Syria: How Russia and the Chemical Attack Deniers Infiltrated the Mainstream

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A White Helmets rescuer carries a child away from scene of sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria, April 4, 2017

“Through respectable publications, conspiracy theories about Syria acquire broader legitimacy, corroding the factual basis of public discourse.”


Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat writes for Newsweek:


Since the earliest reports of chemical weapon use in the Syrian conflict, a growing community of denialists has emerged, comprising online commentators, bloggers, pro–Bashar al-Assad activists and fringe websites.

This in itself is not usual. From 9/11 to the Las Vegas mass shooting, online communities have coalesced around opinions and theories about what “really happened.”

What is unusual about this community is how their views are beginning to creep into mainstream discourse about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and how that is being used to undermine investigations that attempt to establish the facts surrounding these crimes.

See also Syria: How Newsweek Fell Prey to Chemical Weapons Disinformation

The Russian government has played a key role in amplifying these theories to undermine genuine investigative work. Their reaction to the sarin attacks of August 21, 2013 that killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus was to embrace various (often contradictory) conspiracy theories from fringe figures absolving the Syrian regime of responsibility.

On August 23, 2013, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich stated, “On the Internet, in particular, reports are circulating that news of the incident carrying accusations against government troops was published several hours before the so-called attack. So this was a pre-planned action.”

This assertion was based on the claim from various pro-government sites that the YouTube videos of the attack had time stamps from August 20, 2013. This was, in fact, a result of the display date being based on the local server time from the US West Coast, which meant that a video uploaded in the early morning in Syria would carry a time stamp that was nine hours ahead of California.

Despite this simple explanation, the allegation persisted. It was even repeated by Russia’s Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov a few days later.

But as this conspiracy theory became untenable, the Russian government turned to another, courtesy of the Syria-based Mother Superior Agnes Mariam de la Croix. She claimed that the attacks had been staged, and that the victims were in fact kidnapped Alawites from pro-government areas, killed as part of the deception.

This claim quickly collapsed as it failed to substantiate its claim. Meanwhile, an investigation by Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, found that among other problems with her claims, the claim was dismissed even by families of abducted Alawites. All the same: Lavrov promoted this claim, too.

Demonizing the White Helmets and the Inspectors

But it is not enough to present alternative theories. One of the key weapons in the chemical weapon denialist arsenal is discrediting and demonizing individuals and organizations who witness and document events on the ground, including chemical weapon attacks. Whatever their disposition, they end up being branded as belonging to or being in cahoots with Al-Qa’eda or the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

With access to opposition-held areas severely restricted, these groups and individuals are usually the only source of information in the aftermath of chemical attacks. Labeling them terrorists is a convenient way for the chemical truthers to dismiss their testimony.

Chief among these targets are the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, and their key supporter Mayday Rescue. As the only organized rescue service in many opposition-held areas, information collected by the White Helmets, often with body cameras worn by rescuers, has become an important source of information about the situation on the ground in Syria. In recent years, they have played a key role in documenting chemical attacks and passing information onto the OPCW and other investigators.

At the center of the effort to discredit the White Helmets is Vanessa Beeley, a person plucked from obscurity by Russian State media. She has emerged as a vocal and persistent critic of the White Helmets and their supporters, and she is featured heavily on international Russian state-funded news such as Russian Today and Sputnik. Beeley, who has described the White Helmets as “ legitimate targets,” recently elaborated her views:

The White Helmets franchise is a terrifying extension of soft power infiltration deep inside target nations, exploiting trust, vulnerability and poverty with the “First Responder” construct that “everyone trusts” as James Le Mesurier [Mayday Rescue’s Founder] so clearly stated in a recent interview in Brazil.

This pseudo-humanitarian, NATO state-sanctioned fist will be used to crush many more nations in the future if it is not stopped in Syria. Just as Syria has contained the terrorist fire within its borders, so has it exposed the White Helmets as the terrorist alter ego, but for how long will both be contained?

Terrorism is fanning out into Europe via the EU funded Turkish exit routes, the White Helmets are also establishing themselves further afield, in Venezuela, Malaysia, the Philippines to name a few. Terrorism and the White Helmets march in lock-step and can only be stopped by confronting the cancerous cultures in which they are cultivated — US Necolonialism, British Imperialism, EU Globalism, Gulf State Extremism & Israeli Parasitism.

