Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Russian Media’s Take on President Trump’s Withdrawal of Troops from Syria
The Russian Media’s Take on President Trump’s Withdrawal of Troops from Syria

The Russian Media’s Take on President Trump’s Withdrawal of Troops from Syria

February 18, 2020

Post by Cristina Goerdt

As reported in FIE 2020’s second analysis, Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik News typically discuss President Donald Trump the candidate and Trump the foreign policy decision-maker in starkly different terms: the former positively and the latter negatively. However, following Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria in October of last year, Russian media went in a different direction, publishing negative content painting Trump as both an ineffective head of state and candidate for reelection.

On the Syrian issue, RT and Sputnik construct unfavorable narratives riddled with declarations of hypocrisy and malintent by Trump, consistently striving to depict the president as a chaotic leader pushing his own interests abroad and America an unreliable ally in the Middle East. Whatever the reason, negative mentions of Trump and his Syria policy arise in wide-ranging contexts, including the following talking points and relevant examples:

  • Trump’s inability to craft consistent Middle East policy 
    • In this article, Sputnik attacks Trump’s ability to craft constructive policy in the Middle East, making broad claims about the U.S.’s role before settling in to direct criticism of Trump. This shift in emphasis, which occurs within the first five paragraphs of the article, quietly redirects the reader’s emotions to Trump’s alleged failures. The general tone of the article paints Trump as ineffective given his lack of experience, misunderstanding of political power and inability to balance competing demands.
  • U.S. reliability toward allies 
    • A story published on RT paints Trump as having abandoned the Kurds for reasons that are both controversial and sensationalist in their coverage. The article, entitled in part “Ditch the Kurds, grab the oil?,” calls into question the reliability of U.S. alliances by casting Trump’s comments to the American press as “sympathetic” to the Turkish and paying no mind to the violence experienced by “the beleaguered Kurds.” 
    • This Sputnik article cites an analyst who claims, “as usual, an impulsive Trump has sent shockwaves through the US foreign policy establishment by announcing a major change in the US policy vis-a-vis Syria” and characterizes Trump’s announcement to withdraw only some troops as a hypocritical reversal.
  • Allegations of pushing for regime change
    • In one op-ed published on Sputnik, the author claims that the Syrian civil war is “illegally sponsored by Washington as covert regime-change aggression.” The story also argues the U.S. is unreliable, writing that “the ethnic Kurdish people have been habitually abused and shafted over many decades for US imperialist interests.” While the opinion piece does emphasize overall U.S. policy—making several references to “Washington”—it also hones in on Trump’s unique role in the conflict. The article portrays Trump as a hypocrite, arguing, “he [Trump] claims he is not betraying them. But what else does it look like?” 
  • Middle East conflict as part of the 2020 campaigning 
    • Lastly, the Russian press criticizes Trump as a presidential candidate through its coverage of Trump’s Syria policy. An op-ed published by Sputnik on October 22 accuses Trump of “trite electioneering” and executing a dishonest about-face on Middle Eastern policy in order to secure reelection. Similar to narratives from previous articles, Trump is discussed as a political outsider and a leader who aims to elevate American capitalism through dishonest means. 
    • Another Sputnik article lambasts Trump through the criticism of Turkish President Erdogan, who accuses Trump of fostering instability in the region by threatening sanctions on Turkey. “Ankara will not yield to threats,” the article’s lede states boldly, before outlining Trump’s Twitter warning that he may “obliterate” the Turkish economy in the name of fulfilling an election promise to pull troops out of the Middle East. 
  • Unpopular move in America according to Trump allies and opponents 
    • In an October 7 article, RT notes that former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who is rarely mentioned favorably, is opposed to the President’s new policy, placing her in the same camp as pro-Trump South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who also strongly opposed the move. This illustrates how unpopular Trump’s decision was across the political spectrum.