Fog of Trolls: Pro-Assad Misinformation Over Douma Chemical Attacks

Pro-Assad, pro-Russian activist Vanessa Beeley on Russian State outlet RT (File)

“When you go after the White Helmets, doctors or citizen journalists, it is an attempt to rule out any sources that are incompatible with the pro-Assad Russian authorities”

Jack Barton writes for WikiTribune, with a large contribution from EA:

Since the alleged chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Douma in Syria on April 7′ which provoked military action by the US France, and Britain, multiple theories and narratives have been spread to cast doubt over the entire affair, whether it happened if it did who did it, and more scenarios.

Experts who make it their business to try to independently verify such landmark military events say it has been a challenge to corroborate reports. That uncertainty and the difficulty of obtaining clear data in a war zone have been exploited and misinformation amplified by media and politicians who support the Bashar al-Assad government and have a long record of effective media manipulation.

See also Syria’s Disinformation Activists
Russia’s Helpers — Disinformation and Conspiracy Trolling After Assad’s Latest Chemical Attacks

The western powers used a humanitarian justification for the military action for which they did not seek United Nations Security Council approval — knowing it would be vetoed by Assad’s ally Russia. The attacks targeted suspected chemical weapons stocks and facilities apparently retained after Russia was supposed to have supervised the destruction of all chemical weapons in 2013.

Specialists in disinformation — including those who run independent fact-checking and verification projects, such as EUvsDisinfo — have compared the attempts to obfuscate what happened in the original attack on Douma to elaborate schemes to cloud what happened to former Russian agent Sergey Skripal.

Britain accuses Russia of being behind or creating the conditions for his attempted murder with a nerve agent. Official, quasi-official, and sympathetic Russian media and social media accounts have attempted to sow doubt on the British story suggesting everything from food poisoning to a “false flag” attack by Britain itself.

In the Douma attack Russian state-backed media including RT, Sputnik, and TASS, have promoted alternative theories. Officials have either denied it took place, said it was staged, or said it was perpetrated by allies of Syria’s rebels. Some even suggested Britain had done it to discredit Russia and Syria.

The spreading of extraordinary counter-theories coincided with more measured critics who condemned UK Prime Minister Theresa May, US President Donald Trump, and Emmanuel Macron for acting before it had been proven that a chemical attack took place. Inspectors from the UN-backed Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have yet to arrive at the sites of the attacks, following days of known Russian military activity at the locations.

Reports from witnesses on the ground, as well as open-source analysis by independent groups which have a solid record throughout the 7-year conflict in Syria, have backed the initial claims that chemical weapons were used against civilians holed up in tunnels and buildings in a rebel-held area. The affair only reinforces the difficulty of accurately assessing what goes on in a war zone where independent observers — such as western reporters — have been unable to get independent access for some years.

That has left the door open for theories to be spread by pro-Assad factors and also by those who have a political viewpoint that any western intervention is almost by definition bad.

This is an attempt to assemble some of the different narratives on the attack and the justification for the western military action without giving credence to some of the wilder theories.

What They’ve said

*France’s Emmanuel Macron said his government has proof chemical weapons were used. France released a report into the attack, finding “with a high degree of confidence that the Syrian regime holds responsibility”.

*Russia has said it has evidence that Britain was involved in arranging a “provocation” in Douma. Its embassy in the UK, along with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, argued the entire attack was staged.

*Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia urged the OPCW to establish the truth. The OPCW said on April 16 that Russian and Syrian security forces had not allowed the investigators access to the site of the alleged attack.

*The OPCW has concluded multiple times that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, including in April 2017, when more than 80 people were killed in a rebel-held town.

Sources on the Ground

*The Syrian American Medical Society, a Washington DC-based NGO set up by Syrian-Americans that provides medical relief in several parts of Syria, said it has documented 43 casualties with symptoms consistent with the effects of chlorine poisoning in Douma.

