Russia coverage of Syria conflict echoes Damascus’ view


MOSCOW — News stories on Syria in many parts of the world often focus on reports of government assaults against insurgents and civilian populations. In Russia, hardly a day passes without media relaying the official line from Damascus: that “terrorists” and foreign powers are to blame.

Russian television and newspapers routinely carry headlines and teasers such as “Saudi Arabia and other countries supply arms to Syrian rebels,” “Bashar Assad: Foreign countries are to blame,” and “Hypocrisy kills like bullets.”

“Odnako,” a popular analytical program on Channel One, one of the three main Kremlin-controlled television networks, last week compared the uprising in Syria with the armed provocations by Adolf Hitler’s Germany that led to World War II and the role the United States played in Vietnam.


On Thursday, Riad Haddad, Syria’s ambassador to Moscow, went before television, radio, online and print reporters.

“Armed groups aided by regional and international players want to make it look as if a civil war is underway in Syria,” Haddad said at a news conference. “This is being done to create a pretext for foreign intervention.”

Insurgents, regularly referred to by the Syrian government as “armed terrorist groups,” are causing dangerous situations, Haddad said, but anything resembling a war is “just in the West’s imagination.”

The remarks, in the case of many Russian media outlets, were not accompanied by any response from diplomats or opposition activists.

Some media experts in the country have denounced Russia’s reporting of the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad as the worst case of biased and one-sided coverage since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Russia’s coverage, especially by the federal television networks and all other government-controlled media, increasingly is reminiscent of the foreign coverage under the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, said Andrei Piontkovsky, the director of the Institute for Systems Analysis, a Moscow-based think tank.

“Presenting the West as the main enemy which tries to destroy first all Russian allies and then Russia itself has been the key tune of the foreign coverage here for the whole of last decade, but the fate of the Assad regime hanging in the balance has in recent months been made all the more pronounced and obvious,” Piontkovsky said in an interview.

Western leaders “are treating [PresidentVladimir] Putinas one of their own and urging him to work together with them,” Piontkovsky said, “but he considers himself as one of the other group, the dictators that fall one after another, and doesn’t want to repeat their fate, clinging to Assad to the last. Putin seriously thinks it is all eventually a conspiracy against him and the Russia he leads.”

The tension between Russia and the West, particularly the United States, has been obvious at times during Syria’s 15-month-old uprising, which has claimed at least 10,000 lives.

Russia’s foreign minister this week denied allegations by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that Moscow was sending attack helicopters to the Syrian military, saying the contracts with Syria are for air-defense systems.

Russia says it rejects foreign “interference” in Syria’s affairs and worries about the country’s stability if Assad is no longer the leader.

Clinton, however, has said that Russia’s policies are contributing to what many say could become a civil war in Syria. Russia has twice led vetoes of United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning Assad’s actions.

Both sides say they support U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan for Syria, which has been largely ignored by the Assad government.

With all that’s been happening, many Russian media representatives and other observers are not buying any claims of media bias, saying the reporting in their country tells it like it is.

“Why should Assad organize a carnage …? And on the eve of Kofi Annan’s visit? “ asked Mikhail Leontyev, a charismatic and sharp-tongued program anchor known for his anti-American and anti-Western stance during a recent show. “In reality the story is quite easy to understand. The fighters for Syrian democracy … provoked an armed confrontation with the Syrian army.”

A popular weekly newspaper Argumenty i Fakty reported that “the bloodbath” in Syria is playing into the hands of the West.

“In the conversations with me many Syrians insisted on … [the Assad government’s] version: ‘This is a provocation. People were killed by Islamists.’ Some are confident the bloodbath was organized byQatar’stask force,” wrote Georgy Zotov, the paper’s correspondent in Damascus. “But the West always sees only one point of view which it likes.”

In an earlier report “from the besieged Damascus,” Zotov was warned by one of its residents: “In Homs the militants swore by Allah to kill all Russians. If you go there, pretend to be an American.”

The Russian coverage of the conflict is even more objective at times than Western versions, said Maxim Shevchenko, an anchor on the Channel One show “Judge for Yourself,” who tries to include experts with different viewpoints as guests.

“I have my own vision and my own position on the issue and it largely coincides with the government’s position,” he said in an interview. “I more than once met with President Assad, and he is not a tyrant, let alone a cannibal, and I can’t believe he would give an order to destroy a village whose population, by the way, was not against him!”

“The recent carnage in Syria was first of all profitable to the opposition backed by a third force which wants to disrupt the peaceful process.”