by Gordon M. Hahn
The misrepresentation of Russia’s stated objectives in Syria and the Russian population’s reaction to President Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in the war-torn country continues in U.S. mainstream media and think tanks. One of the most absurd comes from Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who wrote: “Last month, Russia moved from the shadows and into the forefront with their military build up. The Russians talk of targeting terrorists, but the pattern of their airstrikes speaks otherwise. Most sorties have aimed their missiles at Syrian rebel groups including Jabhat al Nusra leaving the Islamic State mostly to the American-led coalition” (http://www.fpri.org/geopoliticus/2015/10/russia-returns-al-qaeda-and-islamic-states-far-enemy?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=New%20Campaign&utm_term=%2AMideast%20Brief). In this gravely erroneous rendering, Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaida’s affiliate in Syria and a group known for beheradings and other atrocities, is not a terrorist group! The author and his employers should take a long look at the list of international terrorists and terrorist organizations of the U.S. State Department (which ironically has issued similar distoritions of Russia’s Syria intervention. Jabhat al-Nusra is on the list and is a terrorist organization. In other news….
Numerous sources, not just ‘Moscow’, have reported that Russian air strikes hit IS targets in recent days in addition to earlier reports of earlier Russian attacks on IS targets (“Russian air strikes hit Syria’s historic Palmyra region: Moscow,” AFP, 2 November 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/russia-says-air-force-hit-palmyra-region-syria-160126911.html). The recent reports note strikes on IS targets in historic Palmyra and elsewhere near Homs.
For example, both Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and “Khaled al-Homsi, an activist from Palmyra” said that Russian planes had targeted Palmyra with strikes on Monday, November 2nd. Moreover, the Syrian Observatory also reported at least 10 people had been killed and more wounded in apparent Russian strikes on Al-Qaryatain, an IS-held town in Homs province.
This at least partially confirms statements from the Russian Defense Ministry’s November 2nd briefing, which claimed Russian Su-25 fighter jets destroyed “a fortification, an underground bunker and anti-aircraft artillery” in Palmyra and also hit targets of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front “terrorist groups” in the Homs, Hama, Latakia, Damascus, Aleppo and Raqa provinces. Specifically, Moscow said it hit a training camp for foreign fighters and an improvised explosive device production plant in Aleppo provonce and destroyed two armoured vehicles in Hama province. Russia’s military said it also struck a key Al-Nusra Front command post on a strategic hill in the coastal Latakia region.
Syrian state television said in early October that Russian warplanes had struck IS targets “in and around” the city (“Russian air strikes hit Syria’s historic Palmyra region: Moscow,” AFP, 2 November 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/russia-says-air-force-hit-palmyra-region-syria-160126911.html).
These reports show that at least some of the Russian Defense Ministry’s claims about hitting IS targets are verified by other sources, including those close to the Syrian opposition that is antagonistic to Moscow.
How U.S. Media Propaganda ‘Works’ Regarding Syria and Everything Else
I have my doubts it really does work or at least as well or as long as its users might think. Nevertheless, the technique is worth looking at. The ‘Headline-the American public cannot read’ technique. Recently deployed by former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul it follows the U.S. media’s long-time practice of placing false or misleading headlines atop the typically slightly less false or misleading articles to sway opinion in favor of liberals and leftists. Here is how on October 29th McFaul appears to have deployed the technique, writing on Facebook and commenting on a Moscow Times (MT) article he links to: “So 90% of Russians support Putin, but only 50% support his foreign policy? I don’t get it. How to explain? Can anyone out there ever think of such a gap between individual approval rating and a policy at any time in history (in Russia, US, or anywhere)?”
The calculation that lies behind the use of this media technique is that many readers who take in this headline will not read or will simply skim the text, leaving the impression that “only 50% support this foreign policy.” Readers will likely infer that if ‘only’ 50 percent support, then 50 percent are opposed. Also, most readers are unlikely to parse the text and therefore will interpret it through the prism of the distorted picture the introduction or headline creates.
