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Russia and the Syrian Regime are Documenting Their Own Crimes

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In the era of “fake news,” Russian hacking, and “post truth presidency,” it can be hard to discern fact from fiction and propaganda from reporting. Over the past few years the smear and bullshit industry has been kicked into overdrive by state actors invested in spreading misinformation.

Propaganda is nothing new but as America comes to grips with the role of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election via hacks and so-called “fake news”, many are wondering what, if anything, can be done to counter these increasingly toxic and advanced strains of misinformation. Most worrying is the fact that US president elect Donald Trump seems to be a voracious consumer of fake information, at the expense of US intelligence agencies and other more rational observers.

This seemingly insurmountable challenge has left lawmakers scratching their heads, considering countermeasures and toying with the absolutely unacceptable notion of censorship. For those of us who oppose censorship but are still terrified by the plague of bullshit there is good news. Simply put, the best cure for Russian propaganda is Russian propaganda.

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the Syrian war, which despite being one of the most recorded conflicts in history, is still the subject of a massive amount of orchestrated disinformation. As the evacuation of Aleppo kicks off Russia and the Syrian regime are franticly pushing to control the narrative through selective reporting and ad hominem attacks. Pro Regime outlets, Russian TV as well as some western apologists have consistently tried to downplay or obfuscate the reports of mass atrocities taking place in Syria. One of the most obvious propaganda tactics has been to attack the credibility of rescue workers and try to debunk evidence of indiscriminate airstrikes.

Fortunately, the disinformation frequently discredits itself.

In the wake of an airstrike against a UN SARC convoy earlier this year Russian television claimed that Russian forces did not know the location of the convoy and that no airstrike had taken place. Yet they also showed Russian drone footage of a rebel mortar being driven past the very convoy. Russians can’t have been unaware of the convoys location while simultaneously tracking it for proof that it was somehow a legitimate target. The UN subsequently provided satellite evidence that showed that indeed airstrikes had taken place.

Russia and the Syrian regime have claimed that they don’t target civilians yet they have dropped leaflets over Aleppo which threaten the population with extermination if they remain in their city.

There has also been an obsession with discrediting civilian voices coming out of Aleppo. Russia Today and InTheNow have both aired videos over the past 72 hours calling into question the validity of activists tweeting videos out of Aleppo, blatantly asserting that they themselves are part of a misinformation campaign. The implication has been that the activists are somehow linked to the west or are not in Aleppo.

The most startling example of this has been the campaign to discredit the twitter account run jointly by the seven year old Bana Alabed and her mother Fatimeh, from inside Aleppo. During a segment featuring RT’s Anissa Naouai for the Russian funded InTheNow tried to discredit Bana’s and other Syrian’s twitter accounts and pleas for help “it almost looks like a coordinated PR campaign.”  This regardless of the fact that many journalists have been in direct contact in Bana and her mother and Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins has used geolocation to prove Bana’s precise location in Aleppo.

A subsequent RT segment featuring Murad Gazdiev attacked Alabed’s parents, “for all their concern for Bana’s wellbeing instead of fleeing east Aleppo the parents chose to take Bana deeper into rebel territory.” Gazdiev went on to try and discredit the notion that Bana’s family could have access to internet “the odd thing is how Bana’s parents seem to have a constant internet connection.” Gazdiev claims that while he was in government controlled Aleppo there was no internet yet Bana was still tweeting.

Of course tweets from RT’s own correspondents show that there is internet in Aleppo and anyone who has been to rebel controlled Aleppo knows that there are ways to stay online. Finally after complaining about being blocked by Bana and questioning why she would be “up at 2am,” Gazdiev did acknowledge that she is “a real girl in Aleppo being used as a tool in a war she probably doesn’t understand.” In other words Russian propaganda discredited Russian propaganda, Bana is real and in Aleppo, and Russia knows it.

