World·CBC in Syria

A Russian-guided tour of Syria's second war

There are two wars in Syria: a brutal, five-year-old civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and an information war, effectively managed by Russia. Susan Ormiston reports from Syria.

Russia is leading the information battle in the war-torn country

A Syrian father and his son celebrate the liberation and peace agreement in their village of Kokab. It was only recently that Syrian government forces took back the village from warring rebel factions. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

There are two wars in Syria: a brutal, five-year-old civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and an information war, effectively managed by Russia.

This week more than 100 journalists, photographers and videographers — guests of the Russian Ministry of Defence — landed at the Russian airbase near the coastal city of Latakia in western Syria.

This latest media tour is a showcase for Russia, which has been wielding its air power in the Syrian conflict. President Vladimir Putin may have announced a pullout of most Russian troops and aircraft two months ago, but the Khmeimim airbase remains in full operation.

During a visit Wednesday, we saw half a dozen fighter jets and bombers scream away. We were told they were off to bomb targets in Raqqa and Iraq. Over the past four days, Russian bombers completed 80 sorties.

Maj.-Gen.  Igor Konashenko said Russia did pull out 30 aircraft from Syria, but he wouldn't divulge from a force of how many, or whether others were added.

One of many fighter jets still flying sorties from the Russian military base in Syria. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst in Moscow, says there was no real withdrawal.

"Some of the attack planes, yes, were flown back to Russia, others were flown back to replace them; new advance helicopters, gunships," he said.

"But everything else stayed. The ground crews mostly, the logistics, the stockpiles of weapons. So that was mostly a diversional PR move."

At Russia’s military base in Syria, Russian troops practise for the big Victory Day celebration on May 9. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

The media tour began Wednesday with a parade. Hundreds of troops marched down the tarmac followed by tanks in a rehearsal for Victory Day on May 9, Russia's annual military show. We were given a tour of the temporary barracks and exercise grounds, where airmen played volleyball, basketball and lifted weights.

Russia's SU24 and 34s sped off and landed for the cameras. Most of their recent sorties have been closer to Aleppo, where a temporary ceasefire never really got off the ground under heavy bombardment and shelling. Efforts to find a longstanding diplomatic truce have repeatedly failed.

Russia has helped Syrian forces reclaim territory both from ISIS and Syrian opposition groups. In doing so, it has secured for itself a vital diplomatic role as "persuader," called on by the West to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in one way or another.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's battered poster has re-emerged in the village of Kokab. Jabhat al-Nusra was pushed out of the village some months ago with the help of Russian airstrikes, villagers say. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

But Russia has come under intense criticism for its bombing campaigns. It's been accused of targeting opposition rebels as well as the terrorist groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front. At the base Wednesday, Konashenko denied reports Russian bombs destroyed a hospital in Aleppo on April 27.

"As soon as the information was spread that this hospital was attacked we confirmed that Russian planes were not working in that area, but we went even further to investigate," he said, showing satellite photographs he claims prove damage to the hospital was basically unchanged since October.

If truth is the first casualty of war, the Syrian civil war has provided many examples.

Many young Syrians have known nothing but war. These children's village, Kokab, is now under Syrian government control after Syrian forces pushed back the Nusra Front with the help of Russian air power. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

The media tour continued to Kokab, near Hama, where villagers have returned to live in their homes. On the way, our convoy of five tourist buses escorted by Russian armoured vehicles passed kilometre after kilometre of abandoned buildings, homes and gas stations.

A celebration was underway just in time for our arrival in Kokab. Pictures of Assad were mounted everywhere and villagers quickly praised the support of Russian airstrikes. Hundreds of women lined up to receive food handed out in plastic bags sporting both the Syrian and Russian flags.

The village was liberated from the Nusra Front – most people seemed to agree on that. But while some people said that was two years ago, and others said two months ago, there was general agreement Russian air power had helped push the terror group back. Its front lines are now 20 kilometres away.

Absent from this tour, not surprisingly, were any areas that had recently seen bombs or fighting. Not Aleppo, where the war rages and a temporary truce has again been negotiated. Those scenes aren't part of the Russian playbook for this media tour.

A sniper stands watch over the village of Kokab, where local residents came out to dance and cheer in the streets in hopes of a lasting peace. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.