February 2019 Dazed and Confused : Russian “Information Warfare” and the Middle East – The Syria Lessons
Julien Nocetti Research Fellow IFRI - French Institute of International Relations

Abstract

On April 7th, 2018, a chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma, in the periphery of Damascus, reportedly killed at least 70 people. The attack sparked indignation from the international community and caused American, French and British air strikes a week later, as it was attributed to the Syrian Army by these countries and non-governmental workers in Syria.

But these attacks also led to a full-scale Russian informational strategy aimed at confusing Western public opinion and dividing their leaders so as to sow doubt on what actually happened on the ground. The stories broadcast on TV and disseminated through social media ranged from outright denial (claims that there was no chemical attacks, no patients in hospitals, and that photos and testimonies were fake) to conspiracy theories (that this was a scheme by the White Helmets or Westerners to divert attention from the Skripal affair), to defending the regime (by arguing that “everyone knows” that Syria does not have chemical weapons) and finally comparisons with Nazi propaganda methods.

This example – among many others – has confirmed Russia’s desinhibited approach when it comes to asserting its own narrative on key strategic matters. “Information warfare” has been conceived of by the Russian leadership as a particularly potent instrument to achieve its foreign policy objectives. So far, outside Europe and the United States, Moscow’s use of information operations has been scarcely analysed. This policy brief seeks to discuss Russian objectives in the Middle East in resorting to a wide range of tried and tested tools of influence while embracing the potentialities of networked technologies. It will examine the different narratives pushed by Russia and the consequences of these informational battles for the Syrian conflict. Finally, it will assess the Russian policy and provide a few policy recommendations so that the European Union addresses that challenge.

This Policy Brief was written in the framework of the EuroMeSCo Working Package “The Role of Russia in the Middle East and North Africa Region. Strategy or Opportunism?”, led by Valeria Talbot, Senior Research Fellow, and Chiara Lovotti, Associate Research Fellow at ISPI – Italian Institute for International Political Studies.