One of the most frequent targets of disinformation and smear attacks has been Syria’s lauded Civil Defense group known as the “White Helmets.” Attacks from Russian outlets and apologists have been relentless. In a press conference held along with Syria’s UN delegation a Canadian blogger named Eva Bartlett claimed that no one had ever heard of the White Helmets in East Aleppo

Unfortunately for Eva Bartlett and Russia’s disinfo narrative RT also ran a segment where surrendered civilians—undoubtedly in a position where they could be coerced by nearby regime soldiers—claimed that the White Helmets were notorious thieves known to everyone. RT has also claimed that the White Helmets abandon civilians under the rubble. This is what Freud called the logic of dreams. The White Helmets which RT says don’t exist have been behaving terribly according to RT.

The fact checking website Snopes was so appalled by Bartlett’s dishonesty that they weighed on her false assertions that victims were being “recycled” and that Al Quds hospital cannot have been struck on two separate occasions.

The Syrian military itself is also a great source of corroborating information. Earlier this year after the White Helmets were struck in an attack, the Syrian armed forces posted a screen grab on their official Facebook page taking credit for the attack and boasting about “tearing apart” civil defense, yet regime and Russian outlets continued to deny targeting the group.

On Saturday the famous and beloved Syrian doctor Salem Abualnaser posted a powerful video from the roof of Al Quds hospital in Eastern Aleppo, showing the destruction around him explaining to the world why he chose to join the demonstrations in his home city of Tartus back in 2011 and why he is still in Aleppo. The subtext of this message makes it one of the most poignant pieces of footage filmed since the war began.

For several years the Assads themselves have been a great source of information on their own human rights abuses and lies. When the image of a shell shocked five year old, Omran Daqneesh in the back of an ambulance following a regime or Russian strike was seen across the world, Bashar Assad promptly dismissed the image as a fabrication during an interview with Swiss media.

His wife Asma al Assad, however, had a different take,when she was questioned about the photo she did not dispute it’s authenticity. The Assad regime likewise has often claimed to be fighting ISIS in Aleppo, yet pro regime accounts consistently post images of dead fighters in Aleppo affiliated with other groups.

The regime has also dismissed all evidence that it is conducting mass displacement in communities like Daraya as propaganda, yet Syrian state television broadcast images of Bashar Assad visiting a completely bombed out and empty Daraya where he bragged “we have come here to replace the fake freedom which they tried to peddle during the beginning of the crisis- including here in Daraya- with true freedom.” This statement delivered in a completely empty street of a depopulated suburb was a direct denunciation of the peaceful protests that had taken place in Daraya in 2011 and furthermore it is an admission of guilt in the policy of displacement.

After the 2013 sarin gas attack on Eastern Ghouta Assad admitted to having chemical weapons during an interview with Dennis Kucinich for Fox News saying “it’s not a secret anymore.” The Syrian regime has always blamed the Ghouta attack on Syrian rebels in what they describe as a “false flag attack.”

In the immediate aftermath of the chemical attack Russia Today initially aired segments calling into question weather or not the attack actually happened and Russian diplomats insisted that images of the attacks were faked.

Months later as evidence of the chemical attack became insurmountable, Russia Today aired a segment conveniently quoting “Russian diplomatic sources” saying that the Ghouta attack was the work of “an Al Qaeda linked group backed by Saudi Arabia.” Interestingly the segment contradicts previous Russian and regime assertions that the attack wasn’t real, by confirming that “one thousand and a half” people were killed. Curiously the regime has never been able to explain why they think the rebels have never again used their supposedly massive stockpile of sarin.
In recent weeks doubters and deniers have questioned the location and sincerity of activists uploading messages from besieged Aleppo. However as evacuations from rebel held Aleppo get underway more and more video evidence is emerging which proves that Aleppo was in fact full of civilians who were bombed indiscriminately. Activists and residents who’s location and validity have been questioned by doubters and state actors have been posting videos of themselves with civilians preparing to be evacuated in the easily identifiable green buses that have become a notorious tool of Assad’s policy of displacement.

The videos posted by the activists the regime tried so hard to discredit either match the images of green buses taken from the regime side or are in easily identifiable locations. A video of evacuees running in terror seems to have escaped the attention of those openly mocking the besieged and terrified population.

The old axiom that “the first casualty of war is the truth” may be true, but sometimes you just aren’t looking hard enough.
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Can the last person out of Syria please turn off the lights?

