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A video grab made on Oct. 6, 2015, shows an image taken from footage made available on the Russian Defense Ministry's official website on Oct. 5, purporting to show a Russia's Su-24M bomber dropping bombs during an airstrike in Syria.  Russian Defence Ministry/AFP/Getty Images

Russian Propaganda Struggles To Find Good Reasons For Bombing Syria

Oct 05, 2015

On Sunday night, during an appearance on a prime-time political talk show, the Russian lawmaker Semyon Bagdasarov offered a curious interpretation of his nation’s history. The roots of Russian civilization, he suggested, trace all the way back to Syria, without which Russia would never have existed in the first place. “This is our land,” he said of the Arab Republic. “These are our holy places!” Urged along by the prompters in the studio, the audience gave him a round of applause, while the host of the show had this reaction: “I think we have a new slogan!”

Over the past week, as Russian jets have flown dozens of bombing raids against rebel positions in Syria, the search for a slogan that might justify this military effort has strained even the flimsy principles of Kremlin propaganda, not to mention the credulity of its consumers. Compared to the war in neighboring Ukraine, which Moscow had little trouble casting as a defense of “indigenously Russian lands,” the Syrian entanglement is shaping up to be a much more difficult sell.

A nationwide poll taken in late September, about a week before the Russian bombing raids began, suggested that Russians would have no stomach for a war on such a distant front. Nearly 70% of respondents in the survey, which was published on Sept. 28, said Russia should not provide direct military support to its Syrian allies, and only 14% said they would approve of such an intervention.

Two days later, when that intervention began, few in the Kremlin would have lost much sleep over the question of popular support. The approval ratings of President Vladimir Putin still stand above 80% in all the major polls, and he has total control of nearly all the mass media in Russia. So the men in his circle tend to take it for granted that they can shape public opinion as expediency dictates. “The national mission can change in three days flat,” one of Putin’s advisers told me this spring during an off-the-record briefing in Moscow. “All you need to do is change the propaganda and offer some arguments.”

Satellite Photos Show Most of Syria Without Lights

Satellite imagery of Syria in March 2011.
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Satellite imagery of Syria in March 2011.#withSyria
Satellite imagery of Syria in March 2011.
Satellite imagery of Syria in March 2012.
Satellite imagery of Syria in March 2013.
Satellite imagery of Syria in March 2014.
Satellite imagery of Syria in February 2015.
Satellite imagery of Syria in March 2011.
#withSyria
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But solid arguments have been hard to find in the Kremlin’s domestic messaging on Syria so far. Most of the spin has derived from Putin’s claim at U.N. General Assembly last week that the terrorist threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is similar to the threat that Nazi Germany posed 75 years ago. Such invocations of the fascist menace served Russia well during its invasion of Ukraine last year, as Putin managed to convince many of his countrymen that ethnic Russians in Ukraine were under threat from “neo-Nazis and anti-Semites."

On Sunday evening, this point came up again during the weekly monologue of anchorman Dmitry Kiselyov, who said the ISIS-Nazi comparison offers a “very precise” rationale for the Russian bombing of Syria. Then he tried to push it further. “What this means is that Russia is saving Europe from enslavement and barbarism for the fourth time,” he declared. “Let’s count! The Mongols, Napoleon, Hitler, and now ISIS.” His list ignored the fact that Ghengis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler all invaded Russia first, whereas no attacks on Russian soil have yet been attributed to ISIS.

Nor is there any ethnic Russian minority in Syria for Putin to defend, and the idea of intervening in the affairs of an Arab nation also sounds deeply hypocritical coming from Moscow, which has spent more than a decade deriding the U.S. and its allies for such meddling. In a manifesto on foreign policy that he published in 2012, Putin specifically urged the U.S. and its allies not to get involved in Syria. “I just can’t understand where this militaristic itch comes from,” he lamented. “Why can’t they find the patience to work out a balanced and collective approach?”