Russia promotes Beeley’s views (and those like hers) on Russian State-funded media. But, more consequently, it also uses her views in more august fora.

After the April 4, 2017, sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Russian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Peter Illichev submitted a presentation by Beeley, “The White Helmets – Fact or Fiction”, to the U.N. General Assembly.

In the debate that followed the publication of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) report that blamed the Syrian government for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Russia’s deputy representative to the U.N. Vladimir Safronov told the security council:

All conclusions of their work were based on indirect testimonies, most of which was provided by the opposition and by NGOs that have no credibility, such as the White Helmets which are closely associated with Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists.

Demonizing those organizations who are best placed to gather information on chemical attacks and other war crimes has become a key strategy of chemical weapon truthers and denialists in their attempts to undermine the work of investigative bodies, from NGOs to OPCW-UN JIM.

The False Claims in the Mainstream

While chemical attack denialism has often been relegated to fringe and Russian State media, there have been occasions where more mainstream voices and media organizations have promoted claims about chemical attacks that are riddled with inaccuracies.

Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh has become particularly notorious for his work on chemical attacks in Syria, first on the August 2013 sarin attacks in Damascus, then the sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017.

In articles for the London Review of Books, Hersh laid out a narrative where the sarin attacks in Damascus were a carefully orchestrated false-flag attack by rebels using Turkish help.

The problem was that Hersh’s story was full of holes, inaccuracies, and fanciful claims with no evidence to support them. Hersh only spoke about “homemade” rockets, when some of those used were Soviet-era M14 140mm artillery rockets.

He had no explanation for the massive volume of sarin used, requiring an expensive and complex chemical process and supply chain. Nor could he explain the presence of rockets known to be unique to Syrian government forces used in the attack.

After the Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack in 2017, Hersh returned with his latest chemical weapon investigation, this time published in Germany’s Die Welt. In the article (“Trump‘s Red Line”), Hersh claimed that Russia had provided the regime with a precision bomb to target a terrorist meeting, but the bomb also incinerated a room full of cleaning supplies, which created a toxic cloud resulting in the massive number of casualties.

As the OPCW-UN JIM report into the attack showed, this was a complete fantasy that not even the Syrians and Russians supported. Even though the body set up to investigate chemical attack in Syria showed Hersh’s scenario was complete fiction, Welt has never issued a correction, and Hersh’s response to the criticism was that he had “learned just to write what I know, and move on”.

The problem with these stories in respectable publications is the majority of readers are understandably not up to date on the minutiae of the conflict, which means these stories make a great deal of impact, even though they are demonstrably wrong.

Through respectable publications, conspiracy theories acquire broader legitimacy, corroding the factual basis of public discourse. When facts and opinions are put on equal footing, it destroys the very basis of informed judgment. It also suggests that people on the ground are lying, the evidence cited by the OPCW-UN JIM is fake, and that Western governments are actively participating in a conspiracy against Bashar al-Assad, with all the people opposing him as their accomplices.

Newsweek itself recently published an opinion piece that is symptomatic of this trend. In “Now Mattis Admits There Was No Evidence Assad Used Poison Gas on His People”, Ian Wilkie claims that Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated there was “no evidence” the Syrian government used sarin, stating that “Mattis offered no temporal qualifications, which means that both the 2017 event in Khan Sheikhoun and the 2013 tragedy in Ghouta are unsolved cases in the eyes of the Defense Department and Defense Intelligence Agency”.

Seemingly a damning statement, but one taken out of context, with Mattis’s full remarks referring to the 2013 and 2017 attacks:

Q: Just make sure I heard you correctly, you’re saying you think it’s likely they have used it and you’re looking for the evidence? Is that what you said?

SEC. MATTIS: That’s — we think that they did not carry out what they said they would do back when — in the previous administration, when they were caught using it. Obviously they didn’t, cause they used it again during our administration.

And that gives us a lot of reason to suspect them. And now we have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it’s been used.

We do not have evidence of it. But we’re not refuting them; we’re looking for evidence of it. Since clearly we are using — we are dealing with the Assad regime that has used denial and deceit to hide their outlaw actions, okay?