Thursday, September 03, 2015

It took a dead baby for the world to notice. Wait, I thought it took seventy refugees suffocating in a refrigerator with wheels for the world to notice? Or was it the pictures of babies floating face down in the water that did it? I thought we were at the tipping point when chemical weapons were dropped on the Damascus Ghouta in 2013, and politicians in the Western world wobbled their lower lips as they made their speeches denouncing Assad and calling for accountability. I don’t buy it, and I’m not getting swept away with the optimism and emotion. A few thousand refugees let in through the net aren’t going to fix this problem or make it go away. The refugee problem is mainly a Syrian refugee problem, and it stems from a dictator who continues to use barrel bomb attacks to depopulate towns and villages. Syrians aren’t fleeing because of Jabhat al Nusra or even ISIS. They’re fleeing because they can’t live safely in their towns and villages when there is a constant fear of airstrikes and barrel bombs – the most barbaric of indiscriminate weapons.

I’ve spoken to people in Syria, and they’ve told me they could put up with the odd mortar shell, sniper or tank fire. They could even put up with living in IS areas or living with Jabhat al Nusra, just about, but not a weapon that can flatten an entire building, turning it into a tomb for those unlucky enough to be trapped alive beneath it. Those who come to rescue any survivors become themselves victims with the regime’s “double tap” method, where a second barrel bomb is thrown down to get rid of the survivors. It’s diabolical, it’s perverse, and it is contrary to all morality and logic. This is what’s driving people to risk their lives and everything they have for a better one abroad.

The West lacks the political will to do anything while Assad’s allies back him to the hilt. Yes, foreign fighters have done a lot to undermine the Syrian revolution, but that pales in comparison to the material support given to Assad by Iran and Russia. It took two years for the Assad regime to realise that President Obama is actually doing everything he could *not* to touch Syria, and after that the Russians threw him a lifeline, a way out, from the corner of red lines that he’d talked himself into. The disarmament deal that was supposed to “punish” the Assad regime really just gave him a green light to use all other weapons to brutalise the Syrian people, including his airforce, which is nowhere to be seen whenever Israel conducts its airstrikes inside Syria.

Today Prime Minister Cameron might grudgingly agree to allow a few thousand more Syrian refugees into the United Kingdom, as will Europe, but what will the world do in six months? In a year? How long will these band-aid fixes continue to be applied while everybody shirks their international obligations and does nothing to stop the slaughter in Syria? By doing something, I’m not talking about the meaningless term “political solution”, but taking hard action to stop a dictator’s regime from tearing the entire Mediterranean apart so that he can stay on his throne. Sorry, the picture of a dead baby, however heart breaking, is not enough to sway the world’s conscience into action. People will keep risking their lives in the hope of safety and a better life, it’s human nature.

Made up of bloated corpses, blood, guts, stale semen, decayed food, sweat and petrol fumes, there is a stink rising from our Arab countries, and the world just wants to pinch its nose. The only thing this poor baby might have done is to awaken the fetid consciences of the Arab bourgeoisies, as they tweet their heartbreak over social media from across the Arab world’s glittering capitals. To them, I say shukran for your condolences and your Arabian hospitality. Oh, and can the last person out of Syria please turn off the lights?

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Assad Guided by Russian Lessons from Chechnya.

When asked how long the war would take, the soon-to-be assassinated independence leader of the Chechen people, Dzhokhar Dudayev famously responded, “it will be a war of 50 years”.

This week’s focus on Chechnya reminds me how Assad’s strategy to suppress the revolution is influenced and informed by his Russian allies. Some would go as far as suggesting that the similarities point to the Russians actually managing the operation – from SCUD launches to international “diplomacy”.

One can find many similarities with how Russia crushed the independence aspirations of Chechnya over past twenty years and Assad’s action today. Of course, it is not an identical situation by any means, but is insightful to dissect to further understand how Assad’s main advisors are guiding him to survive.

In 1994, in response to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria secession a few years earlier, Russia, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin launched a brutal war to recapture the breakaway republic. However, the Russian Federation was unprepared, relying on conscripts and machines to fight a popular Chechen resistance. The result was a bloody two-year war, marked by massive war crimes committed by the poorly organized & undisciplined Russian forces against the population of Chechnya (both Chechen and Russian civilians alike). Indiscriminate shelling, targeted assassinations, mass executions, massacres and rape.

