WASHINGTON ― Saturday provided a fresh example of how Russian state messaging reinforces the conspiratorial narrative peddled by extremists in the U.S. and their most prominent hero: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
After a botched U.S. air strike in Syria killed government troops and threatened a Moscow- and Washington-brokered ceasefire, U.S. Central Command issued a statement saying it halted the strike as soon as it learned from Russia that it may have hit regime forces.
“The location of the strike is in an area the [anti-Islamic State] coalition has struck in the past, and coalition members in the Combined Air Operations Center had earlier informed Russian counterparts of the upcoming strike,” the statement continued.
A U.S. official even suggested to CNN that if the U.S. were shown to have killed soldiers, it might consider condolence payments to their families. Compensating families of soldiers loyal to Syrian ruler Bashar Assad would be a big step given the dictator’s international isolation and track record of brutality.
Moscow rapidly dismissed any uncertainty about the attack’s consequences, suggesting 62 Syrian troops were killed and 100 injured. And then it upped the ante.
The outrageous claim is one Moscow is able to make because the site of the strike, Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, is in one of the few regions where’s Assad’s forces are fighting the self-styled Islamic State rather than nationalist anti-Assad forces or civilians. Russia promptly demanded a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the topic, and a meeting is set for Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in New York.
Regardless of what comes from the likely heated session, Moscow’s already done some important work for the worldview that it would like to promote, particularly among Americans who remain unhappy with their government’s handling of the ISIS threat in Syria and beyond.
The idea that the United States is working with the radical group is a popular one that Trump has deliberately encouraged
The idea that the United States is working with the radical group is a popular one that Trump has deliberately encouraged (and that figures on the left, including Russia-friendly Green Party nominee Jill Stein and economist-turned-conspiracy theorist Jeffrey Sachs, have also helped spread). Following the ISIS-inspired massacre in Orlando in June, the Republican nominee suggested that President Barack Obama may have known about the attack and chosen not to prevent it. He then tweeted out a Breitbart News article based on the debunked but widely popular theory that U.S. support for rebels in Syria hoping to weaken Assad’s rule amounted to support for extremists.
This is one way Trump can link dissatisfaction with Obama’s anti-terror strategy to his rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Clinton was secretary of state in 2011, when Syrians began to rise up against Assad, and she supported the arming of non-extremist anti-Assad forces.
Trump frequently blames both Obama and Clinton for the group’s success. Meanwhile, he presents himself as anti-interventionist alternative to both, despite his track record of threatening massive violence including the use of torture and nuclear weapons. He has also suggested that Assad should not be thought as part of the ISIS problem, despite the fact that the dictator has helped the group thrive.
For Moscow, which hopes to keep the totalitarian Assad regime intact in order to guarantee a Russian foothold in the Middle East, this is the perfect message. President Vladimir Putin’s government has long suggested that the only reason there are problems in the region is U.S. involvement there, downplaying causes like Russia’s state policy of exporting radicalized citizens to the region to bolster ISIS’s ranks.
The more popular support builds for this skewed presentation of the facts, which suggests Assad or ISIS are the only options for Syria, the closer Russia gets to a deal that keeps Assad in power and tacitly brings the U.S. in line behind him ― regardless of the long-term consequences, which probably include another insurgency in the near future.
This all means the Saturday statement is tantamount to teeing up the ball for Trump to present a message promoting the worldview he and Putin share. Watch for him to take a swing in the hours ahead.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.