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Russia Is Not Fighting in Syria: There Is a Disinformation Campaign Underway

  • Evidence of Russian military action in Syria fails to stack up
  • Moreover the evidence points to a disinformation campaign intended to foil Russian efforts to negotiate a settlement of the Syrian conflict

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The flurry of recent reports that have appeared in the Western media concerning a Russian military intervention in Syria are definitely wrong.

The episode tells us a great deal about Western political priorities and methods of news management, and about how stories about Russia can circulate even after it is clear that they have no truth.

What is going on?  To get a sense of what might be happening, and why these stories of Russian military intervention in Syria are circulating, some background concerning Russia's role in the Syrian conflict is needed.

The Saker has recently written an excellent piece explaining why a Russian military intervention in Syria is extremely unlikely.

Back in 2012 I also wrote a piece explaining how Western understanding of Russia’s Syrian policy is almost completely wrong.  Russia does not have major economic, political or military interests in Syria, and the importance of Russia’s small naval facility (it is not really a base) in the Syrian port of Tartus is hugely overstated.

What drives Russia’s (and China’s) policy towards Syria is not geopolitics, or some deep Russian interests in the country, or a longstanding alliance with the Assad government, but Russia’s strong opposition to the West’s doctrine of regime change.

Far from being uncritical supporters of the Assad government, the Russians have consistently pushed for a solution to the conflict based upon an internal political settlement agreed within Syria between the parties to the conflict.

President Assad’s government - under Russian pressure - agreed to this in 2011, at the very outset of the conflict.  

The reason the conflict has nonetheless continued is because President Assad’s opponents within Syria - and the regime change coalition of the Western powers and the Arab Gulf States that support them - consistently reject this.  

Instead they insist as a precondition for negotiations that President Assad goes.

In other words they demand as a precondition for negotiations what should be their subject, predetermining a possible outcome of the negotiations before they even begin.

Since this amounts to a demand that the Russians and the Syrians accept regime change, it is something that is totally unacceptable to the Russians and the Syrians, which is why all attempts to negotiate a settlement of the conflict have so far failed.

The closest the conflict has come to a settlement was in 2012 when Kofi Annan, the UN’s peace envoy, chaired a conference in Geneva that was attended by both the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition.  

The Russians and the Americans were also there.

The Geneva conference appeared to set the stage for negotiations between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition to set up a transitional power sharing government to administer Syria until new elections were held and a new constitution had been agreed.  

Both sides appeared to agree to the plan.  However it immediately fell apart when the US and the Syrian opposition both declared that Assad could play no part in the transitional power sharing government - making it clear that in reality they had not shifted their position at all. 

A negotiation to set up a power sharing government from which one party to a conflict is in advance excluded is not a true negotiation at all.  It is simply a device by which power is transferred from one party to another.

Since this was simply another demand for regime change the Syrian government, supported by the Russians and the Chinese, rejected it.

That the Syrian opposition and its foreign supporters were not really serious about seeking a negotiated solution to the conflict was proved by what happened shortly after the Geneva conference had ended.

The Syrian opposition launched a major offensive code named “Damascus Volcano”, aimed at capturing Syria’s two most important cities - Damascus and Aleppo - with the intention of forcing the overthrow of the Syrian government.

The offensive failed, and the war turned to stalemate, with the advantage the following year tending to shift back towards the Syrian government.

This continued to be the position until the appearance of the Islamic State this year.

The emergence of the Islamic State has in theory led to an international coalition being formed to fight it.  

This coalition is supposed to include the same countries that have been supporting the Syrian opposition in the war against President Assad.  The most important of these are the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, though other countries like Israel, Qatar, France and Britain are also involved.

The formation of an international coalition to fight the Islamic State, that supposedly includes countries that oppose President Assad, and the hostility to the Islamic State of countries like Iran that support President Assad, encouraged the Russians this summer to try to revive the Geneva peace plan of 2012.  

Their argument is that since  the Islamic State is the common enemy of all - of President Assad, his supporters and opponents - it makes sense for everyone to put aside their differences so as to join forces to fight it.

To that end the Russians have again called for negotiations between President Assad and his opponents to set up a transitional power sharing government.

As has happened repeatedly before, these Russian diplomatic moves were misinterpreted in various capitals and in the international media as indications that Russia’s support for President Assad is “weakening”. In the article I wrote in 2012 I explained why this interpretation is wrong.

Similarly, Russian confirmation that President Assad is prepared to share power, has been misconstrued as something new.

In reality these are simply restatements of existing positions the Russians and Assad have held since 2012.

To the Russians’ very obvious frustration (which boiled over when Lavrov was heard to utter an expletive under his breath during a news conference) they have found President Assad’s Syrian opponents and their Western and Gulf State backers as intransigent as ever. 

