After their failed military interventions in Vietnam and a number of other countries, the United States and its main ally (as far as invasions and occupations are concerned), Great Britain, made serious changes to their approach by making information warfare one of their key tools or an alternative to military operations, during which propaganda became a crucial means of influencing opinions.
US analyst Richard Szafranski views information warfare, in the context of a military conflict, as actions directed against any part of the system of knowledge or ideological and moral principles of the enemy. An “opponent” is anyone who goes against the aims of the initiator of the information warfare. The rivals, if they come from other countries, can be portrayed as the “enemy” or “not us”. Tools of such warfare include approaches of handling information that are used for a wide-scale and targeted attack on opponent’s military and civilian information systems with the aim of disrupting the enemy’s economy and combat readiness, and lowering morale.
In recent years, the use of such methods (of information warfare) by the United States and Great Britain has been particularly noticeable in Syria, where attempts to replace the current regime by military means, and the creation and subsequent reinforcement of opposition forces and even terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh (editor’s note: both organizations are banned in the Russian Federation), have, for many years, not yielded the desired outcomes for Washington and London.
Great Britain began its propaganda efforts in Syria in 2012, and subsequently, stepped them up after the Parliament of the United Kingdom had voted against any possible British military action targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in 2013. Consequently, a series of programs, given the codename Operation Volute and referred to not as a propaganda campaign by those involved in it but as “strategic communications” efforts, was established. It involved social networking websites, media outlets, communication companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), contracted by the British government to conduct a multifaceted information warfare campaign in Syria. According to a review, conducted during the summer of 2016, two programs “were managed by a unit within” the UK’s Ministry of Defense (MoD), called Military Strategic Effects, and two others “by a group within the UK Foreign Office called the Counter-Daesh Communications Cell”. The fifth one “was managed by a cross-government program called the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF)”. According to the Middle East Eye news outlet, these programs “were intended to amplify the work of Syrian citizen journalists; bolster groups that the British considered to be part of what it termed “the moderate armed opposition”; counter violent extremism; and encourage dissent among members of Syria’s Alawite communities, from which the ruling Assad family comes”. One of the programs was outsourced to “a polling company based in the United States”, while four others “to British communications companies, some of them run by former army officers or intelligence officers”. These firms “set up offices in Istanbul and Amman”.
James Le Mesurier, a former British Army officer, was in charge of one such offices. He was also the founder of the While Helmets, an organization funded by non-government sources and Western governments. Its activities include “medical evacuation, urban search and rescue operations in response to bombing, evacuation of civilians from danger areas, and essential service delivery”. Two years ago shocking footage showing the aftermath of a chemical attack in Douma, Syria, which had been allegedly carried out by the Syrian Arab Armed Forces, was widely circulated. Shortly afterwards, the Russian military and the Syrian government conducted their own investigation and concluded that the aforementioned video was in fact staged.
Another organization that became involved in Britain’s information warfare was the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Some media outlets have reported that the agency is, in fact, a one-man-operation, with a Syrian Sunni residing in the UK as its only permanent member. British intelligence agencies use the SOHR to spread propaganda and other false information.
After Russia, at the request of the legitimate Syrian government in 2015, became involved in Damascus’ fight against terrorism in Syria, the Russian Federation became the focus of London’s disinformation campaign, which employed the White Helmets, SOHR and other organizations to spread propaganda. London even went so far as to encourage media outlets under its influence to publish articles that accused Moscow of being responsible for airstrikes that had resulted in deaths of civilians in UN-managed hospitals in Idlib. However, a board of inquiry, established by the UN to investigate the incidents in Idlib that could have resulted in deaths of civilians, stopped short of “directly calling Russia a perpetrator in attacks on hospitals and other humanitarian infrastructure in rebel-held areas of Syria”. And although the report stated that “the government of Syria and/or its allies” had carried out the air strikes, such conclusions still dealt a blow to London’s and Washington’s propaganda efforts. In fact, UK newspaper The Guardian wrote an article about the aforementioned inquiry.
Recently, a number of articles, published by news outlets under London’s control, attempted to sow dissent between Moscow and Damascus by claiming that Russia’s campaign to provide humanitarian aid to Syria had ended in failure, and about Moscow’s plans to perhaps abandon Bashar al-Assad. However, actions openly taken by Russia, including several deliveries of humanitarian aid to Syria recently, provision of medical assistance in the battle against the Coronavirus, and the continued close collaboration between Moscow and Damascus on various fronts, directly contradict reports that are part of Britain’s propaganda efforts.
In addition, the UK’s disinformation campaign in Syria attempted to target Russia from another angle by claiming that the Russian Federation’s and Syria’s alleged involvement in the conflict in Libya had resulted in deterioration of the situation in the country. For instance, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Middle East Monitor and other media outlets started wide-reaching propaganda campaign to that effect. Their reports claimed that hundreds of militants from Wagner (a shadowy Russian military group) were in Libya, and that the Russian Federation was sending young Syrians from regions under the control of Bashar al-Assad in the Homs Governorate (in central Syria) to fight in Khalifa Haftar’s units in eastern Libya. As part of this disinformation campaign, British and American intelligence agencies even had a hand in a UN report, compiled by independent monitors for the UN’s Libya sanctions committee, which confirmed Wagner’s involvement in Libya. However, Russian media outlets were quick to discredit the document, as it contained clearly false information. Russia’s Federal News Agency received the aforementioned report from a source at Reuters (an international news agency with headquarters in the UK). The source was outraged by the number of misleading statements and false claims made in the document, which he or she was meant to use as the basis of their article.
Britain’s and USA’s information warfare in Syria entered a new stage with the publication of recent reports alleging that Russia had delivered 14 Sukhoi Su-24 and Mikoyan MiG-29 aircraft (developed in the Soviet Union) from Syria’s Hmeimim Air Base to Libya. In order to reinforce the aforementioned messages, the United States and the UK even urged the Russian Federation to stop its actions in Libya. However, as is often the case lately, there has been no confirmation to the claims made by the USA and Great Britain (as part of their disinformation campaign) against Russia. In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, the State Duma and itamilradar (a website to track military flights over Italy and over the Mediterranean Sea) published a number of reports, supported by satellite imagery, that contradicted the claim that Russia had delivered a batch of fighter jets to Libya.
Earlier, even the aforementioned review of Operation Volute concluded that there had been “fundamental shortcomings” of the initiative in Syria. In addition, “some in the British government continued to ask themselves whether taxpayers’ money should” have been spent on some of the activities of the program, “while there was also said to be substantial doubts about the program among some HMG” (Her Majesty’s Government) partners. And it turns out that they were right!
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.