Moscow Accuses U.S. Of Propaganda War Over Syria
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The U.S. and Russian militaries are talking today. It's about ways to avoid conflicts in the skies over Syria. Those concerns have risen in the past 24 hours after Russia began a series of airstrikes on rebel targets. The United States is conducting airstrikes of its own, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter says the Russians aren't giving proper advance notice about their operations. The two sides are also disputing what targets the Russians are actually hitting. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us now from Moscow.
And Corey, Secretary Carter says the Russians have been hitting rebel areas but not rebel areas controlled by ISIS, which is the group Russia promised to engage. What's Russia saying about that?
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, Russia is insisting that it has only hit targets belonging to the self-described Islamic State. And in fact, a Russian air force general just came out with an analysis saying that Russian warplanes damaged about a dozen ISIS targets, including a command center and some ammunition depots. Russian TV's been showing video of what officials are calling pinpoint strikes on rebel bases, but there's a big discrepancy because other rebel groups in Syria are now saying that their bases were being hit and not the Islamic State. And that's important because these rebel groups say they're receiving support from the United States and its allies.
SIEGEL: Yeah. So Senator John McCain said something similar on CNN today. Here's what he said.
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JOHN MCCAIN: I can absolutely confirm to you that they were strikes against our Free Syrian Army or groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA because we have communications with people there.
FLINTOFF: You know, President Putin's spokesman said today that Russia's been choosing those targets in consultation with the Syrian army, so it may be that President Assad and the Syrian army see the Free Syrian Army and similar groups to that as a bigger immediate threat than the Islamic State.
It basically all boils down to the fact that Russia strongly supports Assad, and they say that he has to be part of any solution in Syria. So Russia's military action is going to be aimed at defending him from any enemies. And in fact, the foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said today that Russia's not going to try too hard to distinguish among the rebels.
SIEGEL: Now Russian officials have reacted very sharply to criticisms of their military mission. What's going on there?
FLINTOFF: President Putin responded to the reports of civilian casualties. He called them information attacks. He actually charged that the first reports of civilians being hit came out even before Russia's jets took off. So this has been an ongoing theme among Russian officials over the past couple of years. You know, they allege that the United States has been waging a propaganda war against Russia. But it's gotten much more intense in the past couple of days. One of the prominent TV news channels today led its broadcast with that line about the information attacks. It was a headline even before the stories about the Syrians airstrikes themselves.
SIEGEL: Most Russians don't get much exposure to Western news media. Why would Vladimir Putin be so worried about Western criticism?
FLINTOFF: Well, you're right, Robert. Most people in Russia get their news from state-controlled TV, so they don't hear much independent criticism about the government's policies. But I think Putin really wants to control the international narrative about the airstrikes in Syria as well. So all these charges about Western information war are just a way of deflecting any criticism and making sure that Russia's campaign in Syria looks good in the eyes of the world.
SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Corey.
FLINTOFF: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow.