Countering Russian Mendacity on Syria

To correct lies, the U.S. government needs to be quick, assertive

Countering Russian Mendacity on Syria Countering Russian Mendacity on Syria
The views presented below are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or its... Countering Russian Mendacity on Syria

The views presented below are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or its components.

Discussing Russian mendacity is like arguing that water is wet. Regardless, an understanding of the Kremlin’s claims regarding the war in Syria is necessary before there can be any meaningful dialogue between Washington and Moscow.

This article argues that the U.S. government needs to do a better job using verifiable facts to combat false narratives. Spelling out battle damage in satellite photos or releasing videos of unsafe aerial or naval intercepts — and then presenting the information in one place — would reduce adversarial abilities to promulgate false information.

Likewise, in today’s environment of instant communication, failing to present evidence in a timely, unified fashion reduces the chances of the false narrative taking root.

This article explores Moscow’s positions on Syria, focusing on the Russian responses to Bashar Al Assad’s alleged chemical weapons attack at Khan Shaykun and the retaliatory U.S. Tomahawk missile strike at Shayrat airfield.

It is common knowledge that the Kremlin is adept at manipulating information and sending numerous messages in its information campaigns about the U.S. and European elections, the situation in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, among other topics, so why focus on Syria?

The Russian narratives on Syria — however dishonest they may be — may express some legitimate concerns and specific messaging on Moscow’s interests. The consistency of the Kremlin’s positions may make it possible to separate the lies from Russia’s legitimate concerns and its strategic messaging. In a sense, there may be truth in lies.

Lastly, this article also shows some of the shortcomings in U.S. information releases as regards the Khan Shaykhun chemical weapons attack and Tomahawk strike. Such mistakes unfortunately provide opportunities for manipulation by the Russians or others, and also dilute the messages the United States may be trying to convey.

Before exploring Moscow’s disinformation, though, a couple of caveats are in order. First, dishonesty from either side does not mean that there aren’t areas for U.S.-Russian cooperation. The United States and Russia have many shared interests, including but not limited to arms control, energy supply and distribution, counterterrorism, trade and finance, space exploration, the Arctic and even climate change.

Second, observers should not dismiss Russia’s real interests in Syria, the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin at large. The Russian naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus dates back to 1971 and remains Russia’s only naval installation outside former Soviet territories. The close relationship between Moscow and Damascus extends back to the 1960s, decades before the Syrian civil war ignited in 2011.

If anything, Russo-Syrian relations are at a strong point, especially since Moscow’s direct involvement since 2015 in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime.

Lastly, this article does not purport to present “the truth,” and tries to avoid philosophical or theological debates.

The Pentagon released the flight track of the Su-22 aircraft that took off from Shayrat Airfield and likely used chemical weapons against Khan Shaykhun in the early morning hours of April 4, 2017

False narrative #1 — the Syrian regime didn’t use chemical weapons

Moscow would like the world to believe that Al Assad’s regime wasn’t behind the chemical weapons attack against Khan Shaykhun on April 4, 2017. According to TASS, an official Russian news service, the deaths at Khan Shaykhun resulted from Syrian aircraft hitting terrorist weapons factories and warehouses that were producing munitions with chemical agents supplied to Iraq and used in Aleppo.

Days after the attack, a Russian general staff official told a press conference that the Syrian military had no chemical weapons and had “no need” to use weapons in Khan Shaykhun because the Assad regime was gaining ground. Russian president Vladimir Putin said the attack was a “false flag” operation and that more attacks with planted chemicals were being prepared in the southern suburbs of Damascus, according to an article in RT, a Russian-owned propaganda outlet.

Some officially sanctioned Russian media have tried to dismiss or divert attention away from evidence that implicates the Al Assad regime in the Khan Shaykhun attack. An article in Sputnik derisively claimed, “It seems that [U.S. Secretary of Defense James] Mattis must be trusted on his word that Al Assad acted to kill his own people, because he seems unable to furnish any evidence for his bold claims.”

