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We may be about to witness a big Western narrative shift on Russia’s Syria policy
November 17, 2015, 7:04 am

A year ago, Vladimir Putin left the G20 summit in Brisbane early after a “barrage of criticism” and “browbeating” by Western leaders.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper only barely deigned to shake his hand. UK Prime Minister David Cameron openly mocked him to reporters. The host, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott made a big show of how he planned to “shirtfront” him.

Mainstream media, predictably delighted by this apparent confirmation of Russia’s successful “isolation” quickly patted themselves on the back. Job done. No one needs to listen to Russia, right?

Fast forward to this year’s G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey. What a difference a year makes. Gone are the carefully-timed snaps of a forlorn looking Russian president with no one to talk to at the breakfast table. Instead, this week, Western leaders have been forced by a series of their own geopolitical miscalculations, to treat Russia as a partner, rather than a full-time villain, whether they like it or not.

With that, we are likely now to see a similar shift in thinking in mainstream Western reporting and analysis of the Syria conflict.

Paris attacks a wake-up call for the West

Like a house of cards, the Western narrative began to crumble after the tragic terror attacks in Paris last Friday.

On Sunday, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell told CBS it was “crystal clear” that the US strategy vis-à-vis ISIS “is not working”. Further, he said it was time to consider that Bashar al-Assad might be “part of the solution” whereby the US and Russia, along with the Syrian army and other international partners, would all fight ISIS together.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in an informal chat with his US counterpart Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey on 15 November 2015 [Image: White House]

Russian President Vladimir Putin in an informal chat with his US counterpart Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey on 15 November 2015 [Image: White House]

On Monday, current CIA chief John Brennan said during a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, that it was imperative the US and Russia strengthened their counterterrorism cooperation.

A few hours later, positioning himself as a go-between for US-Russian cooperation in Syria, French President Francois Hollande told his parliament that while France was still opposed to Assad, “our enemy in Syria is Daesh [ISIS]”. That followed earlier comments from Barack Obama and David Cameron which suggested a new openness to compromise with Moscow — a veritable sea change after four years marked by glacial to non-existent progress for Syria.

How will the media react?

This no doubt is a confusing moment for many in mainstream media who have spent years parroting the line that Russia’s foreign policy motives are always sinister and malicious, relentlessly and unquestioningly bashing any utterance that comes from the Kremlin, regardless of how confrontational or benign.

Recall that during the first weeks of Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria, many influential Western outlets deliberately misled viewers and readers by claiming that Russia was not targeting ISIS at all. Some went as far as to make the utterly absurd suggestion that in targeting non-ISIS rebel groups, Russia was acting as ISIS’s de facto air force.

When it became clear that Russia was bombing both ISIS and a number of other anti-Assad groups, the result was a flurry of awkward op-eds attempting to defend Al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups as “moderates” — with little attention given to the fact that at least some of these so-called moderates have a similar fondness to ISIS for beheading enemies and caging women to be used as “human shields”. We might have reached the low point when a piece in the New York Times defended the “relatively secular” Free Syrian Army for fighting alongside Al Nusra — the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda — simply because they felt a little bit bad about it.

The ‘Russia is helping ISIS’ narrative was thrown into further disarray after a Russian airliner was tragically downed just over two weeks ago over Sinai ago by a suspected ISIS bomb. But even then, the West wasn’t willing to budge much. While there was an outpouring of sympathy for the victims by regular people, there was a sense in the media that Russia was just getting what was coming to it for interfering in Syria. Interestingly, no such sense was felt after the Paris attacks, despite France’s own interference. Note that when ISIS attacks Russia, this is simply retaliation they should expect for their meddling — but when they attack the West, it’s a terrible act of terrorism for which there is no basis.

Now, after the latest string of attacks in Paris and the apparent new willingness to work alongside Putin, the tireless efforts to paint Russia as the eternal bad guy of the Syrian crisis will have to be re-evaluated. While it’s likely that we will see a significant shift in the coverage, probably involving some new cheerleading for the proposed international coalition against ISIS, don’t expect mainstream outlets to remind you that Moscow has been proposing a coalition for nearly two months, with those calls falling on deaf ears, turned down outright by Washington and sneered at by the same journalists and analysts who are now suddenly finding the whole idea of teaming up more palatable.

There is also the not unlikely possibility that Western outlets will try to spin these latest developments as led by an in-control West which has decided to ‘let’ Russia come in from the cold. In fact, that very line has been trotted out already — but it’s such a desperate attempt at face-saving spin that it’s almost unworthy of a mention.

Winning the PR war, or just appealing to common sense?

Before the Paris attacks, some analysts had been worriedly warning that Putin was winning the “PR war” in Syria. In the aftermath, Moscow’s articulation of its position looks less like PR and more like an appeal to common sense.

To risk an understatement, it’s depressing that 132 innocent people had to die in Paris before Obama, Cameron et al realized that Russia could be an indispensable partner in the fight against ISIS, and that disagreements over the fate of Assad should not be “the altar on which the country of Syria is slaughtered”.

If only this realization could have been made in 2010, when the Syrian government offered Western powers a chance to join up and fight ISIS together. Or in 2012, when Russia is rumoured to have offered the West a proposal which would have seen Assad step down as part of a broad peace deal.

Instead, a bullheaded insistence that “Assad must go” lingered on; a desire for regime change at all costs masqueraded as humanitarian concern, while the Syrian death toll rose into the hundreds of thousands and ISIS used the chaos to spread its poisonous tentacles far and wide.

The progress made at the G20 summit this week in Antalya looks promising, at least insofar as it is the first ray of hope that all sides now see enough at stake to prompt significant compromises. If this all holds after the G20 leaders leave Turkey and fly home, it will be a huge foreign policy and diplomacy win for Russia — but whatever happens, trust that the media narratives will swing back and forth along with the official line.

It has become clear that defeating ISIS will require international cooperation and that Russia is a crucial party. What is less clear, and what no analyst can really predict, is whether a massive, coordinated bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq will be any more effective than the disjointed ones we’ve seen so far. That is a question which is far more difficult to answer.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.