*The Violations Documentation Centre in Syria (VDCS), carried testimonies from doctors who said they had also witnessed the symptoms. (The VDCS is registered in Switzerland but was originally part of a Syrian media NGO shut down by the government. It is a partner of the Open Society Foundations, funded by Hungarian philanthropist George Soros, and the Swiss government.)

*Robert Fisk, a long-term Middle East correspondent for UK newspaper the Independent, is one of the few Western journalists to visit the site. In an article on April 16 he conducted an interview which appeared to cast doubt on whether the attack had actually featured chlorine, but said the doctor he spoke to who raised doubts was not an eyewitness.

See UK Journalist Given Access to Douma to Deny Chemical Attacks

*The World Health Organization has said its partners on the ground treated 500 patients “exhibiting signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals.”

Open-source investigation site Bellingcat — which has a strong track record of getting to the bottom of attacks in Syria and in Ukraine — reported on April 11 that verified video footage showed gas cylinders of a type used in previous chlorine attacks had been used. Bellingcat identified 34 “unique” bodies in verified videos of the aftermath of the attack. The Bellingcat analysis also confirmed two helicopters, similar to those used to drop barrel bombs, flew near the sites at the time.

The Information War Within the War

The Syrian civil war has become “as much a propaganda battle and a presentation as it is a political battle and a military conflict”, Scott Lucas, a Middle East commentator who runs news and analysis site EA Worldview, told WikiTribune.

The propaganda and misinformation in Syria “sharpened” with the 2013 Sarin attacks which were also in the eastern Ghouta area of Damascus, said Lucas, who has been collating and corroborating reports from Syria since the war started in 2011. The Sarin attack was a “test case for the Russians in terms of how they could cause confusion,” he said.

Due to the dangers of reporting in Syria, Western media have had restricted access to the country (Committee to Protect Journalists). Lucas said that makes it particularly necessary to corroborate reports from within Syria.

“There are always ‘fog of war’ incidents that take place,” he said, explaining that reports from citizen journalists sometimes are found to exaggerate numbers of tragedies or include other inaccuracies.

The criticisms by pro-Assad activists are not part of an effort to improve the veracity of reporting though, said Lucas.

“When you go after the White Helmets or you go after doctors or you go after citizen journalists, this is an attempt to rule out any sources that are incompatible with the pro-Assad Russian authorities,” he said.

Smearing the White Helmets

Lucas said the obfuscation about the Douma attack has gained more traction than the alternative narratives about the Skripal poisoning, particularly online, with Western readers. This is based on the long-term propaganda campaign against different groups supported by the West, he said.

The Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, is a volunteer organization providing medical assistance in rebel-held areas. Russia’s foreign ministry and state-backed outlets including TASS accused them of staging the alleged chemical attack in Douma.

See Syria’s White Helmets, the Russia Propaganda Machine, and the “Agitprop” Activists
Smearing Syria’s White Helmets — From the Assadists to the Conspiracy Theorists
Syria Feature: These Are The White Helmets

They are frequently accused of being jihadists with links to Al Qa’eda, or stooges of the U.S. or other Western governments.

In May 2015, the White Helmets issued a statement after some of their members were videoed at the site of an execution. The White Helmets said their members had been at the site as one of their roles is to bury the dead, but the video has been used to attack them as extremists . Similarly, a video of some of their members taking part in the viral “mannequin challenge” trend was cited as proof they stage attacks.

Critics say they are given carte blanche by Western media, due to their links to Western governments, including receiving funding from the US aid agency USAID and the UK Foreign Office .

Lucas said he and many colleagues use reports from the White Helmets, which they are often able to verify from other sources on the ground.

“The [anti-]White Helmets campaign has a resonance on social media, just because it’s been going on for so long,” said Lucas. “Ever since the White Helmets came in as a rescue organization in 2013, to delegitimize them.”

Undermining the White Helmets fits with the Syrian government’s attacks on hospitals, to send a message to the population that if they help the rebels there will be no defense, said Lucas.

Amplified by Social Media

The European Union-backed fact-checking site EUvsDisinfo has found that none of the accusations against the White Helmets are corroborated, and fit with a pattern of Russian disinformation tactics.

