After Russia started airstrikes in Syria this week, reports quickly surfaced that warplanes had struck civilian areas rather than militants.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken out against the accusations in Western media, claiming that they are part of an information war against Russia. Putin says that some of the reports were published before Moscow had carried out its first airstrikes, and called the reports “information attacks,” according to RT.
The start of an information war in Syria?
“Other nations have been bombing Syrian territory for over a year,” Putin told the Russian human rights council on Thursday. He emphasized that a U.S.-led coalition had started its own airstrikes without an invitation from Syria nor a mandate from the United Nations.
“We have such an invitation and we intend to fight against terrorist organizations and them only,” Putin added.
Regarding the reports of civilian casualties, Putin claimed that they could not possibly have been caused by Russian planes.“As for media reports claiming that the civilian population is suffering, we are prepared for such information attacks. The first reports about civilian casualties emerged even before our planes got in the air,” he said.
Putin calls for information-sharing mechanism
This Wednesday dozens of videos reportedly showing the effects of Russian airstrikes on residential areas in Syria were published online, shortly after Moscow announced that it was planning airstrikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad. In Moscow it is believed that the videos are part of an international campaign to discredit Russia.
Some of the reports claimed that there was no Islamic State presence in those areas hit by airstrikes, and they were in fact held by “moderate rebels.” Journalists pressed U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter for more details.
“I want to be careful about confirming information, but it does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces,” he told reporters.
Officials have called on the media to carefully verify information emanating from Syria before publishing it. Putin also urged the sharing of information between Russia and the U.S. on military action in Syria, claiming that it would help to reduce false reports.
“That’s why we are establishing contact between our special services and those of the US, between our military departments,”he said. “I hope it will result in the establishing of some permanent mechanism.”
Potential for conflict rises after Russian military buildup
Russia has undertaken a significant military buildup in Syria, with battle tanks, troops and helicopter gunships deployed at an airfield in Latakia. The U.S. worried that such a buildup could exacerbate the conflict in Syria, and the arrival of warplanes has caused tensions to rise further.
Given the fact that U.S. and coalition partners are also carrying out airstrikes in Syria, the possibility of an accidental confrontation with Russian forces has increased exponentially. While both Russia and the coalition are ostensibly fighting against Islamic State, interests diverge when it comes to the future of President Bashar al-Assad.
Moscow wants to protect its long-term ally, potentially because of arms deals and a desire to retain control over the Mediterranean port of Tartus, while the U.S. wants al-Assad to be deposed. As it stands the two have a common enemy, but the situation will almost certainly become more complicated in the future.
Wrangling over Syria set to continue
This Thursday the Russian Defense Ministry said that its planes had hit 12 Islamic State targets in Syria since operations began. Russia is working in conjunction with the Syrian army, providing air support in their fight against the militants.
Russian officials said that Syrian military intelligence provides potential targets, which Russia checks before authorizing strikes. The U.S. has complained that Moscow only gave the U.S. one hour’s notice before conducting airstrikes, claiming that Moscow’s actions were unprofessional.
Russia believes that U.S. irritation with its presence in Syria has provoked a media campaign designed to discredit its actions. “That is an information attack, the information warfare that we all have heard so much about. Apparently someone came well-prepared for it,” said Mariya Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Verifying the time and location of videos is difficult for the press, and Russia has previous form for manipulating reports. For example the conflict in Ukraine has been marred by propaganda and counter-propaganda from both sides.
Instead of airstrikes which will further impact terrorized civilian populations, it must be hoped that a peaceful solution can be found to the conflict in Syria. With over 4 million refugees having already fled the country, the humanitarian crisis needs a more nuanced solution than further bombing campaigns.