The media reaction to the US-French-British strikes on Syria early in the morning of 14 April has been quite distinct in the USA versus Europe, and then still more differentiated from the reaction of Russian media.
In this brief article, I will direct attention to the general contours marking each of these three areas of reporting, and also will share some of the particularly interesting observations that were presented on Russian television, which, as is self-evident, was the most interested party in making sense of the weekend to the general public, given that Russia was the central power in play over the weekend even if the geography said “Syria.”
In its coverage of the attack, the US mainstream, for which I take The New York Times and The Washington Post as markers, has been an uncritical platform for the Pentagon view of what it achieved. Secondly, they have been a platform for the usual critics of Donald Trump who have praised the attack in principal but asked where is the long term strategy (none by general consensus) while linking the timing to the President’s political travails following the FBI raid on his personal lawyer’s offices during the days preceding the attack.
The Pentagon post mortem of the attacks corresponds totally with the President’s tweet of “Mission Accomplished!” The generals claim that their missiles obliterated the core of Assad’s chemical weapon manufacturing capability and were thus on target and fully successful. They particularly praised the effectiveness of the newest “stealth” cruise missiles which, they say, eluded the Syrian air defenses, which launched their own interceptor missiles after the stealth attackers had already hit their targets.
On Continental Europe, specifically in Germany, France and Belgium, for the print media this Sunday the Syria attacks were yesterday’s news and the papers largely have picked up other, mainly local issues to feature on their front pages. In Le Figaro, there is virtually no mention of the attacks. In Le Monde, they follow the American example and what coverage they give is the Pentagon’s story of what it achieved. Meanwhile, in Germany leading newspapers seem to show more initiative in trying to find their own interpretation of what was accomplished by the attacks. The Die Welt online edition today discusses how the United States and Europe used the mission to test the battleground effectiveness of some of their latest weaponry.
Frankfurter Allgemeine has two feature articles, neither of which follow the American media agenda and might be said to show some independence of thought. One article presents and defends the notion that the weekend attacks showed the Pentagon is “the last bastion of Sense” in the Trump administration. What they think of the President is self evident. Meanwhile the other article tells us that despite the attacks Syrian President Bashar Assad will not give in and is holding to his chosen course, while the Russians are said to be counting on opening a strategic dialogue with the USA over arms control.
In the United Kingdom, coverage of Syria, the airstrikes, Russia receive vastly more coverage in the print media this weekend than in the USA or on the Continent. From the perspective of Russian analysts, whom I will deal with in a moment, this surely reflects the great nervousness in the UK that their criminal role in the Skripal case and in stage directing the Douma chemical attack in Syria is going to be exposed and that there will be a political price for Theresa May and her government to pay.
The Opposition Guardian newspaper online features a number of articles today, taking up the Syria story from different perspectives. A commentary article tells us that James Mattis, not Trump “is calling the shots.” Another article is devoted to Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a “check on military intervention” by insisting that Parliament vote on a War Powers act. From Damascus, we hear about Bashar Assad’s praise for Moscow and about Vladimir Putin’s criticism of the strikes.
The Times of London offers a much more restricted number of articles having a Russian-Syrian connection but what is features is sure to capture the attention of Britain’s chattering classes today. It leads with an article predicting that to punish the United Kingdom for its role in the Skripal case and in Syria, Moscow will unleash a barrage of hacked damaging confidential materials relating to government ministers, members of Parliament and other elite British personalities. In response, May’s cabinet is said to be considering a cyber-attack against Russia.
To be sure, the most remarkable departure from the US media track that I note in Europe yesterday and today is on the television, specifically on Euronews. The company’s motto is “Euronews. All Views.” Nice sounding and usually irrelevant, but not this weekend. To be sure, the US, UK, French government accounts of what they achieved are given full coverage in each hourly news bulletin. But at the same time, the Russians are given what appears to be equal time to set out their totally diametrically opposed positions: on whether any chemical attacks at all occurred in Douma, Eastern Goutha, on the violation of international law and of the UN Charter that the Allied attack on Syria represented, on its being “aggression,” on its link to the Skripal case.
