Russia’s propaganda war on Aleppo

Whatever Russian President Vladimir Putin’s particular fancy of the day is, it will be found on Russia Today (RT).

2017/01/08 Issue: 88 Page: 9

The Arab Weekly
Tom Regan

Two battles were fought in Aleppo.

One, now past, featured barrel bombs, air raids by Russian and Syrian jets, possible war crimes and heavy civilian casualties. The other, which is still being waged, is the propaganda war under­taken by pro-Kremlin media both in Russia and abroad to not only downplay civilian casual­ties and the attacks on facilities such as hospitals but to dismiss them entirely as made up by the West to embarrass Russia and negate the victory it and its Syrian allies achieved.

It is not surprising most Russians have little idea of what is really happening in Syria. The Russian government tightly controls most media outlets in the country and they have played up Russian forces’ support for Syrian government troops against what they call “terrorist anti-government forces”, while hardly ever reporting on civilian casualties or attacks on hospitals or humanitarian convoys. The Russian people have been in a fact-free zone on Syria for quite some time.

What is more interesting is the way Russia’s propaganda machine has attempted to influence opinion in the West about what happened in Aleppo. This propaganda takes several forms. Stories that depict news from Aleppo as made up by anti-Kremlin forces can be found on numerous pro-Kremlin and far-right sites. One of their most popular tactics is to attack videos taken in Aleppo by non-partisan international organisations that graphically depict the carnage, claiming that the events never happened but were manufactured to under­mine Russia and the Syrian government.

Even more interesting is how these Kremlin-generated stories have been picked up by websites that supported Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential elec­tion. Eager to echo anything that Trump advocates, these sites have basically become useful idiots for the Kremlin to pro­mote its version of the events. Trump’s craven support for Russian President Vladimir Putin in the face of accusations that Russia hacked the last US election has stunned foreign policy experts.

However, to really get to the main engine of Russian disinfor­mation in the West, what must be considered is RT, or Russia Today. Billing itself as a “news” channel, the reality is that RT is little more than a mouthpiece for Putin. It is owned lock, stock and barrel by the Russian government.

Whatever Putin’s particular fancy of the day is, it will be found on RT. This is certainly true of how the Russians want to paint the situation in Aleppo.

A quick internet search reveals a trove of RT stories over the past year about how “corrupt corpo­rate media” in the West is promoting fake news about civilian casualties in Aleppo. Instead, RT features stories about how civilians were so happy to be freed from the grip of the “terrorists” after the Syrian government forces recaptured Aleppo that they were literally dancing in the streets. You would hardly know any civilian had been killed.

In the end, Putin’s game is one of sowing confusion and doubt. If he can create a seed of doubt in people’s minds about what really happened, then legitimate news stories from or about Aleppo become suspect. This is part of the overall assault on journalism practised not just by the Kremlin but by anyone who wants to make sure that its version of the story is the main one, even if it is nothing more than a tissue of lies.

And you can count on the fact that this will not be the last story that pro-Kremlin sites such as RT will attempt to twist. If the past year has shown us anything, it is that the all-out assault on facts will continue to make it harder and harder for those in the West to know what Russia is really up to in Syria.

Tom Regan, a columnist at, previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is the former executive director of the Online News Association and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1992.

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