How Russia Spins Its War in Syria
RT is running out of moderate voices, so the job falls to crackpots and the far right
Russia’s direct military intervention on behalf of the Syrian regime has been predictably accompanied by a propaganda offensive from RT, the Kremlin’s flagship English language network.
For years, RT has found Western commentators to criticize Russia’s geopolitical opponents. The rise of Islamic radicals and a U.S. air campaign against Islamic State has fit well into RT’s narrative of Russia as an anti-interventionist nation, and Syria as a victim of foreign-sponsored conspiracies.
At the same time, Russia has actively promoted the extreme right in Europe and America, stoking nativist fears of Syrian immigrants and giving a platform to people who are usually dismissed as extremists in their own countries.
While the presence of mainstream voices on RT has generally balanced out the ultra-right commenters, events over the past few weeks have forced the network to rely increasingly on pundits that are likely to alienate mainstream audiences anywhere.
In short, RT has been struggling to find English-speaking talking heads who support the intervention in Syria. There is a common trend among Western commentators that Russia has dredged up over the past month — a majority of them either work for Russian-sponsored think tanks or have affiliations with the extreme right.
In a bizarre few weeks, RT has hosted Stephen Lendman, a frequent contributor to the blog Veterans Today, which promotes Holocaust denial and has close ties to white supremacists. Lendman had previously claimed that the death of Muammar Qaddafi was faked.
To give a European perspective, RT hosted John Laughland from the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation — a Paris-based pro-Putin think tank headed by Natalia Narochnitskaya, a close colleague of Vladimir Putin. Laughland stated that Syrian refugees are not refugees, and that Aylan Kurdi drowned because he was seeking dental treatment.
From the United States, RT has given a platform to Eric Draitser from Stop Imperialism, a pro-Kremlin website with little purpose besides providing go-to commentary for RT and Iran’s Press TV. Another frequent contributor is Daniel McAdams from the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity who has been pushing a highly conspiratorial line.
From the beginning, Russia has characterized its mission in Syria as anti-Islamic State, and RT began its coverage by referring to Russian targets as such. Early indications that Russia was focusing its strikes on Islamic State’s rivals were met with denials by the network, but pro-regime Twitter accounts have not been so subtle, often posting photos of dead fighters who are known to have fought in anti-I.S. rebel groups.
Ad hominems and viral strategies
The network has also resorted to a strategy of ad hominem attacks on the Kremlin’s critics, switching from a hard news formula to a satire formula when facts don’t favor the narrative.
When the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Russian strikes in Homs and other areas explicitly controlled by anti-I.S. rebels, RT dispatched comedian Nimrod Kamer to “get the truth.” The segment relied heavily on insinuation with Kamer showing up at the private home of Rami Abdulrahman, the founder of the SOHR and walking around Coventry with a microphone and implying that Rami was hiding from him.
Blogger Eliot Higgins has reported heavily on Russia’s activities in Ukraine and Syria, which resulted in RT dispatching Kamer yet again to hound him. The network has run numerous hit pieces on the Bellingcat founder but done little to counter the mountain of evidence proving that Russia is providing air support for the regime offensive against anti-I.S. rebels.
The network described both Higgins as “Soros-connected,” a statement that would be quite unusual if not for the relatively strong viewership among American ultra-right audiences. There are underlying tones of anti-Semitism in RT’s coverage, and the network recently aired a deeply weird segment implying Hilary Clinton is backed by a Jewish-Illuminati conspiracy.
RT touts its one billion-plus views, but most of these come from commentary-free clips of natural and man-made disasters. For more politically-oriented issues, RT has often imitated well-known viral videos.
As world leaders met at the U.N. General Assembly, RT featured a segment of one of its journalists walking around New York in a Putin t-shirt, even showing up at a pro-Ukrainian demonstration. Further, RT covered Putin’s birthday hockey game. The Russian leader set up an entire stadium with two teams in which he scored seven goals.
Regime counteroffensives into Hama and other rebel-held territories have resulted in losses, notably of regime tanks destroyed by American and Saudi-supplied TOW missiles. RT has focused heavily on the failure of the U.S. military program that only trained a few dozen fighters who were immediately captured by Jabhat Al Nusra when entering Syria.
A separate CIA program to supply weapons has been more successful, with rebels from the remaining secular divisions of the FSA — most notably Division 13 — fielding a limited number of TOW missiles under the condition that the rebels return the tubes after firing. Saudi Arabia recently supplied 500 more anti-tank weapons.
While the expected regime offensive appears to have mixed results so far, the greatest challenge to the Russian narrative is the undeniable fact that Islamic State has been able to capitalize on it, taking numerous villages north of Aleppo.
The I.S. advances have been dramatic, and American policymakers who were previously wary of arming the opposition have resorted to dropping at least 50 tons of supplies to rebels that are running low on ammunition.
RT dispatched correspondent Murad Gazdiev to Russia’s new Latakia airbase, where he guided a tour that featured a mobile sauna for Russian troops.
Gadiev has also accompanied Syrian troops to small villages that have been recently retaken by the regime. RT presented the corpses of males as having been undoubtedly killed by the rebels, an assertion which is far from conclusive. Many of the bodies shown had their hands loosely tied in the way that fighters are prepped for burial.
It has been difficult to gauge the success of the regime operations, with Gazdiev commenting that Syrian troops would not allow him to get closer to the fighting.
Murad’s Twitter account has made references to the FSA’s TOW missiles, insisting that they were in the hands of Jabhat Al Nusra. In the past weeks, some noticeable changes to the narrative have become apparent. The network has begun using “ISIS” less and “Jihadis” more often, while the expected front-line footage of comprehensive regime victories has yet to fully materialize.
The regime is making gains, but they are not quite as dramatic as what has been billed as a joint Syrian-Iranian-Russian offensive.
The Twitter feeds for RT and RT America have drastically reduced their focus on the Syrian intervention and continued to focus heavily on the American bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kuduz, the situation in Jerusalem and countering the Dutch Safety Board’s recent findings that a Russian-made Buk missile shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine.
As a result, RT has been forced to shift focus and start backtracking on many of the claims the network had previously made about the incident. Since the Dutch Safety Board released its findings, RT has quietly dropped its — debunked — allegations that a Ukrainian jet was responsible for the tragedy, asserting instead that it was a Ukrainian Buk that downed the passenger jet.
RT is fighting a propaganda war on many fronts and there is a great risk of Moscow losing control of the narrative, which often tries to frame itself as a liberal alternative to mainstream media. It is a subtle point, but nearly all of the commentators that the Kremlin has chosen to represent its perspective on Syria come from Kremlin-affiliated organizations and from the far right.
But RT’s strategy is far more mercenary, and the network is willing to exploit views from across the political spectrum. In an Orwellian shift of tone, the network has suddenly portrayed Henry Kissinger as an elder statesman despite previously attacking him as a war criminal and anti-Russian propagandist.
The reason for the new friendly coverage of Kissinger? He suggested in the Wall Street Journal that America let Russia support Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad.