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Russia and US Provide a Lesson in Propaganda Over Syrian Ceasefire
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Airstrikes that hit the wrong target have always been justified or denied by the perpetrators with a rich blend of hypocrisy and lies. It was interesting to see this tradition of deliberate mendacity being not only maintained, but outdone in Syria over the last week. The US was seeking to explain how it had come to kill at least 62 Syrian soldiers fighting Isis in the besieged government-held city of Deir Ezzor a week ago and the Russians evading responsibility for an air attack on a UN aid convoy killing 20 people outside Aleppo five days later.

The explanation of US military officials was splendidly ingenious. As dutifully retailed by CNN, they said they believed a likely scenario was that the personnel hit were prisoners of the regime, perhaps military personnel being detained, although that is not certain.

The initial signs indicated that they were dressed in civilian clothing. They may not have had the typical weapons of a Syrian military unit but rather trucks with weapons mounted on top of them. It is also not known if they were deliberately placed there to potentially deceive the coalition.

For students of war propaganda this is a wonderful piece of obfuscation. No evidence is produced for “the likely scenario” in which supposition is heaped on supposition. Its purpose is instead to mask, or throw in doubt over, the obvious fact that someone had committed a blunder and ordered an attack on a long established Syrian Army position near Deir Ezzor airport. This sort of smoke screen is not designed to last very long, but to blunt criticism during the first crucial few days when the story is still at the top of the news agenda. Then a few weeks or even months down the road, there can be a grudging admission of the truth, or part of it, when it will barely get a mention at the end of newscasts or be relegated to page 24 of the newspapers. An old PR adage says that the best way for the perpetrator of some disaster to limit the damage to himself or herself is to “first say no story and then say old story.” It still works.

The Russian explanation of the attack on the UN aid convoy on 19 September is also well worth studying as an example of the propagandist’s art. It is important to make your explanation detailed and interesting because it will be competing with a reality which, in the nature of war, will be murky and confusing. The Russian news agency Tass quoted a senior Russian official as saying that “analysis of video records from drones of yesterday’s movement of the humanitarian convoy across Aleppo territories controlled by militants has revealed new details. It is clearly seen in the video that a terrorists’ pickup truck with a towed large-calibre mortar is moving along with the convoy.”

This was good stuff. Suggesting that there was an understandable reason to imagine they were attacking a legitimate target – though it had to be admitted that “the large calibre mortar” had somehow disappeared by the time of the attack. But the Russians made the mistake of producing too many exculpatory stories at the same time, claiming there were no Russian or Syrian planes in the area – in which case why suggest the legitimate target scenario? Other Russian explanations were that there had been no attack at all and, if there had been, it had been carried out by jihadis and, in any case, all the damage was done from the ground and not from the air.

The crucial point is never to leave a vacuum of information when a story is at the top of the news agenda because that vacuum will be filled by your enemies (if it has not got wide media attention it may be better to ignore it because a rebuttal may serve only to give the story legs). It does not matter if what you are spouting is nonsense because it only has to hold up for two or three days and probably less (the UN aid convoy attack was swiftly overtaken as a news story by the riots in Charlotte, North Carolina). An advantage for the propagandist is that it is easy to make up a lie, but it can take much more time and effort to convincingly refute it.

The truth is that air attacks fail to hit the right target regularly, though not often with such diplomatically disastrous consequences as last week. Air forces emphasise that with smart bombs they can hit targets with far more accuracy than ever before, but they seldom stress that the targeting is based on intelligence which may be flawed or misinterpreted. The misinterpretation may take place far away in some operations centre or it may be some partisan local source peering through binoculars.

Most intelligence comes from local ground forces. The RAF says that the reason that it has only launched 65 airstrikes in Syria over the last nine months compared to 550 in Iraq is that it lacks partners on the ground in Syria while in Iraq it has the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Bombing blunders have a certain amount in common in all recent wars. In 1991, I went to the Amariyah shelter in Baghdad where sometime earlier the US had dropped two smart bombs that had incinerated 400 people, mostly women and children. The US had supposed it was a command centre based on radio signals and local informants. The reliability of these spies could be judged by several disastrous attempts, based on their information, to kill Saddam Hussein and his senior lieutenants who turned out to be nowhere near at the time.


In 2009 I reported on an airstrike in three villages in Farah province in south west Afghanistan, which had killed 147 villagers. It had started when there was a fight between local Afghan police and the Taliban in which the police had come off the worst. Three of their vehicles had been destroyed. Because they were frightened – and perhaps as an act of vengeance – the police (though they must have got a US Special Forces officer to sign off on this) had called in airstrikes that had destroyed the mud brick walls of the compounds and left craters 20 feet deep. The first US military explanation of what had happened, repeated by US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, was that the Taliban themselves were responsible.

