RUSSIA - SYRIA

Debunked: Russian soldier on crusade in Syria

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In the photo, a Russian soldier sits on top of a tank, brandishing a Russian Orthodox cross. The landscape behind the lone warrior looks like a desert and both Russian and Arabic-language social media users have called this photo proof that Russian troops have a ground presence in Syria.

When the spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church called the Russian intervention in Syria a ‘holy war’, it provoked a strong reaction from the Muslim world. Some influential Saudi clerics even called for a jihadist response to this ‘Christian Orthodox Crusade against Islam’. The fact that social media users are claiming that this photo portrays Russian soldiers waging holy war in Syria has added fuel to the fire.

One Twitter user, for example, wrote this caption for the photo: ‘[This is] one of the Russian soldiers who are travelling from Aleppo along the road near Khanasser [a village south of Aleppo]. He’s brandishing a cross, a sign of defiance against the Muslims."

Russians shared this image on the social network VKontakte, the Russian equivalent to Facebook.

‘Russians in Syria’, this post says.

"Damascus!", one Twitter user wrote.

The Observers Team located the person who took the original photo by searching the Vkontakte network. Nikita Stepanov is an Orthodox priest and a Russian soldier. He first posted this image on October 1, 2015. When we contacted him by email, he said that he’s the soldier in the photo. He said it was taken last August during routine military exercises in the southern Russian region of Astrakhan.

Below is another photo of Nikita Stepanov, taken during the same military exercises. The Astrakhan region, located near the Caspian Sea, has a semi-arid climate, which means that its landscape does resemble certain regions in Syria.

Russia is a faithful ally of the Syrian regime. Since last September, they have led an intense campaign, bombing both positions held by the Islamic State group and by opposition groups supported by the US and Europe. President Vladimir Putin has maintained on several occasions, however, that Russia is not planning to deploy troops to fight alongside Assad’s soldiers on the ground in Syria.