SYRIA

Debunked: 'Obama is an idiot' on a Russian runway in Syria?

Russian airplanes on the runway of Latakia airport in Syria. The insult “Obama is an idiot” was added to the photo.
Russian airplanes on the runway of Latakia airport in Syria. The insult “Obama is an idiot” was added to the photo.

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A satellite image has taken social media networks by storm after it appeared to show 'Obama is an idiot' scrawled in Russian on a runway in Syria. The graffiti was said to be the work of Russian military personnel at a Latakia airbase that hosts several warplanes from Moscow. But is it real?

Although the photo isn't dated, it was uploaded on Tuesday night to the Facebook and VK accounts - VK is Russia's main social media network - of Igor Korochenko. As a former soldier-turned-editor of a magazine titled 'Defence of the Nation', Korochenko is known for being favourable to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What's certain is that the planes visible on the tarmac at the Latakia airbase are indeed Russian. A website that specialises in verifying images from war zones - Belling Cat - published a satellite photo showing the same airbase, but taken on September 20. The website identifies two types of planes that appear in the photo: Su-30 and Su-25, two jets that belong to Russia's arsenal of warplanes.

The photo proves that on September 20 Russian planes were present at the airbase in Latakia. Putting these images side-by-side leaves little room for doubt. By comparing details including the number and location of the white bars and the objects shown alongside the runway, the planes and the landing strip appear to be identical in this photo and the image with the anti-Obama graffiti.

Same angle, same composition

But even if the Russian planes were indeed present on the runway, it's unlikely that the insult ever was. France 24's Observers have found a photo that's identical to the infamous image that took social media by storm - except this time, without the anti-Obama scrawl. Taken on September 21, the angle is the same, as well as the number, appearance and placement of the planes. In particular, both photos show the same plane misaligned with other jets on the tarmac. This photo was taken by the same satellite (an Airbus Defence satellite) that took the September 20 image published by Belling Cat.

It's impossible to determine exactly when the photo with the insult was taken, nor which satellite took it. While it is possible that over the space of a few days neither the jets nor anything else shown in the photo moved, it is extremely unlikely that a satellite would take a matching photo twice from the exact same perspective. Consequently, the photo showing an insult aimed at the US president was more than likely modified using photo editing software. In a nutshell, it's the same image that was taken on September 21, which was then altered to include the Russian slur.

Context

Although Russia remains a staunch supporter of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it hasn't officially admitted to bolstering its ally in Damascus with armed reinforcements. But since early September, observers have noticed an increase in Russian ship movements in the Mediterranean Sea. It's no secret that Moscow owns a key naval base in Tartus on the Syrian coast. Going further still, Washington has even accused the Kremlin of laying the ground for a military operation in Syria. On Monday, an American official insisted that Russian tanks had also been seen at Latakia's airbase.

The phrase "Obama is an idiot" is frequently used in Russia, particularly by media outlets, to criticise the US President. One VK group dedicated to slamming President Obama has even taken the insult as its name.

This fact-checking process was carried out with the help of Malachy Browne, editorial supervisor for the website Reported.ly.