Syrian Civil War: Why Russians Don't Know About Assad's Chemical Weapons


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently caused another stir in the ongoing "war to influence the public" after giving an exclusive interview to Russian news channel, Rossiya-24 on Thursday. Although the entire interview has not been released, certain excerpts from Assad's interview are only adding to the Syrian-Russian narrative that the United States is trying to arm "terrorists."

"When we see that the United States truly desires stability in our region and stops threatening and seeking to invade, as well as stops arm supplies to terrorist, then we can believe that we can follow through with the necessary processes," Assad said yesterday.

To no surprise, Russian media is framing the U.S. as the enemy. Since all Russian TV channels are state-run, Vladamir Putin's administration filters a biased message to the public that not only shows him in a favorable light, but also his allies. Receiving news under a skewed lens, the Russian public is less likely to favor Syrian strikes, since it has been exposed to anti-American and anti-rebel coverage for over a year now.

To understand exactly how Russian media covers up Syrian government-related tragedies, a Global Newsroom article takes readers back to an event in March 2012. While the U.S. media was covering "the massacre of 47 women and children in Homs," the Voice of Russia channel repeatedly covered how Al-Qaeda was fighting with the Syrian rebels and made no mention of the massacre.

Currently, Russian television is painting an innocent picture of Assad, suggesting that evidence is inconclusive on whether Assad or the rebels used chemical weapons. Assad has only acknowledged that they exist in Syria. While pundits in the U.S. media are claiming that Assad would not have admitted having chemical weapons unless he was making an implicit threat, Assad credits Russia's superior leadership.

Like any other politician, President Assad knows that by complementing the Russian government his political narrative will become salient in the Russian public. In contrast, Putin allows Assad to appear on national television not only because they are playing for the same team, but also because Assad continues to inflate his influence. Each are working to counter the arguments President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are presenting in support of the strike.

"Syria is making serious efforts so that our country and other states in the region will not be involved in a new crazy war that some proponents of the war in the U.S. are trying to unleash in the Middle East," Assad said in his latest interview. "All states claim that they do not cooperate with terrorists [Syrian rebels], but we know the West provides them with logistical support."

The framed narrative against the U.S. strike in Syria is enjoying success in Russia based on the theory of cultural congruence. The term suggest that most media outlets, even when not state-based, have the tendency to frame stories in allegiance to the country values. The more congruent the frame is to the public's preconceived understanding for or against an issue, the more relevant it will become in political culture.

The way the Syrian civil war is framed in the U.S. is concerning freedom, democracy, liberty, and human rights. Since the public is aware of these issues, they are unlikely to believe Assad's excuses for not issuing the use of chemical weapons. They are also less influenced by Putin's op-ed in The New York Times, since they would read it under a pro-American lens. On the other hand, Russians are more likely to believe that the U.S. is continuing its trek to become the "world's policeman" because the idea is more salient in their media narrative.

Needless to say, both sides will remain biased to what is actually happening in Syria as long as Putin ignores Assad's human rights violations.