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The next step in information warfare

  • Published at 05:55 pm September 20th, 2018
The final rebel holdout
The final rebel holdout Photo: REUTERS

How Assad and his Russian allies hide the truth

The final rebel holdout against the Assad regime in Syria is in Idlib province. Confrontation is inevitable as both Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies are looking to wrap things up in the country’s civil war, and it does not take a military genius to know that the final attack will be ferocious.

The handbook for beating a civilian population into submission, developed by Assad and the Kremlin in particular, is already well understood. First encircle the target area and block all traffic of food. Then, bomb hospitals to ensure insufficient medical facilities when casualties start mounting up.

Last, use munitions with the highest psychological impact, such as cluster bombs and chemical weapons to break the targets into surrendering. In case you were not certain, yes, all three of these tactics are explicit war crimes.

What used to happen until now, however, is that the propaganda offensive by the Russian information warfare machine to obfuscate and confuse the evidence for war crimes committed by Assad and the Kremlin started either during the acts themselves, or immediately after. But this is now changing, and the Kremlin has moved onto the next logical evolution of its propaganda capabilities: Pre-emptive misinformation.

Kremlin-backed “media” channels have started pushing the narrative that the rebels in Idlib province are acquiring and planning to use chemical weapons. This does two things: 1) It supposedly gives Assad and Putin cause and urgency to step up their offensive against the rebels in Idlib; and 2) if chemical weapons were to be deployed, well this time “we know” that it was the rebels who had such weapons on hand.

Translation: An all-out Assad-Russian assault on Idlib is imminent and it will be utter bloodbath, complete with liberal deployment of chemical weapons and any other illegal weapons and munitions against civilian targets deemed necessary to shatter the psyche of the local population.

Identifiable state actors

Under normal circumstances, such advance warning of intent to commit war crimes by clearly identifiable state actors would be useful in formulating a response from the international community, which might prevent such an attack, or at least mitigate it to some extent.

But we do not live in normal times. The incumbent administration in the United States has no personal moral interest in humanitarian concerns, either around the globe or indeed in their own country.

China does not get involved in these kinds of disputes as a matter of policy, and the rest of Western Europe has neither the leadership, nor the will, to risk direct confrontation with Russia in order to prevent civilian massacres in Syria.

The aftermath of this assault is equally predictable. Tens to hundreds of thousands dead, horrific pictures on the news, a new wave of refugees heading toward Europe, and the tacit acceptance by the West that the situation is what it is, and nothing can be done about it now -- “at least Assad is not IS,” is what they will be telling themselves.

While the Sunni-Arab Syrian opposition will have been finished off, Turkey still operates in the Syrian theatre, and a fact that is widely obscured from the reporting on Syria, the regions of Afrin, Jazira, and Euphrates continue to be administered by the de facto autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, a multi-ethnic quasi-state dominated by anti-Assad Kurds.

There are still plenty of conflicts to be fought if Assad wants to reassert Syrian national integrity, and if Russia and Iran are willing and able to continue helping him fight his civil war.

Keep an eye out on Russian propaganda channels for mentions of the Kurds in Syria. 

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and author of “Radical Origins: Why we are losing the battle against Islamic Extremism” (Pegasus NY). He tweets @AzeemIbrahim. This article previously appeared on Al Arabiya News.