by Anna Borshchevskaya

This article originally appeared in Operational Environment Watch. Click here to read the article in the original publication, along with the accompanying news excerpts.

 In the run-up to the Geneva peace talks on Syria scheduled for early November, mainstream Russian press typically provided brief dry reports on the Syrian conflict, similar to the accompanying excerpt from (Ribbon) from 22 October. The article quotes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stating that he doubted the talks will be attended by “forces representing the Syrian people,” and expressed a decision to run for Syria’s presidency in 2014. The article adds that some members of the Syrian opposition announced they will not participate in the Geneva conference.

Contrast this report with the in-depth and personal article by Yevgeniya Smirnova in Russian Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty) web-site on 17 October. Smirnova observes, “in the Russian information space there is practically no representation of an alternative point of view on the events in Syria.” Her article, nonetheless, is one such point of view.

Smirnova is a lawyer at the well known and widely respected human rights organization Memorial, which focuses on human rights issues in Russia and Russia’s Soviet past. Among Memorial’s board members was award-winning human rights activist Nataliya Estimirova, killed while working on human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Smirnova writes about her experience meeting Syrian refugees, particularly the Free Syrian Army, while visiting the Turkish cities of Atakya and Urfa on the Syrian border. In her article real stories come through, as she provides quotes and observations from her meetings. Her article suggests that, despite allegations that the uprisings in Syria were led by foreign forces—a common assertion made by both the Kremlin and Assad— they were instead led by ordinary Syrians: teachers, engineers, and students. Now in refugee camps, they express concern about “third countries” who are “helping” them. They have no illusions about third counties’ intentions, which have little to do with a desire to help the Syrian people. They are desperate because they want the fighting to end, but no one is coming to their aid.

Some Syrians poignantly ask why the Russian people stay silent in the face of their government’s foreign policy, as Syrians are being killed by Russian weapons. Smirnova, for her part, wonders why the Russian opposition is silent on Russia’s foreign policy. In conclusion, she says, “[i]f the version is correct… that in Syria it was not the people who came out against the regime, and it is done by third forces, that the regime did not commit crimes… why does the government continue to shed blood, to bomb the cities with civilians, torture of prisoners in jails? Why do the crimes continue?”

Had Smirnova’s article been published in the Western press, it would have been one of many stories on the conflict which routinely dissect such themes as the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict, involvement of third countries, and many other angles. The article stands out as far more unique in the Russian-language press, which generally tends to toe the Kremlin’s official pro-Assad line. 

Anna Borshchevskaya is Communications Director at the American Islamic Congress