Despite the depth of the craters and the total destruction of the villages, the US officials in Kabul claimed that the Taliban, angered by lack of support locally, had gone from house to house tossing in grenades. It was an obvious lie, but, as in Deir Ezzor and Aleppo last week, it served its purpose of obscuring what had happened for a few days.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Russia, Syria 
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  1. Donna says:

    Another garbage article by the apologist for US imperialism in the Mideast. The US strike that killed 62 Syrian soldiers was not a “blunder” — it was a war crime. To put this on the same level as the attack on the aid convoy — for which there is absolutely no proof that the Russians were involved — is absurd.

    • Agree: CalDre
  2. Anonymous [AKA "Vid Beldavs"] says:

    Perhaps CNN ‘retailed’ comments made by the U.S. military, but numerous other accounts in other media tell a different story. The area had been under attack by ISIS for a long time. ISIS was present. In fact, if the U.S. had hit ISIS instead of the Syrian army they would have done the Assad regime a significant favor. There is a wiki on the topic with an extensive bibliography. The basic message from all four military commands – U.S. , Danish, Australian and British – an error was made. Russia had been informed of the strike before it was undertaken. The strike was stopped when central command was informed by Russia.
    Incidents like this, whether in the military or in civilian life where bridge fails or other disaster occurs due to human error or defects in design or construction call for an investigation by experts. Stating that a complex matter needs to be investigated is not propaganda.
    There is a marked contrast with the Russian statements regarding their attack on the UN convoy. As you point out, numerous implausible, or incorrect stories. Such stories, when repeated in official Russian media and picked up by various disinformation services that use such material is propaganda.
    The U.S. has only hit Syrian army positions once in over three years of fighting ISIS in Syria. Some would call this remarkable under the complex circumstances.
    The Russian and Syrian regime response with an all out attack on Allepo calls for a response. Since the U.S. presence is defined as the problem, the U.S. should concentrate on fighting ISIS in Iraq and leave ISIS in Syria to Russia and the regime. The interests of the Kurds and opposition forces that have opposed ISIS in Syria would be better served by focussing on solidifying their own positions against the regime than fighting ISIS.

  3. “….It is clearly seen in the video that a terrorists’ pickup truck with a towed large-calibre mortar is moving along with the convoy…..”

    don’t you guys get it? the terrorists used the towed mortar to target the aid convoy,
    hoping the russians/syrians would be blamed.

    they’ve done it before with chemical weapons.

  4. in any case, all the damage was done from the ground and not from the air.

    Correct. The aid convoy was attacked from the ground by imperial Washington’s mercenaries. The attack on Syrian government forces was carried out by the Pentagon. Peace is the very last thing the west wants in Syria. Why the State Department participated in negotiating a cease fire only to violate it is a mystery. Some suspect mutiny by the pentagon. Washington, of course, has no legitimate business in Syria. Its presence there is illegal and profoundly immoral.

  5. This article by Patrick Cockburn is, as he instructs us, “also well worth studying as an example of the propagandist’s art. It is important to make your explanation detailed and interesting because it will be competing with a reality which, in the nature of war, will be murky and confusing.”

    This, it seems to me, is exactly what Patrick Cockburn does in his article, making his explanation detailed and “interesting” so to speak:

    His article clearly presents as a given that the Russians were behind the attack on the aid convoy, but nowhere does he provide any evidence to substantiate this view.

    To this unsubstantiated allegation he adds more detail by claiming that the Russians were “suggesting that there was an understandable reason to imagine they were attacking a legitimate target” and further by saying “in which case why suggest the legitimate target scenario?”

    When did the Russians ever suggest or ask anyone to “imagine” that they were attacking a legitimate target? The suggestion from their information is not that they attacked the “terrorists’ pickup truck with a towed large-calibre mortar”, but that the terrorists’ pickup truck and mortar attacked the aid convoy. Patrick Cockburn manages to twist this completely around in order to make his explanation detailed and “interesting”.

    He also uses this distortion to make the Russians’ “other” information seem contradictory when in fact they all suggest the same thing – that the jihadists attacked the convoy from the ground – an entirely plausible scenario that Patrick Cockburn simply does not allow at all.

    His other assumed position is that the US airstrike killing 60-90 Syrian soldiers was a “blunder”. How credible is it that the world’s richest, most powerful, most technologically advanced military would make a mistake, sustained over a period of time (apparently an hour,) like this?

    • Replies: @JL
    , @No Second Israel
    , @chris
  6. The more one loves one’s country, the more one loves some of his people and the more one hates some of his other own people.

    One can have all the freedoms in the world, save the right to know, and one is still a victim, dependency.

    My wife gave me an advice i cannot ever forget. She sed, Bob, don’t talk so stupid, talk so that everybody can understand you and not just me. What an advice!!!!!

  7. Cockburn, like a number of so-called “antiwar” pundits, has been getting it more wrong than right lately.

    Russia provided clear evidence: they had a drone in sight of the convoy until it reached the warehouse, then it left. They had radar evidence that a US Predator was following the drone. The pictures shown – Colonel Cassad’s site (in Russian) has numerous photos other than the one truck, which alone provides the case – clearly show no airstrike except possibly a Hellfire from the Predator.

