A media war of words over Western intentions in Syria is driving a wedge between Russia and the U.S. deeper.


Syria: The information war has already started. Photo: AFP / East News

Syria crisis: When tail is wagging the dog

It has become commonplace in the Russian media to draw parallels between a looming war in Syria and the 1997 movie “Wag the Dog,” in which a spin doctor working for the White House (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood filmmaker (Dustin Hoffman) staged a fake war against Albania to divert public attention from a sex scandal in which the U.S. president was embroiled.

Likewise, commentators in Russia are claiming that political wrangling over Syria is meant to take Americans’ attention away from more pressing domestic problems.

“Everything happening around the war in Syria, including stove-piping, efforts to incite public indignation, and diplomatic equilibristics, resonates with what we saw on the screen 15 years ago and what has been largely forgotten,” says an editorial in Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK), a popular daily broadsheet. “One is getting the impression that the tail is wagging the dog, which is especially lamentable given that there is a real civil war raging in Syria.”

A columnist with MK and another daily broadsheet Izvestia, Melor Sturua, who has covered international politics since the 1950s, is using an impressive arsenal of tropes to build up suspense when writing about Syria. “Clouds are coming down over Syria, and a diplomatic thunder is rumbling. Will that be followed by military lightning?” Sturua wrote in a column.

His description of Obama’s relationships with allies reads like a family drama where pretty much everyone is turning their backs on the main character. In a column titled “Allies leaving Washington face to face with Syria?” Sturua called the results of voting in the House of Commons on Britain’s possible involvement in the Syrian conflict “a staggering defeat for Prime Minister Cameron.”

“The voting in British parliament landed a blow not even as much on Cameron but rather on U.S. President Barack Obama – all American presidents have been backed by their closest ally, London, since the war in Vietnam, and in every major military conflict the U.S. and Britain stood shoulder to shoulder,” Sturua wrote. “But this time British MPs were haunted by the shadows of former British PM Tony Blair and Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein with his nuclear weapons concocted by American intelligence.”

Washington, Sturua added, has received another blow from the U.N., whose Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on Obama to abandon plans for a military strike until all opportunities to rectify the situation using procedures prescribed in the U.N. Charter have been exhausted.

“Internationally, Obama has found himself in isolation, and not a splendid one,” Sturua wrote. “Importantly, the voting in British parliament and the position of the U.N. Secretary General have had a certain impact on U.S. Congressmen."

To top it all, the G20 summit in St. Petersburg is nearing, and “should G20 panel discussions begin to the accompaniment of American Tomahawk missiles, one shouldn’t expect any major concrete decisions to be made there,” Sturua said.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta (NG), a liberal publication that usually delivers a thorough analysis of political developments, is being everything but pro-American. “America seeks to strangle Syria with opposition’s hands,” “The U.S. prepares a Yugoslavia scenario for Syria,” “American Tomahawks on the warpath” are among the latest NG headlines.

“Once a prominent advocate of international law, the U.S. President is turning into a world gendarme,” says NG author Daria Tsilyurik in her most recent article. “Even though Obama along with Britain’s David Cameron are trying to back away from associations with the events of ten years ago and the leaders they were opposed to then, they are following exactly in their footsteps.”

Another NG author, Vladimir Mukhin, warns that a strike against Syria will freeze military contacts between Russia and the U.S. for years ahead, just like the military operation in the Balkans did in 1999.

“When the news broke that the U.N. refused to sanction the bombing of Yugoslavia, then Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who was on his way to Washington, had his jet turn around over the Atlantic and headed home,” Mukhin wrote. “Time will show whether something like that will happen again.”

Statements made by Syrian President Assad in a recent interview with Izvestia leave little doubt that he will largely use Russian arms to repel a possible attack of the U.S. military and that Moscow must have completed re-equipping the Syrian army with modern short and mid-range air defense systems. Moscow itself, Mukhin assumes, is preparing “an asymmetrical response” to the Pentagon’s operation.

“Military action can spread to neighboring countries, such as Israel,” Mukhin said, citing the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as saying that “consequences of strikes cannot be predicted.”

The tone of Argumenty I Fakty (AIF), a top-selling weekly newspaper, is considerably harsher than any of the aforementioned publications.

“If one had illusions about the commitment of the U.S. and other countries of the so-called “civilized” world to the high ideals of humanism, the Arab Spring shattered them once and for all,” said the head of AIF’s Society department Andrei Sidorchik. “Look at Libya and Syria, they are sinking in blood. The regimes here were far less despotic than those in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, which have raised no questions with those in the habit of enforcing human rights with Tomahawks.”