The article also stated that “a four-page ‘unclassified’” white paper released by the U.S. National Security Council “hardly provides substance that would warrant the allegations.”

The white paper presented unclassified materials that were used to corroborate a body of classified and unclassified intelligence to show that the Syrian regime likely conducted an airborne attack using sarin. In addition to open source reporting, the analysis relied on a body of “signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence, [and] laboratory analysis of physiological samples collected from multiple victims.”

In other words, the U.S. intelligence community had information from Syrian and/or Russian communications about specific individuals, which were combined with information about specific locations at specific times, in addition to open source information like social media posts. This added up to tell “a clear and consistent story,” a plausible, reporting-based timeline of events, and reasonable confidence in the assessments.

Is the account perfect? No, that would be impossible considering imperfect information. There’s also the fact that the report was likely put together by committee under time pressure. There was undoubtedly an overriding concern among the intelligence community and national security professionals to protect sources and methods. Disclosing the specifics can destroy our ability to monitor and prevent future attacks.

Although this point is superficial, the account of the April 4 attack did not include graphics, maps, or photographs to reinforce the written points, nor was the report accessible on the White House website. By contrast, the Obama White House had a webpage after the August 2013 chemical weapons attack with some additional material.

The Pentagon later released supplementary information, such as a map showing the path of the Su-22 aircraft that likely conducted the attack and an aerial picture showing “an impact crater associated with the April 4 alleged attack.”

Regrettably, the quality and readability of the material provided left a lot to be desired. For example, the map tracking the Su-22’s flight doesn’t label Shayrat airfield, from which the attack originated, or give a coherent idea of the times associated with the track. In addition, the information is spread out in multiple places, making the interested reader do the work of trying to cross reference while also opening up the account to criticism and skepticism.

The location of an impact crater in Khan Shaykhun associated with the April 4 chemical weapons attack, according to the Pentagon

Finally, the white paper likely had a mistranslation saying that Moscow initially claimed the attack was a “prank of a provocative nature.” This odd phrasing likely stems from a report on the state-owned Rossiya 24 television station, which itself derived from a press briefing by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on April 5.

Zakharova was referring not to the chemical weapons attack, but to a video from the White Helmets/Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which she claimed was “staged” and of a provocative nature.

Picture of the geolocated impact crater in an article on Bellingcat, an online investigations website, that tied social media posts to the Pentagon’s information about the crater

Closeup photographs of an impact crater associated with the April 4 Khan Shaykhun chemical attack

Fewer than 24 hours after the NSC released its report, Russian-owned RT ran an article presenting “a quick turnaround assessment” from Theodore Postol, an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Postol argued the NSC’s report was flawed and that the nerve agent attack was “executed by individuals on the ground, not from an aircraft.” Using a photograph of the crater identified in the Pentagon’s overhead imagery, the report concluded that the “most plausible conclusion is that the sarin was dispensed by an improvised dispersal device made from a 122-millimeter section of rocket tube filled with sarin and capped on both sides.”

“Dispersal is essentially the same as hitting a toothpaste tube with a large mallet, which then results in the tube failing and the toothpaste being blown in many directions depending on the exact way the toothpaste skin ruptures.”

Theodore Postol art

“Deformation of sarin containing pipe and crater from the action of the explosive charge placed on top of the sarin containing pipe,” Postol continued. “Note that pipe has been flattened from the outside and has failed along its length and at the far end due to action of the incompressible sarin fluid against the pipe walls.”

Theodore Postol art

“Possible configuration of an improvised sarin dispersal device that uses an externally placed explosive and a sealed pipe that has been filled with sarin that could potentially contain 8 to 10 L of sarin.”

A point that should raise concerns for any objective observer is that the specific photo on which Postol rested his claims was not referenced in the NSC white paper. Rather, it was Postol who geolocated the a photograph from social media with the crater that was identified in the white paper.

The government report itself only referred to “an open source video” that showed “where we believe the chemical munition landed–not on a facility filled with weapons, but in the middle of a street.”

