Wed 19 Sep 2018

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 “Facebook” Messages to Khmeimim Air Base: Popular Interaction Helps Russia Polish Its Image

Russian aircraft at Khmeimim Military Base, Lattakia (Sputnik)

Russian aircraft at Khmeimim Military Base, Lattakia (Sputnik)

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 More than 150 thousand followers, some of whom take the role of silent observers, others inquire, and others demand the “Facebook” page’s admins’ help. Lots of controversies and question marks interrogate its reality. Is it the official representative page of the Russian “Khmeimim” Air Base in Syria? Is it faked?

It is the “Central Channel of Khmeimim Military Base” account on “Facebook” that we are talking about, and which has been the core of many talks in the past a few months. The news reached the Russian Ministry of Defence, which for its part disassociated itself from the page, announcing that it is “forged” and has no link, whatsoever, to the Russian administration in Syria.

Official or not is not the matter to address here, for there is a thing that cannot be overlooked or given a blind eye; the overt orientations of a segment of the Syrian people, to whom the Russian presence on the Syrian territory has developed into a referential source of information. The messages, sent by Syrian people to the “Khmeimim” account on “Facebook”, include inquiries and analysis of happenings, and sometimes a request for humanitarian aid.

 “Deliberate” Russian Denial

The controversy over the “Khmeimim” account on “Facebook” started when media outlets and news agencies quoted a news posted on the page, reporting Russia’s withdrawal from the “de-escalation” agreement in Southern Syria, which triggered clamor that coincided with a Russian military escalation in Daraa governorate, south-western Syria.

The news was posted on the page as an answer to one of the followers’ inquiries, who asked “Can we interpret the beginning of the military operations in Daraa as the end of the de-escalation period in the two governorates of Daraa and Idlib?” The admins replied saying: “It is confirmed that the de-escalation agreement has ended in Southern Syria, after being violated by illegal extremist and armed groups that are acting against the governmental forces, while the agreement is yet active in the Syrian governorate of Idlib”.

Immediately after the answer was quoted in press reports, the Russian Ministry of Defence issued a statement, saying that the page called the “Central Channel of Khmeimim Military Base” on “Facebook” is fake, pointing that Moscow’s withdrawal from the “de-escalation” agreement in Daraa “does not match with reality”.

According to the Syrian journalist Nasr al-Yousef, based in Russia, the “Khmeimim” page on “Facebook” is “semi-official” which Russia does not want to openly acknowledge, telling Enab Baladi that the page’s admins are deeply informed of the military and political “internal kitchen” in Syria, and they cannot post anything on this platform without the Khmeimim Base administration’s knowledge and approval.

Al-Yousef said that the Russian denial of the page is “to test the Syrian people’s reaction, for the Russian administration is passing whatever it wants through the page to monitor the response of the Syrian mainstream and the international reaction”, adding that “in case there were no objections, Russia implements what has been mentioned in the posts, while if it enticed a fuss, Russia shrugs of it by saying that the page does not belong to it.”

The Syrian journalist, well informed of the Russian affairs, said that Russia would not acknowledge the page to easily deny what it has been mentioning, adding that the ambiguity about the page is actually “deliberate”.

“I am sure that all that the page is posting is ordered by Russia and the Russian interpreters,” he concluded.

Would Russia Become a Reference to Syrians?

After Russia has put its hands on the Syrian file, military and politically, it started appealing to Syrian people, within Moscow’s efforts to gain a Syrian popular incubator that enhance the legality of its presence in Syria and that it is based on the “legal” government and its people’s demand. Russia have always justified its presence on the Syrian territory by “the urge to protect Syrian people from terrorism.”

The messages that a segment of the Syrian people is sending to Khmeimim Base’ account on “Facebook” stand for their acknowledgment of the Syrian regime’s inability to be the decision maker by directing their messages to those who they consider the real authority in the state.

The Syrian journalist considers that the Syrian people’s tendencies can be summarized with a well-known proverb, “a drowning man will clutch at a straw”, for the simple Syrian people are holding on to any entity that would offer them explanations and tell them how the future will look like, seeking a spark of hope.

“Those interacting with Khmeimim page hope that their voices will reach the decision makers in Syria. It is not a secret that Russians are the real decision makers and they have the upper hand in Syria. However, some people, the Syrian regime’s loyalists in particular, do not want to admit this,” he added.

To look at the account from another angle, the Russian administration found in the “Facebook” page a tool to polish its image in Syria, with a focus on the civil dimension of its presence, which started militarily in 2015. Since then, Russia sought achieving gains in Syria as it signed long-term economic deals and did not stop at the Russian language’s invasion of the Syrian schools.

Appealing to the Syrian people and the tendency to gain people’s acceptance appeared clearly during “al-Taafish” (looting) operations which followed the Syrian regime’s control of southern Damascus, for the Russian military police has arrested a number of Assad’s forces’ troops after they conducted a theft in the town of Babbila and forced them to lie face down on the ground.

The Russian act was met with Assad’s loyalists’ anger and a massive wave of varying reactions, which triggered the Ministry of Defence under the Syrian regime government to disassociate itself from the troops, saying that they are not soldiers and are wanted by the security agencies.

However, the “Central Channel of Khmeimim Military Base” stressed that the Russian forces would not allow violations in the area that have been “liberated” with their participation, and that “members of one of the ground force divisions were arrested for breaking the law in the southern part of the capital Damascus”.

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