Shift in RT Arabic coverage indicates Russia is in Mideast to stay
RT Arabic’s reporting seems to have shifted in mid-May with the aim of highlighting that Russia intends to remain active in the Mideast for the long term. RT Arabic presented Russian forces as mitigating violence in the region. Also, the opening of talks about S-300 air-defence systems shows that Russia is willing to ensure other regional players’ interests in return for them backing its interests in the region.
This can be seen in the treatment of two major stories.
First, RT Arabic TV did not run any reports about Russia backing off from supplying S-300 missiles to the Syrian army. However, the RT Arabic website cited a report in Izvestiya, a Russian newspaper, which described internal discussion in Moscow about the S-300s. The report also voiced another opinion: that the halt to the sale is not related to Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow.
Second, the RT Arabic website cited an op-ed published by Russia’s Vzglyad website discussing alleged complaints by the Syrian Intelligence services about an “overly liberal attitude by the Russian military police towards militants”. This is presented in such a way as to put Russia in a positive light.
RT seems to be running shy on the fact that Russia looks likely to step back from its latest pledge to provide Syria with S-300 missiles defense systems because this comes, as the Jerusalem Post put it: “so soon after Netanyahu's Moscow talks with Putin, suggesting the Israeli leader's lobbying efforts have, for the time being, paid off”.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, denied the link between the latest apparent U-turn and Netanyahu’s visit, which indicates that Russia is very keen to maintain the image of a “saviour” with the Arab audience.
This keenness can be seen clearly in the Vzglyad op-ed. Yevgeny Krotikov’s piece, republished by the RT Arabic website, describes ongoing discontent among Syrian security services with Russian military police in the “liberated” residential areas.
“The good and forgiving Russian forces are preventing mass purges by the Syrian intelligence agency, which has paved the way for the locals to trust the Russians. However… the need to feed and accommodate everyone immediately led to the collapse of counterintelligence systems. Sleeper cells re-appeared, terrorist operations and acts of vandalism increased… This led to a decline in the political weight of Syrian intelligence. This exacerbated competition between the various security groups in Damascus, and this is very disturbing from a political point of view….Ultimately, this issue was somehow resolved in Eastern Aleppo. Perhaps there is no unified scenario for every part of Syria. But the transition to authentication is no longer based on "what's your name?" (meaning a proper ID system has to be reestablished). The idea that everything can be solved with tanks and pro-Assad militia (known as Shabiha) is long gone, and it seems now planning should come from the head. It also seems once again the Russians will be doing the thinking”.
The here-to-stay message was reinforced by Lavrov in an interview he gave to the Argentinian newspaper Clarin on 18 May. RT Arabic’s website published his answer to the question “how long is Russia planning to stay in Syria?”:
“Russian forces have been deployed in Syria since 2015 at the request of the rightful Syrian government, who came to Russia asking for help to counter terrorism, stabilize the situation and help recreate a proper environment for a political resolution...Many of the assigned missions have been carried out successfully and objectives have been met. Our country played a major role in defeating ISIS. In December 2017 a substantial number of Russian troops were sent back to Russia... yet Russia’s mission in Syria is not over.... Hence, it’s logical to say that our presence in Syria will continue as long as is necessary to the legitimate Syrian authorities and the Syrian people need us”.
It seems Russia wants to take part in the direct management of Syria. At the same time, they are not worried about weakening the current regime internally, by undermining its intelligence and security apparatus, or regionally, by halting the delivery of S-300s. In other words, Russia seems to want to re-establish its long-term presence in Syria and the region without depending on Assad’s regime.
Efforts to reassure Israel about its presence and build an independent image for Russian forces seem to indicate a new line of Russian strategic thinking.