Competent analysis considers competing hypotheses. Even focusing on the photo that was the centerpiece of Postol’s analysis, several questions were left unasked and, therefore, unanswered. For example, why was the crater so small if an explosive charge was used to crush a 122-millimeter pipe/casing? There are bigger potholes on my daily New England commute.

If there was a downward explosion on top of the pipe, why aren’t there blast or burn marks? Why do the edges appear jagged and sharp rather than melted, as could be expected from the heat of an explosion? In a related vein, sarin is combustible, so why didn’t it catch on fire from the heat and ignition source of the explosion?

In contrast to the four single-spaced pages of the white paper and the Pentagon’s supplementary information, the Russian government has not released photographs or documentary material to support its counterfactual claims about the chemical attack.

Similarly, the Postol analysis, which has been touted in Russian press, makes too many assumptions and does not consider all plausible possibilities. Applying Occam’s razor, that the simplest explanation is usually the best explanation, the Russian claims are just not believable and are a distraction from the facts of a chemical attack that killed 80 people.

“From a technical chemical weapons perspective, it seems unlikely that the Russian ‘warehouse/depot’ narrative is plausible as the source of the chemical exposure seen on April 4,” said Dan Kaszeta, an expert who has worked on chemical-warfare issues for 26 years.

“Even assuming that large quantities of both sarin precursors were located in the same part of the same warehouse (a practice that seems odd), an air-strike is not going to cause the production of large quantities of sarin. Dropping a bomb on the binary components does not actually provide the correct mechanism for making the nerve agent. It is an infantile argument. One of the precursors is isopropyl alcohol. It would go up in a ball of flame. A very large one. Which has not been in evidence.”

The French intelligence services came to similar conclusions in their own white paper released on April 26, 2017. The French analysis focused less on the specifics of delivery, and more on the unique chemical signatures of the sarin used at Khan Shaykhun on April 4.

Nevertheless, the independent conclusion was clear. “Based on this overall evaluation and on reliable and consistent intelligence collected by our Services, France assesses that the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017.”

The French also released an annex listing more than three dozen suspected chemical attacks in Syria since 2012.

Kremlin art

False narrative #2 — The U.S. cruise-missile strikes on Syria were a failure

There are many variations of the Kremlin’s themes that the U.S. strike on Shayrat airfield was a failure.

Setting the tone, the Ministry of Defense in Russia claimed that only 23 of 59 missiles reached Shayrat and that “the combat effectiveness … [was] extremely low.”

According to the Kremlin, damage was confined to an equipment depot, a training building, a mess hall, six MiG-23 aircraft in repair bays, and a radar station. The jets that were destroyed, the Russian reasoning goes, were antiquated hangar queens that were being repaired, not operational, frontline combat planes.

Undamaged HASs in Russian drone video at Shayrat Airfield. Kremlin art

The Kremlin also posted a black-and-white video from a drone flying over Shayrat after the missiles hit to show the unscathed runway and hardened aircraft shelters, or HASs. The video focused mostly on the undamaged northwestern part of the base, although three damaged, two-bay HASs in the southwestern part of the base appeared towards the end of the video.

Damaged HASs in Russian drone video at Shayrat airfield. Kremlin art

The drone footage avoided the HASs in the southeastern part of the airfield, and the video was not complete because the time code in the upper right corner of the screen skips.

The first television report on the scene from Yevgeniy Poddubny, a war correspondent from Russia-1, showed several craters at ammunition dumps, a hole from a Tomahawk that blew through the center of a hardened aircraft shelter, burned-out HASs and rubble.

Contrary to appearances that “the Syrian army’s key airfield … was destroyed almost completely,” Poddubny emphasized that there were, “undamaged aircraft and ammunition in hangars and open areas,” and that “the most important control structures” on the airbase were intact.

Poddubny made a point of driving down the three-kilometer-long runway to show it was clear and there were undamaged, parked aircraft. Rossiya 24 television showed similar images in an “exclusive” video, but most of the clip centered on a small crater on a taxiway. The taxiway crater was clearly not from a 1,000-pound Tomahawk warhead, but more likely a small secondary explosion.

A variation of the theme that the U.S. strike did little damage is the argument that Shayrat was operational within 24 hours of the strike. However, this claims miss the important context that the U.S. intentionally did not target the runways, nor would runway-cratering be an effective use of Tomahawks.

Using reports of planes taking off and landing from Shayrat, Tom Cooper at War Is Boring noted that strike degraded the Syrian military’s ability to conduct combat operations from the airbase.

The quick — if later proven to be misleading — Russian reporting allowed the Russian narrative to take root and give the perception that the Tomahawks failed to hit their intended targets because of in-flight failures, Russian/Syrian countermeasures, or bad targeting data.

The U.S. government did itself no favors with conflicting reports about the numbers of Tomahawks that functioned properly and the actual amount of damage they inflicted at Shayrat. The U.S. message was unclear at best.

For example, Secretary of Defense Mattis’ claim that 20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft were damaged or destroyed in the Tomahawk strike depends entirely on Syria’s current operational inventory and is an easy one for the Russians or anybody else to pick apart.

It remains a challenge to interpret a numerator without having a denominator. Lacking a specific number, though, any questions devolve into plane counting and provide fodder for analyses like that contained in this article.

Imagery released by the Pentagon showing post strike areas of impact, in addition to zoomed-in views of destroyed and damaged aircraft shelters

Using imagery released by the Pentagon and from ImageSat International, Michael Kofman, a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analysis and fellow at the Wilson Center, wrote that the strikes destroyed a total of nine aircraft, including five Su-22M3s, one Su-22M4 and three MiG-23ML fighters.

Satellite imagery from ImageSat International shows 44 different targets that Tomahawks hit at Shayrat airfield.Some targets were hit with multiple missiles

Kofman’s number is a reasonable initial estimate, although information that became available after Kofman’s assessment helps clarify details and raises the number of possible aircraft destroyed.

Digging a little deeper, it appears that the ImageSat photograph was at least partially derived from the imagery the Pentagon released about targeted areas. The ImageSat photo says the United States targeted a total of 15 aircraft shelters, but this does not necessarily give an accurate accounting of possible aircraft the Americans intended to strike because it does not differentiate between single-bay and double-bay aircraft shelters, nor the storage capacity of those shelters.

Nor does it account for multiple Tomahawks striking individual structures, as would be expected for the double-bay aircraft shelters.

Based on the dimensions of the airframes and measuring images of Shayrat airfield in Google Earth, it appears that each single-bay HAS theoretically can accommodate two planes, while each double-bay HAS can accommodate four planes. The Su-22 and MiG-23 aircraft that comprise the Syrian fixed-wing fleet at Shayrat can fit inside each bay facing each other, or by pointing the same direction in a staggered formation.

Su-22 dimensions and HAS dimensions
Su-22-size symbols show that each bay can theoretically accommodate two aircraft in either a staggered formation or with the planes facing each other
The Su-22 and MiG-23, the two primary Soviet-made fighters in the Syrian inventory at Shayrat. With wings swept back, the MiG-23 Flogger is not as wide or as long as an Su-22

Taking into account the number and maximum capacity of the aircraft shelters in areas ImageSat identified as targets yields a theoretical total of 58 aircraft, including 26 in the western part of Shayrat and 32 in the eastern section of the airfield.

Theoretical maximum number of aircraft in HASs targeted by U.S. missile strike

When combined with the areas identified in the Pentagon-released images as “post-strike areas of impact,” it appears the Tomahawks actually damaged or destroyed three two-bay and two single-bay aircraft shelters in the northwestern part of Shayrat, and three two-bay shelters in the southeastern part of the base.

Discounting the possibility that the shelters may have been empty and no aircraft were outside the HAS but within the blast range of the Tomahawks, it means a theoretical-but-unlikely maximum of 28 aircraft were destroyed or damaged.