Literally, the population was decimated.

A ceasefire was signed in 1996 followed by a treaty a year later. The unpopular war was a “loss” for the Russian Federation and resulted in the deaths of 100,000 dead civilians in Chechnya, over 300,000 displaced – out of prewar population of ~1.2 million. The Chechen capital, Grozny was practically razed to the ground, invoking memories of the World War 2 allied bombing campaign of Dresden…the cruelty was maddening.

Chechnya's Destroyed Presidential Palace in Grozny.

Is this Grozny 1995 or Aleppo 2013? (Chechnya’s Presidential Palace, a symbol of independence destroyed by the Russians)

But the Chechens won something close to independence, albeit temporarily.

Russian designs for the republic were temporarily halted and left behind a devastated Chechnya along with a shocked and impotent international community – actually, an interesting question to ponder is whether the “West”, with a loud bark and consistent lack of tangible action, is treating Syria as an internal Russian affair, just as they did with Chechnya.

The subsequent dialogue and treaty, allowed for Russia to regroup while the Chechen Republic fragmented under the burden of its devastation. A ravaged economy, displaced and homeless populace, international isolation and the pain and trauma of the war resulted in radicalization, fragmentation and the weakening of Chechnya’s government.

Russia reentered Chechnya again in 1999 with the goal of destroying the de facto independence and establishing a pro-Moscow government. This second war was as devastating as the first. The Russians revised their tactics, led with a “victory by bombardment” strategy, followed by overwhelming ground support. Within a year, they succeeded in establishing direct rule over Chechnya and drove all resistance to the mountains to launch a low-level guerilla campaign that has outlived Yeltsin, who bequeathed power (appointed) to the KGB man, Vladimir Putin, in 2000.

Chechen Refugee 1994

Is she from Chechnya 1994, or Homs 2012? Both victims of Russian strategy.

Two Russian wars on Chechnya cannot be adequately detailed in a few paragraphs. However, an approach to suppress uprising starts to emerge and illustrate how Russian lessons in Chechnya inform Assad response to revolution over the past 15 months and his anticipated action in the near future.

Specifically, similar to his Russian sponsors, Assad has responded through the use of overwhelming and sustained violence – led by aerial bombardment and shelling, resulting in the destruction of society and civilian infrastructure. This has had a four-fold effect of 1) destroying the “enemy”, 2) spreading collective fear across all liberated areas, and 3) annihilating key leaders of the revolution 4) limiting the ability of rebels to effectively rule (i.e. provide security, safety, health & economic opportunity). The Russian experience in Chechnya has also taught Assad how to best utilize time and dialogue to attempt to reassert control over the situation.

Over the past year, as we’ve seen Assad’s control over territory shrink the Russian advisor influence has become very apparent. Syria’s infrastructure has been effectively destroyed and the revolution continues to be starved, both politically and militarily. Collective punishment via the air and shelling has been the regime’s strategy, followed by “boots on the ground” of the regime’s army and sectarian militias (“shabeeha”/ National Defense Forces) to control and retake territory.

Assad also hides behind the “dialogue” card, part of the bigger game played by powerful allies and the so-called friends of the revolution. Even this past weekend, we heard of a “Geneva approach” consensus by “Friends of Syria” which calls for transition. It, however, excludes any mention of removing Assad. Immediately following this call for dialogue, Assad’s forces massacred over 550 Syrians, most of them slaughtered in Jdaidet Artouz, a Damascus suburb, as a stark message to all involved, both within and outside Syria.

With all this said, we can see how Assad’s survival strategy is influenced, maybe even directed by his Russian allies – the blueprint for his survival may just have been written with the blood of Chechens. All those supporting Syria’s revolution must take note, and strap in for the long haul.

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Iran Shoots Itself in the Foot

By Robin Yassin-Kassab

In August 2012 Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi attended a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran. His presence at the conference was something of a diplomatic victory for the Iranian leadership, whose relations with Egypt, the pivotal Arab state, had been at the lowest of ebbs since the 1979 revolution.