Wilkie takes his misrepresentation of Mattis’s statement as confirmation that the theories surrounding 2013 and 2017 attacks claiming the Syrian government wasn’t responsible were correct. In turn, the community of chemical weapon denialists and truthers has spread the Newsweek piece, citing it as proof that they were right all along.

Presenting these views in mainstream publications, be it the London Review of Books, Welt or Newsweek, is not presenting another perspective or encouraging debate. It is promoting the idea that facts are no longer sacred; truth is a matter of opinion; official bodies set up to investigate these incidents are compromised; victims are performers; and rescuers are belligerents.

This is a dangerous, Orwellian inversion of reality. This is what Russia wants, and this is what Assad wants, as it lets the perpetrators escape justice, and leaves the victims to rot.

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24 COMMENTS

    • Man, erdogans ottoman slap comment is quite the star in the comedy media today. Even women were laughing ( I know you will appreciate the sexist part of that statement )

      • A great video for invader and occupier Erdochicken to see. He is making Afrin another West Bank with his Ottoman imperialism. And then he dares to criticize the Israelis? It appears the ATGMs used by YPG is of a different class than the WWII era wire guided missiles we see used by Syrian rebels against the SAA. I hope some of the Kurd’s friends now supply them with Manpads to take out the helicopters and bombers in the sky – if they have not already done that. Cheap nationalism, at the cost of minorities, is the dominant Turkish ideology to keep the sheep in line at the AKP voting booths. How stupid can a nation get? Too scared and chicken to take on Assad or Iran or Russia – so he picks on the Kurds of Syria that have adopted a democratic and pluralistic constitution! Killing thousands of innocent people, and destroying democracy in Turkey, all so that he gets re-elected for life to become the Caliph of the Middle East. Meanwhile Turkey’s economy is tanking, and inflation approaching 50% a year, making all Turks including Meokur so much poorer. Soon Meokur must sell his house in order to afford a vacation in the west.

        • “so he picks on the Kurds of Syria that have adopted a democratic and pluralistic constitution”

          Yeah sure, hard-core ojalanist death-cult members have now turned into paladins of justice and democracy…

          • As long as they need the US, they have to play by the rules. Without the US, YPG will be obliterated by Assad and Erdodog. So the jury is still out and will be out for a long time …

    • So Iran is now supplying arms to the Great Satan and its traditional enemy the US, and in Syria? One day you blast the US for colonialism in the Middle East and sanctions against Iran, and the next day you claim Iran and US are in some kind of an alliance. I love the Hollywood style epic music that accompanies this “government of Turkey” production. How stupid must the average Turk be to get influenced by such propaganda? BTW, there is no sign of a bomb or missile hitting the garage containing the gun. It seems to be far more plausible that the place exploded due to mishandling of ammunition inside the garage.

      • “So Iran is now supplying arms to the Great Satan and its traditional enemy the US, and in Syria? ”

        Not the US, they are supplying the US stooges.

        “One day you blast the US for colonialism in the Middle East and sanctions against Iran, and the next day you claim Iran and US are in some kind of an alliance.”

        LOL, life of a US terror apologist must be so hard nowadays. I’m not claiming everything is obvious in the video.

        “BTW, there is no sign of a bomb or missile hitting the garage containing the gun. It seems to be far more plausible that the place exploded due to mishandling of ammunition inside the garage.”

        LOL, yeah, that must be the case. Their IQ level is probably on par with their supporters here.

        And the dead terrorists in those videos must have committed mass suicide due to boredom. 😀

  1. “…often with body cams worn by the rescuers…”?

    There has not been a single instance where the White Helmets have produced videos of the immediate search and rescue following these alleged chemical weapons attacks – NOT A SINGLE ONE. Yes we’ve seen videos of hosing down and other bizarre (non) medical procedures, but none of the immediate aftermath and alleged chaos.

    This is despite some of the Khan Sheikhoun first ‘responders’ testifying that they were warned of a chemical attack and others who said that they had time to go back to their bases to collect protective gear – not one of them thought to pick up one of their body cams?

    That’s simply not credible. They knew how devastating that footage would be, but no one bothered to film it.

    Why do you think that was Mr Higgins?

