After the Western military air strike against Syria, one fact is overlooked: the two powers are already at war in the battlefield of propaganda. And, so far in that battlefield, the two adversaries have adopted different tactics in pursuit of their aims.
The Russian war plan is a classic example of disinformation (disiniformazia in Russian) developed by KGB’s specialists in propaganda during the Cold War.
The war plan is aimed at undermining the credibility of the American narrative regarding the use of chemical weapons by Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s narrative is spread through a vast media network controlled by the Kremlin with significant audiences inside the Russian Federation and across the globe. The message is amplified by an estimated 60,000 full-time “social media soldiers”, pejoratively labeled “trolls”, in cyberspace in more than a dozen languages.
Moscow’s narrative promotes 10 themes.
The first is that the chemical attack in Douma, close to Damascus, simply didn’t happen and that the pictures and video footage posted on Internet were produced by Assad’s opponents using actors, including children, to simulate a disaster.
Where such a claim is hard to sell, the Russians advance a second theme: We don’t know with any certainty that there was any attack and, if there was one, who was responsible for it.
When that claim, too, is questioned, Russia comes up with a third theme: Why not have an independent investigation on the ground in Douma?
If one reminds Russia that it has already vetoed such an investigation, the Kremlin plan switches to a fourth theme: An attack on Assad’s forces could lead to a wider war, perhaps even the Third World War. In other words the choice that we face is between doing nothing and risking a global conflagration. The fact that numerous military, political and economic options remain between the two extremes is brushed under the carpet.
A fifth theme, related to the previous one, is that intervention by Western democracies could only lead to disaster as it has done in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Afghans and Iraqis are safer, happier and more hopeful than they were under the Taliban or Saddam Hussein is forgotten. Also ignored is the fact that the West’s non-intervention in Syria, has not prevented the deaths of over half a million people, more than twice as many than those who died in the Western interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Russian propaganda plan then switches to attempts at beautifying Assad’s ugly regime. We are told that Bashar is a secular leader acting as barrier to religious fanatics. However, the Syrian Constitution, written by Bashar’s father Hafez, acknowledges Islam as the religion of the state and, in the past seven years at least, the regime has used sectarianism as a weapon against its opponents.
A seventh theme is that the choice in Syria is between Assad and ISIS and that Assad deserves support because he has been fighting the fake Caliphate. However, the fact is that Assad’s forces have had no more than four major clashes with the ISIS forces, the largest in and around Palmyra. For years, Assad and ISIS lived side by side, focusing attention on fighting non-ISIS opponents of the Baathist regime. Russia and its Iranian sidekicks played no role in smashing ISIS, which was destroyed by Iraqi, Western and Syrian Kurdish forces who ended up controlling 90 percent of its territories in both Syria and Iraq.
The eighth theme is that a Western attack on pro-Assad targets could also hit Russian forces and assets in Syria, forcing Moscow to retaliate.
However, US and Russia have a mechanism called Emergency Communication Channel (ECC) through which they could coordinate actions likely to affect either of them in Syria. The mechanism was used almost a year ago when the US attacked an Assad air base after giving Russia warning to remove its personnel there. In any case, Russia did not react when Turkey shot down one of its fighter planes. Nor did Moscow rush to war when an American attack claimed the lives of dozens of Russian military personnel, supposedly on private contract, in Syria. Despite his penchant for braggadocio, President Vladimir Putin is a risk-averse player; he stops if he hits something hard.
A ninth theme is built on the claim that Putin’s plan for stabilizing Syria is already beginning to work and that, in time, Moscow will quietly nudge Assad towards the exit. So, why heat things up by attacking Assad’s assets? This means allowing hope to obliterate the reality of seven years of atrocity, including 14 instances of chemical attacks on civilians, by Assad’s forces.
The tenth theme is related to the ninth as it claims that Russia would rein in Assad and prevent him from using chemical weapons again. But that is exactly the same promise that Moscow gave in 2013, following it with the assertion that “all of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks and production facilities” had been destroyed. At the time President Barack Obama believed that claim, or feigned to believe it, encouraging Assad to cross “the red line” again and again.
Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda guru, believed that a good disinformation strategy is aimed at destroying facts by offering ever multiplying versions of any event. That, he argued, would turn any fact into a “henid”, an effervescent tablet that when thrown into water fizzes itself out of existence.
The current Kremlin “Disinformazia” is aimed at turning any account of the recent chemical attack on Douma into a “henid”.
It has had some success as illustrated by Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to Britain taking any action against Assad.
“We simply don’t have all the facts,” says the UK Labor Party chief. He wants “an independent investigation” and a UN Security Council resolution authorizing any action.
Corbyn’s French counterpart Jean-Luc Melanchon warns against the risks of “a broader war”. Perhaps even the Third World War?
Both imply that it would be better to do nothing. Problem is that such a position gives Assad green-light to do more of what he has been doing for seven years.