Damaged and destroyed HASs at Shayrat airfield
Maximum aircraft capacity in damaged and destroyed HASs at Shayrat airfield

Theory about maximum HAS capacity is not necessarily in line with operational reality. For example, we know from media reports and social media photographs that some of the bays were empty and most pictured only contained one aircraft.

Under normal circumstances, Syrian aircrews would be unlikely to store more than one plane per bay because of the possibility of jetwash and the difficulties of moving aircraft in tight spaces. Parking airplanes is not like parking cars. In addition, at least one aircraft shelter may have contained more than one aircraft, although available evidence is inconclusive.

Photograph on Instagram shows what appear to be two destroyed airframes inside an HAS
Two photos of the same HAS, just from opposite ends
Close-up shot shows what appears to be one airframe, because the wing assembly roughly matches the remains of the fuselage of an Su-22
Another HAS with what appears to be two aircraft, but is probably just one airframe and a spare engine or engine undergoing maintenance

A Russian-language website, Lost Armour, scoured videos and photographs of the damage at Shayrat, oriented everything geospatially4, and concluded that three to six MiG-23s were destroyed, in addition to nine Su-22s. This gives a range of 12 to 15 destroyed aircraft, which comports with the videos and images of Shayrat after the missile strike.

With a range of 12 to 15 planes destroyed, and assuming the Pentagon’s estimate of 20 percent of Syria’s fixed wing, attack aircraft out of commission, that means the Syrian air force has between 60 and 75 operational fixed-wing attack aircraft.

As Mattis noted, the SYAF has suffered attrition during six years of civil conflict and decades of poor maintenance, meaning Syria’s ability to fly 60 to 75 aircraft on daily combat sorties is actually somewhat impressive, no doubt made possible by Russian assistance.

It also means that the Pentagon’s claim is not only plausible, but probably much closer to the on-the-ground reality than official Russian claims. In fact, the Russian claim that only six MiG-23s were destroyed seems low, even taking into account the Moscow’s claim that only 23 Tomahawks reached Shayrat.

Likewise, by stating that only MiG-23s were destroyed, the Russians imply that the strike did not destroy any Su-22s, the aircraft the United States alleges were involved in the chemical attack. Although unstated, the Russian point implies U.S. targeting failures.

Like most propaganda, the Russian spin doctors include some factual elements. Did all the cruise missiles launch reliably? No. The United States intended to launch 61 Tomahawks. One failed to launch. One had an in-flight failure and crashed into the Mediterranean Sea.

Of the remaining 59 TLAMs, 57 hit their intended targets. The two that didn’t hit their targets caused no collateral damage, according to the Department of Defense. This is partially corroborated by photos in Syrian media of a crater at an orchard that was allegedly by a Tomahawk explosion.

Crater at orchard allegedly caused by Tomahawk that failed to reach Shayrat

The strike had a limited objective, and it was no doubt combined with other signals to the Russians and the Syrians. According to the initial Pentagon press release, the strike was “a proportional response” to Assad’s use of chemical weapons from Shayrat-based aircraft on April 4, and it was “intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again.”

The strike targeted Su-22s and MiG-23s, airframes that Russians stopped using nearly two decades ago. The Russians were warned so as to minimize the possibility of Russians being injured or killed in the strike. In total, the strike does not significantly alter the situation on the ground in Syria, nor does it signal a substantive change in the U.S. stance on the Syrian conflict.

It merely signaled a willingness on the part of the United States to punish the Al Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, a willingness that was easy for the American public and world opinion to accept because the regime had used weapons it had agreed to give up.

If diplomatic signals are being lost in translation or transmission, perhaps the demonstration of Tomahawks flying at low altitude past Russian-made air defense systems into or through hardened aircraft shelters shows that the United States could just as easily lob one through the window of Al Assad’s presidential palace if he again orders the use of chemical weapons.

This article does not advocate assassination, but the capability exists and has been demonstrated.