Here is what The Moscow Times article actually said and what the Levada Center survey actually found (please read, don’t skim):
Levada Center poll showed that Russians were not unified behind Putin’s intervention in Syria. Instead, the number of respondents both supporting and opposing government policy in Syria rose sharply following the start of the air strikes, while the number of people saying they were undecided fell by half.
The poll, conducted from Oct. 23-26, found that 53 percent of respondents approved of Russian policy in Syria, up from 39 percent a month earlier, before the bombing began. Those who said they did not approve doubled to 22 percent from 11 percent.
Meanwhile, the percentage of respondents who said they either did not care or did not know about Russia’s actions in Syria fell to just 24 percent in October from 50 percent in September (www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/russians-increasingly-polarized-by-syria-intervention–poll/540772.html).
In other words, it is just as accurate to say that only 22 percent oppose Putin’s policy. And is it really that unusual that a president with a 89.9 percent approval rating is opposed by 22 percent of the population on one particular issue? I think not, especially if this is in regard to a somewhat risky, brash and bold policy. Although most Russians mostly agree with Putin on most issues, ‘Russia’s Putin’ certainly faces some disagreement on some issues.
Similarly, MT gave the article a somewhat biased or at least misleading headline: “Russians Increasingly Polarized by Syria Intervention – Poll.” If polarized means that 50 percent are ‘for’ and 50 percent are ‘against,’ then the new poll potentially shows increased polarization. It showed the percent of Russians supporting the intervention rose from 39 to 53 percent, the percent of those who did not approve rose from 11 to 22 percent. This means that among those respondents who were supportive now constituted 71 percent of those who had decided as opposed to 78 percent earlier. However, both of these figures show that a solid majority of decided respondents support Putin’s Syria intervention policy.
In fact, several weeks ago I wrote about the distorted coverage of the first poll (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/10/08/russians-strongly-approve-putin-military-intervention-against-isis-less-so-in-support-of-assad/):
A much cited Levada survey conducted in September has been misrepresented by Western media and various anti-Russian activists. For example, the very anti-Putin, former editor of the English-language Moscow Times, Michael Bohm, has been making the Russian television and radio talk show circuit citing the survey in a one-sided fashion (that’s right, you heard correctly, I said an American anti-Putin editor of a Western-owned newspaper published in Moscow is a regular guest on fascist Russia’s mass media). Even the Levada Center itself reported that the September survey found that “69 percent of Russian citizens were against direct military support of the Syrian leadership” (www.levada.ru/08-10-2015/uchastie-rossii-v-siriiskom-konflikte). In reality, the survey found that more approve than disapprove: 39 percent approved (11 percent fully approved, 28 percent mostly), 11 percent disapproved (8 percent largely disapproved, 3 percent definitely disapproved), and 33 percent expressed no interest (www.levada.ru/28-09-2015/voina-v-sirii-vnimanie-otsenki-igil). Therefore, one could just as fairly report the results as follows: 72 percent are not against Putin’s Syria intervention.
Since I published this, Levada has corrected its claim that “69 percent of Russian citizens were against direct military support of the Syrian leadership” and changed it to “69 percent of Russians were against direct military support of the leadership of Syria and as of the leadership of the DNR and LNR in 2014.” They also changed the link from (www.levada.ru/08-10-2015/uchastie-rossii-v-siriiskom-konflikte) to (http://www.levada.ru/2015/10/08/uchastie-rossii-v-sirijskom-konflikte/).
Our institutions are melting down. Incompetence and corruption reign. Government and media are either engaged in wishful thinking or perpetually conjuring up false scenarios and distortions that fit their agenda, which is often careerist or domestic-political in nature. So be very careful about what you read.
As the CNBC presidential debate demonstrated for the world to see, journalism and much else in America is dead.
P.S. One possible answer to Ambassador McFaul’s question might be found in the phrase ‘the teflon president’. Read up on it. (Liberals and leftists are exempted. I would not want to cause them any more discomfort.)
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; a Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. He has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.