    • Adrian,

      There are multiple images of the search and rescue after these attacks — your claim, chasing a conspiracy theory, is false.

      Scott

        • When people are gasping for breath and going into neurotoxic convulsions, I would think they would be unable to take selfies of themselves and their families. The whole place is so toxic that it is impossible to enter the aftermath scene and remain alive. Even handling people exposed to sarin often results in the death of the rescuer. Obviously you are quite unaware of the effects of sarin.

          • I’m well aware of the symptoms of Sarin (at least as described by the OPCW and HRW and elsewhere). The fact remains that the White Helmets had the opportunity to film all of this – wearing their chemical protection suits too if you believe their witness testimonies – but chose not to. What they actually chose to do (according to the JIM) was to film themselves taking environmental samples in wholly inappropriate manners and testing for sarin with a device that couldn’t possibly detect it.

            As for Prof Lucas’s assertion that I’m a conspiracy theorist – what he, and the Joint Investigatory Mechanism (JIM) have to explain is how a plane that did not get closer than 5km to the town (as proved by the not-disputed US radar tracks) could possibly drop a series of bombs that could hit the alleged bomb sites.

            The JIM say that this ‘could’ be possible ‘depending’ on the altitude of the plane, but pathetically failed to take any expert advice on precisely what altitudes and speeds would be necessary. The alleged bombs must have been dropped from further than 5km as the plane would still have had to travel some distance to turn away after release – that’s assuming that the bomb didn’t magically veer sideways.

            The JIM also give great prominence to one of their experts who says that the alleged bomb crater was likely caused by a chemical bomb falling from between 4,000 and 10,000m. However, the UN Commission of Inquiry (CoI) state that numerous witnesses saw the plane flying low over the town – low enough to identify it as a specifically Syrian model. The UN Fact Finding Mission (FFM) said witnesses were able to hear the swoosh of the plane as it attacked – from 5,000m away and at least 4,000m altitude? That is simply impossible. These are exactly the same witnesses that the JIM used to prove the timing of the event and the number and location of the alleged victims – if they cannot be believed then the whole (ludicrous) JIM story simply falls apart.

            • 1. In a situation where you are trying to stabilize victims and transport them for treatment, filming is not necessarily the highest priority.

              2. The Su-22 warplane could well have closer than 5 km to the site of impact — you’re misreading the cited evidence. Perhaps more importantly, it was tracked on the day.

              3. You’re also confusing the altitudes in the witness accounts and in the JIM report.

              • 1. Possibly, but this is the trained-and-funded White Helmets we’re talking about. They knew the significance of the footage, have bodycams to hand, but still decided not to take any to the scene. Actually that’s not entirely true – at least if you believe the account of one White Helmet Annas Al-Diab who said he was actually photographing the carnage – what’s happened to his pictures?

                http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/04/idlib-gruesome-170405115057834.html

                According to HRW’s (laughable) ‘Death By Chemicals’ report ‘Journalist’ Al-Hussain (who videod the plumes) attended the scene, but inexplicably forgot to take his camera with him too.

                2. I’m not sure what other tracking your talking about, but the JIM radar analysis states “The aircraft was depicted as flying in a circular loop pattern in the vicinity of Kafr Zayta and north-east of Khan Shaykhun. The map indicated that the closest to Khan Shaykhun that the aircraft had flown had been approximately 5 km away. ” (p24 ,para 28). If the US, France or anyone else had more accurate or more incriminatory radar tracks then they surely would have provided them.

                3. I’m pointing out that these sources of ‘evidence’ are contradictory and that the JIM did nothing to join-the-dots between then. They accept the story that the crater was likely caused by an unguided bomb dropped from an altitude of over two and a half miles, but then decided not to test this against their already collected witness statements or the radar tracks provided to them.

              • We have posted some of the photographs — there’s no conspiracy here

                You will notice that word approximately re distance and, no, not all intell would have been given to JIM, at least for publication.

                The sources are not contradictory. As with any event, there may be differences in recollection. But that’s what trained inspectors do: they work with all sources to establish the most likely occurrence.

              • We’ll never know how much intel the JIM were privy to, but they haven’t published any that was not already in the public domain.

                You’re right that trained investigators should “work with all sources to establish the most likely occurrence”, but this presupposes that they treat them fairly and independently.