Image from Russian drone video showing Tomahawk entry points through hardened aircraft shelters Source — Lost Armour
Still from ANNA News video showing how a missile penetrated the hardened aircraft shelter

Finding truth in lies

There are undoubtedly errors in this article’s attempt to debunk Russian information operations, but you don’t need to be an engineer, chemist or imagery analyst to view the Russian claims with some skepticism. If you can get past what are clearly Russian lies about Syria, you may be able to untangle Moscow’s real interests in Syria.

Russian leaders probably have no love lost for Al Assad, especially after the Khan Shaykhun attack discredited Moscow’s assurances that Syria had given up its chemical weapons after the chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta in August 2013.

Russia was the primary broker of the deal that averted an American strike in 2013 in exchange for Syria’s agreeing to destroy its chemical weapons and submit to one of the most intrusive weapons inspections in history. The international community, led by the United States, destroyed 1,300 tons of chemical weapons precursors and agents.

However, admitting the Al Assad regime’s role in the recent chemical attack would undercut Russia’s guarantee that Syria had dismantled its chemical weapons program and Moscow’s own active operational involvement since 2015 to bolster the regime.

Russia therefore sticks to its story, distracts with calls for an “impartial” investigation, and continues to provide diplomatic top cover to the Syrian regime. The underlying fact remains that there are probably no attractive alternatives to Al Assad for Moscow.

Better the devil you know, and one who is beholden to you for his survival.

The Russians maintain an impressive ability to stick with a lie, even after it has been proved false, and their consistency in messaging shows some skill and coordination. Russia may also be sticking to its lies to demonstrate reliability and credibility as an ally, patron, and arms supplier — not just to Syria but around the world.

Reliability is tied to prestige, and the Russian messaging conveys the perception that Moscow has a sophisticated, technologically advanced military befitting its position as a great power. Indeed, Russia has highlighted modern weapons systems in combat, including the Kalibr cruise missile, the Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile, the heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov, the Su-35 and Iskandr short-range ballistic missiles, among others.

Sticking with lies may be a double-edged sword over the longer term, though, because it may leave Moscow diplomatically isolated and hurt its credibility.

Securing its position in Syria is one part of a puzzle, like the Chinese concept of a “string of pearls,” for Russia to expand its footprint across the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Friendly governments in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Eritrea and even Israel can facilitate trade and logistics in peacetime, and may provide additional room for maneuver in the event of conflict.

Russia recently leveraged its assistance to the Al Assad regime to sign a 49-year lease at Tartus, and to expand the facilities to accommodate up to 11 vessels simultaneously, including nuclear-powered ships. Russia is also pursuing closer ties to the Libyan faction headed by Khalifa Haftar, and Egyptian leader Abd Al Fattah El Sisi.

The Kremlin leadership has multiple reasons for promoting an alternate reality. Like most messaging campaigns, the Kremlin can reach multiple audiences, foreign and domestic. The anti-Western rhetoric plays well for domestic consumption. The loud, violent images of Syria may remind Russians that they have a comparatively good life; while many Russians are jobless, live in poverty, face rising utility costs and stagnant wages, they still have a roof, food and no war.

Russian leaders appear strong when they stand up to the United States. Russia has made a veritable cottage industry out of projecting its image as a counterbalance to the United States, a force for stability in the face of what it portrays as American campaigns of aggressive regime change in places such as Libya and Iraq. Although patriotism and international duty are not what they were during Soviet times, Russians may see themselves as standing up for the oppressed by standing against the United States.

Fear-inducing references to the conflict in Syria spiraling into a U.S.-Russia war should not be dismissed outright, but interpreted rather as a desire to avoid such apocalyptic scenarios while Moscow pursues its interests in Syria.

For example, even before the Khan Shaykun chemical attack or the U.S. response, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said, “It is no exaggeration to say that our relations today are, in fact, at their worst for the whole period after the Cold War.”

Similarly, a video at SouthFront.org, a Russia-based website that closely mirrors the Kremlin’s lines and has slick graphics and videos, shows several World War III scenarios between the United States and Russia over Syria.

