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Putin Is Selling A Narrative On Syria And Some Media Organizations Are Buying It

  • James Miller

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev leads a concert in the amphitheatre of the ancient Syria city of Palmyra earlier this month, an event which was covered uncritically by a number of Western news outlets.

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev leads a concert in the amphitheatre of the ancient Syria city of Palmyra earlier this month, an event which was covered uncritically by a number of Western news outlets.

It's been a banner week for the Kremlin's propaganda machine. At home, and across the border in the parts of Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists, Russian military hardware was out on display for the May 9 Victory Day parade marking the defeat of the Nazis in World War II.

But the biggest propaganda victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin may not have been broadcast by his state-run propaganda outlets like RT, but by Western news outlets which accepted Russia's offer to report exactly what the Kremlin wanted them to in Syria.

Earlier this year, the Russian military and Russian private mercenaries played a key role in helping the Syrian government recapture the central Syrian city of Palmyra, a fabled and ancient city known for its historic ruins, from the hands of Islamic State (IS) extremists.

In the first few days of May, the Russian military escorted teams of international journalists across the war zone to observe a concert in Palmyra's ancient amphitheater. The reporters were treated to a magnificent performance of famed musicians conducted by Valery Gergiev, the conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and a fierce supporter of Putin.

The Washington Post's Andrew Roth detailed the entire trip, focusing on the steps that the Russian government took to ensure that the journalists who participated in this guided tour only wrote positively and on the subject that their Russian minders desired. Other news agencies seemed more than happy to toe the Russian line.

Glowing Reports

CNN's article on the event nearly glows, highlighting the significant military operation needed to get the journalists to a concert near the front lines of the battle against IS fighters. It notes that just this past July, IS militants filmed themselves executing 25 prisoners in the same theater. There is only one line in the article that even resembles criticism -- that famed cellist Sergei Roldugin, "who was recently named in the Panama Papers as having moved hundreds of millions to offshore companies, a claim he denies," played in the concert.

Euronews posted a similar story, though the French news outlet did note a caveat: its media facility in Syria is "provided by the Russian Ministry of Defence and our reporting is not subject to any military control." That article carried a quote from the head of St Petersburg's State Hermitage museum who told the audience that the UNESCO heritage site could have been saved.

Without naming names he appeared to criticize the US-led coalition.

"Look at its geographical situation. The battle for Palmyra went on for so long and many of the exhibits were able to be smuggled out. [The militants] approaching Palmyra could have been bombed into the ground in an instant, but they weren't. Well our guys weren't there back then!" said Mikhail Piotrovsky, the museum's director.

Curiously that quote was published without noting that Palmyra's "geographical situation" is at the center of the country on a key road between the Syrian government's capital city, Damascus, and Iraq -- far from the U.S.-led coalition's campaigns against IS strongholds in northeastern Syria and western Iraq.

Neither CNN nor Euronews note that, according to new documents obtained by Sky News, the Russian-led offensive to retake Palmyra culminated in a deal between the Syrian government and IS forces that allowed the terrorists to remove their heavy weaponry in exchange for the retaking of the city.

Neither report notes that the main target of both Russian and Syrian air strikes are groups that have fought IS, not IS itself. And neither article mentions the fact that, according to the detailed database maintained by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, at least 100 civilians were killed by the Assad regime in Palmyra prior to IS's arrival, most of whom were killed while in detention.

No Wider Context

Instead, both articles read exactly how the Russian government would like them to read -- Russia helped Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad liberate this ancient city from the most brutal terrorists.

Worse yet, the wider context of events in Syria is completely missing from both the CNN and Euronews reports. While Russian cellos were playing mournful tunes for those killed by Islamic State terrorists, at least 30 refugees were killed as bombs tore through a camp for internally displaced persons near the border with Turkey. Activists said air strikes -- possibly Russian -- were to blame. Euronews, however, ran a special report on how Russian soldiers are demining the ruins. That report does not ask the question that Reuters asks -- if IS planted the mines so that they would explode when the Syrian and Russian soldiers captured the city, why didn't any of them go off?

CNN also reported that the Russian mission in Syria is much larger than media reports had previously suggested. The CNN correspondent noted that he was impressed by the "professionalism of the troops and the pristine state of the equipment they were using," and concluded that "while the exact size of Russia's military presence in Syria is still unclear, the things we saw while embedded with them indicate that it is bigger and more sophisticated than most believe."

That the Russian government is brazenly showing off its forces in Syria should come as no surprise. Independent analysis conducted by our team at The Interpreter, an RFE/RL partner, advanced the argument months ago that, when Putin was claiming that he was withdrawing from Syria, large numbers of Russian forces were staying to fight.

When Putin announced his withdrawal from Syria, he wanted the world to think he was serious. He wasn't. Now Putin wants to send a different message: he's not going anywhere. And uncritical reports from the front lines only help him to underscore this message.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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