Analysts at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, an offshoot of Washington DC think tank Atlantic Council, have analyzed how various unsubstantiated theories and assertions about the White Helmets, and their “staging” of the Douma attack, were carried by Russian and Syrian media, which then re-reported each other’s reporting to spread confusion and uncertainty.

In Douma, pro-Assad media have been backed up by Western bloggers and academics who are skeptical of mainstream media, and the motives of the U.S., French, and UK governments.

The site 21st Century Wire, founded by a former editor of InfoWars, which carries conspiracy theories about subjects such as the Sandy Hook shooting, has repeatedly reported that the White Helmets are linked to Al Qa’eda. The site has also published conspiracy theories about 9/11.

A group of academics, labeled “apologists for Assad” by the Times, formed a Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media. The group has not cast doubt on any specific report from Syria, but says there is “an urgent need for rigorous academic analysis of media reporting of this war, the role that propaganda has played in terms of shaping perceptions of the conflict”.

The group has so far only published one piece of work, outlining doubts over the UK’s stance that novichok – the nerve agent used against former Russian spy Sergey Skripal – probably originated in Russia. Having appeared to give credibility to give credibility to Russian doubts about the Western narrative on Syria, the academics immediately felt the need to give credibility to Russian disinformation in Salisbury, said Lucas.

The reports from Russian and Syrian officials and media are unsupported, but are a logical next step after reports of a chemical weapons attack, said Lucas.

“There had to be disinformation spread after this [attack] to prevent the type of international response the Russians don’t want,” he said.

Related Posts

Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.


  1. Pink Floyd legend Roger Waters condemns Syrian air strikes and denounces White Helmets as ‘a fake organisation creating propaganda for jihadists’ in front of cheering Spanish fans </b

    Read more:

    Emails show the White Helmets, backed by a Saudi billionaire, tried to recruit Roger Waters

  2. Good Lord, without a counter-narrative you have a single point of view. BBC/CNN are just as guilty as RT for pushing nationalist/manipulated media narratives. ALL of the Western coverage on the Douma attack are pure conjecture. The UK/Israel false flag as pretext, or lS/al-Nusra attack, or White Helmets claiming “chemical attack” at the scene of treatment for asphyxiation/dust inhalation are all possibilities. We may never know. But, I’ll tell you, if the White Helmets spent five more minutes documenting the evidence we would not be having this dialog. They did a shitty job with a short video clip, a couple of pictures and a press release with no in-depth interviews or medical autopsy reports… someone ought to write a field guide for them, “How to document a CW attack,”

    At any rate, scientific and factual discussion of these events have been thrown out the window. CNN/BBC have conjectured the existence of “sarin or chlorine gas stockpiles,” “chemical weapons factories & programs.” They’ve hyped the whole thing up with fun demonic descriptors of Assad as well. Sorry, but as any professor in International Studies knows, nearly all governments are guilty of a multitude of sins. There are no “good guys” in the Syria debacle. If you think so, you are a fool.

    • I prefer to work from the multiple sources that we have over this event, rather than empty genearlizations, but thank you anyway.

      • Scott, you are debunking other sources like Robert Fisk and RT. You have a clear bias against the Assad Government and Russia’s involvement with them- which is fine. That is your right, and you write for mainstream news organizations that represent the opposition to Russia and Syria. However, your bias and conjecture does not translate into facts or God’s Honest Truth. It’s my right to believe Robert Fisk, because he has a 40+ years of experience in the Middle East and his journalism is focused on human rights and the abuses of power- especially when it comes to justifying war.

        And, weather or not he is sympathetic to the Assad government, does not change the fact that he was physically at the alleged site of the attack. Could he have lied? I guess so, but he’s risked his life and career to be the voice of skepticism to the Western media narrative for decades. We need that voice when corporate media recirculates AP headlines and White House/Parliament press releases ad nauseum.

        This is not just any story. It is the pretext for war and regime change by Colonial/Imperialist powers. Based on historical understanding of the conflict in Syria, the players involved, the huge geopolitical stakes, it is fair to consider all possibilities even ones that shine poorly on Western powers.

        • Sorry, you’ll need to present a substantial point about the incident, rather than the general trashing of imperialist powers and corporate media.

          Fisk’s jaunt to set out a narrative, to be exploited by the Assad regime and Russia, has been covered here — but keep your eyes later today for another takedown of it.

        • @matt2 — Robert Fisk 40+ years of (advocacy) journalism? Human rights? Like defending Saddam Hussein and Assad and Nasrallah?

          You seem to be a trained professional in news sourcing, journalist credibility, propaganda efficacy, and putting down the west ideologically, comparing the BBC to fake news site RT.

          You are here with an agenda. That is so obvious.

          • BBC represents the point of view of UK, CNN the US, and RT Russia. All of them bias stories and the narrative to fit their National interests. Calling one “good” or “moral” and the other “evil” or “agenda driven” is ridiculous from a logical point of view.

            Fisk was critical of the US intervention in Iraq I on the pretext/false-flag of “evil monster Iraqi solders” who threw Kuwaiti incubator babies on the cold floor of the hospital. This has been unequivocally proven as a propaganda hoax by HW Bush/Cheney as were the other embellishments of the “rape of Kuwait.” One thing we know for sure was the massacre of Iraqi forces on the road to Basra. There are some heartwarming pictures of that if you care to look them up. Her’s a Bill Moyers summary:


            More of the same for Iraq 2. Powell, Rice, Blair, Rumsfeld, Bolton lied and manufactured evidence about WMD’s and Al-Qaeda cells. Nobody, Nobody, Nobody refutes this. It is historical fact.

            Then there is Afghanistan. Instead of looking in Pakistan were we knew Bin Laden was hiding from the beginning, we started a war with the Afghan Tribal Taliban- who had nothing to do with 9/11 or international terrorism. This is now our longest running US war and occupation.

            So call my agenda, “enough of these bullshit wars,” and “Western Powers look at how much misery you have caused millions of human beings in the Middle East.”


            • CNN is an independent outlet. They are not funded nor controlled in any way by the US government. Try again for your bullshit false equivalency.

              • CNN is a corporate owned news outlet that is beholden to it’s customers, many of which are defense and oil industries who have government contracts. This week they went on a witch hunt to try and cut off revenue to YouTube by defaming alternative media outlets.

                After the Cold War, Russian politicians were invited to visit the US to study the so called free media. When they returned they were asked what they thought. They responded that they were impressed at how willingly the US media was willing to push government propaganda, without being ordered to like the media was in the former USSR.

                Ed Schultz, who was fired by MSNBC for converting the Bernie Sanders campaign, said he was controlled and censored far more at MCNBC than he has ever been at RT.

              • lol. You didn’t/can’t refute a single thing I said. All you did was talk about the opinions of some Russian overlords and an American who works for a kremlin outlet.

            • Nonsense matt2. Only if you are a lousy postmodernist and believe the state broadcaster of a quasi-fascist rightwing nationalist Russian state is the same as the broadcaster of a liberal democratic country where open society rules. If you don’t understand the difference, it is because you are either a lousy Russian troll or you are too dumb to understand liberal democracy, or for that matter political philosophy. Postmodernism is rubbish. Stop the moral equivalency.

          • Like defending Saddam Hussein and Assad and Nasrallah?

            He never defended either of them.

            You seem to be a trained professional in news sourcing, journalist credibility, propaganda efficacy, and putting down the west ideologically

            You don’t need training to do that, just functioning brain. It’s not western ideology he’s putting down, it’s Westen imperialism and neo liberal interventionism and the empty belief is US exceptionalism.

          • When arguments become personal and emotion rule the day a populace is ready to be programmed. How about you stick to facts and leave the emotion at the door. Saddam was innocent remember and you have yet to refute Fisk’s FACTS. What specifically about Fisk’s reporting do you not agree with and what evidence can you present? We know Fisk was there, we know he actually spoke to people there and he provided a report.

        • weath·er
          noun: weather

          1. the state of the atmosphere at a place and time as regards heat, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc.
          “if the weather’s good, we can go for a walk”

          conjunction: whether

          expressing a doubt or choice between alternatives.
          “he seemed undecided whether to go or stay”

    • “There are no good guys …”

      That seems like classic deflection, a pathological coping strategy.

      So is it “Assad is the only good guy?” or is it “Assad is guilty, but so what?”

      Contrary to the Russian misinformation campaign, it can’t be both simultaneously.

      • Woody, the language used to describe Putin and Assad is demonizing. The narrative in the Western mainstream media is one of good vs evil. If you can’t see that you are not reading the headlines. Putin or Assad is no more “good or evil” than Macron, May, Trump, or Netanyahu… or the peoples these leaders represent. None of these Western forces have done “good” in Syria. In fact, the argument can be more easily made for the opposite. If can make a case for a “good” guy (besides the ravaged Syrian people) please enlighten me.

        • Matt this is common for those whom must drive an agenda (ideology) based upon nothing. They need fake pics showing blood and gore to rally emotions. Humans are most vulnerable when emotionally “active”. No facts will be presented, just repeated lies in the hopes that your mental processes succumb to your sensibility of justice, good and right. Thank you for being thoughtful enough to see through the garbage narrative this site promotes. They are losing the battle in a big way and I intend to do my part to set the record straight.

    • bullshit like this seems to keep forgetting some basic realities, such as if an inspection would be allowed one might be able to ascertain MORE supporting facts. There’s enough evidence to understand what happened in the public sphere. This isn’t a crime show murder mystery.

    • They did a shitty job with a short video clip, a couple of pictures and a press release with no in-depth interviews or medical autopsy reports…

      They was probably by design. Didn’t want to risk the locals going off script

  3. Two thoughts.

    Is Russian weaponization of information in the Syrian conflict analogous to the German testing of air power in the Spanish Civil War?

    Second, the Russians aren’t out to prove anything, only generate confusion. The reason, I believe, is that proving Syrian government CW attacks would provide legal grounds for humanitarian intervention . Demonstrating the presence of a significant non-state actor’s CW capability would be grounds for intervention to defend national security.

    But if we don’t know if we should intervene for national security reasons or for humanitarian reasons, apparently we can’t intervene.

    It is stupid, but apparently effective …

    • That argument demonstrates not only a new depth of stupidity but outright hostility to thought and to thinking people. The idea that anyone who doesn’t have your side’s information or is somehow reading or watching something from the “other side” is a casualty. Someone with that way of thinking might as well have had their head lopped off and replaced with an American flag.

      • Yeah, that’s a bunch of bullshit. One side has a free and independent press. The other side has state backed and funded disinformation networks that hasn’t been honest about anything in over a decade. In Russia they murder journalists for reporting the things that western journalists routinely report. Interesting too that you somehow missed the irony in your post. Why would they have their head replaced with an American flag as opposed to a Russian or Iranian flag. Very telling and ironic.

  4. Douma’s residents speak about life after long battle for town:

    We are happy now, and our faces know how to be happy,” shared a young resident of the city, adding that militants refused to share food with civilians, “now you can ask and get [what you want]. I just asked for bread and [the Syrian army] gave me bread and also a cucumber.”

    People added that the militants didn’t allow people to walk on the streets freely, “we could not get out of our houses, now we can wander and no one would ask you where you are going to or coming from.”

    • Sure – and in a few days, the Mukhaberati with his team of thugs will come around and beat up each one of you to see who they can betray – a father, a brother, or a cousin. The more you betray, the less you will be hurt. They may even let you come into the nice parts of the town and shine shoes. Now that is freedom! They just received a lifetime of servitude and oppression, along with that loaf of bread.

  5. The way you can separate the Russian bot trolls from ordinary posters is to insult them and their intelligence. Normally a poster would protest that and demand a cease and desist, an apology, and ask the moderator to intervene.

    But these professional Russian trolls have no interested in defending their integrity. They know they are lying through their teeth and they know they are are acting as stupid morons. So they never protest, and are in fact used to being heaped abuse by genuine posters, whatever discussion board they post.

