, while leaving such committed enemies on his flanks, is a military absurdity.
Even the tone in which the diplomatic overture is couched is incompetent. Accusations of “thoughtless and illegitimate actions in violation of the U.N. Security Council mandate,” as Lavrov leveled at the West in describing the 2011 NATO-led Libyan operation, seem ideally calculated to prevent a meeting of minds.
But while the coordinated PR campaign appears singularly ineffective in terms of diplomacy, it fits extremely neatly into the Russian pattern of information warfare.
Russia’s model of disinformation is based on four principle techniques: dismissal of critics and opponents, distortion of facts, distraction of the audience, and spreading dismay with warnings of the dire consequences of opponents’ policies.
Three of the four are evident in the Russian-Syrian campaign.
There is the dismissal of Assad’s military opponents—“all extremists”—and denigration of the “ineffective” U.S.-led campaign.
There is the distortion of the reality on the ground, with the claim that Assad’s army is the only body capable of resisting IS.
And there is the attempt to distract attention from the civilian suffering caused by Assad’s forces, by blaming it all on IS (“People are not running away from Assad’s forces, but from IS.”)
Equally important is what is not being said. Neither Putin, nor Lavrov, nor even Assad referred in their interviews to the presence of Russian combat troops and tanks in Syria. Lavrov said there were merely “Russian experts who help to get the equipment (provided by Russia) up and running, and to train Syrian personnel to handle these weapons”. Putin said that Russia is “giving Syria serious enough support with equipment, weapons and the training of soldiers.”
Tellingly, the Rossiiskaya Gazeta journalist interviewing Assad did not even ask about Russia’s military role—although questions were asked on support from Iran, and relations with Egypt and Turkey. Such an obvious omission by a journalist from a government outlet, at a time when the Western press are loudly debating the Russian presence, can only realistically have been deliberate.
Most important of all, however, is when it is being said. Putin is due to address UNGA in less than two weeks’ time, for the first time in a decade, and his visit is likely to be distinctly uncomfortable; almost as uncomfortable as Assad’s will be if he goes.
Relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Since the last UNGA, a year ago, copious proof has emerged that Russia not only stoked the war in Ukraine, but fought it. Russia has repeatedly been accused of violating the very rules-based order the UN was meant to promote, and been told that it is “not conceivable” for it to rejoin the Group of Eight leading powers under current circumstances. A tentative ceasefire in Ukraine is now holding, but it has not been enough to stop the EU from extending its sanctions against key Russians until March 2016.
On top of that, Putin is now suspected of planning a military move in Syria to back his old ally Assad; Amnesty International has accused him of sheltering the Syrian leader against charges of war crimes; and shortly after UNGA, the Dutch Safety Board is due to release its long-awaited report on the downing of the MH17 airliner over Ukraine. With the focus on an anti-aircraft missile reported by social-media investigations to have been linked to the Russian-armed rebels, and a separate criminal investigation warning that there may well be charges of war crimes, the report is likely to bring further trouble to the Kremlin.
The accusations are so many and so varied that no debater would be able to defend against them all; and that is why Putin has evidently decided that the best defense is a good offense. His attacks on the West and his implausible suggestion of a grand alliance appear to be a distraction technique on the grand scale, a way of turning the rhetorical pressure on his enemies by making it look as if he is the one with ideas, and they are the ones rejecting them.
The problem is: It’s working.