The main aim of “the suave gentlemen from the West,” in Sidorchik’s view, is to replace Assad with a leader that will be loyal to the U.S. and its allies no matter how many people may die in the civil war. “We should understand that people in Syria are being killed not by international terrorists but respectable diplomats from the U.S. Department of State and the foreign offices of Britain and France,” he wrote.

AIF also quoted the head of the International Affairs Committee of the lower house of Russian parliament, Alexei Pushkov, who called for divesting Obama of the Nobel peace prize in case the U.S. attacks Syria without the U.N. sanction.

In an interview with AIF, the President of the Moscow-based Institute of the Middle East, Yevgeny Satanovsky, did not rule out that an overthrow of a government in the Middle East can be followed with strikes against Russia and China in the future.

He also pointed out that there is an information war fought between Assad’s opponents and proponents.

“The media are not a source of information anymore, they have become propaganda instruments,” he said.

Satanovsky is not the only Russian commentator anticipating attacks against Russia and speaking of the political bias of the media covering the Syrian conflict.

“The ball of the Arab Spring is rolling to Iran and then to our North Caucasus,” Alexei Mitrofanov, the head of the Information Policy Committee of the lower house of Russian parliament, said at a press conference in Moscow. “What we see in the Middle East is the cleansing of military regimes orientated largely towards the Soviet Union. The U.S. wants to have weak regimes rule. Anyone in place of Assad will do for them.”

Russia and the U.S., he said, are on the opposite sides of the barricades. “The West’s propaganda is very simple: They claim that Assad is a bloody dictator and Russia supports him,” he said. “They report Moscow’s statements but Russia’s position is never backed by American commentators.”

“Most of the Russian commentators are trying hard to debunk the rationale behind the West’s position,” says Vladimir Sukhoi, who was the bureau chief of Channel One in Washington D.C. from 1998 to 2003. “Almost no one is trying to find a kernel of truth in the statements made by Obama or other Western leaders. Even if the West is right on something, we won’t admit that and will keep making the same point about the violation of international law in every newspaper and on every channel.”

Focusing on the consequences of a new intervention

The focus of debate in the U.S. press is different than that in the mainstream Russian media, in Sukhoi’s opinion. “The main theme is retaliation in order to make it clear to the Syrian regime that it can’t use chemical weapons, especially against its own people,” Sukhoi says.

Unlike in Russia, he adds, in the U.S. the idea that human rights have a priority over sovereignty has dominated public discourse since the military operation in Yugoslavia.

A recent story on The New York Times website outlines the main challenge the U.S. faces pretty clearly: “For the United States, the challenge is to deliver the intended message to Mr. Assad without opening the door to a takeover by rebels linked to Al Qaeda, the collapse of state institutions, or a major escalation by Syria’s allies. Skeptics doubt that the United States — or anyone else — has the information to calibrate the attack that precisely.”

The Washington Post cites military experts raising doubts as to whether the U.S. actually has a coherent strategy in Syria.

“Former and current officers, many with the painful lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan on their minds, said the main reservations concern the potential unintended consequences of launching cruise missiles against Syria,” WP’s Ernesto Londoño wrote. “Getting drawn into the Syrian war, they fear, could distract the Pentagon in the midst of a vexing mission: Its exit from Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are still being killed regularly.”

“Americans are writing about why a strike should be made, what the consequences will be, why Assad could have used chemical weapons, whether he used it before,” Vladimir Sukhoi says. “Our press prefers not to consider what Assad has done and focuses on why the West wants another war, why it violates the U.N. Charter, why it instigated the Arab Spring and so on.”

Likewise, The Chicago Tribune's columnist Rachel Marsden warns against the consequences of the Syrian intervention and, at the same time, makes an attempt to shift all responsibility for the Syrian crisis to Russia.  

"This self-sacrificial impetus to take on all the world's ills needs to stop, particularly when the crisis of conscience belongs in someone else's dacha," she writes. "Syria isn't America's problem to fix -- it's Russia's. So why is the Obama administration refusing to say this? It's unfathomable that Kerry didn't even mention Russia and its regional and moral responsibilities during his entire press conference statement."

"Still, why blow an opportunity to make Russia pull its weight and, in doing so, take a load off your own plate?" she said. "Historically and militarily, Syria clearly falls into Russia's sphere of influence. And the longer the Syrian mess drags on, the greater the risk of regional Al Qaeda factions taking a little road trip to join their Chechen Islamist brothers in crashing the Sochi Olympics early next year - and not to watch the hockey or bobsledding. America's message right now shouldn't be directed at Assad, but rather at the other self-declared adult in the room: Russia."