                Yes the 5km distance was ‘approximate’ , but the JIM still failed to ask their numerous experts to make a judgement even on this approximate information.

                There are just too many other indications that the JIM patently did not properly test alternative explanations for their ‘confidence’ to be taken seriously. Although they say they considered eight scenarios, they only report on two.

                The staged and exaggerated massacre is never seriously considered. Evidence that directly pointed toward this – the videos of fake medical procedures and fake environmental testing, the systematically incorrect hospital admission records, the wind-direction from videos demonstrably in 180 degrees to that reported by the alleged witnesses, the disappearing bomb fragments, the evidence that the crater was tampered with, the contaminated medical samples and the numerous completely sarin-free ‘victims’ are simply dismissed as ‘discrepancies’ or not considered at all.

              • I understand that, in the scenarios constructed in your head, no amount of evidence and analysis presented by the JIM will be sufficient.

                But the JIM report does take into account all the challenges you attempt to put (most of which are distortions in this comment and have been and can again be dismissed, if/when there is time).

                The Assad regime used sarin on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017. But of course, it will never be in the interests of the Assad regime, Russia, or true believers in an alternative — any alternative — to the actual event to acknowledge this.

                So be it.

            • Wrong Adrian Kent. There is no reason for the plane to turn around after dropping sarin bomb(s). The rebels do not have anti-aircraft weapons.

  2. As a matter of fact NONE of the issues I wrote of were addressed by the JIM in any meaningful way. The bizarre medical treatments – including people just being left to die – and video evidence of samples being taken in completely inappropriate manners were noted, but no inferences were drawn from this. It’s not hard to check this against your claim of my ‘distortion’ – the info is in successive paragraphs (p.30. 73-75). .

    The ‘impossible’ medical samples – which the JIM noted in one sample – was put down to cross-contamination (p31, 78) – in fact the FFM identified this in TWO samples – that this could have resulted from deliberate tampering was not mentioned.
    As far as the medical timings the JIM are even more explicit, stating “The Mechanism did not investigate those discrepancies and cannot determine whether they are linked to any possible staging scenario or are the result of poor record-keeping in chaotic conditions.” That’s simply pathetic – evidence that could blow a hole in their confident findings is simply not investigated – the ‘inconsistencies’ were there in not just one or two, but SEVEN different facilities (and all in the same direction too) (p31, 77).

    That the movement of the smoke plumes might be a useful clue as to the local air-movements did not occur to the JIM at all. Nor were they at all concerned to find out what actually killed the poor individuals who showed no sign of sarin exposure either.

    I completely reject your assertion that there’s no level of evidence that the JIM could provide that would convince me of Assad’s guilt in this, but that evidence that the JIM have provided falls a very long way short of what a reasonable person should find conclusive.

    The accusation that there’s no level of evidence that would cause me to accept the JIM’s account can, of course, be turned around – one wonders what it would take to convince you that their ‘confidence’ was unfounded? If the video evidence of samples not being taken properly, the video evidence of the wind in the wrong direction, the video evidence of people being left to die, the video evidence of significant post-‘rescue’ injuries, the hospital records, the US radar traces, the lack of any consensus in the JIM’s experts on the cause of the alleged crater, the fact that all the early reports were of a chlorine attack, the evidence that crater may have been tampered with, the lack of chain of custody for pretty much everything from an area too dangerous for their investigators to attend (and on and on) is not sufficient, it’s hard to imagine what would convince you.

    • The white helmets don]t have and don’t carry specialized sarin protection suits everywhere they go. There are 1,000 towns and villages in Idlib, FYI. Asking them to put on a specialized suit they don’t have and go and film people while the sarin is raining is simply stupid beyond redemption. Obviously you have no idea what you talk about as there is no such thing as sarin suits in their possession, and the laboratory suits are too expensive for these destitutes.

      A plane flying at 4 km altitude can easily drop a finned bomb that will travel 5 km in the horizontal direction. A plane at 4 km altitude (13,000 feet) can travel 60 km, if it turns its engine off.

      And no, the bomb was not targeting a specific location. It was sufficient to drop it on any residential neighborhood. No aiming was required. Again, you seem to be totally out of your depth on this matter.

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