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Russia’s Information Campaign Spreads From Ukraine to Syria

Russia appears to be using the broad fight against terrorism to lump together various opposition groups that have been fighting the Assad regime.

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Since fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine 18 months ago, Moscow has used its state media and top-level denial to mask its military involvement in the conflict and rebuke growing evidence suggesting Russian troops supported — and sometimes directly fought alongside — separatist forces.

Now, less than a week into its game-changing foray into Syria, the Kremlin may be deploying similar tactics to deflect accusations that Russia is more interested in protecting its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, than going after the Islamic State.

“In Ukraine, the context was that there was no Russian troops in Ukraine. In Syria it has become that there are only airstrikes against the Islamic State,” Alina Polyakova, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, told Foreign Policy. “In some cases, they are even using similar talking points.”

The Kremlin claims that it is in Syria to defeat Islamic State extremists. But shortly after Russia launched its air campaign on Wednesday, members of the rebel group Tajammu al-Aaza accused Moscow of deliberately targeting its positions in northwestern Syria and killing 36 civilians in an area where the Islamic State is not believed to have been for more than a year. On Thursday, Russia launched another round of airstrikes. Exactly what the planes hit remains in dispute, but according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the bombs struck the Army of Conquest, a loose alliance of rebel groups that rivals the Islamic State. Russia announced on Friday that it had bombed camps outside the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, but it is also believed to have targeted areas controlled by an assortment of rebel groups in the same round of sorties.

Russian officials rebuffed claims that Russia is bombing the Syrian opposition or has caused civilian deaths, labeling them as part of a concerted misinformation campaign to undermine its military intervention in Syria.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, told reporters at the United Nations on Wednesday that claims of civilian deaths were “biased and false reports” and that the accusations were part of “the information warfare that we all have heard so much about.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continued the pushback against reports of the Russian airstrikes, responding to earlier comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that the targets didn’t appear to be linked to the Islamic State. In phrasing that mirrored statements made by Lavrov during the heights of the Ukraine crisis, the foreign minister asked Washington to back up its accusations with hard proof.

“They expressed doubt, arguing that there is evidence, which we asked [them] to show us because we stand by our targets,” Lavrov told reporters, referring to U.S. officials. “Talk began that civilians were hurt by airstrikes. We have no such data.”

But experts see a concerning similarity between Russian rhetoric at the U.N. this week and tactics used to disguise its military involvement in Ukraine. Moscow denied its troops played a role in that conflict, and when Russian troops were caught in Ukraine, such as the Russian tanker who fought in the decisive battle of Debaltseve or the two soldiers caught in May, the Kremlin maintained they were volunteers. Similarly, when the U.S. Army’s Europe commander, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, said 12,000 Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine in March, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the figures were “plucked out of the air.”

“The last week has been about showing the world that U.S. intervention abroad causes instability and that Putin is a strong leader against terrorism. The Kremlin has a very clear media strategy for how to frame a narrative for both a domestic and a foreign audience,” Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told FP.

During his Monday speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin likened combating terrorism to the fight against Nazism in World War II. Throughout the 18-month Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin-mobilized state-controlled media has framed the conflict as a standoff against fascist forces in Kiev. It has often lumped together diverse elements, some of which have been on the far right, that protested against former President Viktor Yanukovych. Borshchevskaya said that in Syria, Russia appears to be using the broad fight against terrorism to lump together various opposition groups that have been fighting the Assad regime.

“For the Russian military, information is part of warfare, and right now the aim is to distract and discredit,” she told FP.

Russian officials have offered contradictory narratives about whom they have targeted in Syria. After initially claiming to be bombing only the Islamic State, officials have since broadened their statements, saying they will go after other groups as well. In a speech in Moscow after the upper house of the Russian parliament unanimously voted Wednesday to give Putin permission to use force in Syria against the Islamic State, the Russian president conspicuously failed to mention the group by name, instead speaking more broadly about “terrorist groups.” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also broadened the scope of targets, telling reporters on Thursday that Russia is going after a list of other extremist groups in addition to the Islamic State.

Similarly, when asked to define Russian targets within Syria, Lavrov told reporters at the U.N. that “if it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?”

“The Russian definition of an extremist is different from what the U.S. defines as an extremist,” Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told FP. Moscow makes little distinction among the various Islamist insurgent groups fighting in Syria, in contrast to U.S. policy, which has tended to tolerate groups it views as being more moderate or fighting against the Islamic State.

“Deciding who gets labeled an extremist and who doesn’t could be a major sticking point to any real cooperation between Moscow and Washington in Syria,” Pifer said. “In supporting Assad, Russia could label anyone that isn’t the Syrian government an extremist to justify airstrikes.”

Photo credit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Oct. 2, 2015: Steven Pifer is the name of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. An earlier version of this article misspelled his first name as Stephen.

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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