Despite the assertions that the U.S. strikes were ineffective, or that the United States has been violating international law, or other harsh rhetoric, the Russians have also sent signals that they will not necessarily bail out the Syrians. “Our armed forces are in Syria to fight terrorism — not to defend against external threats,” Russian senator Viktor Ozerov told the news agency Interfax after the Tomahawk strike. “That’s not our mandate, and we’re not going to intercept anything.”

Similarly, although the Russians suspended the memorandum of understanding with the United States about air deconfliction over Syria, Russian deputy foreign minister Ryabkov said that the two powers were “exchanging information on Syria via the existing channels.”

Likewise, on April 12, 2017, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Russia might resume the MOU if the United States reiterated its commitment to fighting terrorism.

So in other words, Russia is still signaling its interest in joint operations against “terrorist” targets, be it Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, Al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, or Islamic State.

There should be enough low-hanging fruit that the United States and Russia can agree to target jointly, but there are some practical considerations that may stand in the way. At the very center of the challenge remains the differing definition on what comprises “terrorist” groups in Syria.

While the United States differentiates between various armed groups, ranging from moderate to extremist, Russia seems to have accepted the broad-brush definition for “terrorist” as any armed group that opposes the Syrian regime.

Likewise, a traditional U.S. ally, Turkey, brands the Kurds in northern Syria as “terrorists,” actually putting the United States and Russia on the same side — both support the Kurds — against a U.S. NATO ally.

There is clearly no good solution for the Syrian conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, caused an international refugee crisis, and threatens stability in the Middle East, Europe and beyond.

Perhaps the bottom line for Russia’s messaging campaign, and its role on the ground, is that Russia deserves a seat at the table for any serious discussion of Syria. Hopefully the leadership in the Kremlin will recognize that Russia stands to lose more than it has to gain by continuing its disinformation campaign and coming across as cynical and lacking credibility.

The U.S. Navy launches Tomahawk missiles at Syria. Navy photo

Next steps

As the examples about mistranslation and the lack of a unified government information source over the Khan Shaykhun attack show, the United States needs to up its game to more effectively counter the Kremlin’s false narratives. Efforts should not be clumsy attempts like the Kremlin putting a “FAKE” stamp across news stories it does not like, and then not showing what it assesses to be factually incorrect in the stories.

Nor does the United States need to create a new agency or structure. Rather, national security professionals should better use existing resources, such as the Open Source Enterprise, or unclassified products produced by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency that rely on publicly available, commercial satellite imagery.

For that to happen, though, there needs to be leadership from the top levels, such as the national security advisor and/or the director of national intelligence, instead of ad hoc arrangements for specific issues.

Government information can be consolidated in one place, like a dedicated issue-specific website for military operations, such as Operation Inherent Resolve, or at the public website for the Directorate of National Intelligence. As mentioned earlier, the National Security Council/White House “white paper” on the Khan Shaykhun chemical weapons attacks is not even available at the White House or the National Security Council websites. This needs to be remedied.

In particular, the executive branch needs to improve its coordination across agencies and departments to ensure a clear, consistent, fact-based message. Perhaps a policy of transparency and openness are best when confronting deliberately false narratives.

Whereas the Russians seem willing to stick to lies as long as it serves their interests, the United States should rely on its strength of being able to admit when it is wrong and better utilize the wealth of resources at its disposal.

Richard Moss is an affiliate faculty member of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the U.S. government, the U.S. Department of the Navy or the Naval War College.

The author thanks Michael Peterson, Suzanne Freeman, Ryan Vest, Youssef Aboul-Enein, Anna Davis and George Kassis for helpful feedback and suggestions.

  • 100% ad free experience
  • Get our best stories sent to your inbox every day
  • Membership to private Facebook group
Show your support for continued hard hitting content.
Only $19.99 per year and for a limited time, new subscribers receive a FREE War Is Boring T-Shirt!
Become a War is Boring subscriber