29 November 2012, 15:05

Reading the fine print in reports on Russia’s aid to Assad

Reading the fine print in reports on Russia’s aid to Assad

A recent headline in The Independent set a new record of sensationalism – the newspaper promised to tell its readers about “planeloads of cash.” And that cash was obviously up to no good: “Plane loads of cash: Flight records reveal Russia flew 30 tonnes of bank notes to Syrian regime,” reads the full headline.

A reader may picture in his mind billions of dollars or euros finding their way into the bloodied hands of the Syrian dictator from Russia’s secret war chests. The truth is somewhat less melodramatic. The Syrian government, after its old partners in Austria had refused to print money for them because of EU sanctions, turned to Russia. And the Russian Gosznak printing factory did the Austrians’ job, printing for Damascus an undisclosed amount of banknotes that Damascus asked for. This information was first revealed in an interview which the head of Gosznak gave to the official daily Rossyiskaya Gazeta. The author of the story in The Independent, Shaun Walker, read it and set to work. In his interview to the Voice of Russia Walker said that in fact he saw nothing illegal in Russia’s transporting these freshly printed banknotes to Syria.

“Even if they are sending planeloads of dollars to Syria, I don’t think it would be illegal. Russia did not join or allow any UN sanction against Syria, so I don’t think it is illegal. Like I said, Russia prints money for 20 countries, as a person from Gosznak said. And a British company prints money for all sorts of countries, so it is quite a common practice,” Walker said.

In his story, Walker invoked the possibility of not just Syrian banknotes, but also dollars or euros being sent to Syria with the use of Russian planes. “It is unclear whether all the notes aboard the planes were newly minted Syrian currency, or whether there was also some aid in the form of “hard” currency,” Walker wrote. The question arises, however: how is it possible to check these facts? And even if the version about foreign cash is true, if it is not counterfeit, there is nothing illegal about one country sending it to another one. During the 1990s, Russia received plane loads of cash from the United States on a weekly basis, since in the period of inflation businessmen preferred to make transactions in dollars. Americans saw nothing illegal in that, although. Sending “hard” foreign currency to a country that needs it for transactions is almost as routine an operation as sending printed bank notes to a country that ordered them.

However, something that is a common practice for other countries turns into a suspicious practice when Russia is involved – at least, in the eyes of a part of Western media. So, a rather routine procedure of transporting freshly printed material to a client turned into “planeloads of cash” for a dictator.

In his story, Walker relied on a report by some not very famous organization by the name of Pro Publica positioning itself as “the best-funded investigative journalism operation in the United States.” And of course, all of that money has been donated solely for producing “journalism in the public interest.” The organization claims to have uncovered some “flight records” which registered eight flights of planes from Moscow to Damascus with “bank notes” registered as the planes’ cargo. Without specifying what kind of cash it was, Pro Publica quotes some anonymous “US officials” who say that “evidence of monetary assistance, like military cooperation, point to a pattern of Russian support for Assad that extends from concrete aid to protecting Syria from U.N. sanctions.” 

The problem is that in Pro Publica’s story “evidence of monetary assistance” is not yet found, but it is presented as a proven fact, with all ensuing implications for Russia’s reputation. If Russia’s minting company did for Syria what Austrian companies had been doing before – does it mean that Russia (or Austria in the past) provides Syria with financial assistance? No, it doesn’t, but the tone and the choice of words of the story suggests otherwise. And please note how masterly the reference to the presumed “military cooperation” is incorporated into the quote of the anonymous “US officials.” The proof of such cooperation is nowhere to be found in Pro Publica’s story, but a reader is led to imply Moscow’s “unholy alliance” with Damascus and subsequent arms’ and cash supplies are proven beyond doubt. Later references to “financing Assad’s war machine” make the line between printing bank notes on a foreign government’s order and supplying that government with “blood money” to buy weapons more and more blurred. And the reader gradually forgets that he is dealing with beliefs, not facts here. Obviously, these beliefs are supposed to be in a reader’s best “interest”, as Pro Publica’s logo suggests.

Pro Publica never disclosed where it “obtained” the so called “records of overflight requests” for Russian flights with Syrian destinations. It also never specified how it obtained information on the nature of the cargo and the amount of presumably transported cash. And The Independent’s Shaun Walker has little light to shed on the origins of this information.

“The [Pro Publica’s article] says they confirmed the flights took place through international plane tracking services and traffic control recordings. I don’t know how they did this, but they seemed to be a serious enough organization. So, I kind of took their word. I didn’t know about [Pro Publica] before, but the editor was interested in the story so I looked them up and saw who they were. And they were run by some former Wall Street Journal’s managing editor. So, I thought they were not a complete joke of an organization,” Walker said.

In fact, The Independent’s article mentioned Russia’s denial of its military assistance to Assad now, but it was done “in a fine print,” closer to the end of the story. The words about “plane loads of cash” were printed in much bigger letters.

The Independent’s article also suggested the “tracked” planes could carry some “real hard currency” for Assad, i.e. real dollars and euros. Russian experts, whom VoR interviewed on the matter, expressed doubt as to Moscow’s readiness to go to such lengths in saving an obviously weakened and volatile Syrian government. “I am not sure Russia is ready to pump money into a government which may soon fall,” said Nikolai Surkov, an expert on Middle East at Nezavisimaya Gazeta. However, Surkov noted, the fact that the Syrian government had held out that long, is a major irritant for a lot of Western media. So, the only way to avoid embarrassment for them is to blame presumed Russia’s support for Assad’s longevity. Which is what Pro Publica is doing – in a somewhat crude way. More similar stories are on their way. Today, the American magazine Time is already publishing a story about those same Russian jets transporting repaired Russian helicopter gunships to Damascus – quoting the same Pro Publica’s sources. And of course Time’s author Simon Shuster knows for sure that the Russian ship Alaed, prevented by the British from making a trip to Syria in summer this year, was transporting helicopters too.

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