A senior general in the international fight against ISIS has a pointed warning for Western governments with troops in Iraq and Syria: You’re being played by the Russians.
The Russian and Syrian regimes are mounting “extremely aggressive” information operations, spreading disinformation and distorted narratives on social media in a bid to shape the strategic landscape as the ISIS fight comes to a close, said UK Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, who just finished a year as deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve.
Gedney cited staged photos of Russian soldiers providing humanitarian aid and carefully placed images of Russian President Vladimir Putin alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Entire “military operations [are] being conducted for the sole reason of getting the picture or the footage those people wanted,” he said, and the misleading images are being circulated far more effectively than the American-led coalition can counter them.
“The Russians are really good at this. Better than us,” Gedney said Monday at the annual convention of the Association of the U.S. Army. “We saw a very clever, assiduous information campaign aimed at discrediting the campaign of the coalition. And I would argue [that] in many of our nation’s capitals, we didn’t realize we were being played.”
In the U.S., policymakers are still grappling with the Kremlin’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. Some Democrats have referred to that attack as an “act of war,” while President Donald Trump and some of his allies have characterized it as a hoax.
But the broader concept of information operations—which encompasses everything from cyberattacks to using disinformation for short-term tactical gain on the battlefield to spreading propaganda—is still an unsettled space where non-state and nation-state actors alike are able to use burgeoning technology to gain an edge. Gedney also pointed to ISIS’s ability to broadcast propaganda abroad and locally; overall, he described an “unprecedented” level of information activity surrounding the broader mission.
“In the information domain, our freedom to operate is often constrained, rightly, by higher-level strategic issues,” he said. “But the impact of that certainly during my time in Operation Inherent Resolve was to leave a gaping vacuum in terms of the narrative that made it easy for our adversaries to fill it with theirs.”
The U.S. government broadly has struggled to counter Russian disinformation; the office in the State Department tasked with fighting propaganda and other forms of weaponized disinformation globally reportedly has struggled to gain access to the full budget allocated by Congress in response to the 2016 election.
“This is not a battle that can be fought by public affairs writing lines to tape,” Gedney said. “It’s got to be be operationalized down into a genuine multi-domain battle.”