    As to Deir Ezzor, obviously there was ISIS in the area because they overran the base after the US helpfully attacked it. If he can’t see the connection there, he’s an idiot. What matters is that the US certainly would have known who and what was there well in advance of the attack – for months, most likely.

    Also, there is a report that the only reason the US stopped the attack after the Russians told them they were hitting the wrong target is allegedly because the Russians “painted” the US jets with their S-300 antiaircraft system radar.

    Cockburn needs to spend more time getting his facts straight than publishing “editorials” about motives.

  8. Ghostship says:

    Something like twenty people are alleged to have been killed and a similar number allegedly wounded by Russian attack on the SARC aid convoy. Has anyone seen any pictures of the alleged victims of the alleged Russian strike? The first think the White Helmets do when they arrive at the site of an incident is run round taking pictures of the dead and wounded. For this incident there was nothing at all. Perhaps someone can explain why ths would be.

    • Replies: @RobinG
  9. RobinG says:

    LOL, that’s a good one!

    The Syria White Helmets Exposed as US UK Agents Embedded with Al Nusra and ISIS

  10. JL says:
    @Canadian Cents


    His other assumed position is that the US airstrike killing 60-90 Syrian soldiers was a “blunder”. How credible is it that the world’s richest, most powerful, most technologically advanced military would make a mistake, sustained over a period of time (apparently an hour,) like this?

    Not to mention the timing, right after the ceasefire, which lends credence to the idea that the Pentagon was trying to sabotage it. If what a commenter above wrote is true, that this is the first such mistake the US has made in its three year Syrian campaign, well, that’s some pretty damning circumstantial evidence.

  11. Washington is no longer entitled to the benefit of the doubt in these situations. I would generally be inclined to trust the Russians more than the Americans (painful as it is to say). Having said that, the natural suspect would be the Syrian Army acting in retaliation for the the murder of their soldiers.

    Washington lies. Washington is in Syria illegally. When Washington killed Syrian soldiers it committed murder, Mass Murder. The only thing more annoying than Washington and its cadre of Presstitutes lying, is watching Ban Ki Moon, the United Nations Secretary General lying. U.S. intelligence must really haves some dirt on this fellow.

    My reading is that somebody in Washington/Pentagon doesn’t want to see the conflict ended. Or at least not in a way that unites Russia and the United Stats.

    Score one for the War Pigs.

  12. Anonymous [AKA "Sam Bolivar"] says:

    Mr. Cockburn, I respect you because of what I’ve read of your analyses concerning the Middle East – though of course I don’t agree with some of your conclusions.

    Regarding this article, your explanation of the usage of propaganda sounds reasonable/feasible to me. However, like some of the other commentators, I find your accusation of Russia having been responsible for the attack on the aid convoy questionable. A major reason for this is that throughout the years of intervention & illegal attacks by NATO against the sovereign nation of Syria, the U.S. has demonstrated time and again that its words cannot be trusted (and I’m an American saying this). If I had to choose between trusting Putin or Obama, in almost every situation I’d trust Putin first. Anyway… what information do you have that brought you to your conclusion, that you haven’t included in this article? After all, your words (“… the Russians evading responsibility for an air attack on a UN aid convoy killing 20 people outside Aleppo five days later.”, etc.) strongly imply Russian culpability. Surely you have some kind(s) of evidence to substantiate your accusation, right? Because if you don’t, that would (IMHO) qualify as defamation… and seemingly make your statements similar to those by the ‘presstitutes’ in the US MSM. So please inform us readers about the proof/evidence you have supporting your accusation against Russia.

    Thank you in advance.

  13. @Canadian Cents

    He is supporting the western war criminal like another criminal and CIA pimp, Juan Cole.
    Both are disgusting and no one should trust and believe these intelligence agents.

  14. chris says:
    @Canadian Cents

    Excellent points, canuck !
    This is bad propaganda 101, the pentagon should ask for their money back from this lackey.

    Besides your points and those of some of the other commentators, there are lots of small give-always everywhere in it directly from the propaganda for dummies manual, which he tries to improve upon with the seemingly original, but entirely transparent ploy of coaxing the entire incident in a supposed discussion on the dilettantish art of war propaganda, which he then proceeds to demonstrate with his own article.

    Without spending any more time on it than absolutely necessary here 3 points which immediately come to mind (there are many more but don’t want to waste any more time with this):
    1. Minimizing the event: doesn’t mention the 100 wounded on the Syrian base; that’s a big omission for a war correspondent!
    2. He immediately ties in the attack on the UN convoy; but what interest would the Russians have to attack it when the US (pentagon or whoever it is), to every outside observer, deliberately destroyed the Syrian base in order to stop the peace process.
    3. Conceding an inconsequential US lie about the Taliban, at the very end of the article to help swallow the big lie at the beginning. This is a dead give-away from the propaganda tool box.

    I must say that even if I would have, for a second, believed that the attack on the base was an accident, the very appearance of an article like this, completely removes any doubt I ever had about the motives behind it.

    For a much more plausible explanation, The Saker’s article is incomparably better, more realistic, and thought provoking.

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