In Syria, Russia Sure Is Worried About Looking Like a War Criminal
The Kremlin’s propaganda efforts stress the military’s ‘humanitarian’ work
by PATRICK BURKE
As Russian and Syrian forces escalated their assault on rebels and civilians in East Aleppo in December 2016, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power confronted her Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkina at a U.N. Security Council meeting.
“Is there literally nothing that can shame you?” Power demanded. “Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child, that gets under your skin? That just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”
Brushing off the accusations as if they were totally fabricated, Churkin mocked Power, calling her “Mother Theresa” and opaquely reminding her of past U.S. atrocities. Churkin went on to tell the Security Council that the rebels in Aleppo were terrorists who committed acts of violence against civilians.
For anyone paying attention to Russian propaganda, Churkin’s claims should come as no surprise. Despite the fact that there were many different rebel groups fighting inside Aleppo — some even fought each other — both the Russian and Syrian government blamed the rebels collectively for war crimes perpetrated by individual groups.
One surprising part of Churkin’s counter to Power, however, was that before accusing “the rebels” of atrocities, he spent several minutes highlighting the Russian and Syrian governments’ humanitarian work.
Oddly enough for two countries that purport to be unworried about accusations of atrocities against civilians, I found that Russia and Syria are just as concerned about propagating their image as humanitarians as they are about delegitimizing the rebels. My finding is the result of a systematic study of articles from Russian and Syrian state-owned news agencies.
In a randomly selected sample of 25 articles from Russia Today and 25 from the Syrian Arab News Agency covering the recent battle for Aleppo, I found that 48 percent of the articles mentioned atrocities against civilians or violations of the international laws and norms of war committed by the rebels.
However, 40 percent of the articles mentioned positive humanitarian works by the regime, such as the opening of “humanitarian corridors” or Russian president Vladimir Putin ordering mobile hospitals to Aleppo in November 2016.
Admittedly, 50 articles may seem like a small sample size. Thus, in order to get a more representative sample of the narrative of Russian and Syrian propaganda, I decided to apply the same coding guidelines to 265 headlines from Russian-owned TASS, Sputnik and RT as well as SANA. All of the articles were randomly selected and cover the battle for Aleppo between September and December 2016.
As the chart shows, 32 percent of these headlines noted atrocities or violations of law/norms by the rebels, while 23 percent described humanitarian works by the Syrian and Russian government.
It should be noted that the 265 headlines and the sample of 50 articles share an almost identical difference between mentions of atrocities by rebels and humanitarian works of the Syrian government and its allies.
What can these results tell us? It is very clear that U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration’s strategy to counter Syrian and Russian propaganda focuses on highlighting humanitarian violations by their military forces.
In a significant step, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has even called for a war crimes investigation of Russia’s military actions in Syria.
The blatant atrocities committed by the Syrian and Russian governments during the battle for Aleppo clearly show that the Obama administration’s communications strategy has not changed the reality on the ground.
However, the strategy does seem to have caused the Syrian and Russian governments to spend a huge portion of their propaganda trying to improve their image.
The functional reason for doing so remains unclear. It’s possible each side fears charges of war crimes, or they fear losing legitimacy among their publics.