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“In Damascus All is Quiet”: Russians Report from Syria

A video of a Syrian market shown on Russian news channel NTV on September 3, 2013. The footage was presumably taken by Anhar Kochneva. YouTube screenshot.

A Syrian market, as shown on Russian news channel NTV on September 3, 2013. The footage was presumably taken by Anhar Kochneva. YouTube screenshot.

In Russia, support for Bashar al-Assad's regime cuts across political lines. Deep suspicions of Western motives for military intervention, combined with a domestic history of Islamist rebel groups, lead even the staunchest Kremlin opponents to see eye to eye with Vladimir Putin on the Syrian conflict. For example, Maria Baronova, an opposition activist currently on trial for participating in a rally turned violent last year, tweeted this about the August 21 chemical attacks near Damascus:

Gentlemen, I hope everyone understands that the story with chemical weapon use is some kind of shady American scheme?

Baronova was likely getting her information from photographer Sergey Ponomarev, who was in Damascus during the time of the attacks and tweeted shortly after, questioning MSF reports of poison gas casualties:

@AltePute @ponny1 I've been to three hospitals, they told me there were no victims there. if someone knows which hospitals the MSF works with, I'd go there

Another Russian tweeting from Damascus was Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist, Nigina Beroeva. She also doubted the use of chemical weapons:

@madoleroyer we were here, if the attack was so strong that 1300 people died, the gas would have gotten to us as well

Later, Beroeva cited a local source:

I talked to a man who lives with his family near the war zone. he says, there was no chemical weapons use. they would have felt it.

Besides for journalists like Beroeva and Ponomarev, who come to Syria on relatively short reporting stints, there are Russian bloggers actually living and blogging in the country. Just like the majority of the Russian public, these bloggers support the Assad regime. The most prominent one is probably Anhar Kochneva, a Russian-Palestinian woman living in Damascus. Kochneva worked with the tourist industry before the start of the conflict, but quickly started writing about the war for a Russian audience. She gained particular notoriety last year, when she was kidnapped by an alleged rebel group [ru], spent 152 days in captivity, and then managed to escape on her own.

In spite of her rather negative experience with the Syrian conflict, Kochneva is eager to reassure [ru] readers about the stability of the regime:

Ничего плохого не происходит. Люди ходят в кафе и рестораны, шастают по магазинчикам и даже посещают достопримечательности. Давайте, будем показывать ПРАВДУ. А не делать все, чтобы во всем мире сложилось впечатление. что в Сирии камня на камне не осталось!

Nothing bad is happening. People sit at cafes and restaurants, go shopping and even visit local sights. Let's tell the TRUTH. And not do everything possible so that the world starts thinking that Syria is completely razed to the ground!

On August 29, when the world was expecting an imminent bombing campaign against Assad, she wrote [ru]:

Хомс, Хама, Тель-Калях, Месьяф, Беньяс, Джебла, Латакия, Тартус… ВЕЗДЕ ВСЕ ПОД КОНТРОЛЕМ ГОСУДАРСТВА. В Дамаске все тоже спокойно.

Homs, Hama, Tel Kalyah, Masyaf, Banias, Jableh, Lattakia, Tartus… EVERYTHING IS UNDER GOVERNMENT CONTROL. In Damascus all is quiet.

In general, Beroeva and Ponomarev seem to agree. Beroeva tweeted shortly after the gas attacks:

You won't believe it, but all is quiet in Damascus. People sit in cafes, walk the streets, and are far from a universal hysteria

Ponomarev also said that the country is basically “unchanged” since 2009, while jokingly extolling the virtues of armed conflict in driving down local hotel prices:

Downtown hotels [formerly] €300 [per night] now cost $50-70, dinner for three with wine — $20

There is something strangely familiar to a Russian audience within this narrative — the conflict, when portrayed in this fashion, seems less like an all out war and more like the slow-burning violence in Dagestan and Ingushetia. Yes, there are bandits/terrorists/rebels/jihadists but they are far away, geographically isolated. Sure, somewhere people are dying, but 90% of the population aren't affected — at least until their summer vacation plans are derailed by military action near a resort. This, Russians can empathize with.

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