Judging by events in Ukraine and Syria, it did not take Putin long to contract that itch from his Western counterparts. But the reason is not some war-loving turn in the Russian mentality. On the question of foreign entanglements, Russians tend to be insular and pragmatic, with domestic issues like poverty, inflation and corruption consistently topping questions of international affairs in the list of the public’s concerns. In late August, when the Levada Center asked respondents to name Putin’s greatest achievements, the two top answers were economic development and improvements in the standard of living.

On these two fronts, however, Putin has lately had little to brag about. The country is in the middle of a deep recession, thanks largely to a sharp drop in the oil price and the Western sanctions imposed against Russia over its harassment of Ukraine. The value of the national currency, the ruble, has meanwhile dropped by half since Russian annexed the region of Crimea, and inflation has shot up to almost 16%.

The daily images of carnage and destruction in eastern Ukraine have helped the Kremlin’s TV networks distract Russians from the awful state of their economy over the past year and a half. But this spell had begun to wear off, and Putin's ratings had started to suffer, falling in September to 84% from a peak of 89% in Levada's latest polls.

Valery Fyodorov, one of the Kremlin's leading sociologists, even acknowledged during a TV appearance on Friday that only about a quarter of Russians are still paying close attention to the conflict in Ukraine. “It’s no longer the kind of information narcotic that you can’t go a day without,” he said. But before he could finish his segment, the broadcast cut to some crisp footage of Russian warplanes dropping bombs over Syria. They looked intoxicating enough, even without a good explanation, for many viewers to get hooked.

Meet the Kurdish Women Taking the Battle to ISIS

18-year-old YPJ fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live ina world where women are dominated by men.We are here to take control of our future..I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Zinar base, Syria "I joined YPJ about seven months ago, because I was looking for something meaningful in my life and my leader [ Abdullah Ocalan] showed me the way and my role in the society. We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. We are not merely fighting with arms; we fight with our thoughts. Ocalan's ideology is always in our hearts and minds and it is with his thought that we become so empowered that we can even become better soldiers than men. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra-powerful in combat. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."
VIEW GALLERY | 16 PHOTOS
18-year-old YPJ (Women's Protection Unit) fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our future. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobani. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been martyred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
18-year-old YPJ fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live ina world where women are dominated by men.We are here to take control of our future..I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Zinar base, Syria "I joined YPJ about seven months ago, because I was looking for something meaningful in my life and my leader [ Abdullah Ocalan] showed me the way and my role in the society. We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. We are not merely fighting with arms; we fight with our thoughts. Ocalan's ideology is always in our hearts and minds and it is with his thought that we become so empowered that we can even become better soldiers than men. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra-powerful in combat. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."
YPJ fighters on their base at the border between Syria and Iraq. Young female fighters are indoctrinated to the ideology of their charismatic leader, Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), who promotes marxist thought and empowerment of women.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
18 year-old YPJ fighter Saria Zilan from Amuda, Syria:"I fought with ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME "It's been one year and four months since I joined YPJ. When I saw Martyr Deli on TV after ISIS beheaded her, I went to her burial ceremony the next day in Amuda. I saw Deli's mother sobbing madly. Right there I swore to myself to avenge her death. I joined YPJ the day after. In the past, women had various roles in the society. but all those roles were taken from them. We are here now to take back the role of women in society. I grew up in a country, where I was not allowed to speak my mother tongue of Kurdish. I was not allowed to have a Kurdish name. If you were a pro-Kurdish activist, they'd arrest you and put you in jail. But since the Rojava revolution, we have been getting back our rights. We were not allowed to speak our language before, and now ISIS wants to wipe us off completely from the Earth. I fought with ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me do so. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman. I have changed a lot. My way of thinking about the world has changed since I joined YPJ. Maybe some people wonder why we're doing this. But when they get to know us better, they will understand why. We are emotional people."
20-year old YPJ fighter Aijan Denis from Amuda, Syria: "Where I am now, men and women are equal and we all have the same thought, which is fighting for our ideology and the rights of women. My three sisters and I are all in YPJ. "Newsha Tavakolian for TIME I joined YPJ in 2011. One day when I was watching TV, they were showing pictures of women who had been killed. I was really impressed by that and decided to join the army myself. Where I am now, men and women are equal and we all have the same thought, which is fighting for our ideology and the rights of women. My three sisters and I are all in YPJ. They all operate RPGs. I wish to become so skilled that I will be allowed to do the same."
YPJ members take part in daily combat training at their base in Serikani. Syria.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
Three YPJ fighters sit in an armed vehicle at their basein eastern Syria, days after returning from the front. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
YPJ members, including some who were wounded fighting against ISIS in Kobani, Syria, at the all-women Asayesh Security Base in Derek, Syria. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
16 year-old YPJ fighter Barkhodan Kochar from Darbasi, Syria. "The war influenced me a lot. Before joining YPJ, whenever I asked my family about politics, they'd say 'that's not your business, you're just a girl'. But when I saw how the women of YPJ gave their lives for what they believed in, I knew that I wanted to be one of them." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME "I joined YPJ in 2014, because I wanted to defend my homeland. The war influenced me a lot. Before joining YPJ, whenever I asked my family about politics, they'd say 'that's not your business, you're just a girl'. But when I saw how the women of YPJ gave their lives for what they believed in, I knew that I wanted to be one of them. I feel much more empowered as a woman now. As a 16-year-old girl, I think that I have a very important role in my country and I will keep on fighting until the last drop of my blood is shed."
A billboard showing fallen YPJ solders,reading, “Withyou we live on and life continues.”Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
In Western Kurdistan, the Syrian autonomous region Kurds call Rojava, young people are taught the ideology of the PYD (the Democratic Union Party of Syria), an affiliate of PKK (Kirdistan Workers' Party). Many of these young people will soon be drafted into YPJ and YPG armies to fight ISIS.  Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
in Syria, graves of YPJ members who were killed fighting ISIS. In the foreground, female fighters are buried together.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
A picture of 17 year-old Cicek Derek, who died in the besieged city of Kobani, Syria, where her fellow fighters were unable to retrieve her body. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
Rojin, the sister of 17 year-old YPJ fighter Cicek Derek who died fighting in Kobani, Syria. "When my mother told Cicek, please stay with your mother', she answered 'I left to fight for all the mothers of the world. I cannot stay here." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME"My sister was very naive and sensitive when she left us. But four years later, when she came back to bury the body of her friend who had been killed in Kobane, she was smart and tough and I could see lots of self-confidence in her eyes. When my mother told her 'please don't go back, stay with your mother', she answered 'I left to fight for all the mothers of the world. I cannot stay here'. When she came back for her friend's burial, she briefly visited the house. She kept taking pictures in every corner and with all of us, as if it was her the last party of her life."
A scarf belonging to 17-year-old YPJ fighter Cicek Derek, who was killed in Kobane, Syria, was all that could be brought back to her family. Her body remains in kobane, Syria.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
A wedding dress outside a bridal shop in a town near Qamishlou, Syria. YPG graffiti can be seen on the walls of adjacent buildings. YPJ and YPG members are neither allowed to marry, nor can they have sexual relationships, according the their ideology. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
20 year-old YPJ fighter Beritan Khabat from Derek, Syria. She joined the YPJ four years ago to protect her homeland and put an end to the suppression of women. "I fought with ISIS in Jezza and Serikani. Women of YPJ are not scared of ISIS." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Beritan believes that in her society women should be armed with guns and fight for their rights. She says that they have created a new idea for the men of the world. telling them that women too can be good fighters. "I fought with ISIS in Jezza and Serikani. And the first time I heard the sound of bullets next to my ears was in Talala town, while I was fighting with ISIS for the first time. The first time I thought about facing ISIS, my whole body was shivering and the whole thing seemed more like a joke to me. But when I thought deeply, I realized that I was going to fight with a radical group, and this empowered me so much that all my fears faded away. Women of YPJ are not scared of ISIS".
18-year-old YPJ (Women's Protection Unit) fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live in a world where women are dominated by men.
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Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
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