In fact, on Saturday Euronews exceptionally gave nearly complete live coverage to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as he spoke in Moscow to the 26th Assembly of the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy. During this talk, Lavrov divulged the findings of the Swiss laboratory which had examined samples of the chemicals gathered in Salisbury in relation to the Skripal poisonings, findings which he said pointed not to Novichok, as was reported by Boris Johnson, but to a nerve agent developed by the United States and produced also in Britain. Lavrov likened the faked attack in Salisbury to the faked chemical attack in Douma.
Letting the Russians deliver extensively their views on what happened in Syria without commentary by their own journalists might be considered extraordinary by Euronews or any other European broadcaster’s standards, for which the public can only be grateful.
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In Western alternative media, there is a lively, one might say impassioned discussion of whether Vladimir Putin caved in to the USA by not striking back immediately and with force against the 14 April attack on Syria by US-FR-UK forces. Such an issue seems to be absent from Russian television, including its talk shows, yesterday and today. In part, this question is surely absent because of censorship of the airwaves. But I think in greater part it is absent because the information about what actually happened on the night – early morning of 14 April is both much greater and is skewed in a very different direction from what is being reported in Western media, so that the possibility that the boss may have flinched does not arise.
This begins with the effectiveness of the US Tomahawks and other “smart” cruise missiles which the Allies launched. As noted above, the Pentagon claims great success, and directs special attention to the latest “stealth” cruise missiles. However, Russian news stresses that Washington used for the most part old generation, amortized rockets. They encountered counter measures from very old Syrian air defense installations, themselves a mixed patch quilt, with some dating back 30 years, and never fully integrated. Nonetheless, the Russians report that the Syrian shot down 70 of the 103 or 105 missiles launched by the alliance.
On Saturday evening, the Russian news channel Rossiya-1 broadcast a special edition of the country’s leading political talk show hosted by Vladimir Solovyov. His expert panelists explained that the Syrian kill rate was in fact variable. In Damascus, where the most recent and effective air defense equipment is installed, including late date BUK series, the Syrians shot down 100% of the incoming missiles. Elsewhere in the country, the older the air defenses, the lower the hit rate.
Those who ask what “grave consequences” the Russians will impose on the Western coalition following the air strikes of 14 April should consider the following: Moscow apparently has now decided to supply to the Syrian army their next to latest generation of air defense, the S300. We are told that due to the civil war, there was a great shortage of trained technicians on the Syrian side so that shipment of such equipment previously would have made no sense. However, now that the military situation of the Assad government has stabilized, the personnel problems are no longer so acute and the Russians can proceed with delivering materiel and training the Syrians to defend themselves. This will substantially change the equation with respect to Syrian defense capability should the US and its Allies think of coming back again a year hence.
One other still more Important observation on the way the US carried out its attack which fully justifies the restrained response of the Russian leader also emerges from expert testimony given on the Solovyov show last night. From the first moment the scope of the attack was so constrained as to be mission impossible.
Normally the US and others beginning a military operation against Country X start their operation with a massive attack on its air defense systems and command and control centers. Only when they are neutralized does the attacker carry out air strikes on specific targets of military value. The US had to forego all that when it decided it would not touch the Russians, whose officers are embedded with the Syrian command and control and air defense. Hence, the exclusive use of missiles as opposed to aircraft bombing raids, it being a given that all manned aircraft would be shot down even by the antiquated Syrian materiel. In a word, the US-FR-UK attack on Syria was a charade, a political and not a military attack. Its description by the Americans and their Allies as a “precision attack” to remove chemical weapons facilities is a fig leaf of deception that the unquestioning Western media alone accept. This, given the near certainty that Assad had no chemical weapons manufacturing or storage facilities following their complete removal and destruction four years ago in performance of an agreement negotiated between the United States and Russia under President Barack Obama and later certified by the US side.
The overriding conclusion of this and other reporting on Russian television is that Russian lives, Russian interests and Russian military potential figured at every turn when the Pentagon devised its attack plan on Syria. Under these circumstances, the Russians had no reason to respond emotionally and in irresponsible manner to the US provocation.
What further actions the Russians may take to exact a price from the Western coalition for its violation of international law over Syria remains to be seen. But it is a safe guess that Britain will take the first hit.