Despite the supposedly existential threat posed by the Islamic State, President Assad’s opponents, and the Western and Arab governments which support them, continue to insist on President Assad’s removal as a condition for beginning negotiations on a power-sharing transitional government.

This is the background to the latest reports about Russian military involvement in Syria.

The Russians have categorically denied these reports. Evidence the Russian military is involved in the fighting in Syria is non-existent

The lack of evidence was underlined a few days ago when “proof” of Russian involvement was produced in the form of photographs purporting to show Russian aircraft and drones engaged in operations over Syria.

The photographs contain nothing that could identify Syria as the location of these aircraft.  It is more likely the photographs were taken either in the Caucasus during one of the recent wars there or - as the Saker thinks - in Ukraine.  Aircraft and drones of the types that appear in the photographs are known to have been used in action in both conflicts.

It is inconceivable if the Russian military really were fighting in Syria to the extent that is being alleged that this could be concealed from the US - and the Israelis - who have comprehensive area-wide surveillance facilities in this area.  It beggars believe that if Russian military activity of this sort were really going on that hard evidence of this would not have been produced by now.  

The fact that the “evidence” that is being produced is obviously bogus is a clear sign that no such evidence exists, and that the Russian military activity that is being so much talked about is not happening.

Similarly the Russians have categorically denied reports that they have supplied the Syrians with  advanced MiG31 fighters and S300 surface to air missiles.  

Again if they had done so some evidence for the presence of this very advanced - and bulky - equipment would have been produced by now.

Despite Russia’s denials, and the total absence of evidence to contradict those denials, reports of Russian military activity in Syria continue to circulate.

Matters have now reached the absurd point where comments by President Putin denying the reports (in a press conference in which he said that Russian military action in Syria “is not on our agenda”) are being reported in the Western media as confirming them.

What is going on?

That what we are looking at is a deliberate disinformation campaign is proved by the persistence of these reports despite their obvious falsity and the Russians’ denials.

That it is the US which is behind this disinformation campaign is strongly suggested by the bizarre behaviour over the weekend of the US State Department.

Though the US must know the reports are false, US Secretary of State Kerry telephoned Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to discuss them.

More bizarre than the call itself is a statement the US State Department published after the call.  

The statement reads as follows:

“The Secretary called Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov this morning to discuss Syria, including U.S. concerns about reports suggesting an imminent enhanced Russian military build-up there.

"The Secretary made clear that if such reports were accurate, these actions could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL Coalition operating in Syria.

"The two agreed that discussions on the Syrian conflict would continue in New York later this month.”

The statement implies that the US does not actually know whether or not a Russian military build-up in Syria is underway - a nonsensical idea and something which in this part of the world is altogether impossible.  

The statement also conspicuously fails to say whether Lavrov confirmed or denied the reports, though we can be sure he denied them because that is what the Russians have been doing all week.  

The purpose of Kerry”s call does not therefore seem to have been to obtain reassurances from Lavrov, or indeed to warn him, any more than the State Department’s statement looks like a true expression of the US’s “concerns”.

Rather the purpose both of the call and of the statement seems to have been to publicise the false reports of Russian military activity in Syria even more, and to lend them credibility by giving the impression the US is taking them seriously.

Why is this disinformation campaign going on?

The short answer is that we don’t fully know, but the most likely reason is to discredit the latest Russian diplomatic initiative to end the conflict.

Given the inroads the Islamic State is making, the defeats the Syrian rebels have suffered at its hands, and the shocking destruction of the archaeological site at Palmyra, it would not be surprising if Russian calls for the Syrian sides to put aside their differences and unite against their common enemy - the Islamic State - are gaining some traction, in the Middle East, in Europe, and quite possibly in Syria itself.

The attempt to misrepresent Russia as an active player in the conflict might in that case be intended to discredit its position as a mediator so as to torpedo its latest peace initiative.

This is consistent with the - frankly maniacal - obsession the US and its regime change allies have to overthrow Assad, which quite clearly has a higher priority for them than does the fight against the Islamic State.

Could anything happen that might cause Russia to change its stance and become directly involved in the Syrian conflict?

The Saker has set out the many obstacles in the way of this.  

The Russians however have been careful not to rule this possibility out.

However they have made clear that they would only become directly involved in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria as part of an international coalition that would include the US and its allies.

Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin has made clear that such a coalition would require a UN Security Council mandate.

Given the US’s extreme aversion to the sort of constraints placed on its behaviour by a UN Security Council mandate, that alone makes the formation of an international coalition in which the Russians felt able to take part frankly unlikely.

Besides the indispensable precondition for such a coalition has to be the prior settlement of the Syrian conflict.  Obviously a coalition cannot work if its members are fighting each other.

What that means is that for the moment hopes of forming an international coalition to fight the Islamic State are dim. 

The disinformation campaign we are currently witnessing - with what it tells us about the single-minded fanaticism of the US’s Syrian policy - has dimmed those hopes further. 

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