Egypt’s President Sadat laid on a state funeral for the exiled Iranian shah. A Tehran street was later named after Khalid Islambouli, one of Sadat’s assassins. Like every Arab country except Syria, Egypt backed Iraq against Iran in the First Gulf War. Later, Hosni Mubarak opposed Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, worked with the US and Saudi Arabia against Iran’s nuclear program, and was one of the Arab dictators (alongside the Abdullahs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia) to warn darkly of a rising “Shi’ite cresent”. Not surprisingly, Iran was so overjoyed by the 2011 revolution in Egypt that it portrayed it as a replay of its own Islamic Revolution.

Iran also rhetorically supported the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya, the uprising in Yemen, and, most fervently, the uprising in Shia-majority Bahrain.

In Syria, however, Iran supported the Assad tyranny against a popular revolution even as Assad escalated repression from gunfire and torture to aerial bombardment and missile strikes. Iran provided Assad with a propaganda smokescreen, injections of money to keep regime militias afloat, arms and ammunition, military training, and tactical advice, particularly on neutralising cyber opponents. Many Syrians believe Iranian officers are also fighting on the ground.

Iran’s backing for al-Assad is ironic because at a certain point the Syrian revolution was the one that most resembled 1979 in Iran – the violent repression of demonstrations leading to angry funerals leading to still more in a constantly expanding circle of anger and defiance; the people chanting allahu akbar from their balconies at night; women in hijabs joining women with bouffant hair to protest against regime brutality.

It was also a massive miscalculation, a lesser cousin to the miscalculations made by Bashaar al-Assad, and one which stripped the Islamic Republic of the last shreds of its revolutionary legitimacy. Like the Syrian president, Iran was popular among Syrians until twenty two months ago, even among many sectarian-minded Sunnis. (So too was Hizbullah, now widely reviled. In 2006, the Syrian people – not the regime – welcomed into their homes a million south Lebanese refugees from Israeli bombing.) It now seems very unlikely that any post-Assad dispensation in Syria will want to preserve Iranian influence. The Free Syrian Army, the anti-Assad Islamist militias, and the Syrian National Coalition all see Iran as an enemy of Syria, not as an honest broker that could help negotiate a transition.

Iranian popularity has also collapsed in the wider Arab world, where its pro-Assad policy has undercut its position more effectively than American or Israeli messaging could ever have done. (James Zogby’s poll was conducted in June 2011, too early for revulsion over Syria to have fully developed, but it nevertheless shows a dramatic decrease in favourable attitudes to Iran.)

Back in August, President Morsi (whose foreign policy has been much more intelligent than his domestic governance) chastised his hosts on the Syrian issue. “We should all express our full support to the struggle of those who are demanding freedom and justice in Syria,” he said, “and translate our sympathies into a clear political vision that supports peaceful transfer to a democratic system.” The Iranian leadership was embarrassed enough to censor this part of Morsi’s speech from its state TV broadcasts.

Morsi also offered the Iranians the following deal: Egypt would develop a warm economic and political relationship with Iran to the extent of championing Iran’s nuclear energy program and opposing sanctions in the international fora. In return, Iran would pull back from its support of the Assad regime.

By its continued support for Assad, Iran in effect rejected the deal. Nevertheless, Morsi set up a four nation contact group – Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran – which has foundered not only on Iranian intransigence but also on Saudi absences from meetings. (Saudi Arabia has offered rhetorical support and some light weapons to the Syrian resistance; it also sent troops to Bahrain to help put down the democratic uprising there.) Egyptian-Iranian consultations on Syria continue.

Morsi was actually offering something substantial to the Iranians. It’s difficult to see how negotiations involving the Americans could produce better results so long as the US, bound up as it is with Israel’s self-perceived interests in the region, insists on sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program.

This is a great shame. Alongside Russia, Iran is the only power to exert any real influence on Bashaar al-Assad. It is to be hoped that, as the fall of the Assad regime becomes more apparent, wisdom will eventually prevail in Tehran. A volte face even at this late stage would strengthen Iran in its battles with the West and would temper rising anti-Shia sentiment in Syria and the wider Arab World.

– Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road From Damascus, a novel, co-editor of the Critical Muslim, a quarterly journal which looks like a book, and of www.pulsemedia.org. He blogs at www.qunfuz.com

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