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:
Господа, я надеюсь все понимают, что история с использованием химического оружия – это какая-то крайне мутная американская тема?
— Maria Baronova (@ponny1) August 26, 2013
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 я был в трех больницах, мне сказали что там пострадавших нет. если известно каким больницам помогает msf я бы туда съездил
— Sergey Ponomarev (@SergeyPonomarev) August 25, 2013
@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 мы были здесь, если бы атака была такой силы,что погибли 1300 человек,газ дошел бы до нас
— Beroeva (@NiBeroeva) August 25, 2013
@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:
Поговорила с человеком, который живет с семьей с рядом с зоной военных действий.говорит, химического оружия не было.они бы почувствовали.
— Beroeva (@NiBeroeva) August 21, 2013
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:
И не поверите, в Дамаске все спокойно. Люди сидят в кафе, ходят по улица и очень далеки от всемирной истерии
— Beroeva (@NiBeroeva) August 26, 2013
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:
Отели за 300€ в даунтауне сейчас стоят 50-70$, ужин на троих с вином 20$
— Sergey Ponomarev (@SergeyPonomarev) August 11, 2013
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.