U.S. tension with Russia explodes into propaganda war

WASHINGTON — “Wrongheaded” was the word that Defense Sec. Ashton Carter used repeatedly during a tense hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday to describe Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Heated exchanges with angry senators, upset over the U.S. military strategy in the war against ISIL, punctuated the session as Carter hammered away at Russian tactics.

“They (Russians) are pouring gasoline on the civil war in Syria by supporting Iraq. They’re going to enhance the very extremism that they say they fear and they have every reason to fear, because now ISIL and other groups, including Syrian opposition groups of all stripes, are turned against Russia,” Carter said.

As Carter testified, the Russian Ministry of Defense was feverishly posting anti-U. S. messages on Twitter and Facebook.

The posts accused the U.S. of using humanitarian organizations like the Syrian American Medical Society to spread lies about Russian activities in Syria.

“This organization, SAMS, which is registered in Illinois American (sic) state, has as much do with both medicine and doctors as ISIS has to do with the International Scout Movement (Boy Scouts),” said a Russian Ministry of Defense Facebook post.

The message went on to say, “The real intended aim of such institutions is providing anonymous stove piping for further coverage by the assigned media.”

“Stove-piping” is a metaphorical term often used to describe how intelligence may be presented without proper context.

When notified by WTOP about the posting, a State Department spokesperson indicated they were not aware of the volley of Cold-War-era propaganda. After reviewing the stream of messages, 24 hours later another spokesperson contacted WTOP with a statement that eagerly and steadfastly defended SAMS.

“Established in 1997”, the statement said, “the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) has qualified staff operating in five countries, supporting over 800 health care professionals inside Syria. In 2014, SAMS served over 1.4 million patients in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”

The Russian MOD also accused SAMS of falsifying claims of chemical weapons use in Syria saying, “Since its foundation, the organization was mainly used for publishing so-called ‘evidence’ of using chemical weapons against the Syrian opposition.”

Russian authorities also suggested in their release, that organizations like SAMS, which they feel essentially work for the U.S. government, have also lied about Russian airstrikes allegedly killing civilians.

The communiqué declared that a strict vetting process is followed before attacking any targets.

“Before eliminating terrorists’ objects, the (location) information is checked for more than one day and through several intelligence channels,” the Russian military statement said.

The Russian government has stated on numerous occasions that its mission in Syria is to fight terrorism. But it has not differentiated between terrorist groups and opposition groups fighting the Assad government.

By U.S. government standards, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is the most prominent terrorist threat in Syria. But the U.S. alleges that Russia is using ISIL as an opportunity to target other militant movements seeking to depose Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

In the escalating war of words, the State Department official that reached out to WTOP said according to an open source analysis of information from Russia’s Ministry of Defense, “80 percent of Russian airstrikes have struck targets unrelated to ISIL.”

“Instead,” the official continued, “the majority of Russia’s airstrikes have targeted a mix of hard line and moderate opposition groups. Moreover, according to information reported by credible international NGOs, Russia has also struck nonmilitary targets.”

The official also said, “Russian strikes around Aleppo city have primarily struck critical civilian infrastructure, including schools and markets. And at least 100 civilians have been killed by these strikes to date, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.”

In a statement, Russia’s Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov called the allegations “groundless” and called the accusations “a part of information warfare against Russia.”

Antonov said in a statement that he invited military attaches from the U.S. and other countries to justify their allegations against the Russian military. The Pentagon said late Thursday it would look into whether an invitation was received and attended to.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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