War of words: Russia & US over Syria

By Joveria Baig and Saqib Lodhi

War was known as an act of extreme violence between two or more large and organized parties to achieve specific political manifesto. Today essence is still the same but ways to achieve those goals have changed a lot. A well known saying ‘Pen is mightier than sword’ proves itself to be true in the present day. Warfare has entered into its fifth generation where all networks available whether these are economic, political, military or social ones are used to achieve the desired political goals. The decision making power of adversary is influenced to an extent that makes them and their allies think that their strategic objectives are either unrealistic or the cost of those is much higher than the perceived benefit. Information and psychological warfare are among most prominent types of warfare in recent times. Hence ‘words’ used effectively are most efficient tools used to manipulate the minds of strata of population. ‘War of words’ is usually a debate or argument between two rival parties but as far as realpolitik is concerned war of words is the game of developing perception of the world populous as per your interest and against that of your adversary, so that world may perceive you to be right and justified and your adversary otherwise.

Syria’ is a war torn country where four different groups are fighting each other which are

  • Syrian government (Under President Bashar-al-Assad).
  • Opposition Groups (Local Rebels).
  • ISIL (Terror Organization).
  • Kurdish ROJAVA.

The conflict is more complex and complicated because many global interests are at stake especially those of United Nations Veto powers which have separated into two groups.

  • Western group. (US, UK, France, EU, Italy, KSA etc…).
  • Eastern group. (Russia, China, Turkey, Iran etc…)

The western collation is led by US and supports rebels (opposition groups) to get rid of Assad. Russia and China however are strong supporters of the Assad government. Russia and US are actively involved in the war where former is securing Assad’s power and bombing rebels while later is supporting and arming rebels to over through Assad. Even though there is no direct war between Russian and American soldiers Syrian war has turned into a proxy war in which American backed rebels stand against the Russian backed government. The most prominent example of that being the city of Aleppo The eastern part of the city is under control of militant groups who deny giving up the control while the western part is held by government. The victims are general population who are trapped between government and rebels. The war has turned into a human catastrophe that has left over 4.8ml people fleeing the country as refugees. 6.6ml people are internally displaced (IDPs) and since its outbreak in 2011 roughly ½ ml people are killed. Syrian war is a global issue and needs global attention.

International stake holders of Syrian war are involved in conflict at different levels. Psychological warfare is alternative way to get desired goals and objectives by winning hearts and minds of general population. For sake of development of desired foreign perceptions war of words is being played at different fronts via informational and social networks from official Statements to Media reporting (Electronic, Social, Print). Media groups from both sides keep on attacking each other by employment of scaremongering tactics and false propaganda. The word selection used in reporting of events and interpretation of those is surprisingly amazing blaming each and portraying evil image of one another.

Following a brutal attack on Syrian school in Idlib province in October 2016 which Mr.Ban Ban Ki-Moon said was a war crime, US and Russia both kept on blaming each other for this heinous act. US, France and allies blamed Syria-Russia Coalition for the attacks while Moscow refused any flying over the specified area. This province is held by rebels who are often attacked by Russian air strikes. On the other hand presence if IS there provides ground for US collation’s air strikes as well which are carried out very often, Hence it is difficult to decided who actually conducted the strike on school leaving more than 20 children dead. Similarly Putin the Russian President blamed Obama the (than US president) for no serious and successful efforts from his side for reaching on a cease-fire agreement and stopping bloodshed in Syria. While from Obama’s administration mr.John Kerry the Secretary of state blamed Russia for war crimes and begged for appropriate investigation of those. (Labott 2016)

A London-based organization Syrian Observatory for human rights (SOHR) having no direct access to Syria, accused Russia of the strike on a hospital in Syria while Russian Defence Minister Miss Zakharova responded by saying The western mass media reports show extreme bias towards the sincere military efforts of Russia to restore democracy in Syria. She also blamed western collation for arming and reinforcing the terrorist groups working in there against the Syrian government. (Novozhenina 2015)

On another event of urgent meeting of UN which was called on Russia’s request, Smantha Power the US ambassador to UN blamed Russia of putting wrong allegations on US and spreading false news regarding US attack in Deir Ezzor which resulted in cease-fire violation and killed many Russian military persons. She claimed that strike was intended to hit ISIL force and not the Russian troops. Accusing eastern Collation of different strikes on school and hospitals e.t.c she added that Russia should consider investigations and consultations of United Nations Security Council (UNCL) for such things too. While her Russian counterpart claimed that western collation intentionally did this act in order to disrupt the cease-fire agreement which was expected to be signed in near future. (News 2016)

Syrian President Assad’s wife condemned western media on Russian state TV. She said that western media focuses merely on those issues and tragedies which conform their agenda. Western media chooses to focus exclusively on the issues which can defame Russia. Mass media of west is dividing people on bases of political bias and to attain long term political objectives. On the other hand Assad told media that Russia is involved in Syrian war not for self interests rather it is fighting for morals and justice and securing diplomacy.  (The Moscow Times 2016)

Cartoons are best way to express a complicated message through single picture these can sometimes express much more than words can ever do. Language of cartoons is easy to understand and yet is more effective in conveying message to the audience. Both eastern and western media groups are also using cartoons and animations to project their respective view points and to portray the conflict in desired way.

Source: The cartoons that defined Middle East news this year. December 16, 2015. Albawaba, (accessed October 29, 2016)

The above image is showing western point of view expression Assad as a furious dictator and Putin as his sincere helper. This single image creates complete story in viewer’s mind it is Portraying eastern collation as the aggressors and the killers of innocent, On the other hand satisfying the minds of audience in favor of themselves presenting western block as saviors and helpers of Innocent victimized civilians.(Creating Justification for war).

Source: Younes, Ali. Cartoon war over Russia’s role in Syria. Aljazeera (accessed November 06, 2016).

This image projects Russia as only savior for Syria while rejecting all other involved states of western block as dependable forces. Sputnik news is supposed to be a Russian backed channel. Which is obviously propagating what eastern group desires to be propagated.

Source: Richardson, Ollie. Sociopath Media Report – Halloween Special. Fort Russ October 31, 2015. (accessed November 04, 2016).

Another image showing western block’s view point, this specific image is Portraying Russia and its allies as family of evil butchers, who are massacring the innocents to attain their political objectives.

Similarly Social media networks are as important as other forms of information. Where information is propagated and used to spread the word to attain foreign support by changing the minds, attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives. Propaganda is known as a biased usually misleading set of information to develop desired perceptions. Authenticity of material available on social media site could be challenged but as far as the specified aim is concerned these are more important and influential than print and electronic media.

Fox News . New York, October 6, 2016.

As the above picture is showing a simple Russian ‘Tweet’ generated massive debates on electronic media and spreading the waves of concern throughout the western group. War of words is as complex as war on ground is, its rather more complicated than that. Both Russian and western media networks are taking serious steps for enhancing the capabilities of Psychological and information warfare. Over Syria both are engaged in war of words both have employed and are still employing their best information manipulation skills via all possible and available sources. In hunt of their particular objectives they are projecting the distorted image of the events by which genuine issues and interests of concerned population of Syria are being neglected. This proxy war affects general population of war torn country Syria as they are suffering the most.

This brief analysis of different panels of information gives us the conclusion that both eastern collation and western collation are trying to best play the war of words utilizing respective media networks and Human portals of Information as the effective tools of information and psychological war against each other. But despite who is winning on ground and who is not as far as victory in war of words is concerned US seems to be ahead of Russia in this regard. Because as far as war of words is concerned despite Russia being justified on moral grounds

  • US and its allies are well equipped and well trained in information war tactics.
    (specialized media cells of NATO & CIA etc)
  • US gives as much importance to Weapons of Mass media as to Nuclear weapons.
  • Sphere of Influence of US’s Information networks is far more larger than that of Russia.
  • There is a language barrier in Russia’s case. As language used by US (Usually referred as American English) to spread their view is a universal language and is very easy to understand.
  • US has greater number of lobbies (interest groups) throughout the world than that of Russia, which propagate what  US wants to be propagated hence greater number of population is getting affected and influenced.
  • On the other hand Russia and allies have few English channels who are more busy in defending themselves rather than blaming or highlighting the evils of west.

War of words is not about morals and values it is rather a game of influencing maximum number of minds of strata of population. Status of US-Russia relations is very unpredictable, after Mr Donald Trump has been selected as new President US-Russia Relations are supposed to fluctuate but will not normalize for sure.

Joveria Baig and Saqib Lodhi are students and researchers of psychological warfare at the National Defense University in Islamabad, Pakistan

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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