No sooner did reports emerge that US Secretary of State John Kerry was heading to Moscow to propose new collaboration with Russia in Syria than the media suffered a collective bout of geopolitical amnesia.
For months, Russian President Vladimir Putin had been publicly proposing an international coalition to fight the Islamic State in Syria, which would include close collaboration between Washington and Moscow. Each time, the call was rejected or fell on deaf ears.
In particular, calls for joint airstrikes have been met repeatedly with a cool response in Washington, prompting Putin to respond last November that “unfortunately our partners are not ready to work within the format of a single coalition” but stress that Russia remained open to working in “any format” they were ready for. As recently as last week, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov reiterated that the Kremlin regretted the repeated refusal of the US to consider collaboration with Moscow.
So steadfast were the refusals, that even early on, it prompted Russia expert Stephen Cohen to suggest it seemed almost as though Washington would prefer to see ISIS overrun Damascus than to appear to capitulate by cooperating with Russia in any way.
And just as there was no love for collaboration in the White House, neither was their any desire for it among journalists who appeared more than happy to report that Putin’s proposals for partnership had been shot down. The general consensus appeared to be that working with Russia was a ludicrous notion; Russia’s Syria strategy was all wrong, there was no way the US should give into Moscow’s ‘demands’ by appearing to betray the so-called ‘moderate’ opposition to Bashar Assad — and silly Putin for even daring to dream that Russia could take a leading role the world stage. They did all but laugh in his face. Given that response in both political and media circles, it was safe to assume that any teaming up with Russia, or even the consideration of it, would only come as an absolute last resort.
Not known for accepting when they’re fighting a losing battle, it may have come as a surprise then to anyone following events closely when the US began to backtrack in recent weeks, culminating in a trip to Moscow by Secretary of State John Kerry to propose collaboration on a new anti-terror pact — exactly what Moscow has been calling for, for months.
It may also have come as a surprise to see Western headline writers spin the plan — which would include intelligence sharing, target sharing and possibly joint bombing operations — as a US-led initiative, offered and instigated by Washington, with little mention of the fact that Moscow had all along been keen to establish something along these lines. An honest interpretation of this development would have seen journalists across the board admit that with Washington’s Syria policy failing and Russia’s generally seeing more results, the Obama administration has been left with little choice but to consider cooperation with Putin, its designated enemy number one.
But honesty isn’t exactly the media’s forte. Note also, how when the US offers collaboration, it’s strictly for the purposes of saving Syria and stopping ISIS — but when Putin does it, it’s to make Russia feel important, to prop up a dictator or to generate some good headlines at home.
While generally liberal publications opted to ignore Russia’s previous efforts to join forces, the response from conservative publications was a little different — but they were no less united in their anti-Russia slant. Obama and Kerry “cave” to Putin, sites like the conservative Washington Times wrote. An offer of cooperation from Washington amounts to a “huge propaganda win” for the Kremlin, which had been looking to “legitimize” its operations in Syria.
And then, what do you know, as soon as the two countries appear to be inching towards some kind of compromise, out trot the Syrian opposition, calling on the US to stop ignoring Russia’s ‘war crimes’ in the country — and once again, journalists are only too happy to give them a platform from which to admonish Russia while calling for action from the US, that bastion of peace and strict adherent to international law. Naturally, the Syrian opposition is again presented by the media as a coherent democracy-loving group, rather than an amalgamation of numerous groups, some more Islamist than others, who themselves have been accused of committing war crimes.
Of course, none of this may matter at all. In reality, there has been no major public breakthrough between Washington and Moscow when it comes to Syria strategy. While both sides have announced that Kerry’s latest trip to Moscow allowed the powers to agree on “concrete steps” to a lasting ceasefire, nothing has yet been put into practice. Kerry in particular noted that “more work” was needed to transform any new plans from idea into reality in a successful way.
Nonetheless, it’s useful to monitor the media reaction to these developments — and, as ever, the moral of this story is: whether you agree or disagree with the US’s latest moves: Russia is still bad. There’s no way Russia comes out of anything looking even halfway decent. Whether the US cooperates with Russia or it doesn’t, Putin will still be the bad guy and Obama will be the guy trying to ‘save’ Syria. If he fails, well at least he tried. Mistakes happen. Just look at Libya.
In the meantime, reality-distorting anti-Russia messaging will persist. Journalists have shown no signs that they will lose their appetite for it any time soon.