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Vladimir Putin's America-Friendly Propaganda About Fighting Terror Just Suffered A Big Blow

Putin tries to present himself as the best bet against ISIS. In reality, he's helped it thrive.

17/05/2016 8:40 AM AEST | Updated 17/05/2016 8:42 AM AEST
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Protesters wearing masks of Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin demonstrate in front of the U.N. Security Council building on Jan. 24, 2012.

WASHINGTON -- The last time he visited the U.S., in September of 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin brought the ideal message for war-weary observers of U.S. foreign policy.

At the United Nations' annual General Assembly, he indicated he wanted to address international players involved in the Middle East -- the most prominent of which, of course, is the U.S. In the region now, Putin said, "nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life."

"I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation: Do you realize now what you have done?"

Putin's message resonates in an America that believes most of the chaos in the Middle East is a result of U.S. actions. His view is especially popular among Americans skeptical of the elites who shape U.S. foreign policy.

That's why American politicians generally try to distance themselves from the most widely condemned product of that policy, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Hillary Clinton’s vote in favor of the war is a big reason she lost the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. And this year, as Clinton again tries to play defense on that vote, political hopefuls wanting to show they are different from the establishment are making the same argument Putin did back in September.

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the anti-establishment stars of 2016, have both bashed U.S. policies for enabling the rise of the self-styled Islamic State. Trump has directly accused President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton of "creating ISIS," implying the group grew from Obama's policy of supporting nationalist Syrian rebels opposed to dictator Bashar Assad. Though Sanders has stopped short of that claim, the Democratic hopeful has associated Clinton with ISIS by talking about the militant group as a product of the Iraq war and U.S. military intervention in Libya in 2011. 

Bush's Iraq war and Obama's disastrous political mismanagement of the Iraqi state did offer radical militants space to operate, thousands of unhappy potential recruits, and weak targets to attack to gain advanced American weaponry.

But by focusing on only those reasons for ISIS's success, critics of American foreign policy are adopting the same view they ascribe to Clinton and other interventionists: that the U.S. is responsible for everything.

Putin's particular style of disinformation relies heavily on that assumption to sow international distrust of American actions. Now a fascinating report from Reuters challenges it. It turns Putin's question back at him: Do you realize what you have done?

Dennis Van Tine/MediaPunch/MediaPunch/IPx
Putin made headlines worldwide by blaming the U.S. for Middle East chaos in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last year.

The news agency revealed on Friday that the Russian government has had a deliberate policy of sending radicalized Islamists out of Russia -- which means they inevitably end up in the central hub of militant extremism, Syria. In one case, officials allowed a militant placed under house arrest to make it to Moscow's international airport and start a journey that would end in his joining ISIS's ranks. In five of the instances Reuters tracked, "Russian authorities had reason to deny [radicals] travel documents and prevent them from leaving the country. But according to relatives and local officials, in each case the authorities made their passage possible."

Putin's government adopted this policy in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi because of its fear that radical Islamists would target the marquee event. The scheme ran at least until then, Reuters reported. But it had important consequences regardless of when it ended: A local police officer told the news agency that dozens more Russian radicals left the country after their fellow extremists reached Syria and encouraged them to make the same journey. Again, the militants were able to leave even though Russian authorities had flagged them as individuals of concern.

Thousands of terrorists of Russian origin are now thought to be operating in Syria.

Putin's spokesman denied the revelations. "Terrorists get annihilated in Russia," he told Reuters. "It has always been like that, it is like that and it will be in the future.”

But the findings aren't surprising given Russia's general approach in Syria and its policies toward radical Islamists at home. Putin and Russia-friendly Assad have long described the Syrian conflict as a fight between a government and an irredeemably extreme foreign-funded opposition, rather than the product of millions of Syrians' frustration with violent authoritarian rule.

Assad has done his best to make that false binary a reality. His forces have avoided attacking ISIS-controlled areas, even concluding land swaps with the militant group, as they have targeted more moderate groups in the opposition who present a viable alternative to Assad or ISIS for Syria's future. He has repeatedly released hardcore prisoners, including extremists once nurtured by his own security agencies. And his government has boosted ISIS coffers by buying oil from the radical group.

Reuters' new report shows that Putin adopted the same approach -- likely making a similar calculation that allowing extremists to gain power was acceptable if it would make the Assad regime look like the best option in Syria. For Russia, the policy had the added benefit of moving potential threats far away. Putin's government has struggled with how to handle radicalization among Russia's millions-strong Muslim population, and its primary response -- severe crackdowns and violations of human rights -- has simply encouraged more radicalization.

This means that in spite of Moscow's slick #RussiaVsISIL propaganda campaign, designed to present its military intervention in Syria as a fight against the best-known radical group there, there's growing evidence that Putin is helping ISIS thrive.

The new reporting doesn’t even account for how Putin has helped the group recruit fighters worldwide by supporting Assad's butchery. Regime excesses, enabled and supported by Russia, have for years made armed struggle against the Syrian dictator seem like a noble cause.

The new Reuters report is unlikely to change Russian policy. Most Russians buy Putin's nationalist, xenophobic rhetoric and doubt Western reporting on his government, and outside players have known for months that Russia's “fight against terror” in Syria is really about helping Assad.

But it does weaken an important part of Russia's attempt to remain influential abroad as its economy crumbles and its population ages: cheap, effective information warfare.

So next time an orange man with odd hair tells Americans that Obama is helping ISIS and Russia is the key to defeating it, perhaps they'll be just a little more wary.

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