    If they cared for the stuff they post, they would defend it, instead of repeating the lies one more time, without backup or solid evidence.

    And they are not here to argue. They are here for implanting propaganda, attacking the moderator, and spreading the disinformation and the fake news.

    • Spot on Kazemi. From my replies i try to get that reaction…..but it wont come, never. 3 cents propaganda like Matt2 which points to Al Nusra beeing behind the douma chemical attack.

            • We declare our agreement, in the leadership of Jaysh al-Islam, to the initiative launched by the Military Council in Damascus and its countryside under the command of Colonel Amar Khaled Al-Nimr on the 5th of this month to end the crisis in the eastern Ghouta.”
              Jaish al-Islam spokesman Hamza Birqdar

              • Holy shit you have about the worst reading comprehension I’ve ever seen. Honestly I think there are school children with better reading comp.

  6. Summary of the claims and counter-claims about the alleged chemical attack in Douma:

    “Either forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria committed a war crime, by dropping gas cylinders on a residential building in the town of Douma on the final day of a bloody campaign to drive out Islamist rebels, or, as Syria’s ally Russia claims, the volunteer rescue workers who sounded the alarm about the attack staged distressing images of its victims to prompt air strikes by the United States, Britain and France.”

    • No, it is not a summary of the claims giving equal weight to both possibilities.

      You forgot the headline: “Russia Sows Doubts Over Chemical Attack in Syria, Aided by Pro-Trump Cable Channel”

  7. The fact this article completely ignores compelling video evidence and testimony ( that was public days before the article tells you that the author is very upset by some of the evidence that the gas attack was fake, and prefers it to not even be discussed. The Russians don’t have some weird mind control “propaganda” in their videos, the videos actually just prove they are right. People should go directly to the alleged “propaganda” to see what the Russians are saying.

    • Funny that the guy bitching about propaganda posted a video from a network entirely funded and controlled by the kremlin. Really impartial stuff there. Why are propagandists always the first ones to accuse everybody else of using propaganda? lol

      • Funny that the guy bitching about propaganda posted a video from a network entirely funded and controlled by the kremlin

        So are you saying the video is fake or using the fact is was hosted on RT as excuse not to address it?

        From now on we can dismiss any news outlet that parroted the Iraq WMD BS because their track record proves none of them can be trusted

    • Oh, the article doesn’t ignore this. I am quite aware of the Russian promotion — as in this video — of Hassan Diab and his father. I am also aware of the questions over testimony.

  8. This article must’ve struck a nerve. The Russian/fake Iranian trolls are really coming out of the woodwork. Though I suspect some have multiple SN’s.

  9. CNN……….. Hillary Clinton employee Jeremy Bash (founder of Beacon Global Strategies), his wife Dana Bash, went on to marry John King. Bash and King work for CNN. CNN is part of the Trump-hating Deep State.

  10. I just read through the daily accounts of events in Syria from Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Wow. I hope Scott and @ Kazemi will take the time to read them. First fact, Eastern Ghouta was occupied by Jaysh-Al-Islam since 2013.

    Do you know who was organizing months worth of work to negotiate deals for the peaceful surrender of Jaysh-Al-Islam and relocation to Northern Syria? Who was working to re-establish ID’s and civilian paperwork? Who was protecting convoys of civilians? Who was providing medical attention and humanitarian aid? You guessed it, evil Russia and the Assad government.

    • I know SOHR’s work very well — which is why the outlet is never used as a source for EA’s reporting and analysis.

      I think you’ll find your account of the Assad and Russia approaches may be a bit off the mark. Start with the fact that East Ghouta was under siege from late 2012 and work from there.

    • Russia and Assad protecting convoys of JaI being relocated and being so kind to the civilians thre? Who were they protecting the convoys from? Were they not gassing and barrel bombing the civilians there? Now the genocidists are the good guys, according to the fake narrative of matt2 and his buddies here paid to push Russian propaganda and fake narratives on social networks — because nobody takes them seriously outside of social networks.

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